What is it like to live with Google’s new Pixel Watch? Once you step away from all of the numbers, specifications, and the exploration of ‘something new,’ is it a worthwhile experience from day to day? Thanks to the Google Press team here in the UK, I’ve been using the Pixel Watch since it was launched, and it’s been an interesting experience. The Pixel Watch is a solid product but is more niche than I expected.
First of all, it’s what I would call a watch that you have to wear actively. Unlike smaller activity trackers and smart bands, which can run for close to two weeks between battery charging, the Pixel Watch’s battery life is measured in hours. It’s rated for 24 hours, which means that – given many will want to use sleep tracking – you are going to need to drop this on a charger every single day.
That means remembering you have to remove it each day, charge it each day, and be aware of it each day. Compared to smart bands, which can blend into the background unless you focus on needing them in a moment, wearing the Pixel Watch meant always remembering I was wearing a Pixel Watch.
If you are looking for technology that fits into the background of your life, the Pixel Watch is not it.
The Pixel Watch is a comfortable watch to wear. The size is big, but not so big it dominated my wrist (your mileage will vary on this), and the supplied active band is secure and hasn’t come free accidentally during my review… But sometimes wearing it has been a problem.
Over time the active band that comes with the Pixel Watch started to irritate my skin and I had to remove the watch at specific points of the day, leading to a point where I just needed a day without wearing the watch to give my skin a chance to breathe.
Having reviewed several smartwatches, which bands will trigger this and which will not is a bit random. Other watches with material similar to the Pixel Active Band can stay on my wrist for weeks. Design-wise the Pixel Watch does allow for replacement bands made of different materials, but there’s a financial catch here.
There is a quick-release action that allows for watch bands to be switched with ease, yet the system is proprietary. At launch, the bands were only available from Google, and they were expensive. Third-party choices are starting to appear, but I would have much preferred the Pixel Watch to use the classic attachments used by regular watches through the ages.
That would mean you could buy bands anywhere and deprive Google of a valuable line of revenue, but in a choice of open or proprietary, I’d much instead choose open. As it stands, I have to wait for third-party manufacturers to work their way around Google’s ways.
By going with a circular design, the Pixel Watch does not feel overpowering. It is still a “big watch” that dominates the wrist, but the styling has done its best to make it feel acceptable.
There is a trade-off here in terms fo the display – a more angular watch would allow for a square screen that would bring in more information, but the built-in apps either set up the screen elements so there’s no loss of information, or there is a fish-eye lens effect which curves information away. This is most noticeable in the menus and is a nice compromise between maximizing the information and keeping the physical watch small.
The Pixel Watch does have a significant bezel – visually, it’s around 5mm, although this is over the curved edge. Because the UI is predominantly black, the edge of the screen and the bezel blend into each other. The only time I have been taken out of the experience of ‘the whole surface is data” is with the ‘use your own photo as a watchface’, at which point the truth of the display becomes clear.
And that’s why I don’t use my own wallpaper as a watchface… it destroys the magic.
As with any new technology, it takes time to ‘get’ the user interface. With Pixel Watch using WearOS 3, there will be growing compatibility moving forwards (presumably, that is Google’s aim, using the Pixel Watch to help define the current space). You have notifications and quick action icons available with vertical stripes – just like Android – although swiping up for notifications as opposed to swiping down does feel weird given it is opposite to your average Android smartphone. Left and right scrolls you through the tiles – essentially widgets to some of the key functions of the apps in the watch… and of course the apps themselves are available from the small action button just above the scrolling crown dial on the side of the watch.
The same action button can be held down to activate Google’s voice assistant. It’s an obvious answer to a cramped user interface, but it struggled with my Scottish brogue, and I had to restore to quite deliberate statements and ensure words were separate. It’s not something that I found reliable enough to use as the main interaction on the watch.
There’s some smart touch detection on here because I rarely had a mis-registered touch input, and I was able to hit buttons and choices with more accuracy than the button sizes suggest. I suspect there’s a mix of techniques here but the result is that touch is accurate.
Neither is there an overload of information. You can read all your texts and messages on the screen, but as with many smartwatches for many years, the value around notifications is to use the watch as triage, only moving to the phone when more work is required. Information on the screen remains clear, and the difference between content and UI is clear… as long as you remember to scroll. There is a scroll bar at the right-hand edge of the screen next to the crown. It’s subtle enough not to get in the way but perhaps too subtle to stand out and inform you there is more information.
The biggest question around the Pixel Watch is “who is it for?” While features like notification management and media controls are valid for all, those are just “table stakes” features that need to be on every smart wearable. For a watch with prices starting at $349, there needs to be more. What is the more for the Pixel Watch?
The Pixel Watch is a smartwatch with a lot of focus on tracking serious exercise, your fitness profiles, and activities in your life. Now, with the best will in the world, tracking my daily walks around Edinburgh is worthy… but the Pixel Watch is a bit of an overkill for me in that sense. Some people fit this profile well, and I think the Pixel Watch would be a fascinating addition to their existing lifestyle.
And that existing lifestyle is all about Fitbit (which was acquired by Google’s parent company Alphabet in January 2021). There are already several fitness tracks and watches with the Fitbit brand. You can add the Pixel Watch to that list, as the exercise and activity tracking is built around the Fitbit system; to the point that you will need the Fitbit app (and an account) on your phone to make the most from the collected data.
There is one part of the fitness package that I want to highlight, and it has a bearing on my confidence in the Pixel Watch ecosystem.
Google is not known for maintaining all of its product lines, even those with grand ambitions, such as the streaming game service Stadia. The Pixel Watch has the attention and the focus right now, but will that be the case in the future?
While the Fitbit integration will be welcome to those already in that system, I’ve been part of Google Fit, Google’s health-tracking platform. For all the practical reasons of basing the Pixel Watch around Fitbit, it does not bode well that Google can’t integrate an eight-year-old product into its flagship wearable.
If Google had not branded this as a Pixel Watch, perhaps these could be waved away. There would still be questions about where the purchase of Fitbit sits inside the ecosystem, but it would be seen as operating independently inside Mountain View. But it’s not. It’s branded as a Pixel watch, and the Pixel brand is Google’s expression of what it wants a category to be.
My sense of the Pixel Watch is that Google is on its way to defining what it wants a smartwatch to be, but it’s not quite there. The physical design cues are there, and I’m interested to see if it works on a slightly smaller and slightly bigger version to offer more sizes for the next generation. WearOS 3 is fit for purpose and does not have many rough edges, but it needs more first-party support both in terms of apps and the apps’ tiles.
I think it also needs to earn the “Pixel” brand name. Currently the Pixel Watch feels more like a ‘Fitbit Watch’ running WearOS than something intrinsically Google. The direction being taken is clear, and hopefully, Google will stay the course. The Pixel Watch does a lot of things right and will be the perfect smartwatch for many… but it doesn’t have the broad appeal that would make it an instant recommendation as a ‘must-have’ peripheral.