I was cautiously optimistic — dare I say, excited? — following my hands-on with the Pixel Watch last week. While I hadn’t been impressed with the dozens of leaks and official renders, the $349.99 ($399.99 for LTE) Pixel Watch left a much stronger impression in person. That, and the bar for the Pixel Watch is low. This watch’s one job is to not suck. But after a week of testing, it’s fair to say I’ve tempered my expectations. The Pixel Watch is a good first attempt from Google, but the company has a lot of growing pains to work out for the next iteration of the watch. That is, assuming it doesn’t prematurely kill it off.
It’s a round Apple Watch
From the curved glass to the digital crown, Google isn’t shy that it took its design cues for the Pixel Watch from Apple. It’s a smart move, actually. Whether it’s blinged-out Fossil watches or Samsung’s subtler Galaxy Watches, Wear OS devices by and large opt for a more analog feel. Leaning into a chic, minimalist vibe is an easy way for Google to visually set the Pixel Watch apart from its rivals. And it works.
The 41mm display is also much smaller than the official renders would have you believe. That makes for a comfortable, compact watch that measures 12.3mm thick and weighs 36g. The digital crown is just the right size, and the side button doesn’t protrude too much from the case — all of which emphasize the watch’s sleek profile. I had no issues wearing this overnight for sleep tracking, and it never caught on any of my jacket sleeves.
It feels smaller than the 41mm Apple Watch and similar to the 40mm Galaxy Watch 5. However, the rounded case edges help the Pixel Watch look and feel even slimmer on the wrist than its measurements suggest. Google also decided to only offer one size, which bucks the norm. Generally, smartwatch makers offer at least a small and large size. It’s great that smaller people won’t be left out, but folks with larger wrists or who like oversize watches might not be pleased with how delicate this looks.
One thing that’s hard to tell from these pictures is how easy it is to switch up the Pixel Watch’s overall look. It looks stylish with the default silicone straps, but the mesh metal and leather straps add a faux lug that elevates the entire feel. Suffice to say, this is a watch that can easily transition between casual and formal occasions, provided you don’t mind shelling out for Google’s proprietary straps. There aren’t any third-party straps at launch, and Google is charging out the nose for some of the fancier straps. The metal links band, for example, will cost a whopping $199.99 while the mesh strap will set you back $129.99 when they arrive in the spring. The other bands range from $49.99–$79.99.
While Google doesn’t claim it, the lugs on its leather straps can be removed from the strap using a spring bar tool, and inside is a standard 20mm spring bar. So, if you buy one of the leather straps, you could swap in another 20mm watch strap you prefer. We assume there will be third-party lugs available on Amazon at some point in the near future, much like there are adapters for standard watch straps for the Apple Watch.
Speaking of bands, the Pixel Watch’s band mechanism comes with a learning curve. It’s meant to mimic the way lenses snap into place on your camera — and it’s similar, but that description is a bit of a stretch. I don’t need anyone to explain how to swap out camera lenses, but I definitely needed a primer on how to swap out these bands. The band release button blends in with the rest of the case, and you could easily miss it if you don’t know what you’re looking for. You have to press it down before sliding the strap off. To reattach the strap, you have to line it up with the button and press down before sliding it back on. It’s simple once you get the hang of it, but I still struggled after getting an in-person demo. It wasn’t until my editor Dan Seifert explained it yet again that it finally clicked.
As for the screen itself, the 1.2-inch OLED display looks crisp, and praise be, there’s no flat tire. Although the display is small, the bright colors used in the watchfaces ensure everything remains readable. Animations — like the handwashing timer — are pleasing to watch. You’ve also got the option for an always-on display, even if it’s a battery hog. The AOD dims when not in use, but you can still easily read the time in bright light. Speaking of which, the Pixel Watch also has a Sunlight Boost feature that brightens the display to a maximum of 1,000 nits when in direct sunlight. That’s clutch if you do a lot of outdoor activities and want to glance at your stats.
Before you ask, yes, the bezels are thick by today’s standards, but there’s no reason to freak out over them. I’m respectfully asking everyone to chill. The domed screen and dark backgrounds do a good job of making sure you’ll hardly notice them. Believe me, I cranked up the font size to the largest the Pixel Watch would allow, and it was perfectly fine. The only time you’re going to notice them is if you opt for the Photo watchface or use the Google Camera app on the wrist to take photos. Both of these scenarios are avoidable if you find the chunky bezels too offensive to stomach.
More concerning is the fact that my colleague Chris Welch already ended up cracking the screen of his review unit. While the case is made of sturdy stainless steel, there’s no sapphire crystal display. It’s just regular Corning Gorilla Glass 5. Chris said he hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary — no extreme sports or banging this thing against a door — so it’s unclear how this happened. Still, I had a suspicion that the extremely domed display might be prone to damage, and this seems to confirm it. I haven’t had issues on my unit, but if you’re hard on your devices, it’s something to be aware of.
A zippy version of Wear OS 3
When the Pixel Watch was announced, I was most concerned about the chip. As it turns out, the Pixel Watch is powered by Samsung’s last-gen (and four-year-old) Exynos 9110. That’s a 10nm chip that we last saw on the Galaxy Watch 3. It’s a hell of a lot better than the Snapdragon Wear 3100 used on most Wear OS 2 smartwatches as well as the 12nm Snapdragon Wear 4100 chips. The main difference from other Exynos 9110 smartwatches is that it’s got a Cortex M33 co-processor to help optimize battery life — a strategy that Qualcomm also uses on its wearable chips to varying degrees of success. Plus, Google’s opted to amp up performance by stuffing 2GB of RAM in the Pixel Watch. That’s a first as far as Android smartwatches go.
I’ll cut to the chase: it does a good job, but it’s not perfect. Swiping through screens is quick with no stuttering, it downloads apps on-device with ease, and overall, it’s a much better experience than what you’ll get on a 3100-powered Wear OS watch. That said, I did experience some latency when using the Pixel Watch as a viewfinder for Google Camera. Nothing terrible, but it was noticeable.
Aside from the processor, the Pixel Watch has all the sensors and smart features you’d expect on a modern flagship smartwatch. For connectivity, you get Bluetooth 5.0, Wi-Fi, optional LTE, built-in GPS, and NFC for contactless payments via Google Wallet. For sensors, you’ve got an accelerometer, gyroscope, altimeter, compass, ambient light sensor, an EKG sensor, continuous heart rate sensor, and SpO2 sensors for blood oxygen monitoring.
As far as UI goes, the Pixel Watch is nearly identical to the Fitbit Sense 2 and distinct from Samsung’s take on Wear OS 3. You can swipe left or right to access Tiles, which are widgets for apps like weather, Fitbit dashboards and workouts, EKGs, a handwashing timer, regular timers, alarms, and more. Swiping down gets you the control panel, while swiping up shows you notifications. Compared to Samsung’s watches, it’s less flashy and not as well suited to the round face.
But while Wear OS 3 on the Pixel Watch won’t knock your socks off, it doesn’t exclude any Android users. Unlike Samsung’s Wear OS Galaxy Watches, there aren’t any features that are exclusive to Pixel phones. For example, if you want to take an EKG, it doesn’t matter if you’ve paired the Pixel Watch with a Pixel 6, a Samsung Z Flip 4, or a Microsoft Surface Duo 2. So long as you can access the Play Store and download the Google Pixel Watch and Fitbit apps, you’re good. The only phone users the Pixel Watch excludes are folks on iOS. (Who, to be fair, are probably more inclined to buy an Apple Watch.)
Wear OS 3 on the Pixel Watch won’t knock your socks off, but it doesn’t exclude any Android users
I was also satisfied with the Pixel Watch’s smart features. Google Assistant was easy to set up, and it’s a heck of a lot better than Bixby. Using it to make calls, send texts, or figure out the weather was easy and efficient. I also used it to turn on my two smart lights. I’ve largely pared down my smart home — ’tis the life of a renter in New York City — but setting up Google Home was as straightforward as it gets. Google Wallet was also a breeze to set up, and I had no issues paying for the occasional Gatorade at my local vending machine or a ride on the NYC subway.
Responding to texts and making calls from the wrist were also what you’d expect. Call quality was good, though one time, my husband couldn’t hear me well from the din of a coffee shop. (That’s pretty common with smartwatch calls, however.) The Pixel Watch’s display is too small to really type comfortably on, but voice dictation worked like a charm. You can also trigger an emergency call by rapidly pressing the digital crown five times. It’s a silly way to activate the feature, especially if you’re in a situation where you may be panicked, but hey, it worked! I canceled the call before it could actually alert local emergency services, but it was also easy to switch it to an emergency contact instead. I wasn’t able to test fall detection, as that won’t arrive until 2023. And unlike the latest round of Apple Watches, the Pixel Watch doesn’t have any crash detection features.
All in all, nothing blew my mind as both Samsung and Apple have done this already and done it better. For example, Apple’s handwashing timer is also automatic, whereas you have to manually start Google’s version by hunting through the app menu or swiping to a Tile. Samsung and Apple’s contactless payment shortcuts are smoother. You only have to long-press a button. On the Pixel Watch, you need to double-press the digital crown to bring up Google Wallet — and there’s a slight lag, as it brings up the entire app menu first. Neither Apple nor Samsung adds an audible chime to emergency calling features, which prevents you from discreetly calling for help.
There are a ton of little quirks like this. But what stuck with me was that Google managed to deliver these flagship smart features without completely falling flat on its face. It’s boring, but it at least provides a foundation for Google to improve upon going forward. That’s all I could reasonably ask for from a first-gen device — let alone from Google, which has dropped the ball on the wearable front for years.
Battery drain is intense
While those of us with petite wrists thank Google for making a smaller smartwatch, the compact size comes with a price. Battery life on the Pixel Watch is middling at best — and terrible if you want to use the always-on display.
The Pixel Watch’s 294mAh battery comes with an estimated 24 hours on a single charge. Last week, Google spokesperson Andrea Holing told The Verge that it arrived at this estimate with the always-on display turned off and moderate activity defined as 50 minutes of tethered navigation, a 45-minute workout with LTE and GPS while streaming an offline YouTube Music playlist, a five-minute LTE phone call, 240 notifications, and 280 time checks. I got similar results with the always-on display turned off, but there are caveats.
For starters, I did a roughly 55-minute run with GPS alone with the always-on display turned off and no music playback. That zapped my battery by a whopping 25 percent. Another 30-minute run with the always-on display enabled with GPS tracking and offline music playback drained it by 30 percent. In both cases, that’s not great, Bob! Before that 30-minute run, I also called my spouse and sent a few text messages. That was about an hour of futzing around on the watch, and I went from 71 percent to 30 percent.
If you do enable the always-on display, you should be prepared to carry your charger with you or top off multiple times daily. I got about 12–15 hours with light to moderate usage and ended up topping up the battery about twice daily. You might get away with once per day if you’re not keen on sleep tracking, but I had no such luck. Meanwhile, the Pixel Watch will automatically track your sleep, but it won’t turn off the screen or disable notifications unless you manually turn on the sleep mode before drifting off to dreamland.
If you do enable the always-on display, you should be prepared to carry your charger with you
I wasn’t expecting more than 24 hours on the Pixel Watch. Despite Samsung’s claims on the Galaxy Watch 5, I got a similar amount on my 40mm review unit. Meanwhile, Apple has been getting around 18–24 hours on its Series watches for a long time. But I was surprised by how fast the battery drains with normal usage. Sure, you’ll be able to get 24 hours if you take concerted battery-saving efforts — but that’s the rub. It requires you to make a conscious effort. And if you’ve got to veer from your regular schedule, you’ve got no buffer of battery life to help make it through.
Fast charging does take a bit of the sting out. In fact, I rarely topped up the Pixel Watch to 100 percent this past week. Instead, I mostly stuck the Pixel Watch on its charger for about a half-hour before I had to leave the house. That would usually get me somewhere between 50 and 80 percent, which was enough to get back home after about a half-day out and about.
Good health features, so-so fitness tracking
When it comes to health and fitness, the Pixel Watch is essentially a smarter Fitbit. Literally. While you could download Google Fit if you choose, the Pixel Watch has a built-in Fitbit integration and a six-month trial of Fitbit Premium. Sure, it means you have to use a minimum of two apps to control the watch, but the tradeoff is you get some of the best holistic health tracking features around. Kind of.
The caveat here is that Fitbit is not for hardcore athletes. It never has been. Fitbit’s platform has always been best suited for casual activity and beginners looking to build better fitness habits in a gentle, holistic way. This can be a pro or a con, depending on what you’re looking for.
On the one hand, this heavy reliance on Fitbit gets you FDA-cleared EKGs, excellent sleep tracking, industry-leading stress management, and good recovery features. Unlike Apple and Samsung, Fitbit also has a much more useful metric for gauging whether you’re getting enough exercise in Active Zone Minutes (AZM). You get one AZM for every minute where your heart rate is in the Fat Burning Zone and double the AZM for every minute spent in Cardio and Peak Zones. The default goal is 150 AZM per week, which is in line with the American Heart Association’s guidelines for 150 minutes of moderate activity per week. (Of course, you can edit this higher or lower depending on your needs.)
AZM, combined with Fitbit’s Daily Readiness Score metric, gives the Pixel Watch an edge over Samsung and Apple when it comes to recovery tracking. The Daily Readiness Score takes into account your recent activity levels, sleep quality, and heart rate variability to give you a sense of whether you should take it easy or push it on a given day. Instead of prioritizing streaks or closing rings, this gives beginners greater flexibility. If you’re busy one day or just not feeling it, you’re not penalized. Instead, you’re given recommendations for active recovery, if you’re so inclined.
But while using Fitbit’s platform is generally a strength, there are some oddities as well. For starters, my 30-minute interval run was accurately recorded as 2.61 miles on the Pixel Watch, Apple Watch Ultra, and the Runkeeper app on my phone. The maps, however, did not match. The map recorded by the Pixel Watch ended roughly two- to three-tenths of a mile early for no obvious reason. Fitbit and Google spokesperson Jonathan Moll told The Verge, “The GPS issue you saw in this run is a known issue that the Fitbit Team is actively working to fix.”
For my long runs, I have to run up an indoor stairwell to cross a bridge. This leads to some hilarious GPS maps, as you can see in the screenshots below. The Pixel Watch isn’t the only guilty party. As you can see, my iPhone also did a not-so-great job of tracking that segment compared to the more accurate multiband GPS on the Apple Watch Ultra. It’s fine if you simply want credit for the activity you’ve done, but it’s something to be aware of if you’re training for a race or care about getting the most accurate maps possible.
Likewise, there was a noticeable lag in the Android Fitbit app with regard to logging my Active Zone Minutes for a 55-minute evening run. Based on my heart rate data, I’d expected about 90–110 AZM. Instead, I was given 66 AZM. It showed up accurately in the iOS Fitbit app syncing to my account, but the number didn’t update correctly on my Pixel 7 Pro until noon the next day. I asked Fitbit and Google why this might have happened but have not yet received a response.
The Pixel Watch, like the Fitbit Sense 2, is also a victim of a confused lineup. But while Google nerfed the Sense 2’s smarts, the Pixel Watch doesn’t get a few key Fitbit features, despite having the appropriate hardware for it.
The Pixel Watch, like the Fitbit Sense 2, is also a victim of a confused lineup
For example, the Pixel Watch doesn’t have the same automatic workout tracking as a Fitbit. You have to manually start an activity if you want it to be counted in full. However, certain activities — say, a brisk 15-minute walk — will show up later in the Fitbit app. You just won’t see it on your wrist. I had this happen several times. Likewise, you won’t get irregular heart rhythm and high / low heart rate notifications even though the Pixel Watch has an EKG sensor. The Pixel Watch has SpO2 sensors, but it won’t track your nightly SpO2 percentage. Instead, you’re limited to the Estimated Oxygen Variation graph, which visualizes how your blood oxygen fluctuates through the night. (Frankly, the latter is more useful, but it’s still a bizarre omission.) And bad news for swimmers: the Pixel Watch doesn’t track swimming strokes, either.
As I wrote in my Sense 2 review, this feels an awful lot like Google not knowing what to do with the fact that it has the Pixel Watch, Sense 2, and Versa 4 in its wearable portfolio. Given that the Pixel Watch is only $50 more than the Sense 2, it’s clear the company had to give you incentives to get one over the other. It just falls flat as the Sense 2 ends up being a not-so-smart “smartwatch” while the Pixel Watch’s health and fitness features are unnecessarily curtailed.
The next one will be better
The Pixel Watch was supposed to be Google’s big debut into the world of smartwatches. Instead, it feels more like the premium Fitbit Wear OS watch that Fitbit CEO James Park promised last year but never ended up making. Pixel DNA is in the mix somewhere, clearly, but this truly feels more like the sleek smartwatch that Fitbit never knew how to make on its own.
But even though the Pixel Watch feels like a Frankensteinian device right now, I imagine that, over time, we’ll see more of Google’s priorities creep into future Pixel Watches, especially since you’ll need a Google account to even log in to Fitbit by 2025. The good thing is that most of my issues with the Pixel Watch are fixable, either via software updates or in future iterations.
The rub is that it depends on Google to commit to the long haul… and we all know that Google’s reputation on that front isn’t great. On the one hand, Google’s made a lot of noise about its vision for ambient computing. Wearables seem to be an integral part of that. On the other, we all saw how Google neglected Android Wear, and then Wear OS, for years before it started reversing course in 2019. Call me an optimist, but I’m of the mind that Google’s invested way too much at this point to throw in the towel.
You shouldn’t buy a device based on its promise
Still, you shouldn’t buy a device based on its promise. And on that front, the Pixel Watch is a good-but-not-yet-great smartwatch for Android users. At $349 (or $399 for LTE, not including carrier fees), the Pixel Watch is competitively priced. It’s about $70 more than the 40mm Galaxy Watch 5, but I’d argue it’s the better choice for anyone who doesn’t have a Samsung phone. (It’s also a good option for Samsung owners, though the Galaxy Watch 5 lineup is a slightly better option if you’re all in on Samsung services.) And even with its flaws, the Fitbit integration is going to get you a better health tracking experience than Google Fit on Wear OS 2 ever will. Fitbit Premium is an extra $70 annual fee once the six-month trial ends, but it’s also optional.
I’m hesitant to say this is the best Wear OS smartwatch just yet. Samsung’s watches, even though they exclude non-Samsung phone owners, deliver a more polished overall experience. And, we’ve yet to see what Fossil’s next-gen smartwatches powered by the more powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon W5 Plus platform will look like. But even with all my gripes and quibbles, the Pixel Watch gives me hope that Wear OS has brighter days ahead. The Pixel Watch was a good start. The Pixel Watch 2 will be better.
Correction, October 12th, 2:40PM ET: A previous version of this article noted that fall detection was coming later this year. Google reached out after publication to say that the feature will instead arrive in 2023.
Update, October 12th, 2:40PM ET: Included statement from Google and Fitbit about the GPS issue.