Pixel Watch Hands-On: Fitbit's Wear OS Debut Highlights Google's First Smartwatch
Starting at $350, Google's first smartwatch has a lot of potential.
Lisa EadiciccoSenior Editor
Lisa Eadicicco is a senior editor for CNET covering mobile devices. She has been writing about technology for almost a decade. Prior to joining CNET, Lisa served as a senior tech correspondent at Insider covering Apple and the broader consumer tech industry. She was also previously a tech columnist for Time Magazine and got her start as a staff writer for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide.
Google's $350 (£339, AU$549) Pixel Watch is the first smartwatch to come directly from the company following years of developing the Wear OS operating system that powers other smartwatches. It's also the first Wear OS smartwatch to feature Fitbit's fitness tracking, which has been anticipated ever since Google acquired Fitbit. Making its debut at last week's Pixel fall event alongside the Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro phones, the watch features a rounded design and dark menus, and may possibly also point toward the future of Fitbit and Android wearables.
The announcement comes Google's tease of the Pixel Watch in May during its I/O developers conference. While Google previously revealed what the watch would look like and provided a preview of its software, it saved many of the core details around pricing, design and functionality for the October unveiling.
Aside from making the Wear OS smartwatch software that's used by Samsung, Fossil and Michael Kors, Google has largely been absent from the smartwatch market. The Pixel Watch, however, is the first to be positioned as a Google device under its flagship Pixel brand. It comes as the company has been making a renewed push into hardware, establishing itself as a household name alongside Apple and Samsung in the mobile device market.
The Pixel Watch has an elegant design that separates it from most Android-compatible smartwatches available on the market. But coming seven years after the original Apple Watch's launch, it has a lot of catching up to do from an industry-wide perspective. Apple leads the smartwatch space with 29% of the global market as of the second quarter of 2022, according to Counterpoint Research. Samsung is the leader when it comes to Android-compatible smartwatches with 9% of the market, a number that trails far behind Apple.
With its sharp looks and Fitbit health metrics, the Pixel Watch already seems like a promising choice for Android device owners. But I could also see how the Pixel Watch could complicate how Fitbit's own smartwatches fit into Google's product lineup. The company says the Pixel Watch is for those who want Fitbit's health tracking along with additional smartwatch features that Fitbit devices lack, such as optional LTE connectivity and Google Play Store apps.
The $300 Fitbit Sense 2, on the other hand, includes additional health and wellness capabilities such as skin temperature measurements and the ability to detect potential signs of stress. Whether the Pixel Watch becomes a hit could be an indicator of what consumers value most in a smartwatch.
Watch this: Hands-On With the New Google Pixel Watch
Pixel Watch may be the best-looking smartwatch yet
Google said in May it's positioning the Pixel Watch as a premium smartwatch, and that approach comes across in its aesthetic. The Pixel Watch has a domed, circular glass design with scratch-resistant Corning Gorilla Glass 5 and a stainless steel housing that makes it look more like a regular wristwatch than most smartwatches I've seen.
The watch is water resistant up to 5 ATM, which means it should be able to withstand pressure equal to a depth of 50 meters. It also features an always-on display that can show the time and other information when the screen is idle, just like Apple's flagship watches and Fitbit's smartwatches. It will be available in four finish options: matte black with an obsidian active band, polished silver with a charcoal active band, polished silver with a chalk active band or champagne gold with a hazel active band.
There will also be a variety of band styles to choose from, ranging from lightweight sports bands to breathable woven bands designed for sleep tracking to more formal leather and metal mesh options. The stretch band is surprisingly light and soft, and I could see how it would be ideal to wear to bed. It almost feels like wearing a scrunchie on my wrist.
Swapping out the bands is relatively simple; it requires pressing a button where the band connects to the housing and then sliding the band in the same direction. It took me a couple of tries to get the hang of it, but it's easy once you get used to it.
At first glance, the Pixel Watch feels like the Apple Watch's closest competitor in terms of design -- except it's round rather than square. As a longtime Apple Watch wearer, the Pixel Watch's use of premium materials and the look and feel of its straps has given me some deja vu -- but in a good way. There's also a crown along the side of the watch that doubles as a button and a scroll wheel, much like the Apple Watch's digital crown. But the Pixel Watch's domed glass gives it a distinguished look that sets it apart from most wearables, even the Apple Watch and high-end hybrid watches such as the Withings ScanWatch Horizon.
That said, I also noticed the bezels framing the display are a bit wide, although they do seamlessly blend into the rest of the watch. The watch itself is also fairly wide, but I'll have to spend more time with it before I can tell if these factors impact the experience overall.
Pixel Watch software is a combination of Google and Fitbit
The Pixel Watch runs on Google's Wear OS 3.5 software and inherits some of Fitbit's health features. In the short amount of time I've had to see the Pixel Watch in person, the software looks a lot like the new redesigned interface on the Fitbit Sense 2. It also feels fast and snappy. Compared to the Sense 2, I felt like I was gliding around the operating system, whereas there's sometimes a pause before launching apps on the Fitbit Sense 2.
Similar to the Sense 2, the Pixel Watch has tiles for showing activity data, heart rate, the weather, exercise shortcuts and other bits of information. Pushing the Pixel Watch's crown will take you to your apps, similar to how pressing the Sense 2's side button pulls up your app list. You'll also get Fitbit-specific metrics such as Active Zone Minutes, which gives you more credit depending on how high your heart rate is while working out and a daily readiness score.
But the software doesn't seem to be exactly the same. Google is positioning the Pixel Watch as more of a full-featured smartwatch, so it includes some extras like smart home controls, access to the Google Play Store from your wrist and optional LTE connectivity (although the cellular version of the watch will cost slightly higher at $400). Emergency SOS, international emergency calling and mobile payments through Google Wallet will be available, too, and the watch also includes a compass for navigation. From what I've seen, the Pixel Watch's performance also seems snappier than Sense 2's, although I'll have to spend time with the Pixel Watch to know for sure.
Watch faces also seem like a much bigger deal on the Pixel Watch; there are 18 styles that Google says can be highly personalized. For example, you can change the color of the face and the dials and add complications. Again, this should all sound familiar to anyone who has used an Apple Watch.
Pixel Watch has Fitbit health tracking
From a health tracking perspective, you could almost think of the Pixel Watch as a really nice-looking Fitbit smartwatch. All of your health data will live in the Fitbit app (although Google says it will continue to support Google Fit, too). You'll be able to add the Pixel Watch to your Fitbit app just like any other Fitbit device. That means in addition to workout and activity tracking, you'll get Fitbit-specific metrics like your readiness score and sleep score. The Pixel Watch will also come with six months of free Fitbit Premium, Fitbit's $10 monthly subscription that provides access to additional health metrics and workout programs.
Google claims the Pixel Watch will offer the company's most accurate heart rate tracking yet thanks to these sensors and its machine learning algorithms, even surpassing Fitbit's devices.
Watch this: Google Unveils its First Smartwatch, the Pixel Watch
It'll also be updated with the ability to take blood oxygen saturation measurements and can take an ECG from the wrist, just like watches from Fitbit and Apple. Similar to the Apple Watch, the Pixel Watch will support fall detection and also has built-in GPS for tracking running routes.
The major feature missing from the Pixel Watch compared with the Fitbit Sense 2, Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 and Apple Watch Series 8 is a temperature sensor. That shouldn't be a deal breaker, however, since temperature sensors are relatively new to smartwatches and companies are still figuring out the best ways to make that data useful. Plus, Google sees that as a differentiating factor between the Fitbit Sense 2 and Pixel Watch.
Pixel Watch's battery life and other details
The Pixel Watch should last for 24 hours on a single charge and runs on an Exynos 9110 processor along with a coprocessor, says Google. That should put its battery life at about the same length as the Apple Watch's, although we'll know more when we actually get to test the watch. The Fitbit Sense 2, on the other hand, is rated to last for around six days, according to Fitbit. Pixel Watch buyers will also get three free months of YouTube Music Premium, and there's a built-in speaker and microphone for things like taking calls and using the Google Assistant.
It's a bit surprising that Google didn't develop its own Tensor processor for the Pixel Watch considering it's such a big part of the phone experience. Google says the Pixel Watch's system-on-a-chip and coprocessor handle different tasks to maximize power and performance. The coprocessor, for example, handles things like step counting, GPS and background heart rate, while the main processor drives Wear OS and LTE functionality.
Pixel Watch early thoughts
When it comes to smartwatches, Android device owners have had to deal with a fragmented ecosystem of products from Samsung, Fitbit, Garmin, Michael Kors and others. Most of those watches specialize in either fitness or fashion with little overlap. The Pixel Watch could be the first Android-focused smartwatch to change that, but the question is whether that alone will be enough to make it a success.