Google's Pixel Watch Is Great If You Want to Keep It Simple

At its core, it's a Fitbit smartwatch with lots of Google flavoring.

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A photo of a wrist wearing the Pixel Watch
The Pixel Watch is a gorgeous Fitbit tracker.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

Google’s Pixel Watch is the Android smartwatch we’ve been waiting for a long time. It’s light, slim, and easy to wear, and its pebble-like construction matches everything. Some people might complain its 41mm size is a little too small for Google not to offer multiple sizes like other smartwatch makers, but frankly, I think the Pixel Watch is a perfect size.

Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of my excitement for the Pixel Watch. Everything else makes the smartwatch feel like a demo unit—like an Android device running the beta. The thing about betas is that while it’s fun to run them and claim to be first to the table, they’re also a lesson in why you might choose to wait for the kinks to get worked out.

The Pixel Watch certainly has kinks, though they’re not all dealbreakers. If you’re an Android user and this is your first time considering a smartwatch, and Samsung isn’t doing it for you, it’s a great place to start. But I wouldn’t jump just yet if you’ve already decided you like what you’re wearing.

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Round like a stone

The Pixel Watch is an excellent design because it’s simple. In terms of aesthetics, it’s the circular equivalent of the Apple Watch’s square. It even utilizes a domed screen effect. Unlike Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 4/5, there is no aluminum border to factor in on the Pixel Watch. But there is a protruding crown. It’s as smooth to use as the Apple Watch’s, though it sticks out just as much. Thankfully, it didn’t bother me while sleeping with it.

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The Pixel Watch is available in one size and four different finishes, including a dusty rose gold I wish I could have checked out. It is pre-fitted with a watchband called the active band. You can choose a metal link band or mesh strap if you want to spend $200 and $130, respectively. Other Google-made bands cost anywhere from $50-$80. On top of the base cost of the Pixel Watch—$350 for Wi-Fi Only and $400 for LTE—that’s quite a bit to invest in a smartwatch that will have a lifespan of about three years.

A photo of the Pixel Watch's clasping mechanism
The clasping mechanism on the Pixel Watch is proprietary, which makes finding third-party watchbands a hassle.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo
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Annoyingly, the Pixel Watch’s bands are proprietary, which is what I don’t like about the Apple Watch. I prefer the Samsung Galaxy Watch because I can buy cheap watch bands off Amazon and swap them in and out. At least the Pixel Watch’s clasping mechanism is nice and sturdy, though it requires a bit of a learning curve to figure out. So did the Apple Watch. Both are less hectic to use than the standardized way that Samsung handles watchbands, but I’d rather deal with that and buy what I want. Hopefully, the Pixel Watch will sell units, and there will be more third-party Pixel Watch band options.

I’ve already complained about the bezel after realizing it is a bit bigger than that on the Galaxy Watch 4/5. It’s minimal, but it’s there. I especially notice it when trying out the WatchMaker watch face app. And while the smartwatch is water resistant up to 5 ATM, it seems to have some questionable durability. I am still mouth agape over The Verge’s cracked display on their review unit.

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Wear OS with a dial

The digital crown on the Pixel Watch is smooth as butter.
Gif: Florence Ion / Gizmodo
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Pixel Watch runs the latest Wear OS 3.5, which you’ll find on the Galaxy Watch, albeit with Samsung’s flavoring. There is a bit of a difference in interface between the two. The Pixel Watch uses the familiar swipe to the left to shuffle through Tiles, configurable on the watch or the Wear OS app on your phone. But it starts to differ when you’re looking for notifications or the app drawer: on the Pixel Watch, swiping up gets you to your notifications, while pressing the dial brings up the list of apps. On Samsung Watches, you swipe to the left for notifications and up on the main screen to reveal the grid of apps. Since I’ve been on a Samsung watch all this time, the Pixel Watch tripped me up the first few days. It’s just another reminder of how slightly different things can be between Google and Samsung hardware.

Aesthetically, the Material You stylings of the Pixel Watch match impeccably with a Pixel smartphone. But I prefer the watchOS-wannabe app drawer of Samsung’s flavoring than the here’s-a-list-of-apps take on the Pixel Watch. There were also some instances when too many notifications would collect in the shade, and the 1.9-inch display would appear crammed with information.

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A photo of smart home controls on the Pixel Watch
It’s a bummer I don’t have this kind of functionality on my Galaxy Watch 4.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

The Pixel Watch does have some abilities the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4/5 does not. For one, smart home controls through Google Home, which I’d prefer to use on the Galaxy Watch 4. (Samsung would like you to use SmartThings or set up a routine through Bixby, but I don’t have time to manage this.) The Pixel Watch is also embedded with Google Assistant, whereas on Samsung, you have to switch over to it as the default. I never have it running in the background to listen for me since I have smart speakers everywhere, so I did not test the battery life with Assistant idling in the background.

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Funny enough, the Pixel Watch runs on a Samsung-made Exynos 9110. It’s about four years old—Samsung last used it in the first-generation Galaxy Watch before it adopted Wear OS—but it’s been tweaked with Google’s AI smarts. There is also 2GB of memory in the watch—more than the Galaxy Watch 5, even, and 32GB of storage for apps, music, and photos.

Some missing features

The Pixel Watch has all the requisite sensors for basic life tracking: an accelerometer, compass, gyroscope, altimeter, EKG sensor, ambient light sensor, and a continuous heart rate sensor that Google says it worked with “experts” to make the best. I found the heart rate sensor on par with the Galaxy Watch 4 and Watch 5, which I switched between as I tested the Pixel Watch. I noticed it picked up on my most stressful moments of the day, just as the Galaxy Watch 4 does.

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The Pixel Watch is also missing some vital features available with other smartwatches. It doesn’t have a temperature sensor, like the Apple Watch, or crash detection, though that’s available through a connected Pixel smartphone. It also doesn’t have fall detection until later this year. And while it does have SpO2 tracking, it’s currently dormant.

You can long-press the crown on the Pixel Watch in an emergency or push it rapidly five times to call for help, but it’s all contingent on whether you choose the cellular model or have your smartphone nearby. I hope this doesn’t turn into a situation where people complain in the forums about accidentally dialing for help.

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How much do you like Fitbit?

A photo of the step counter on Fitbit on the Pixel Watch
Fitbit is fine, but I was sour about having to change ecosystems for this review.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo
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How do you feel about using Fitbit? I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ve been married to Samsung Health since I started as a Galaxy Watch user several years ago. I stuck with Samsung not out of allegiance but because it was the easiest route to take without interrupting my routine.

It took me a while to refamiliarize myself with Fitbit, as it’s been five years since I touched the app. It still doesn’t inspire me to leave Samsung Health. I like the aggregation of stats and the pretty graphs that Fitbit puts together after you’ve spent some time with it. It also offers a recovery score for folks who are just starting, and it’s nice to have your app remind you to rest since society won’t. The workout and meditation programming is a little more robust than what Samsung Health offers, though you have to pay $10/month for Fitbit Premium to access that content. But I can easily export all the same data to Strava and Google Fit.

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Fitbit is a little better at noticing the minor parts of your day that contribute to overall wellness. It’s great at tracking stairs, which the Galaxy Watch 4/5 has faltered on for me. It also offers a detailed morning-after sleep analysis, though I was bummed the Pixel Watch wasn’t tracking my naps the way the Galaxy Watch does. But Fitbit isn’t as stringent about how it tracks workouts. I’m not at my fittest right now—I’m still dealing with residual post-COVID symptoms. But even on my afternoon walks, the Galaxy Watch pauses tracking when I’m resting or taking a Pokemon Go break, while the Pixel Watch keeps it going as if it were part of the program. It also didn’t pick up on me picking up my daughter’s toys, clothes, and mess, and I appreciate that the Galaxy Watch gives me workout credit when I’m getting my heart rate up trying to put the house back together.

The general consensus is that the Pixel Watch isn’t for hardcore fitness enthusiasts or training athletes. It’s for casual users, which is how the original Fitbit step counter was billed. Google is lucky it could fold Fitbit’s technology into its smartwatch ecosystem, but it seems like it bought its way to parity. I’ll be curious to see if the company expands on Fitbit’s base for its smartwatches like the Apple Watch Ultra or Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 Pro.

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The battery is fine, but not the best

I haven’t had a chance to do any hiking or adventuring with the Pixel Watch, so I haven’t tested its battery on the trail. But I found the battery life to be acceptable for my day-to-day use. I don’t usually sleep with a smartwatch, so it’s always on the charger at the end of the day. It’s worth noting that my review unit is an LTE model, and cellular connectivity is typically more taxing on the battery. I also don’t use the always-on display.

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If you do happen to leave your charger at home, the Pixel Watch can manage to hold on overnight. I slept with 30 percent on the watch after putting it into night mode for sleep tracking. In the morning, I had about 16 percent left on the battery, and it took about five hours for it to peter out eventually. There is a power-saving mode on the watch you can engage if you need a little extra boost, which will turn off the screen and all connections.

What’s the verdict?

I have some Android-using friends who pre-ordered the Pixel Watch sight unseen. There’s clearly been anticipation for Google to bring something of its own to pair with its phenomenal Pixel smartphone lineup. Most of those pals were not on Samsung watches before this or were already in the Fitbit ecosystem, waiting for something else to come along. If you’re one of those people, the Pixel Watch is worth a try if you can stomach that $350 starting price.

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I am already squarely in Samsung’s fitness ecosystem, and because they’ve been at it a little longer, I’m inclined to stay on this platform despite the Googley bits I’m missing out on. Adding Health Connect to the Android operating system will make it easier for all these different fitness and wellness ecosystems to chat, making choices like this a little easier down the line. At the very least, there is now a plain Google-made watch to choose from if nothing else out there is calling your name. Hopefully, Google sticks with this one for some time to come.