Renewed excitement and interest surrounding the Google Pixel Watch, one of the longest-running tech product rumors yet to birth an actual device, sadly means only one thing: Disappointment is around the corner. I don’t believe there’s any way the currently mythical smartwatch can live up to expectations.
No, I’m not a killjoy, but I am recommending anyone really excited for the Pixel Watch moderate their enthusiasm with a sensible level of caution. It’s always difficult for long-rumored products to truly deliver on what we had all pictured in our minds, and it’s even harder here because we’re dealing with a smartwatch, one of the most difficult products for any manufacturer to get right.
Let’s look at why, and also at the one way Google’s Pixel Watch could live up to the hype.
Google’s hardware efforts over the past years have been mixed. For every Nest Audio, here’s a Pixelbook Go. Until the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro arrived, its smartphone range really had no design at all. While the new phones are undeniably attractive, the reasons why won’t carry over to a smartwatch. Pastel colors will be too divisive on a watch, and the bold camera module has no analog on a watch, so it can’t be effectively carried over.
Designing a great-looking watch requires different skills than designing a great-looking smartphone. It has taken Google years to crack it with the Pixel series, making the odds of getting it exactly right for any first-generation Pixel Watch low. Google’s more likely to play it safe, and the leaked render of the design suggests this is exactly what it plans: It’s a circular case with a hint of curved glass and a crown on the side. Groundbreaking stuff.
I’m being a little unfair ro Google though, as there are very few places to go with smartwatch design. Make it square and it’ll immediately be compared to the Apple Watch and (correctly) dismissed as lazy, while going for a circular case (as is most likely) puts it up against the dozens of other very similar circular smartwatches. Remember it has to incorporate a touchscreen, and the case must be sized correctly to contain all the necessary hardware.
Knowing Google’s background in design and the limitations of the product itself, expectations about the design of the Pixel Watch should be kept in check.
The Pixel Watch is a smartwatch, and smartwatches haven’t really changed much recently. Dual-screen technology on the Casio Pro Trek WSD-F30 or Mobvoi TicWatch Pro 3 was one of the last big innovations, but otherwise we’re seeing smartwatches evolve at a slow pace, with subtle changes to health and fitness features rather than big, headline-grabbing changes in functionality or ability.
It’s not a bad thing, it’s a consequence of the product and its limitations. Smartwatches are worn on our wrists, very few people are willing to accept models that deviate far from the design of a traditional watch, and battery life requirements mean adding power-hungry new features isn’t really feasible. In 2021, Qualcomm talked about how it sees the future of wearables, and wisely said building new chips to facilitate big new features takes a lot longer than a single year.
The major smartwatch release of 2021 was the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4, and there was a considerable amount of hype ahead of its release too, with many calling it the smartwatch that would save smartwatches. In reality, although it’s a great smartwatch, the Galaxy Watch 4 isn’t all that different from the Galaxy Watch 3. It’s hard to expect Google to push the boundaries when Samsung, with its massive resources, can’t or won’t.
Google and Samsung are also to blame for the stagnation of smartwatches recently, as the two have kept a firm hold on the brand new WearOS 3 software since its announcement, and even updates for existing models are still missing in action. The much-hyped Galaxy Watch 4 hasn’t saved smartwatches, so why would we really expect Google’s version to be any different?
The Galaxy Watch 4 and its software is a big reason to calm down about the Pixel Watch. Google and Samsung’s WearOS 3 was announced at Google I/O in May 2021 amid much excitement about its potential. Almost one year on, it’s still only available on the Galaxy Watch 4, where it’s good but not great. Let the early and subsequently unjustified hype around WearOS 3 guide you in regard to the Pixel Watch.
Because we’ve got nothing to compare the Galaxy Watch 4’s interpretation of WearOS to, due to the lack of other releases, we have no idea how it will look, operate, or perform on a watch not made by Samsung. WearOS 3 in some form or another will almost certainly be on the Pixel Watch, and while software is fine in its current guise, it is not the revolution many hoped for after years of putting up with WearOS 2.
Smartwatches live and die through the software, far more so than design. If the software is unreliable or annoying to control, the benefits of wearing a smartwatch quickly disappear and the already frivolous purchase becomes even harder to justify. It’s currently unreasonable to expect anything much from WearOS 3 on a Pixel Watch beyond it performing in the same way as it does on the Galaxy Watch 4 series. It’s our only point of reference, after all.
What about Fitbit integration? The latest rumor about the design includes a big hint that the Pixel Watch will include Fitbit’s excellent health and fitness monitoring technology. But is this a reason to get all hyped up? Not really. Again, this isn’t a swipe at Google or Fitbit, it’s just that Fitbit’s software is already available on a wide range of products, from the excellent Versa 3 to the pretty Luxe fitness band.
Bringing Fitbit’s monitoring and interface knowledge to the Pixel Watch will broaden its appeal, but anyone really wanting Fitbit’s tech can already have it. Hype seems, well, unnecessary for this reason. Then there’s the question of how it’s going to be integrated. Will it live alongside Google’s existing Fit platform, much like the Tag Heuer Sport and Mobvoi’s TicHealth platforms do on their respective smartwatches? Or will Fit be consigned to being an option, like it is on the Galaxy Watch 4? One thing is for sure, smartwatch software doesn’t benefit from extra apps or additional confusion.
Google hasn’t shown off how it plans to use Fitbit since acquiring it, so it’s an unknown quantity. It’s difficult to imagine being hyped about it because if you’re excited about Fitbit, it’s probably safer to buy a regular Fitbit and enjoy it today than it is to wait and see what Google manages to pull off with a Pixel Watch.
Apologies if all this has dampened your Pixel Watch enthusiasm. Now that you’ve been brought down to Earth, let’s elevate your excitement just a little again with a what-if scenario. During Qualcomm’s wearable tech summit at the end of 2021, Google’s director of product management in its Wear department, Bjorn Kilburn, talked generally about how it’s working with the chipmaker to improve efficiency and extend battery life.
Nothing specific was mentioned, but you don’t have to be an industry insider to know most people would welcome a smartwatch they need to charge less, while still using all the expected features and functions. It’s a massive challenge, and given how the Pixel 6’s battery life isn’t class-leading, perhaps one beyond Google’s expertise on its own. But by working with Qualcomm and developing software and wearable hardware alongside each other, it’s not unreasonable to hope for a notable improvement in battery life on the Pixel Watch.
Although it really shouldn’t need to be listed as a reason to be hopeful about the Pixel Watch, a fully Google-designed and software-driven smartwatch may actually work as intended. That means notification alerts may correspond with their arrival on your phone, for example. Apps and services may operate in a cohesive, logical fashion, and the Pixel Watch may turn out to be a true extension of your phone. You know, like how the Apple Watch feels like an extension of the iPhone. Imagine that.
If it can pull off a battery life win and make an Android smartwatch work properly all the time, the excitement around the Pixel Watch will have been at least partially justified. But the current state of the smartwatch industry, Google’s hit-and-miss approach to hardware, and WearOS’s spotty past (both recent and otherwise) gives me no reason to hit the hype button on the Pixel Watch yet.
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