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Disappointingly, Wear OS 3 won’t be saving Android smartwatches for a while yet

It all started out so well. Google working with Samsung and Fitbit on an updated version of Wear OS that would be faster, provide longer battery life, and enable more apps was exactly what we wanted — an injection of effort, investment, and excitement into a piece of software that had stagnated for too long.

“It’s not just for Google and Samsung,” said Google’s Sameer Samat about Wear OS 3 at Google I/O 2021, putting our minds at rest, “it’ll continue to be available for all.” Excellent news, but what he actually should have said is, “available for all, eventually,” because the software we hoped would be the Android smartwatch’s savior in 2021, won’t really be doing much saving for a while yet.

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What’s the problem?

Wear OS 3 is available on the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 and the Galaxy Watch 4 Classic, and that’s the way it looks set to stay until the second half of next year. There’s an argument to be made that it’s right for Samsung to benefit from the software platform it co-developed first, but that’s not the impression Google gave, and not really the idea behind any of Google’s software generally. Android has always been for everyone, while Wear OS 3 isn’t just yet.

Galaxy Watch 4 Classic buttons and bezel.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

It will change, but you’re going to have to wait. Google announced that the Mobvoi TicWatch Pro 3 and TicWatch E3 will receive an update to Wear OS 3 later next year, as would some at the time unannounced Fossil smartwatches. This ominous addendum to the announcement should have pre-warned us that Fossil was also going to be stuck in a past software age, but some hope remained from that Google I/O high.

Fossil subsequently announced the Fossil Gen 6 smartwatch with Wear OS 2 onboard, and word came that a software update to Wear OS 3 would arrive around the same time in 2022 as the one for Mobvoi’s smartwatches. It’s deeply frustrating. Wear OS 2 smartwatches were hard enough to recommend after Wear OS 3 was announced, so when new models come but still don’t have the new software, it’s hard not to view them as anything other than anachronisms.

What about the others?

It’s only Fossil that hasn’t released a brand new smartwatch with Wear OS 3, right? What about all the other Android smartwatch makers? This is the problem — there really aren’t that many others at all. Fossil is behind almost all smartwatches from designer brands, and its Gen 6 watch will likely serve as a “reference-style” platform for other smartwatches it may launch in the near future for Diesel, Emporio Armani, Skagen, and Micheal Kors. This means it’s almost certain Fossil will not have a Wear OS 3 smartwatch available at all in 2021, or potentially the first six months of 2022 either.

That leaves luxury brands like Tag Heuer and Montblanc, along with Wear OS newcomers like Casio, and some of the niche fitness brands like Suunto. Even if one of these does launch a Wear OS smartwatch, and none do so with much regularity, a model with Wear OS 3 seems unlikely if a big-hitter like Fossil can’t manage to swing it. It remains to be seen if Mobvoi can release a new model with the software on board this year, ahead of the update for its current models.

Mobvoi TicWatch Pro 3 Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

I would be surprised if any of them come out with a Wear OS 3 smartwatch before 2022. The update schedule and Fossil’s inability to secure Wear OS 3 for its latest model, suggests that Samsung may have a monopoly on the software for a period of time. Speculation about Samsung having exclusivity on Wear OS 3 has spread since the announcement of the upgrade schedule, and isn’t good news.

The ramifications of this kind of arrangement, should it be in place, are already showing. It’s not just hardware that’s suffering, it’s apps too. The new YouTube Music app and updated Strava app are only compatible with Wear OS 3, which at the moment means they are only available for the Galaxy Watch 4 and Galaxy Watch 4 Classic, and not the hundreds of existing Wear OS smartwatches out there. A new Walkie-Talkie app available in the Google Play Store for Wear OS is also only for Galaxy Watch 4 models. They may not be the only ones either. Developers haven’t really cared about Wear OS for a while, so if they do suddenly take notice as Samsung and Google intend, it’ll be for Wear OS 3.

Where does this leave you?

This leaves you without a huge amount of choice. Realistically, if you want a smartwatch with the latest and greatest software, with the highest chance of regular, speedy updates, you should buy a Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 or Galaxy Watch 4 Classic, or an Apple Watch Series 6 or Apple Watch SE. The choice is eroded even further as Samsung has not added iOS support to the Galaxy Watch 4.

Buying a smartwatch with old software, or no chance of a software update for a year, isn’t really advisable no matter how much you may like the design. It’s impossible to know if there will be any (further) delays, or how the new software will perform on a year-old device, making it a risk. Remember too, the update may arrive at the same time the Galaxy Watch 5 is released, possibly with Wear OS 4, leaving you with the same dilemma down the road. Samsung’s head start may keep it ahead of the pack for a while, we simply don’t know.

The bright side to this is that the four options above are really superb smartwatches, and are arguably the best you can buy anyway. However, that doesn’t mean stifling the competition — either through an exclusivity agreement or by not providing fast enough access to new software builds — is acceptable. Watches are very individual, personal items, and purchases should be driven by attraction to the design as much as technical competency. The more companies making smartwatches, the greater the design choice.

Nothing to do but wait?

Right now, it seems if you want an Android smartwatch you either buy a Samsung Galaxy Watch 4, or a model with old software in the hope the new software will arrive this time next year. Or, if this is all unacceptable, take a look at an alternative. We’ve concentrated on Wear a lot since the announcement of the Google and Samsung partnership, but it’s not the only option, and now could be the time for others to shine.

Huawei Watch 3 on the wrist
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

A good example would be the Huawei Watch 3. It doesn’t use Wear, but Huawei’s own HarmonyOS 2 software, which is compatible with both Android and iOS. Yes, you read that right, you can use Huawei’s smartwatch with more phones than Samsung’s latest smartwatch. Sure, you need to fiddle about with HarmonyOS to get it working properly, but that’s arguably better than waiting for an update for a year. Plus, the hardware is fantastic.

I still think Google, Samsung, and Fitbit will create an excellent smartwatch software platform, and my experience with the Galaxy Watch 4 Classic does show it’s all off to a good start. However, until Wear OS 3 is available on more smartwatches from more manufacturers, it’s not going to drag the Android smartwatch industry out of the doldrums.

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