• December 1, 2022

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Google’s been trying to make its Pixel line of phones the “iPhones of the Android world” for years, and while the Pixel phones have been excellent and getting more polished by the year, Google knew it needed to build a hardware ecosystem surrounding the Pixel to truly have something that can compete with Apple.

Enter the Pixel Watch, the long rumored Google smartwatch. Now, to be clear, Google has been promoting smartwatches for almost a decade. But before, Google’s attempts were made via a software platform, leaving the hardware to third party OEMs (original equipment makers) like Samsung or Motorola to take care of the physical product. These previous Android smartwatches have varied in quality, but even the absolute best ones just couldn’t match the hardware-synergy of Apple’s industry-leading smartwatch.

The Pixel Watch is the first Android smartwatch with hardware and software designed by Google, and it’s an excellent first attempt that represents a big step forward for Android smartwatches, but it needs a bit more polish to match the Apple Watch in terms of ease of use.

Of course, matching the Apple Watch is perhaps not too important, because the Pixel Watch and Apple Watches appeal to two separate groups of consumers: each watch is locked to its mobile platform. So even if the Apple Watch is still the more capable wearable, unless an Android phone using consumer is willing to switch to iPhone, it doesn’t matter.

Design

Even though the Pixel Watch has a fundamentally different shape from the Apple Watch, it actually has a lot of similar design cues, from the curved screen that blends into the aluminum watch chassis, or the rotatable crown that can also be pressed. The Pixel Watch sure seems closer in DNA to an Apple Watch than any previous Samsung, LG, or Huawei smartwatches.

But that’s mostly a good thing, I love the Pixel Watch’s elegance, even though the curved dome glass design makes it feel more fragile. I use the word “feel” because Google’s marketing assures the glass has been reinforced and toughened, and I’ve clanged my wrist a couple of times against walls and table edges and my watch screen still look fine. But ultimately, an unprotected curved glass has to be more prone to shatter than a flat glass wrapped by a raised metal bezel (like Samsung’s Galaxy Watch or even Apple’s recent Watch Ultra).

The 1.9-inch OLED screen is wrapped by relatively thick bezels, but you can’t see it most of the time as most of the watch UI is black. The display looks vibrant, and bright enough for outdoor use.

On the back of the watch are the usual sensors for heart rate, EKG (electrocardiogram) and blood oxygen levels, but the Pixel Watch lacks some newer sensors seen in rival smartwatches like a skin temperature sensor. The back is where the proprietary magnetic charger connects, like most other smartwatches.

The Pixel Watch uses proprietary watch straps and the switch to release the bands are frustratingly hard to trigger due to the small switch and circular nature of the watch. It may be the device’s biggest hardware flaw—I consistently need to fiddle for well over a minute before I can remove or attach a watch strap. The same process for an Apple Watch or a Samsung Galaxy Watch takes maybe five seconds.

Powering the watch is the Exynos 9110, a silicon designed by Samsung. The chip is fine, but this is one last bit Google has to work out. To truly make the Pixel Watch Google’s own, it has to use its own custom silicon, the way Google’s phones already do.

Software

The Pixel Watch runs the latest version of WearOS, and because it’s Google’s own wearable software, it plays nicer with Google apps than smartwatches running proprietary software from brands like Xiaomi and Huawei. The Pixel Watch can access, for example, Google Maps and navigate a drive directly on the wrist; it can display notes from Google Keep; and most importantly, it has access to Google Assistant, arguably the most capable voice assistant platform in the consumer tech space.

Just having access to these features make the Pixel Watch feel smarter than many Android smartwatches. I’ve written about this before, but many Android watches surprisingly can’t even do basic tasks like respond to incoming text messages or ask Google Assistant questions. I can do all of that and more on the Pixel Watch.

The ability to respond to notifications is particularly important for me, as I get dozens of chat messages a day. The Pixel Watch allows me to respond directly on my wrist via voice dictation or scribbling on the watch face, without needing to touch the phone.

Pairing the Pixel Watch to Android devices requires installing not just the Android WearOS app, but also Fitbit’s, because the Pixel Watch uses Fitbit’s software for tracking fitness (Google owns Fitbit after acquiring the company in 2019).

Performance

The Fitbit integration brings both good and bad. The good: Fitbit has some of the best fitness tracking software algorithms around, so whether it’s step count, heart rate, hours slept, the Pixel Watch does a good job capturing accurate and detailed data.

But Fitbit’s software has always had pairing issues, including needing the syncing process lasting well over 20 minutes (during which your phone is supposed to stay on the Fitbit screen). Those issues remain with the Pixel Watch. Often I’ll want to check my recent activity data on my wrist, only to be told I need to open the Fitbit app on the phone, and once I do that, I’m told the app needs to sync, which takes minutes. It seems highly impractical to need to jump through this many hoops just to check how many hours I cycled yesterday.

Elsewhere, the Pixel Watch behaves fine. The haptics are strong and precise, the single loud speaker is good enough to take phone calls, and being able to use my voice to summon Google Assistant, and then ask it to do things, makes my day to day life easier.

Battery life is below par. The Pixel Watch is a smartwatch that needs to be charged every 18-20 hours or so, meaning if you spend the night elsewhere, the Pixel Watch likely won’t have any juice left by lunch time next day—if not sooner.

Needing to charge every night isn’t a major flaw in my opinion—the Apple Watch does, too—but there are other smartwatches that can last three, four or seven days on a single charge.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the Pixel Watch is a sleek, premium looking smartwatch that can do what many Android smartwatches cannot. By default, it’s one of the very best Android smartwatches, along with Samsung’s Galaxy Watches.

But the Pixel is priced oddly, at $299 for the WiFi model and $399 for the cellular model. I think the former price is fair for a smartwatch of this caliber, but an extra $100 just for eSIM connectivity (so you can use the watch without having a phone nearby) is a really high markup that I don’t think brings enough value for most people.

Whatever the case, it’s great news Google finally made a wearable that works well with Android, and maybe in the future, it can finally rival the Apple Watch in overall polish.

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