The Google Pixel Watch doesn’t just have an eye-catching design, but the software also seems promising. Wear OS has been a mess, but by collaborating with Samsung and finally integrating Fitbit’s health-tracking features, Google may have finally addressed its greatest weaknesses.
Google Pixel Watch Specifications
|Dimension||41 x 41 x 12.3 mm (1.61 x 1.61 x 0.48 in)|
|Weight||36 g (1.27 oz)|
|Build||Glass front (Gorilla Glass 5), stainless steel frame|
|Resistance||50m/5ATM water resistant (IP68)|
|Display||1.2 inches AMOLED, 1000 nits (peak)|
|Resolution||450 x 450 pixels (~320 PPI density)|
|Protection||Corning Gorilla Glass 5|
|OS||Android Wear OS 3.5|
|Processor||Exynos 9110 (10 nm)|
Dual-core 1.15 GHz Cortex-A53
|Memory||2 GB RAM|
32 GB ROM eMMC
|Wi-Fi||Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n|
|Bluetooth||5.0, A2DP, LE|
|Sensors||Accelerometer, gyro, heart rate, altimeter, compass, SpO2|
|Battery||Li-Ion 294 mAh, non-removable|
Of all the things about the Google Pixel Watch, Google was most eager to show off its design. And rightly so. The Pixel Watch’s case is a thing of beauty. In pictures, it’s almost nondescript — just a plain round face with what appear to be thick bezels. In person, though, the Pixel Watch catches the light at some angles in a way that makes it look elegant and, pardon the cliché, like jewelry.
More importantly, for a person who’s into tactile sensations like me, the Google Pixel Watch just feels so good. I love flipping it over and over in my palm like it’s a smooth, shiny pebble, but I also just enjoy stroking the screen. There’s something about the domed shape and glossy finish of the screen that makes swiping across the interface feel luxurious.
On the right edge sits a dial that almost twinkles in the sun, along with a button above it that pulls up recent apps. In my few days with the Google Pixel Watch, I’ve used this latter button exactly once. I don’t know if it’s the placement or that I haven’t needed to pull up recent apps much, but the one time I pressed this was to confirm it was there when I was writing this part of the review. It requires more force to depress than its counterpart on the Apple Watch, which sits below the Digital Crown and is more obvious. I rarely used Apple’s button, too, so this is not a ding on Google.
Unlike most other Android watches, the Google Pixel Watch doesn’t have lugs. Instead, straps attach directly to the case via a mechanism that Google describes as similar to the lens locking system on DSLR cameras. To connect a band, you push one end of it into a button at the bottom of the groove and slide it in.
To remove it, you push the catch on the side and twist it off. It took a bit of getting used to and I still can’t say I’ve nailed the process, but I also haven’t swapped bands yet. I’m sure whenever I receive different straps, like the gorgeous metal mesh or the comfy stretch option, I’ll be performing this change a lot.
The basic sport strap that I received with my review unit uses a peg-and-hole closure system that doesn’t offer a good fit for me, unfortunately. I either felt like the watch was too loose or that the case was strapped too oppressively on my wrist. This is an easy problem to fix, at least, by getting a different strap. But I’d have to buy one of Google’s options because of the proprietary attachment system, and they start at $50 for the Active band.
Wear OS 3.5
While it seems like Google may have pretty much nailed the hardware, one of the biggest problems plaguing Wear OS watches in the past was their namesake — Wear OS. Google’s software was criticized for everything from its overly swipe-heavy navigation to being too basic. It also was very power-hungry, despite not running a lot of background health tracking. Wear OS watches notoriously delivered day-long battery life at best, while the competition pushed well past 24 hours and into multi-day runtimes.
The result is Wear OS 3.5 — Google’s expression of its smartwatch software. This interface is very familiar in many ways. It’s not a huge departure from the Tizen-esque platform that we saw on the Galaxy Watch 5. You can download music to stream offline from the Pixel Watch, get turn-by-turn Maps directions, remotely control your camera and ask the Assistant to set timers or tell you the weather. You can also control your Google Home devices from your wrist. The main differences are Google’s new watch faces and the Fitbit integrations.
I wish the Fitbit features better meshed into Wear OS. It feels like a missed opportunity or some sort of reluctance to give up the Fitbit logo and branding. The process of launching a workout session on the Pixel Watch isn’t that different from Samsung and Apple watches. You still have to go into their respective apps to start the activity, though on the Pixel Watch this is called “Fitbit Exercise”. If you want to see your progress, you can go into Fitness on Apple’s watches or Samsung Health. On the Pixel Watch, it’s “Fitbit Today.” The distinction is in your face — for Fitbit fans this might be familiar and welcome. For those expecting a pure Google experience, it can be jarring.
Google didn’t just embed Fitbit features into Wear OS, it also added new watch faces, some of which are familiar because they’re quite similar to Apple’s. As a narcissist, my favorite is the Photos option, which lets you pick up to 30 pictures from Google Photos to set as your background. You can then choose a clock style and set a single complication. Just as you’d have to on watchOS, you’ll need to use your phone to select the images for your wallpaper.
Google likes to take potshots at Apple for copying its ideas like crash detection and always-on display but is happy to mimic watchOS features itself. The new watch faces complications on them are ripped right off an Apple Watch, while the side-swiping navigation is Samsung’s Tizen interface. There’s nothing wrong with incorporating great ideas into your product — just don’t be a pot calling the kettle black.
That said, setting up your Pixel Watch and monitoring your data through your phone is very similar to the experience on Samsung and Apple devices. On all three, you have a separate app to do things like customize watch faces, organize the order of your tiles and choose which apps can send notifications to your wrist. To view your exercise or sleep data, you’d have to go into each company’s respective Health app (or in the Google Pixel Watch’s case, Fitbit). These are all pretty typical, other than Google’s app not being named Google Health.
The good and bad of Fitbit’s health and fitness tracking
There’s good and bad news with the Google Pixel Watch relying on Fitbit’s system to deliver health and fitness tracking, and I fear the bad may outweigh the good.
Let’s start with the positive: Fitbit has arguably the best wellness-tracking system around. It was one of the first to start tracking your heart rate during sleep to determine what zones you are in. It was also among the earliest to introduce cycle tracking, and its workout page does a great job of showing what cardio zones you’re in through a ring around the screen.
Fitbit is one of the few companies in the space that makes sure to incorporate rest and recovery into its depiction of your overall well-being, giving you a readiness score based on your sleep and stress data. By being a pioneer in the fitness tracker industry, Fitbit also has comprehensive knowledge of how to translate user behavior and heart-rate info into useful insights and features.
It’s hard to tell just how accurate most consumer-grade heart rate trackers are. All I can say is that the Google Pixel Watch’s readings always came within one bpm (beat per minute) of the Apple Watch Ultra, which itself was always within two bpm of Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 5. If we’re using the industry’s leading smartwatches as the benchmark here, then the Google Pixel Watch performs as expected.
The bad news is, while the Google Pixel Watch benefits from Fitbit’s expertise, it also suffers from syncing issues that plagued the company’s older devices. Often, my data would take so long to show up on the watch or app that I thought it hadn’t tracked any activity or sleep at all. On Friday night, the Apple Watch Ultra logged my disappointingly short night of 3 hours and 50 minutes. It took the Pixel Watch until Sunday afternoon before that session showed up in the Fitbit app. My overnight data for Sunday night also took at least 10 minutes to reflect in the app, which isn’t too bad, but compared to the instant syncing of the Apple Watch and the iPhone, it felt like forever.
Similarly, the results of an outdoor walk on Sunday did not appear in the Fitbit app until hours later, causing me to panic about my progress in a friendly competition. Also, while Samsung and Apple will alert you when they notice you’ve been walking or exercising for a while, the Pixel Watch remains quiet. I thought it was malfunctioning and not detecting my brisk mile, and I started to get quite angry. It wasn’t until much later when the walk showed up in the Fitbit app that I realized it had counted my activity.
Battery life and performance
The most troubling and disappointing aspect of the Google Pixel Watch is its battery life. When Google promised 24-hour runtime on this device, there must have been a lot of caveats. I generally got through about 12 hours with the watch before I started getting low-power warnings. That’s typical with Always On Display enabled and tracking at least three workouts a day, two of those being outdoor walks using GPS.
When I left the companion phone at home, meaning I didn’t get served notifications as often, I saw a few hours more. Unfortunately, with Apple and Samsung watches typically clocking close to two days (if not more), Google’s smartwatch lags seriously behind in this department.
This sort of battery life would be fine if you don’t expect to use the Pixel Watch to track your sleep. But not only does it usually die before I go to bed, but Google also states that you need to have at least a 30% charge before it can log your results overnight. My colleague Sam Rutherford said that in his experience, you’d need closer to 40% for the watch to last until the morning and that with 30 percent he wakes up to a dead screen.
I suspect that part of the reason the Google Pixel Watch’s battery life lags behind the competition is that it reads your heart rate more frequently than others. Google said that it included a dedicated low-power co-processor to make sure that this higher sampling rate wouldn’t tax the battery too much, though, so there could be another reason. The coprocessor also takes care of tasks like keeping the Always On Display running, while the more capable (and power-hungry) Exynos 9110 manages other processes.
I like the Google Pixel Watch, but I’m not in love with it. I’m tempted by its lustrous appearance, its bodacious curves, and its general shininess. It’s a perfectly capable smartwatch that does the things modern smartwatches do, and it does many of them well. But short battery life and odd Fitbit-related choices take the Google Pixel Watch from a reliable companion to a problematic partner. At $350, the Google Pixel Watch is slightly cheaper than the Apple Watch Series 8 but much pricier than the $280 Galaxy Watch 5. Google’s debut smartwatch is a first-generation product which I would normally be inclined to be more forgiving about, but the company has had too much development time for me to cut it any slack. The Google Pixel Watch is fine if you don’t want to track your sleep or don’t mind charging it more than once a day, but simply put: this isn’t the Apple Watch rival the world has been waiting for.