Google has been trying to make its Pixel line of phones the “iPhones of the Android world” for years, and while Pixel phones were excellent and getting more polished by the year, Google knew it needed to build an ecosystem of devices around the Pixel that could really compete with Apple.
Enter the Pixel Watch, Google’s long-rumored smartwatch. Now, to be clear, Google has been promoting smartwatches for nearly a decade. But before, Google’s attempts were done via a software platform, leaving the hardware to OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) like Samsung or Motorola to take care of the physical product. These previous Android smartwatches have varied in quality, but even the best of them all can’t match the hardware synergy of the industry-leading Apple smartwatch.
The Pixel Watch is the first Android smartwatch with Google-designed hardware and software, and it’s an excellent first attempt that’s a huge step forward for Android smartwatches, but it needs a bit more polishing to match the Apple Watch in terms of usability.
Of course, matching the Apple Watch probably isn’t so important, because the Pixel Watch and the Apple Watch appeal to two separate groups of consumers: Each watch is locked to its own mobile platform. So even if the Apple Watch is still more of a wearable, unless the consumer’s Android phone is willing to switch to an iPhone, it doesn’t matter.
While the Pixel Watch has a fundamentally different look than the Apple Watch, it actually packs a lot of similar design cues, from the curved screen that blends into the watch’s aluminum body, or the rotatable crown that can also be pressed. The Pixel Watch certainly feels closer to the Apple Watch DNA than any previous smartwatches from Samsung, LG, or Huawei.
But that’s mostly a good thing—I like the elegance of the Pixel Watch, though the curved-domed glass design makes it feel a little more fragile. I use the word “feel” because Google marketing asserts that the glass has been tempered and toughened, and I’ve clamped my wrists against walls and table edges a few times and my watch screen still looks good. But in the end, curved, unprotected glass should be more vulnerable to breaking than flat glass wrapped with a tall metal frame (like Samsung’s Galaxy Watch or even Apple’s latest Apple Watch Ultra).
The 1.9-inch OLED display is wrapped in relatively thick bezels, but you can’t see it most of the time since most of the watch’s UI is black. The screen 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 of the newer sensors found in competing smartwatches such as a skin temperature sensor. The back is where the proprietary magnetic charger attaches to, like most other smartwatches.
The Pixel Watch uses special watch straps and the switch is difficult to turn to release the straps due to the small switch and the circular nature of the watch. This may be the device’s biggest drawback—I constantly need to fiddle for over a minute before I can remove or attach the watch strap. The same process for an Apple Watch or Samsung Galaxy Watch takes maybe five seconds.
Powering the watch is the Exynos 9110, which is silicone designed by Samsung. The slide is fine, but that’s the last thing Google has to work with. To make the Pixel Watch Google’s own, it has to use its own custom silicon, the way Google phones already use it.
The Pixel Watch runs the latest version of WearOS, and because it’s Google’s own wearable software, it works better with Google apps than smartwatches that run proprietary software from brands like Xiaomi and Huawei. The Pixel Watch can, for example, access Google Maps and drive navigation right on the wrist; can view notes from Google Keep; More importantly, it has access to Google Assistant, arguably the most capable voice-assistant platform in consumer technology.
Just having access to these features makes the Pixel Watch feel smarter than many Android smartwatches. I’ve written about this before, but surprisingly many Android watches can’t even do basic tasks like replying to incoming text messages or asking Google Assistant questions. I can do all of that and more on my Pixel Watch.
Being able to reply to notifications is especially important to me, as I get dozens of chat messages a day. The Pixel Watch allows me to answer directly on my wrist with voice dictation or scribble on the watch face, without having to touch the phone.
Pairing the Pixel Watch with Android devices requires installing not only the Android WearOS app, but also the Fitbit app, because the Pixel Watch uses Fitbit fitness tracking software (Google owned Fitbit after acquiring the company in 2019).
Fitbit integration brings the good and the bad. The good: Fitbit has some of the best fitness-tracking software algorithms, so whether it’s step count, heart rate, or hours slept, the Pixel Watch does a good job of capturing accurate, detailed data.
But the Fitbit has always had problems with pairing, including needing a sync process that lasts more than 20 minutes (during which your phone is supposed to stay on the Fitbit screen). These issues remain with the Pixel Watch. I often 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 as soon as I do, I’m told the app needs to sync, which takes minutes. It seems very impractical to need to jump through this many hoops just to check how many hours you spent on the bike yesterday.
Elsewhere, the Pixel Watch does quite well. The touches are solid and accurate, the single speaker good enough to take phone calls, and the ability to use my voice to summon the Google Assistant and then ask it to do things makes my daily life easier.
Battery life is below par. The Pixel Watch is a smartwatch that needs to be charged every 18-20 hours or so, which means that if you’re spending the night elsewhere, the Pixel Watch probably won’t have any juice by lunchtime the next day — if not sooner.
Having to charge every night isn’t a huge drawback in my opinion — the Apple Watch does, too — but there are other smartwatches out there that can last three, four, or seven days on a single charge.
Ultimately, the Pixel watch is a stylish looking and premium smartwatch that can do what many Android smartwatches can’t. By default, it is one of the best Android smartwatches, along with Galaxy watches from Samsung.
But the Pixel’s price is odd, at $299 for the WiFi model and $399 for the cellular model. I think the previous price is fair for a smartwatch of this caliber, but the extra $100 for eSIM connectivity only (so you can use the watch without having a phone nearby) is a really high markup that I don’t think brings enough value to most people.
Whatever the case, it’s great news that Google has finally created a wearable that works well with Android and, perhaps in the future, can finally compete with the Apple Watch in general.
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