Pixel Watch Thoughts and Impressions

John Scalzi

I drowned my Fitbit Sense smartwatch over the summer — not intentionally, I just thought it was more water-resistant than it turned out to be — and as I still wanted to count steps and tell time from my wrist, was in the market for a new tracker or smartwatch. Not long after the Google Pixel Watch came out; I was interested, just not full price ($350) interested. Then I remembered that, due to the fact I update my Pixel phones annually and I buy them direct from the Google Store, I had a $300 credit there. A Pixel Watch for $50? That, I could very happily do.

I’ve now lived with the Pixel Watch for a few weeks and have some thoughts on it. What follows is not a complete nor technical review, just my observations on how I work with it and use it. By and large I’m happy with it, but as with anything there are a few things here and there I think are worth noting.

1. To begin, I like the aesthetics of the watch. I like the circular shape and its unobtrusiveness on my wrist, and while it has a fairly large bezel for watch its size, as a practical matter I don’t see it when I look at the watch. Other reviews have noted concern about its sturdiness, but I have to say after three weeks I don’t notice it being notably fragile; I knock into things and it handles it just fine. It’s attractive and I don’t notice its weight, either during the day or when I sleep with it on. It’s fine!

2. Except for the battery life, which is considerably shorter than the Fitbit Sense I had prior to this Pixel Watch. The Sense could go four days before I had to recharge it; the Pixel Watch goes, basically, for 24 hours at best before I have to charge it again. This is, I understand, within the usual range of other smartwatches like the Apple Watch or the Samsung Galaxy Watch, and the Sense should be understood as a fitness tracker, which usually have longer battery lives. All that is fine, but I’m still not in love with it. It’s not an issue when I’m at home, since I can recharge the watch when I’m taking a shower or just sitting at my desk and not actually moving around for a bit. I found it more restrictive when I was traveling.

It can be managed — I’m extending my battery life by having the screen turn off when I’m not looking at it directly — but I’m more aware of my battery than I have been in years of having Fitbit trackers. If battery anxiety is a thing for you, here’s a yellow flag.

3. One of the tradeoffs for longer battery life is more functionality outside of fitness tracking: the Pixel watch has a number of integrations with one’s Android phone (and I suspect in particular with Pixel phones, one of which I have), and one can control a number of phone functions from the watch. I can, for example, read and send messages, have map directions ported to the watch, or take pictures with the phone using the watch as a viewfinder, which could come in handy for finally getting one’s self into group photos without a selfie arm. You can also take phone calls on your watch (it has a speaker and a microphone).

In theory this is all lovely, and I’m absolutely certain there is a Pixel Watch user out there for whom all of this is fantastic, but it turns out I’m not that user. I turned off receiving messages on my phone almost immediately, because by default the watch face shows the messages, which means they’re visible to anyone who happens to be looking in the direction of the watch, and I don’t like that at all. I tried taking a phone call on my watch, and it was all right, but I felt a little weird talking into my wrist and it’s not something I need to do again. I do see the remote camera option being useful, but in three weeks of having the watch I’ve not come across a circumstance in which it was necessary.

Basically, a lot of the cool functionality of the Pixel Watch are things I don’t really want or need, except on a highly occasional basis. Even then, most of the time I could just use my phone, which is in my hand anyway. It turns out that what I want to use a watch for is to tell time and to track steps and other health-related stuff. Again, there is someone else for whom all these functionalities are relevant, and good for them. For me, I don’t know that I would pay extra for them, on top of time-telling and fitness stuff.

4. On that subject, how is the fitness stuff? Well, Google bought Fitbit a couple of years ago, and has incorporated Fitbit’s app and all its tracking into the Pixel Watch. It’s not quite as seamless as it was with the Fitbit trackers I’ve had over the years (Fitbit is an app on the phone, not the OS itself), but it’s easy enough to use, and tracked my movement and heart rate well enough in the gym and when I was walking around the convention I was at last weekend. I also enjoy finding out how much I sleep via the app, but don’t find all that much utility in it beyond personal amusement.

The Pixel Watch offers a free six-month subscription to Fitbit Premium, which I’ve had before and did not get much use out, and currently have found nothing to change my mind about that. The basic Fitbit functionality is sufficient for me and I’ll likely drop Fitbit Premium when the free trial runs out.

By and large, however, the Fitbit integration does what I need it to do on the Pixel Watch very well, and I have been happy with that aspect of the watch.

5. How does the Google Pixel Watch compare to other higher-end smart watches, like the Apple Watch and the Samsung Galaxy Watches? I have no idea! I don’t use them so I can’t say. From the various reviews I’ve read from professional critics, it would seem that it’s pretty decent but still a first generation attempt at a smartwatch. I suspect in the end a lot of it will come down to integration with the phone you currently own. For iPhone owners and others in the Apple ecosystem, an Apple Watch is a no-brainer; likewise someone with a Samsung phone might find one of the company’s watches more congenial. I’m neck deep in the Google ecosystem — I have a Pixel phone, Pixel ear buds and a Pixelbook — so a Pixel watch fits into that pretty well. I was also using Fitbit before it was sold to Google, so that integration here is a plus for me as well.

(This is where, from a privacy standpoint, I will note that any of these watches are absolutely not your friend, and that by wearing one Google and/or Apple and/or the NSA know where you are at all times and what you are doing and probably with whom. That said, I’m not currently cooking meth or doing other crimes and I find it useful to have the functionality Google gives me in trade, so, uh, yeah. I’m a privacy disaster at this point, and I’m guessing you probably are too. If these issues are a concern for you: No smart watches! Here’s a nice Timex for you.)

6. Would I recommend the Pixel Watch? If you’re in the Google ecosystem and think you might actually use the apps and functionality that come packed into the watch, and don’t mind charging your watch daily, sure. It’s pretty, it’s feature-packed, and I have had absolutely no complaints about it other than its battery life, which, again, I understand is on par for other comparable smartwatches. If all you need is a time piece and some fitness tracking, you might look elsewhere, as there are fitness trackers who can do what this does — from Fitbit and other providers — often for a hundred dollars less (or more).

Since I am using mine as a glorified fitness tracker, I don’t know that I would have paid full list price for it. For the price I paid, it’s pretty great. When it comes time for me to pick up a new smartwatch/fitness tracker, hopefully at least a couple of years down the road, what will decide what I buy next is whether I start using my watch to do more than tell time and track steps. Or, you know, if I have an abundance of store credit again.

— JS

16 Comments on “Pixel Watch Thoughts and Impressions”

  1. I’m always interested to hear about the other smartwatches. I got a Samsung Galaxy watch for exactly the reason you stated – I have the galaxy phone and it made sense. I do enjoy talking to my wrist, secret agent-style, and I love having my phone in my holder and still being able to pause or play my audio books.
    Thanks for sharing – I think “real life” reviews are often more helpful than the super-techy ones.

  2. Interesting.
    What’s the attraction of a watch face with hands on a digital watch? I did so learn to tell time, but I personally like the numbers better.

  3. Functional innovation can go in two directions: One is the creation of something that does (essentially) a single, core function more conveniently, more elegantly, more usefully, with more options FOR THAT FUNCTION, with better aesthetics, better ergonomics, etc.

    The other direction is the creation of something that combines multiple functions, which if done correctly provides an opportunity to replace several things with the well-designed multi-thing.

    I believe, John you are up against the reality check that effectiveness in functional innovation makes these two types of innovation to some extent mutually exclusive.

    Which is okay if the multi-thing does all the things (or even most of the things) you want to do “well enough”. In which case the user might be willing to sacrifice the ergonomics and specific convenience related to one function not used often, to accommodate the availability, options, and aesthetics of other functions in the one thing.

    We all have to make our choices. For me, no multi-function tablet can replace a really GOOD single-function-designed e-reader. Now some e-reader providers are edging toward “can we make a multi-function thing out of this e-reader and capture a bigger market share?”, and they are gonna lose me.

  4. I’ve been thinking of getting one actually for the tracking. I live alone and I’m getting up there. I think this is a modern alternative to the ‘help me I’ve fallen and I can’t get up’ medical alert system. I don’t always have my phone on me.
    Also without a landline, I can ping my damn phone when I inevitably misplace it. Lol.

  5. have you looked at either a whoop (or similar) or one of the garmin watches? the whoop is just a sensor strap, so it doesn’t do anything absent a phone. but it has great battery life and can be recharged while wearing it. and some of the garmin fitness watches are solar powered so the battery life is measured in double digit days. they look less dressy and more fitnessy, though.

  6. With regard to suggesting other watches/fitness trackers for me right now: Folks, until/unless this breaks and/or a drop it down a mine shaft, I’m set and am not looking for any new trackers or watches. So need to suggest others to me! Of course, feel free to suggest them to others.

  7. My mother bought a fitbit for my uncle many years ago, but he never used it. After I moved into my uncle’s house last year, I needed a new watch (not a tracker) so my mother said I could use the Fitbit that my uncle never used. I like it, but I found out Fitbits don’t last forever. So I asked for Christmas a new Fitbit. My mother wants this one once I get the new one. I did find out that this old Fitbit does give alerts (buzzes) for phone messages and phone calls which is a good thing when I don’t hear my phone while shopping.

  8. ” I felt a little weird talking into my wrist”

    Clearly, you do not have a career ahead of you as Dick Tracy.

  9. I have a Galaxy watch and phone and tablet. I also use the watch mainly for fitness tracking. The one other function I like is the ability to look at my watch when my phone rings and decide if it is worth grabbing my phone, which is not always right at hand.

  10. “ It turns out that what I want to use a watch for is to tell time and to track steps and other health-related stuff. “

    Yeah. My iPhone does a Good Enough job of tracking my walking, though it gets confused if it’s in a pocket in the biking jersey when I’m riding. My $50 Timex tells time very well and the battery lasts for years.

    To answer Freehawk, the attraction of an analog watch, or an analog face on a digital watch, is that I can tell time without needing my glasses.

  11. I have a Samsung Galaxy phone, watch and earbuds. I use the phone to listen to an audiobook while I walk my dog (he gets three walks a day — he’s a big dog and he loves his walks!). But as we walk, we often meet friends, both canine and human, and that means that I have to stop listening and start talking. The ability to start and stop the playing of the book with a single touch on the wrist is a huge plus for me.

  12. ::I tried taking a phone call on my watch, and it was all right, but I felt a little weird talking into my wrist and it’s not something I need to do again. ::

    Dick Tracy is sad to hear that, Scalzi…. https://i.pcmag.com/imagery/encyclopedia-terms/dick-tracy-watch-_dtwatch.fit_lim.size_1050x.jpg

    I was kind of the opposite – I had zero interest in Apple Watches until I saw my best friend use hers to talk to her Mom over her watch! That’s when I thought, “Yeah, I can see where that would be useful…and cool….”

  13. Nice review.

    I’ve never had an interest in smartwatches, but for several years now I’ve been using fitness watches from Garmin, and these eventually became smart by displaying text messages and that sort of thing.

    Fitness has been my top priority with these watches, for tracking bicycling, running and swimming. Later models added features like steps, floors, heart rate, sleep scores and analysis, body battery, blood oxygen… yeah, a lot of data!

    They can also monitor yoga, golf, etc. etc….

    In the start I only wore the watches during a sports activity, while running, bicycling or swimming, but now I’m wearing my current fitness watch 24/7 for all that additional health info and analysis.

    Which brings me to battery life.

    There is no way I could tolerate charging anything every day – except maybe my smart phone which gets plugged in every evening.

    For long bicycle rides the dreaded experience is the device battery going flat before the ride is finished, that “BATTERY LOW” message appearing on the screen, so now I’m using a Garmin Instinct 2 Solar. In theory, if you are outdoors in the sun a lot the watch will never need a charge. In practice I charge it when it gets below 40% and that’s only about every ten days.

    Bicycling for three hours only consumes about 10% of the battery on a normally sunny day.

    Using the watch just as a watch without fitness activities but still having step monitoring, sleep, heart rate, etc. etc. the battery can go for 27 days between charging.

    Garmin has a wide variety of such watches, some with solar charging, many with music playing features, so anyone who wants to count steps and doesn’t want to charge their watch every day can consider these devices.

  14. I was a very early smartwatch user with an Asus watch that pre-dated the Apple watch. It was helpful in many ways: I liked seeing a text or email preview on my screen, I liked knowing who a phone caller was before digging my phone out of my pocket, and even one silly feature that I used daily, the “flashlight”. It simply turned the whole watch face to full white. In a dark house in the middle of the night, it was just enough light to get around by without using the giant flash bulb on my phone. I had a baby in the house, so sneaking around quietly with the lights off was a normal part of my life at the time.

    However, the I hated the short battery life. I have terrible eyesight so I like to wear a watch in bed, but I had to charge this one overnight and couldn’t do that.

    My solution was to get a hybrid watch. These are less known, I think, but for people who want a nice looking watch, with a little bit of fitness tracking, and very simple alert notifications, it’s a great option.

    Mine is a Skagen, but there are others by Fossil (same parent company) and other brands. It provides the single most important feature for me: it vibrates on my wrist when phone alerts happen. As a guy, I often carry my phone in my pants pocket. If it’s not held tight against my leg, I often don’t feel it vibrating and would miss messages and phone calls. With the watch, that’s never a problem. I always feel it vibrate on my wrist. Different hybrid watches have different options, but mine can be configured to move the hands to certain numbers for different kinds of alerts. So when it vibrates, I can glance at the watch and know if it’s an email or a phone call or a calendar reminder or whatever.

    Also, it uses a standard 4-dollar watch battery that lasts 8 or 9 months, on average. It looks like a nice analog watch, a plus in my book, and I can wear it all the time. I’ve been using mine for about three years now and it’s been great.

    Everyone has different needs for their watches, so the hybrid might not be your thing. But if you (the public, that is, since Mr. Scalzi is already equipped) want something simple with a long battery and you still want some basic notification features, you should look them up.

  15. I had a similar lackluster reaction going from a FitBit watch to an Apple one — and then I discovered that I could use my watch to find my phone. I love that feature! Even if your iPhone has Silent Mode On, the phone will made a loud sound. This has saved me a lot of aggravation. I bet your watch has something similar, but maybe you don’t misplace your phone. ;-)

  16. I’m attracted by the inclusion of Google wallet and assistant, as well as texts and phone calls – being able to use voice control for those functions when you have your hands full and/or don’t have your phone to hand sends pretty useful, so it’s interesting that’s not been your experience. It’ll be interesting to hear whether you use more of those features when you have it for longer – though new tech tends to be initial experimentation with everything then settling for the 3 or 4 things that are easy/ useful to do… so maybe you’re there already?

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