It took Google many years to release the Google Pixel Watch—as long as six years, by some estimates. Sure, the pandemic didn’t help with timing, but everyone, including Google, knows that the Pixel Watch was late to the smartwatch party.
But in 2022, Google finally took the wraps off the Pixel Watch. Since then, I have been using it exclusively, which meant ditching my relatively new Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 Pro LTE (what a mouthful!). This has made for an interesting experiment, because these are the first two watches running the new Wear OS, which unifies Google’s Wear OS with Samsung’s Tizen operating system—and which could potentially bring harmony to the Android smartwatch market.
The state of smartwatches
First, some important background. I have analyzed and worn a variety of devices since the beginning of the smartwatch era, including the venerable Pebble watch. I wore my Moto 360 for years because it was one of the best watches for Android Wear; it finally got long in the tooth, and the software no longer ran smoothly on it. Eventually, Android Wear evolved into Wear OS as people complained to Google that the operating system was not delivering the performance, experience or battery life that consumers expect from a smartwatch. While Google and its partners struggled through that period, Samsung continued to plug away with its Tizen smartwatch OS and ecosystem, outdoing Android Wear watches in every imaginable way and making it the de facto competitor to the Apple Watch.
Once Google joined forces with Samsung on Wear OS, there no longer needed to be a split between the Android OEMs on software, and developers could satisfy both Samsung and other OEMs with the same apps, which is crucial for achieving critical mass. However, Samsung was the first to launch the new Wear OS on its new Galaxy Watch 5 series, meaning that Samsung beat Google to market with the operating system.
Unfortunately, my experience with Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 5 Pro was somewhat disappointing, especially in terms of responsiveness and the Google Assistant experience. So naturally I was eager to try out the Pixel Watch once it was announced by Google, hoping that the experience would be better.
It’s important to keep in mind that everyone on the Android side of the smartwatch industry is effectively still chasing Apple, which continues to enjoy the majority of both market share and mind share with consumers. As with the iPhone, the MacBook and so on, the Apple Watch has become yet another “sticky,” category-defining product that helps Apple keep customers tied to its ecosystem and less likely to leave. This is why Google desperately needs to be successful with Wear OS and why its failures with Android Wear were so frustrating and problematic for its OEM partners.
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The Pixel Watch design
The Pixel Watch is easily one of my favorite designs for a smartwatch. The design is so lovely that people regularly marvel at it when I wear it in public and ask me more about it. I have always preferred round watches over square ones, and the same goes for smartwatches. While round smartwatches do look better, they don’t make the most of existing display manufacturing technologies and cost more than squarer faces. That said, it looks like Google was trying to find a happy medium size so it could ship only a single model, and I think that the Pixel Watch’s 41mm face doesn’t suffice for a wrist of my size.
The most significant offense, however, is the size of the Pixel Watch’s bezel. If you look at it in just the right light, you can see all the lost potential screen space. The bezel wouldn’t be an issue if the display itself were larger, but I do think people would still complain about having such an enormous bezel. That said, I believe that Google made a mistake by not offering a 43mm or 44mm size as well as a 38mm size, although with such a thick bezel, 40mm might be the minimum. For future models, Google will need to reduce the size of the bezel to reach ideal overall proportions.
With the Pixel Watch, Google has also implemented a new system for interchangeable wristbands. I don’t think it’s as good as Apple’s system for replacement bands, although it does integrate pretty seamlessly and I haven’t had much trouble swapping bands. Initially, I used the stock silicone band, which feels like it’s high-quality, albeit very basic in design. I have since moved on to the leather band, which looks pretty simple but is clearly made of high-quality leather and has stood up to heavy daily use, including workouts. However, I realized that working out in a leather band isn’t a great idea, so I also got the woven wristband that I became very fond of with my Apple Watch Series 4. While all of the bands have been very high quality and relatively simple, I do feel like Google could be doing more work on first-party band designs, or at least working with a few third parties to improve selection for Pixel Watch users as Apple has.
Software and UX
The Pixel Watch has finally fixed the absolute pain that was Android smartwatch setup. Previous watches including the Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 Pro, which I had to try to set up multiple times, have had me at my wits’ end, almost forcing me back to the Apple Watch. By contrast, the Pixel Watch setup experience is smooth, easy and fast. Google deserves credit for clearly identifying this pain point from Android Wear and addressing it in Wear OS.
The Pixel Watch also has two buttons. One is located at the top right of the case; it can be used to pull up a list of recent Wear OS apps or long-pressed to launch Google Assistant. Personally, I have no issues with this placement, but I do think the button is too flush with the case and doesn’t have enough travel to give a solid tactile feel. Also, instead of being centered along the edge of the watch case, the button is located much closer to your wrist, which makes pressing it awkward. I think this could’ve been solved by having the button stick out more and giving it more travel. The second button is the crown itself; when you use it, it shows a list of all the apps installed on the watch. You can then use either the touch screen or the crown to scroll through them. The crown also comes in handy when scrolling within apps that are already open.
The Pixel Watch has an always-on display option, which is great for any smartwatch considering that a basic function of a watch is to tell the time regardless of its power state. However, the Pixel Watch’s battery life degrades too quickly for this feature to be helpful, and the watch warns you about this when you enable it. For a full day of use, you need to use one of the three options of tilt, tap or crown-scroll to wake the display.
For me, Google Assistant is the most essential feature because it enables the Pixel Watch to set itself apart from the Apple Watch, which depends on the far inferior Siri voice assistant. I love using Google Assistant when driving, whether for text dictation or for getting directions without looking away from the road. One of my biggest pet peeves with the Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 Pro was that Google Assistant felt sluggish and would sometimes disconnect from my phone, such that I had to re-configure Google Assistant numerous times, to the point that it became frustrating.
Thankfully, Google Assistant performance is better on the Pixel Watch, although it still isn’t anywhere near as snappy as it is on the phone—and it needs to be. Additionally, Google Assistant sometimes simply doesn’t hear me when I’m dictating messages, which is also frustrating. However, this could be related to using it with my Galaxy S23 Ultra phone rather than a Pixel 7 Pro. The unfortunate reality is that the Pixel 7 Pro isn’t my daily driver, so attaching a watch to it wouldn’t make sense. That said, I did try that combination for a few weeks, and it seemed like the experience was mostly the same.
One of the biggest exclusive features of the Pixel Watch is its integration with Fitbit—which still feels like a work in progress, to be honest. This is an area where Samsung has created a better experience, more smoothly integrating its health app for use across the Galaxy Watch and Galaxy S-series devices. With the Pixel Watch, I had to reattach and re-authenticate my Fitbit account multiple times, which gave me flashbacks of the Google Assistant issues I had with the Galaxy Watch Pro 5.
Once I had it set up, I used the Fitbit app extensively to track my workouts and walks. Based on my experience, the pre-configured workouts seemed to be more than adequate for what I was doing; they also had connectivity with Supernatural for VR-based workouts. However, one thing that felt like it was missing was the automatic walk detection feature that I’ve experienced on virtually every other smartwatch I’ve tried. This feature detects when you are on a walk and automatically prompts you to ask if you want to track it. Unfortunately, the Pixel Watch does not do this.
The Fitbit feature can also help with sleep tracking; however, I can’t wear a watch to sleep, especially not one with the kind of battery life the Pixel Watch has. The sleep tracking data is very compelling, but I already have a Google Home Hub, which provides similar data without my needing to wear anything.
I found myself doing more with the Pixel Watch compared to other smartwatches I’ve used, including taking calls directly from the watch thanks to its cellular capability. I only ever took one call outdoors over cellular, and the experience was not necessarily the greatest; it made me realize that cellular watches really aren’t a necessity, or likely to be a good experience. There might be a small set of users who can benefit from the cellular calling feature, especially those who go for runs outdoors, but indoors the watch’s small antenna struggles to receive a good signal and many times has no signal, rendering the cellular feature worthless. Using the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro LTE and the Pixel Watch LTE has made me realize that I really don’t think cellular capability is worth it on any smartwatch unless you explicitly need to leave your phone behind when you go for a walk or a run outdoors. Battery life also takes quite a hit from cellular usage, which is another argument against cellular watches, especially the current Pixel.
One of my most surprising experiences with the Pixel Watch is that it is the first smartwatch I’ve ever had that accidentally enabled airplane mode. Not once, not twice, but at least three or four times now. This could easily be resolved by showing a simple “Airplane Mode” prompt asking the user if they’re sure they want to enable Airplane Mode, just like you’d see on almost any phone in the universe.
Performance has been and continues to be an issue that plagues the Android smartwatch space in general, and I don’t think Google is doing itself any favors here. The Exynos 9110 processor inside this watch uses two fairly old A53 cores running at only 1.15 gigahertz. This compares to what Apple has been using for multiple generations in the S8 SiP, which clocks at a much higher 1.8 gigahertz. This setup has a much better custom design with a higher IPC than the A53 resulting in probably double the raw performance, since there isn’t an easy way to benchmark them against each other. The reason for this higher performance is due to CPU cores inside the Apple SoC being derived from the A13’s efficiency cores, but run faster than they did on the A13, which ran them at 1.6 GHz.
The point is this: If Google and the rest of the Android smartwatch ecosystem want to truly compete with Apple—and simply deliver a good experience—they need to start delivering much more advanced nodes and processor IP, something like Arm’s A510. The A510 is 35% faster and 20% more energy-efficient than the A55, which is already 18% faster and 15% more power-efficient than the A53. There’s just so much battery life and performance being left on the table.
Battery and charging
There really isn’t much positive to say about the Pixel Watch here, and in my opinion, this is where the deal-breakers might lie for most users considering this smartwatch. First and foremost, most smartwatches I have been using lately can easily last a full day on one charge, with many lasting a day and a half or two days. To put it another way, I thought we had effectively gotten past battery life and charging anxieties for smartwatches . . . but then the Pixel Watch brought them back in a bad way.
The Pixel Watch struggles to last a full day on a charge and, in many scenarios, doesn’t make it even with the power-saver feature enabled. This would be somewhat tolerable if the watch was Qi-compatible, which it is not. So Google has burdened us with a smartwatch that won’t charge on Qi wireless chargers, even after that has been adopted as a standard by so many brands.
Proprietary chargers are a huge turn-off and make it hard to recharge the phone quickly, especially when the battery life is so poor. That’s what makes this such a deal-breaker: you need to use a proprietary cable to charge the watch, but it’s an even bigger issue because the watch must be charged so often. Annoyingly, the Pixel Watch will also light up Qi charge indicators as if it is charging—but won’t charge at all. I have Qi chargers all over my apartment, and none of them work with the Pixel Watch. Neither does my mobile Samsung wireless charging dock, which I like to use when I travel. That means I need one Pixel Watch charger for home and another for travel because otherwise I run the risk of losing my only charger, considering how frequently I travel.
I believe that part of the Pixel Watch’s poor battery performance comes from running on a Samsung Exynos 9110, released in 2018 (!), using a 10nm process node with less-performant and less-efficient Arm A53 CPU cores. Google could easily increase performance and battery life by creating an Arm A510-based solution with a more modern node such as 4nm or 5nm, which is considerably more power-efficient than the 10nm node. This design flaw reminds me of when Google launched Google Glass in 2013 with a TI OMAP 4430 SoC, which had shipped in smartphones and tablets two years earlier; that choice put Google Glass at a significant power and performance disadvantage, which was one of the main reasons it failed.
I think Google’s execution with the Pixel Watch leaves room for improvement, although it’s quite clear that the company has designed something that turns heads and gets people’s attention. A lot of Android and Pixel fans will use it, but ultimately the company needs to step it up with second- and third-gen Pixel Watches if it wants to have a broader chance of success.
I think Wear OS also needs to gain more adoption with more OEMs, but a big part of that relies on Google improving the user experience across Wear OS implementations. I think there is also an ongoing issue of underpowered watches, an issues that Apple doesn’t have because it designs the Apple Watch processors for itself and purposefully builds them for Watch OS.
I can’t wait to see what Google does with the next generation of the Pixel Watch. I really hope they’ve learned many lessons from the initial Pixel Watch and can integrate those learnings into the next generation of the device, as well as helping to improve the Wear OS experience.