Google Pixel Watch first impressions
After returning to my Pixel 7 Pro smartphone, I decided to give Google’s first smartwatch, the Pixel Watch, a shot. I’ll temporarily wear it side-by-side with my Apple Watch for a side-by-side comparison, then decide my next steps.
And so far so good: I have a vague and possibly incorrect recollection of the first round of Pixel Watch reviews – remember, it first shipped last October – as being biased towards the negative, but using my Apple Watch experience as an obvious barometer, it’s clear to me that even this 1.0 version of the product is a viable alternative for Pixel fans. It’s a high-end, high-end laptop supported by what seems like a reasonable software platform.
But the Pixel Watch is also a Fitbit, and that’s where things get a little more nuanced, especially for someone like me who pretty much just wants a fitness tracker with maybe a few extras. In comparison, true smartwatches like Apple Watch and Pixel Watch are more sophisticated software platforms where fitness tracking is just one feature set.
I have thoughts on this. But for now, I’ll just say that my first experiences with the Pixel Watch have been pretty positive. The device arrived at my front door on Thursday afternoon, so I set out to set it up and, for now at least, replace the Fitbit Charge 5 I had retested as I finished my time with the Apple Watch. (Fitbit doesn’t support using two devices at once, so I had to replace it with the Pixel Watch.)
The packaging is familiar and generic, with the post-Apple look everyone uses now. Unlike the Apple Watch, everything comes in one box, which is preferable and semi-obvious, and the box contains a proprietary USB-C wireless charger (but no charging brick) and a shorter band in addition to the watch itself.
Unfortunately, the longer of the two bands is too short for my big wrists: I have it on the furthest notch and it’s too tight, so if I keep it on, I’ll need a longer band. I specifically researched this and thought it would be OK, but I use a different type of band on the Apple Watch and think a woven band might work better for me with the Pixel Watch as well. Or a third party group perhaps. (I had to buy longer third-party bands for my Fitbit for the same reason.)
The initial setup was quite simple but time consuming. I plugged the charger into a power supply, connected the Pixel Watch, waited for it to boot up, then correctly determined that the hieroglyphic graphic it displayed meant I needed to move my phone closer. When I did, a Bluetooth Fast Pair popup appeared on the Pixel 7 Pro, just like the Pixel Buds Pro headphones I just returned. But this time I couldn’t just pair the device, I had to download a Google Pixel Watch app from the Google Play Store first.
OK fine. Once done, the Fast Pair panel told me it was connecting to the watch, asked me to confirm the PIN the watch had started showing, then gave me some privacy related options to OK regarding location and diagnostics. And then, after logging into my Google Account and agreeing to a “Google Device Arbitration Agreement,” I was presented with a wizard that walked me through the initial setup.
This process held few surprises but involved many steps. Orientation of the watch. Band change. Fitbit account login. Setting up Google Assistant, itself a multi-step process. Lock configuration, with choice of PIN code and pattern (no more locks). Google Wallet. Third-party apps to choose from and install, none interesting. And then the inevitable software update, which ultimately didn’t last that long. In total, about 10 minutes of interaction.
Of course, that was not all: once the Pixel Watch was set up, I was prompted to open the Pixel Watch app I had just installed, connect my Fitbit account (where I was prompted to replace my Charge 5 with the new device), then explore all of my configuration options. As expected, there are multiple watch face options, and while I stuck to the default, I customized the colors. I ignored the Fitbit Premium offer for now (6 months free). And I looked at, but didn’t change, the default set of tiles, which are the app-based screens that appear on the watch face when you swipe left or right. The defaults seem fine for now, although I put exercise in the foreground, followed by main goal, daily heart rate, sleep, next event, forecast (weather ) and Google Maps.
I also spent some time going through all the settings in the Pixel Watch app, but I don’t think I changed much.
The watch itself is quite nice. I prefer its smaller, round shape and size to my larger, circle-shaped Apple Watch. It has large bezels, and a future version with smaller bezels and a bigger screen would be nice. But for the most part, I can see the display well and interact with it accurately. (With one exception, noted below.)
As with the Apple Watch, the Pixel Watch sports both a physical crown, which acts as a button and scroll wheel, and a secondary button. I don’t know how intuitive this would be for anyone else, but after using Apple Watch, I switched to this quite easily. Navigation is simple: you swipe left/right to access tiles, down to access quick settings, and up to see notifications. You can press the crown to access apps from the home screen (watch face) or to go home from an app. The secondary button is used to access recent apps.
I woke up earlier than usual today, so not the best night to compare sleep results. But I took a 40 minute walk this morning and was able to see how to track this compared to Apple Watch. And the process is similar, meaning you have to manually start and stop tracking. Apple Watch will notice activity like walking after about 10 minutes and ask if you want to track it, and I don’t believe Pixel Watch does. But Fitbit trackers and smartwatches automatically track walking, running, and similar exercises, and I know Pixel Watch doesn’t. I guess it’s a battery life issue, but it’s also a weird functional regression.
On a beautiful sunny morning, I checked both devices from time to time and encountered an unexpected problem: where my Apple Watch screen was bright, colorful and easily readable, I couldn’t see at all the Pixel Watch screen. I tried several times and finally gave up. So when I came back I went to turn off the walk tracking and I could barely see the screen. Check the quick settings, I found the brightness was just too dim, which is semi-obvious, even though adaptive brightness was on and should have accounted for the bright day. I’ll keep checking this one out as seeing the screen outdoors is obviously a requirement.
I don’t have a lot of data to look at after a day, obviously, but after spending the last two weeks comparing the Fitbit Charge 5 to the Apple Watch, I suspect what each measures will be similar, and the little that I so far matches pretty well. For example, Apple Watch reports my steps to date as 5609 and Pixel Watch reports 5913.
From a fitness tracking perspective, Apple and Fitbit/Google take different approaches. There’s a lot to it, but at a high level Apple is all about closing three rings (moving, exercising and standing), while Fitbit lets you choose from a few main goals, with steps being the value by default. Among other things, Apple Watch will remind me to stand every hour, while Pixel Watch will remind me to move.
Apple Watch can get a bit noisy. It rings in the morning when it thinks I’ve woken up, but it’s often wrong (and in many cases it has to be said that I’m up after being up for a long time). It rings then to motivate me to exercise that day. It rings every mile during a walk or similar exercise. It rings when it thinks it’s time to go to bed. Again and again. It gets boring. Pixel Watch doesn’t do that, so I guess that’s a win.
From a battery life and charging perspective, the Pixel Watch and Apple Watch appear to be similar enough to be considered identical in everyday use. Simply put, the Apple Watch seems to last a bit longer and definitely charges a bit faster than the Pixel, but both need to be charged daily and the experience is similar. I like that the Pixel Watch screen turns on when the device isn’t on my wrist. You have to play around with Apple Watch to see what it does.
Based on my experience with the Pixel Buds Pro, I don’t want to pre-state how I think this will turn out. But it’s probably fair to note that I was leaning towards sticking with a Fitbit tracker. And that I like the Pixel Watch more than I thought.
So we’ll see what happens. I will use this device for a reasonable amount of time and will report back.