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Fossil Gen 6 smartwatch review: better luck next time

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Decent hardware saddled with old and tired software

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The Fossil Gen 6
The Fossil Gen 6

The kindest thing I can say about the new $299 Gen 6 iteration of Fossil’s long-running smartwatch series is this: it’s not entirely Fossil’s fault that it’s bad.

The company reportedly learned that Google and Samsung had teamed up to finally revitalize the Wear OS software Fossil’s been using at the same time we did: this past May at Google IO. And so Fossil’s 2021 smartwatch lineup is running software that hasn’t been meaningfully improved since at least 2019 and it won’t receive the latest software until late 2022. Samsung has smartwatches that run on Wear OS 3 and do so competently, Fossil is stuck on Wear OS 2.

Running old software is not inherently a bad thing — old software is often battle tested, reliable, and fast. Sadly, none of those adjectives apply here and Fossil compounded Wear OS 2’s issues by cramming in features it’s unable to support.

It’s an ugly situation for a handsome watch.

Fossil’s Gen 6 smartwatches come in a few different styles that are all built around a single design. It has a 44mm round casing with a 1.28-inch round OLED screen. There are two buttons flanking the main center crown, which also can be rotated to scroll around on the watch.

I like the look of the Gen 6 watch, but I also have always had a soft spot for larger watches — even though my wrists are on the smaller side. Fossil may not be taking any risks with the design, but it has just enough character to look nice.

Battery life has been a bit of a disappointment. It can get through a day and to the next morning if I don’t push the watch with exercise tracking, but it doesn’t take too much use to send me looking for a charger well before bed. There are a few different power modes — and if you really want you can dig in further and turn off specific features to eke out more battery life. If there’s a bright spot, it’s charging. Since Fossil is using direct-contact pogo pins that connect more securely than older models, it’s able to juice up fast.

Fossil had filled out the sensor array to match what you can get from other popular smartwatches, including a blood oxygen monitor — though it doesn’t have an EKG monitor like competing watches.

The Fossil Gen 6 is a large watch, but looks good on my wrist
The Fossil Gen 6 is a large watch, but it looks good on my wrist.

Unfortunately, having the sensors isn’t the same thing as offering the health tracking. Google Fit is woefully behind Apple Health in its features and Fossil itself is not set up to offer its own health apps. The result is that while you can take individual readings wherever, putting them together into a holistic picture is a hassle at best.

Worse: even taking those readings is a pain. Using Fossil’s watchface to launch the sleep tracking stats or blood oxygen monitor involves tapping and then waiting to see if your tap worked, then tapping again.

The root of these problems is easy to identify: Wear OS 2 simply isn’t up to the task of supporting all the advanced features Fossil wants to add, even with a newer Qualcomm processor that adds a low-power chip to help with battery life.

Wear OS 2 can’t set multiple timers, sometimes scrolling with the crown simply doesn’t work, and Fossil has had to try to spackle over feature gaps with its own apps. I do like that you can download and install third-party watchfaces, but that’s small comfort. Wear OS 2 is a mess of confusing permissions, lag, and disappointment.

The Fossil Gen 6 is a shame — good hardware undone by old software
The Fossil Gen 6 is a shame — good hardware undone by old software.

In previous years with previous Wear OS watches, I would often land on a feeling that if you used it for simple things like notifications and counting steps, it would be possible to justify getting one. But the reality is that if you’re on Android and you just want those basics, there are smartwatches with much simpler operating systems that last longer on a charge. You won’t get mapping or apps like Spotify — but using those apps on this watch hardly feels worth the effort most of the time.

Sometime in 2022, there is supposed to be a software update which will bring the newer Wear OS 3 to the Fossil Gen 6 watches. When that happens, I’ll be curious to see if these watches perform better. Until then, the best alternative is Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 4, which is running Google’s newer software. But Samsung’s watch uses Samsung’s digital assistant and Samsung’s apps.

It’s all a shame. Fossil has put together some nice hardware here, with all of the pieces necessary to make a really good watch. But it’s had to glue those pieces together with software that Google had already abandoned before Fossil was able to announce the Gen 6 was coming. Maybe next time, Google and Fossil will be able to synchronize their watch efforts.

Photography by Dieter Bohn / The Verge