Back in February, Ron Amadeo wrote an excellent piece at Ars Technica that pointed out an obvious fact: Google’s Wear OS is in serious trouble. Of course, back in February, Wear OS wasn’t called Wear OS; it was called Android Wear. The renaming happened mainly because Google wanted to emphasize that watches based on the OS could work with iPhones as well as Android phones. Though, in this context, “as well” doesn’t exactly apply: Wear OS is a much better experience with Android than with iOS.
But Wear OS isn’t all that great of an experience on Android, either, which was the point of Amadeo’s piece. One of the big problems is that there’s really only one processor available for these watches: a Qualcomm chip that’s woefully out-of-date. People like to say that “specs don’t matter,” but in this case, they absolutely do. “Android smartwatches continue to be thick, slow, power-hungry devices,” Amadeo wrote. He’s right.
Google did do some good things with Android Wear 2.0 release in February 2017. It made them quasi-independent devices that could directly install apps from Google’s Play Store, which theoretically made them more viable for iPhone users. In practice, though, finding decent smartwatch apps, watchfaces, and complications requires a slog through a morass of subpar options and a slow, infuriating interface to find what you want.
A screen, good battery life, or stylish looks — pick two
Since then, Google’s primary focus with Wear OS has been signing on lots of fashion brands to make watches based on a standardized platform. All of these watches are basically the same inside, with minor additions or deletions like GPS, heart rate monitors, or LTE. They’re all pretty much the same on the outside, too: round face, a little too thick, a little short on battery life.
One result of all these fashion brands making Wear OS watches is a bunch of different styles that look alright but aren’t especially compelling. But the main result is that in order to buy the most prominent Wear OS watches, you have to pay a premium for the brand name. That might be worth it to you, but I think you need to go in eyes wide open to the reality that your watch is going to have a fairly short life span. The TicWatch E is a notable outlier at only $159. If you absolutely want to spend money on an Android Wear watch right now, you might as well spend as little as possible.
There’s good news, though: there are other options for Android users. But in order to buy a smartwatch, you have to work your way down a decision tree.
First, do you want a screen? If so, you can pick between Wear OS or a number of third-party options. I think that the best among them is Samsung’s Gear Sport. It’s not the thinnest watch out there, but it looks good. More importantly, it gets a lot of things right that Wear OS gets wrong: it’s fast, intuitive, and even kind of fun to use. But I don’t love the Gear when I’m not using a Samsung phone because it wants to install between four and six support apps and services on my phone. That’s a lot of Samsung on my Pixel. There’s also the Fitbit Versa, which works really well as an upgraded fitness tracker and really badly as a full-featured smartwatch. (I also hate the styling on it.) Both of these options suffer from a lack of third-party apps and integrations compared to the Apple Watch or even Android Wear.
If you don’t need a screen, there’s a whole slate of hybrid smartwatches, many of which are made by brands owned by Fossil. These have mechanical, analog faces but offer little snippets of extra functionality, such as notifications or step tracking. Lately, I’ve been partial to the Skagen Signatur, which, as of this writing, is only $125 on Amazon. It counts my steps, points to a number to give me a tiny bit of information when a notification comes in, and has a battery that lasts between three and six months.
Having 50 options doesn’t help if none of them are competitive with the Apple Watch
Change is coming to Wear OS: Google is working to improve battery life in the next version, for example. But beyond that, I’m not sure what the company can do to fix the deeper issues with the platform. A start would be to fix the processor problem so that tech companies and fashion companies can have a modern base on which to build their devices. The upcoming Google I/O conference would certainly be a good place to talk about the next steps!
It’s great that Google has created a platform that allows for so much choice. Choice, especially with something as personal as a watch, is great! The problem for Android users is that there’s no obvious best choice for most people. When somebody wants to go buy a watch, offering them a decision tree instead isn’t ideal (to say the least). What’s worse: none of the branches of that tree are truly great. Having 50 options doesn’t help if none of them are truly competitive with the Apple Watch.
Until it all shakes out, the branch I’ve landed on is using a hybrid watch. It’s not too expensive, and it will hold me over until something better comes along.