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Google Pixel Watch Preview

Posted May 2, 2023 | Fitbit | Google Pixel | Pixel Watch | wearables | Windows

Well, I said I wasn’t going to do this. But I have decided to move off of the Apple Watch soon, and I’m curious how Google’s Android Wear/Fitbit hybrid stacks up. And so I’ve ordered a Google Pixel Watch and will evaluate how it compares to both the Apple Watch and my previous tracker, the Fitbit Charge 5.

Of course, I’m several months behind the rest of the world, too: Google announced the Pixel Watch in October 2022 after first teasing it at Google I/O 2022 the previous May. And since then, it’s added a few new features to the device via Feature Drops in December 2022 (free sleep profiles, previously a Fitbit Premium feature) and March 2023 (fall detection and new sound and display settings customizations). Google also announced that it will transition Fitbit accounts to Google accounts beginning this year, but that makes sense to me, and I use my Google account broadly anyway.

So what is this thing?

From what I can tell, the Pixel Watch is a hybrid wearable that combines Google’s WearOS 3.5 with a large subset of Fitbit health and fitness tracking functionality. WearOS is a lightweight version of Android—it was formerly called Android Wear and then Wear—and it is the Google ecosystem what watchOS is to Apple’s. The Pixel Watch is, I believe, Google’s first in-house WearOS device, and thus it competes with Apple Watch in the same way that Pixel smartphones compete with the iPhone.

But there’s more. Like Microsoft in the PC space, Google is also competing with its WearOS hardware partners, like Samsung, which sells a family of WearOS-based Galaxy Watch smartwatches. The latest Samsung smartwatches, the Galaxy Watch5 and Watch5 Pro, were announced alongside Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold4 and Z Flip4 Foldable smartphones last August, ahead of the Pixel Watch launch.

But there’s more still. Google purchased Fitbit back in January 2021 and it still sells Fitbit-branded trackers (like my Fitbit Charge 5) and smartwatches, including the Fitbit Sense 2 and Versa 4. It makes sense to me that it would keep the trackers in the market, but those Fitbit smartwatches exist in a weird middle ground between trackers and “real” smartwatches, and one wonders about their future. On the one hand, they are limited by whatever Fitbit-created platform they run, but on the other, each offers 6 or more days of battery life, the same as my Charge 5. And that is a huge advantage, assuming that all you want is health and fitness tracking: I have to charge my Apple Watch Series 8 every single day and based on the reviews I’ve perused, the Pixel Watch has the same problem.

Whether one finds the Pixel Watch more attractive than a Fitbit smartwatch is neither here nor there, though I suspect the Fitbit devices are routinely mistaken for Apple Watches when spied by casual users out in the world. But I give Google a little credit for going with a round design that looks more like a typical watch and is, to my eyes, elegant. It’s also on the small side, apparently: where Apple sells the Apple Watch Series 8 in 41- and 45-mm sizes, Pixel Watch is available in just one size, 41-mm, which I would imagine feels even smaller because it’s a circle and not a squircle like the Apple Watch.

I am OK with that, given that I find my 45-mm Apple Watch to be a bit on the big size, and I don’t like how it mistakenly launches Siri when I lean on my wrists, which causes my hand to press in the crown. But the Pixel Watch also has large bezels and thus a very small display. That could be problematic for my aging eyes, though the display on my Fitbit Charge is probably even smaller. We will, um, see.

Finding a band size that fits is another practical issue for any wearable, at least in my case because I have large hands and wrists. With the Apple Watch, I specifically chose a Sport Loop design because it has the longest band (which first 140-mm to 220-mm wrists) and is easy to remove and replace. With the Pixel Watch, I just went with a basic active band, but Google includes both small and large bands in the box, with the large working for those with 165- to 210-mm wrists. So that should be fine, at least, though its more traditional clasp, which appears similar to that on my Fitbit, is not as easy to remove and replace.

I’m curious about the WearOS user interface as it’s been years since I’ve used this system. Google used to use a card-based UI for its wearable platform that I always thought made sense, and I’m sure it’s been overhauled by now. But I can’t say I’m really a fan of the Apple Watch UI, which is complex enough that I just stick to a few basic interactions, almost all of them health and fitness-related. Granted, that’s part of what I’m curious about: I can’t say that I’ve found much need for most other Apple Watch uses, and that might be the case with the Pixel Watch too. Meaning that perhaps a Fitbit wearable is all I need.

So let’s think about that health and fitness tracking for a moment. After all, this is what I care about the most. It’s reasonable to expect that the Pixel Watch will be a superset of the Fitbit smartwatches and trackers since it’s a much more capable device. But that is not always the case, and perhaps the best place to start is to list out the Fitbit features that Pixel Watch does not support.

It’s a long list and includes automatic exercise tracking (for walking, running, cycling, elliptical, and rowing), swim stroke tracking, high and low heart rate notifications, irregular heart rhythm notifications, all-day body response tracking, stress notifications, stress management with EDA scan, guided breathing, silent and smart awake alarms, SpO2 monitoring (which is limited to overnight measurements on Fitbit), skin temperature (Sense 2 only), and some others.

And I gotta be honest here: there are some features in there I’m not comfortable losing. Among them are automatic exercise tracking, high and low heart rate notifications, irregular heart rhythm notifications, and SpO2 monitoring (even in limited form). When I switched to the Apple Watch, blood oxygen (SpO2) tracking was among its key advantages.

In the good news department, the Pixel Watch does have a few health and fitness features that current Fitbits lack, like emergency SOS, fall detection, a compass, and an always-on altimeter. Not much, I guess.

I still need to write up my Apple Watch experiences, but one of the key differences between the Apple Watch and Fitbit ecosystems is that the former is chatty and in your face, and the latter is quieter and works more in the background. There are pros and cons to each approach, and we’ll see if Pixel Watch strays from the Fitbit norm. But I’ve found some of the Apple Watch interactions to be annoying and nanny-like over time. And I’m also not super-interested in paying for a Fitbit Premium subscription, which I’d have to do eventually to take full advantage of that ecosystem. If there was a simple answer, I wouldn’t even be debating this, I guess.

Either way, I’m curious. Curious about what WearOS is like today, how well Fitbit integrates into that ecosystem, and whether Pixel Watch is a viable alternative to Apple Watch for an Android fan. More personally, what I’m really curious about is whether I just stick with my tried and true Fitbit Charge 5. It ain’t perfect, but I do understand it.

More soon.

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