Google has been working on wearables behind the scenes for ages, but in its first Pixel Watch, it has a device that looks great, too. Is it a winner?
Wearables may well be taking over the world one wrist at a time, but one company hasn’t been in that world in quite the same way as others, and it may surprise you.
Google may well be responsible for one of the world’s most used and relied upon mobile operating systems, but good luck finding a version of Android on people’s wrists. Even though it exists, it just doesn’t seem to have a hand in the game, or certainly not in the way that Apple does.
There’s no shortage of wearable choices out there, either, but premium models designed to emulate the look and feel of a nice watch that also offer features like that of your phone? They mightn’t be so easy to find.
Oppo has a watch, but it doesn’t do it all, and while Huawei definitely offers premium smartwatches, the lack of support for mobile payments in Australia certainly means the watch isn’t going to be impressive to every buyer. Google has its own smartwatch operating system, and it has supplied it for other companies in the past. The Skagen companies all have Google-based smartwatches that blend it all together, but what about Google itself?
As of October, the Pixel Watch is here, as the maker of Android works out a way to get the best of Google on your wrist in a design made to make things easy. There is one design in one size, but also in three colours, with an assortment of easy to remove bands. Is it the simple smartwatch Android owners have been craving, or does it still need work to be that wearable?
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Design and features
Designed like a traditional circular watch, there’s no doubting the look of the Pixel Watch, because it is very easy on the eyes. Easily one of the prettiest smartwatches we’ve looked down at, Google has designed this thing to look simple and easy, with a three dimensional softened glass dome that covers an AMOLED display inside of a circle with a 41mm diameter.
There’s only one size of the Pixel Watch, so big wrists mightn’t be happy with what Google has designed here, but we liked the look a lot, with our review model showing a polished silver stainless steel casing and a clear dome of a watch face on top. The design includes a Digital Crown plus another button to select and change things, but the whole glass is a touchscreen waiting to be pressed, touched, and swiped.
Under the hood, there’s more than just that screen, as Google opted for Samsung’s Exynos 9110 processor inside paired with 2GB RAM and 32GB storage, plus sensors for blood oxygen, heart-rate, ECG, and the regular assortment of accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, and altimeter.
You’ll also find a built-in microphone and speaker, handy if you want to take slightly murky phone calls on the watch, and you might even be able to do that when you’re out of reach of your phone, thanks to the 4G option. There are two models of the Pixel Watch available, with a WiFi and Bluetooth option that will only take calls when your phone is nearby, and a 4G model with Bluetooth and WiFi which can work without your phone by extending your plan over eSIM.
WearOS 3.5 is the operating system the Pixel Watch launches with, and it needs Android to actually work, but the watch will also play with other apps, notably including the Fitbit app, which is used for the health tracking, as well.
Finally, there’s the battery, which is sized at 294mAh and charges from a magnetic charging pad, itself plugged in over the USB Type C standard. Also, the Pixel Watch is water resistant down to five metres.
Using the Pixel Watch is more or less like what you’d expect: touch it and things will happen, with the actions being logical and like what you might expect if you’ve used an Android phone. Or more specifically, a Pixel phone. Given the name and who makes it, you probably expected that.
Swipe down from the top for a power control bar and up from the bottom for your notifications. Swipe left and right from your clock for micro-apps that you can order around, and hold down the clock face with your finger to select a new watch face, or tweak the colours and complications of the one you have. It’s all pretty obvious and easy.
The Pixel Watch will also only work on an Android phone, but it doesn’t need to be a Pixel. It needs the new Watch app, as distinct from the Wear OS connection app of previous watches running Google OS, and that is only available on Android phones. Sadly, there’s no support for iOS here, as Google does what Apple does with its own watch: locks you in.
Once you’ve paired and equipped the Pixel Watch with an Android phone, you can get stuck into using it, which is basically also to not use it. Remember, it’s a watch, so it’ll be there on your wrist to tell you the time at a moment’s notice, and maybe other things.
One of those often passive gadgets, you can raise your arm to wake the screen and check the time, and if you’re listening to music, you can use that screen as a controller to tell you what tunes you’re jamming to, and you can do many of the things you might use your phone for. There’s support for mobile payments in a wallet, a GPS on-board, and health sensors for tracking heart-rate and ECG, as Google channels its Fitbit acquisition, and makes a prettier and more watch-like take on a Fitbit.
That’s kind of what the Pixel Watch is: a prettier take on a Fitbit. It does lack some of the extra special sensors from this year’s Sense 2 smartwatch, missing out on skin temperature and electro dermal monitoring, with Fitbit more for health and the Pixel Watch more for looks.
It definitely handles that last one well, though. Press the Digital Crown in and you’ll see a menu of things you can do, much of which comes from Android, while swiping left and right for each micro app is handy and snappy.
We did have moments where the performance slowed down, and sometimes the watch wouldn’t wake itself up quite as quickly. Hiccups can happen, it seems, but for the most part, the performance of the Pixel Watch is fine.
The battery, however, is one area that Google desperately needs to work on, because this thing struggles to make it into 24 hours.
We get it: optimising a wearable for the best life possible isn’t easy. Throw in a whole bunch of sensors under a pretty screen with worth checking animations and style, and the battery is going to run red raw.
It’s a problem, and it’s one that doesn’t just see Google affected. Battery life is a known issue in smartwatches, which often struggle to hit two days.
The Apple Watch often needs a charge into the second day, though the Ultra could change things considerably given its bigger size and larger battery.
However Google should know this, and after years of dabbling in wearOS for manufacturers, it’s surprising to see the Pixel Watch battery be battered as badly as its is.
One day. Ish. That’s how long you’ll get out of the Pixel Watch’s battery.
Our time with the Pixel Watch showed it could be worn all day and would start to wear down around bed time, possibly struggling as you slept.
One test had us charge it completely before bed at 11pm, and see it chew through 20 percent of its battery while we slept, waking up 6 hours later. Leaving it on for the rest of the day left the battery at 27 percent just before bed that night. That was too close for comfort, given how much battery the Pixel Watch tends to eat while we sleep, so it meant we needed another charge before going to sleep. It turns out that was smart: by the time we got up the next morning, the Pixel Watch had eaten 23 percent. We’re not sure the watch would have survived all night without a top-up.
It’s fortunate that Google includes relatively fast charging in the Pixel Watch charger, but also unfortunate the battery handles so poorly, and confusing, too.
Google’s acquisition of Fitbit gives it access to wearables with some of the best battery life, and yet Google benefits seemingly from none of it. Even though you can get several days from a full-colour Fitbit, the Pixel Watch struggles with one. It’s totally and utterly surprising, and feels like a misstep.
At least the price is good for what you get, delivering a premium feeling watch with an affordable price tag.
Because there’s only one size and one build, the Pixel Watch has a really obvious pricing structure, with a $549 price tag getting you the Bluetooth and WiFi model, while an extra hundred will get you the 4G LTE model with eSIM support alongside Bluetooth and WiFi.
Regardless of what you spend, you’ll get a stainless steel smartwatch with domed Gorilla Glass protecting things, so there’s no difference of “does this model have the better chassis or the better glass”, and no question of size. That last one may not suit all wrists, but overall it’s a more approachable for the question of value: there is definitely value here, and it’s easier to understand.
What needs work?
The battery does need work, though, and so too does this constant push for platform specificity.
Again, we get it: Apple makes platform specific products, so Google can too, right? Except that Wear OS devices have largely been platform agnostic in the past, and an option for iOS owners, too. And the same is true with Fitbit gadgets, which have worked on either Android or iOS.
In the Pixel Watch, that logic is thrown out of the window, in much the same way that Google’s Pixel Buds Pro can’t be tweaked or customised on iOS, something else we’ve complained about.
There’s also the lack of anything extra that would help the Pixel Watch stand out.
We’d love more interesting watch faces, as the list here is thoroughly ordinary. You can always download more made by other developers, but with device makers spending so much time to design really interesting faces, it’s kind of surprising to see a short list that’s so ordinary on Google’s Pixel Watch.
We wish Google had seen fit to include sensors for skin temperature and bioelectrical impedance, the former you can find on the Apple Watch Series 8 and Fitbit Sense 2, while the latter appears on the Galaxy Watch 5.
There are aspects that make the Pixel Watch look good, but very little about it stands out, which seems a real shame.
Final thoughts (TLDR)
Our problem with the Google Pixel Watch is that it’s very much a “one day” kinda deal. The battery life lasts just one day, while the features just leave you feeling that one day, this will be a genuinely great watch. Unfortunately today is not that day.
Today the Pixel Watch is a good start, though one that feels like it could be better.
At launch, the Pixel Watch is good and easily one of the better smartwatch options for Android owners. It’s easy on the eyes and easy to configure, and will work with pretty much everything in your life. But there’s room for improvement, and you get the feeling that version two or three will be where it’s at.
Right now, it’s a start, but one day this thing will be even better.