The most powerful Wear OS watches are held back by Wear OS

The Fossil Gen 5 LTE and Mobvoi TicWatch Pro 3
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For the past month, I’ve been testing the two most powerful Wear OS watches you can buy: the TicWatch Pro 3 from Mobvoi and the Fossil Gen 5 LTE. They’re not spec-for-spec identical, but they do share a basic shape: big, chunky, round, and black. If you’re using Android and want a smartwatch, they’re at the top of a persistently tiny list of top-flight smartwatches.

Despite Wear OS’s reputation, both watches are perfectly competent and can do the basics of what many people want out of a smartwatch. Both also offer what I’d characterize as acceptable battery life: a full day most of the time, two at a stretch. The TicWatch can actually go much longer, thanks to a clever second screen layered on top of the first one.

But Wear OS does have that reputation: for years, watches that ran it have been slow, ran out of battery life quickly, and suffered from a tiny ecosystem of apps. Some of those problems have been solved, but that doesn’t mean that these watches (or, honestly, any smartwatch available to Android owners) lives up to the polish and features iPhone users can get with the Apple Watch.

The Apple Watch comparison isn’t really useful for Android users — it’s not and probably never will be an option. Instead, let’s just look at these two watches on their own terms.

The Mobvoi TicWatch 3 Pro

TicWatch Pro 3 review

At $299.99, the TicWatch Pro 3 is not an impulse buy. But the price is about right for what Mobvoi has created. It has pushed the limits of what Wear OS can do in two ways.

First, it has crammed the best technology it could get for a Wear OS device in here. One big differentiator for the TicWatch Pro 3 is that it is the only watch using Qualcomm’s latest smartwatch processor, the Snapdragon 4100. (More from Motorola and possibly OnePlus have been rumored to be coming this year.)

That processor makes the watch faster than other Wear OS devices — though it still can sometimes feel a step behind both Samsung’s Tizen-based watches and even Fitbits. It also accounts for some of the TicWatch’s battery life, which I’ve found can last two and even three days with all the bells and whistles turned on.

The second thing Mobvoi has done to push Wear OS is add a bunch of bells and whistles to make up for the platform’s missing features. The main thing it’s done is put an LCD panel on top of the regular OLED screen. This allows the TicWatch to go into a low power mode when it’s on standby and a super-low power mode when you need it to last for more than a few days on a charge.

Wear OS powers its fitness offerings with Google Fit, which has seen a few updates but is very far behind Apple’s fitness offerings. Mobvoi can’t fix that, but it has tried to fill in the gaps with its own suite of fitness apps on the watch. It even includes a blood oxygen sensor — though it’s no more accurate than the norm for smartwatches, which isn’t very good.

However, using them requires you to place a large amount of trust in Mobvoi the company — as the watch makes perfectly clear when you try to launch these apps, there’s no way to do that without sharing a bunch of information with Mobvoi. I applaud the transparency, but that still wasn’t enough to make me comfortable with it.

One thing to keep in mind with the TicWatch Pro 3: its aesthetics. It’s unapologetically a big, chunky watch. I don’t have huge wrists and it absolutely feels dominated by this thing. It is “honest” in its design, at least, in that it isn’t trying to look like a fancier watch than it is — right on down to the matte plastic lugs that hold the replaceable straps in place. I also wish it had a rotating crown for scrolling.

I ended up using the TicWatch Pro 3 like a bog standard Wear OS watch in the end, turning off its extra screen and sticking to Google Fit for fitness data. It absolutely did the job, but at $299 I think most people would be better off considering other options.

In the US, there is not a TicWatch Pro 3 with LTE – though a version with it is currently available in the UK, Spain, and Germany. If you want a Wear OS watch with LTE outside those markets, you’ll need to buy the Fossil.

The Fossil Gen 5 LTE

Fossil Gen 5 LTE review

I reviewed the original Fossil Gen 5 smartwatch in 2019, and I called it the “best of a Wear OS situation.” I think that (dubious) honor now goes to the TicWatch Pro 3, but if you need LTE, the $349 Fossil Gen 5 is one of two options you’ve got on Android (the other is Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 3 LTE).

Fortunately, the Fossil Gen 5 is essentially unchanged by the addition of LTE. If you’re willing to pay your carrier the extra monthly charges to turn it on, using the Gen 5 with LTE felt virtually the same as using it with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

Even battery life didn’t seem to be a problem. I did notice the watch was more likely to hit two full days with LTE turned off, but I usually didn’t manage to drain it in a single day even when using mostly LTE. Sadly, Fossil also feels as though it needs to make up for Wear OS’s shortcomings by keeping its entirely too complicated battery saver features. A watch should never require users to dig into granular radio toggles.

It does still use the older Snapdragon 3100 processor, though it didn’t feel particularly slow as a result. Aesthetically, it’s very slightly different from the regular Fossil Gen 5 Carlyle that I own and it’s not that much smaller than the TicWatch, but subtle differences make it look just a little more premium.

All in all, if you must have an LTE smartwatch and you use Android, this is your best option if you really prefer Wear OS to Tizen. If you’re agnostic, I think the Galaxy Watch 3 with LTE is probably a better choice.

Wear OS watches

As I’ve been harping on for three years now, every smartwatch for Android involves some kind of compromise.

Samsung watches need a lot more apps and require you to install a lot of extra stuff on your phone to get them working.

Fitbits are great for fitness but not so great at integrating into Android. There’s also the not-so-little matter about the company now being owned by Google’s hardware division. The future of the entire Fitbit ecosystem is sort of up in the air right now.

And honestly, the future of Wear OS is also up in the air. There’s little movement lately in app support and though Google has done a decent enough job keeping the OS from falling into utter decay, it hasn’t done much more than that. It’s overdue for an overhaul.

There are likely more Wear OS watches coming that might be worth waiting for, but the Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 remains the best option for traditional smartwatch stuff. At the end of the day, it’s difficult to recommend anybody spend three or four hundred dollars to get on board the rudderless Wear OS boat.

Both the TicWatch Pro 3 and the Fossil Gen 5 LTE are good enough smartwatches for what they are. It’s just that what they are is the best of an old platform with a questionable future.

Photography by Dieter Bohn / The Verge

Correction, March 10th, 2021: this review has been updated to note that there is a version of the TicWatch Pro 3 with LTE, but it’s only available for purchase in the UK, Spain, and Germany. We regret the error.

Comments

What Android wear need is a pixel watch with google whitechapel wear chip and fitness related feature like sleep tracking with sleep score and monitoring, continues heart rate monitor, spO2, expand on exercise feature, gps.
Just Bring some fitbit features to fit or even introduce a fit+ service for getting more out of your watch

Google didn’t even fully commit to the Pixel Line, long term. They will not get into watches…

I have to disagree with. Sure Google has long term commitment problem but pixel line is not one of it

Maybe they’re committed but they need a more unified vision. Feels like they’re always oscillating between if the pixel is a midrange or flagship phone and now that other phone makers have mostly caught up on the computational photography stuff they’re losing their biggest advantage.

Wear OS is such garbage now.
I finally switched to Gear S3 and am really impressed.
I would love to understand Google’s strategy for Wear OS. Do they want to abandon it?

Pixel 4a 5G user here… It’s been stellar. My biggest gripe is that spell check sometimes knows I misspelled "mispelled", but unlike Chrome it rarely offers any suggestions on how to fix it… do you want another P, less L’s? another S perhaps? Also, if you use a third party launcher… wonky things happen with gesture navigation. My day 1 pixel 4a had some seriously finnicky touch issues… sneezing at it would make it act wonky

Updates and new features mean nothing if Quality Assurance isn’t a resume priority. That said the phone is faster than the already fast Pixel 4a… Processors are complicated… benchmarks are deceiving if you have control of the platform. See Engadgets video on what makes the M1 so great and okay at the same time.

That said… I neeeed Ultra Wideband and will not survive another 4 months without upgrading to the crippled Verizon version or a Samsung aperitif

They’ve sold off one phone maker, the phone team remains in Taipei, where it used to be a division of another company. It’s very similar to the Motorola situation, albeit, they have kept them around longer this time.

Ultimately if Google doesn’t solve their hardware issues with the Quallcomm monopoly, there will never be a robust market of Android phones again. It will be Samsung only, and Pixel will remain a niche hobby to keep them honest.

The article fails to explain what’s wrong with WearOS. The article is explicitly satisfied with battery life and reactivity, even with the 3100.
Also, notification support means most apps can be controlled with the watch even without specific support for WearOS.

This article seems more like an Apple fanboy trashing WearOS than a real review.

Welcome to The Verge.

You mean the iVerge? Wear OS got problems for sure but they don’t talk about them. Apple watch is also got problems but all reviews about Apple watch point in direction daddy Tim can’t do no wrong

Yeah. I always love seeing a best phone of the year list with the iPhone 8 at the top. Excuse me, the iPhone SE.

Really it’s iphone 6 same old design. Don’t worry iphone 13 will be the best phone with the same notch. Verge stated that Fold 2 was stale innovation but iphone with same design and notch is all gravy

For your average user the iPhone is a way better fit than the Fold. Samsung had made admirable progress at improving the experience but it’s still not the ideal set of trade-offs for your average customer, which is the assumed audience for those posts.

Well the thing is it was not a comparison. The Folds review said lack of innovation. My question how does it lack innovation since the device is one of a kind?

While iPhones are never changing for numerous amount of cycles. Sure if they were comparing iPhone vs the Fold directly I would agree iphone is best phone for all average consumers.

But individual reviews are funky and heavily Apple biased even though reviews potentially are that writers opinion.

iPhones on the Verge are praised year after year without really taking into account many flaws and especially the lack of innovation in Apple devices. They are good devices however they lack any innovation what’s so ever.

THIS. It’s Dieter Bohn… He’s pretty fair, but not someone who appreciates Android style innovation. Tom Warren will bend over backwards to make Microsoft look like an orphaned prodigy.

Know your author… A browser extension to make the author’s name in 64pt font would be cool lol

grossly underrated comment.

I mean, Dieter did link to multiple reviews and explain at the top that the apps aren’t there and the OS is laggy. You were dismissive of one of his main points. I don’t think it’s fair to say he didn’t explain.

Anyway, it’s all anecdotal I guess but I also find the Apple Watch is in another class all together. It wasn’t always that way of course. I jump between Android and iOS frequently and have used a dozen smartwatches. Wear OS, Tizen, Pebble, the Apple Watch….it’s sort of an obsession of mine lol.

At launch the Apple Watch was sort of hot garbage. My $100 Pebble had more features and better response. But Watch OS 2.0 and 3.0 really helped the Apple Watch find it’s footing.

Personally, I don’t think Wear OS has ever caught up. It’s…fine for notifications I guess. But the Apple Watch feels like a true extension of my iPhone for three main reasons:

1. It unlocks my computer and my car.
2. The fitness integration stomps on the competition.
3. The UI is much more snappy and responsive.

ALL that said, I like Wear OS and my Active2 for the amazing battery life and customizable faces.

Oh farts, I missed another giant reason I prefer the Apple Watch: The taptic engine! It legitimately feels like someone is lightly tapping you on the wrist when a notification comes in. Such a major Improvment over the janky vibration in a majority of smartwatches.

That’s my biggest issue with Samsung smart watches. Yeah, they require 4-6 other apps on other Android phones but they call come preinstalled on Samsung phones. They pair best with Samsung phones and integrate well with them. Everything from notifications, Samsung’s messaging app, even Microsoft apps (like Outlook) are getting better on Samsung’s watches.

Their performance can be wonky but it isn’t bad, somewhere around the Apple Watch S3. But the feedback system in Samsung watches feels like a cheap phone. I can’t feel it like I can an Apple Watch tapping my wrist about a text, phone call, or other notification. Apple’s feedback also varies in intensity, automatically, depending on where the app the notification is coming from. Phone calls are felt more than texts or emails.

I don’t know what Apple did but their Taptic Engine is the best, and their performance is top notch. Samsung’s silicon isn’t bad in their watch but it’s behind Apple’s.

I’m still rocking my Pebble; I hear it became far less useful on iOS after everything got shut down, but android is another story.

I use ios and android interchangebly. I prefer android for my phone so Apple watch is something I can’t use with my android phone.

I use a Garmin and it suits my needs well. It tracks fitness related and sleep related activities much better than Apple watch or wear os could dream of. Plus I have multiple days of battery life. When used with android it can receive and reply to notifications, I can pay for things with it, and it has integrated Spotify support so no need for phone on runs.

Garmin really hasn’t had a fair shake from tech blogs, despite all the buzz from Apple’s fitness efforts, they just don’t grok it. It’s a bit Apple or nothing for minor changes, for example. To be fair, most of their watches are non-touch and no phone OS integration, so not traditional ‘smartwatch’ material for these blogs.

But it’s still the best option in many cases on Android, fitness is a major usage of these watches, and a major drawback on the Samsungs, from what I’ve seen online.

Isn’t Rebble making up for that? They have a subscription service that helps keeping services going. As far as iOS vs Android, IMHO it works way better on iOS now, because, on Android, the application suffers from constant Bluetooth disconnections that require resetting the watch. That was actually the last straw that made me move away from Android for the first time, as I used Android since its inception. And, now, my Pebble is working just fine and I have no intention to replace it, it is really set and forget on my wrist.

Dieter did link to multiple reviews and explain at the top that the apps aren’t there and the OS is laggy.

Except he didn’t actually say that. The most he said about performance is that it’s a "step behind" Samsung’s watch. In my experience the Samsung watch is opening apps faster than Watch OS (partially because it doesn’t have all the animations). Samsung’s watches also have vastly inferior app support.

If it’s laggy, even with the top of the line processor, he really ought to say that explicitly. Links to older Wear OS watches with vastly inferior hardware to Watch OS aren’t really helpful either.

I came down here to say the same thing. I’ve been out of the smart watch game for a few years now, but I’ve used both Android Wear and Apple Watch in the past and they seemed pretty comparable to me. What is it about Apple’s experience today that puts it so far ahead?

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