Pixel Watch review: Google and Fitbit’s imperfect marriage

The company’s first smartwatch is a solid effort plagued by bad battery life.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Years. Some of us in the industry have been waiting close to ten years for the long-rumored Pixel Watch. Now that it’s here, expectations are naturally high. After all, Google had all that time to finetune its first smartwatch, and everyone’s been anxious to see if this could be the product that rivals the Apple Watch. The Pixel Watch doesn’t just have an eye-catching design, but the software also seems promising. Wear OS has been a mess, but by collaborating with Samsung and finally integrating Fitbit’s health-tracking features, Google may have finally addressed its greatest weaknesses.


Of all the things about the Pixel Watch, Google was most eager to show off its design. And rightly so. The Pixel Watch’s case is a thing of beauty. In pictures, it’s almost nondescript — just a plain round face with what appear to be thick bezels. In person, though, the Pixel Watch catches light at some angles in a way that makes it look elegant and, pardon the cliché, like jewelry.

More importantly, for a person who’s into tactile sensations like me, the Pixel Watch just feels so good. I love flipping it over and over in my palm like it’s a smooth, shiny pebble, but I also just enjoy stroking the screen. There’s something about the domed shape and glossy finish of the screen that makes swiping across the interface feel luxurious.

On the right edge sits a dial that almost twinkles in the sun, along with a button above it that pulls up recent apps. In my few days with the Pixel Watch, I’ve used this latter button exactly once. I don’t know if it’s the placement or that I haven’t needed to pull up recent apps much, but the one time I pressed this was to confirm it was there when I was writing this part of the review. It requires more force to depress than its counterpart on the Apple Watch, which sits below the Digital Crown and is more obvious. I rarely used Apple’s button, too, so this is not a ding on Google.

Unlike most other Android watches, the Pixel Watch doesn’t have lugs. Instead, straps attach directly to the case via a mechanism that Google describes as similar to the lens locking system on DSLR cameras. To connect a band, you push one end of it into a button at the bottom to the groove and slide it in.

To remove, you push the catch on the side and twist it off. It took a bit of getting used to and I still can’t say I’ve nailed the process, but I also haven’t swapped bands yet. I’m sure whenever I receive different straps, like the gorgeous metal mesh or the comfy stretch option, that I’ll be performing this change a lot.

I’m pretty impressed by the bands that Google has made. Sure, they’re basically adaptations of options that Apple offers, like the Milanese loop or solo loop. But paired with Google’s round case, these look like conventional watches and wouldn’t seem out of place at formal, fashion-forward events.

The Pixel Watch on the wrist of a person, but its face is off.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

The basic sport strap that I received with my review unit uses a peg-and-hole closure system that doesn’t offer a good fit for me, unfortunately. I either felt like the watch was too loose or that the case was strapped too oppressively on my wrist. This is an easy problem to fix, at least, by getting a different strap. But I’d have to buy one of Google’s own options because of the proprietary attachment system, and they start at $50 for the Active band. The stretch band that I like costs $60, and everything else is at least $80.

While the 41mm case sits nicely on my relatively petite wrist, I wish Google had made a larger version. I think the Pixel Watch looks good on most arms, but there are people who prefer a bigger screen. When it comes to something as personal as a wearable, one size does not fit all.

Wear OS 3.5

While it seems like Google may have pretty much nailed the hardware, one of the biggest problems plaguing Wear OS watches in the past was their namesake — Wear OS. Google’s software was criticized for everything from its overly swipe-heavy navigation to being too basic. It also was very power-hungry, despite not running a lot of background health tracking. Wear OS watches notoriously delivered day-long battery life at best, while the competition pushed well past 24 hours and into multi-day runtimes.

The Pixel Watch on a person's wrist, showing the time as an Always On Display.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

When the company teamed up with Samsung to co-engineer Wear OS 3 last year, it was able to bring performance and power consumption improvements. That laid the groundwork for it to add a more robust health and activity tracking system with Fitbit, which it completed its purchase of in January last year.

The result is Wear OS 3.5 — Google’s own expression of its smartwatch software. This interface is very familiar in many ways. It’s not a huge departure from the Tizen-esque platform that we saw on the Galaxy Watch 5. You can download music to stream offline from the Pixel Watch, get turn by turn Maps directions, remotely control your camera and ask the Assistant to set timers or tell you the weather. You can also control your Google Home devices from your wrist. The main differences are Google’s new watch faces and the Fitbit integrations.

I wish the Fitbit features were better meshed into Wear OS. It feels like a missed opportunity, or some sort of reluctance to give up the Fitbit logo and branding. The process of launching a workout session on the Pixel Watch isn’t that different from Samsung and Apple watches. You still have to go into their respective apps to start the activity, though on the Pixel Watch this is called “Fitbit Exercise”. If you want to see your progress, you can go into Fitness on Apple’s watches or Samsung Health. On the Pixel Watch, it’s “Fitbit Today.” The distinction is in your face — for Fitbit fans this might be familiar and welcome. For those expecting a pure Google experience, it can be jarring.

The Pixel Watch on a person's wrist, showing three apps. From top to bottom, they are
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

While the constant presence of Fitbit branding throughout the system makes the fitness and health tracking features feel disjointed, it was nice to see Wear OS finally deliver stand reminders. As of December 2020, Wear OS fans on Reddit still had to look for third-party apps to deliver the alerts that came baked into watchOS and Tizen. During my testing, the Pixel Watch and the Apple Watch Ultra generally reminded me at the exact same time that I needed to get off my butt and walk around to meet my movement goals.

It was also nice to see things that Fitbit devices never had, like notifications for messages from basically any app on your phone, as well as the ability to reply to messages using a keyboard, dictation, emojis or suggested responses.

Google didn’t just embed Fitbit features into Wear OS, it also added new watch faces, some of which are familiar because they’re quite similar to Apple’s. As a narcissist, my favorite is the Photos option, which lets you pick up to 30 pictures from Google Photos to set as your background. You can then choose a clock style and set a single complication. Just as you’d have to on watchOS, you’ll need to use your phone to select the images for your wallpaper.

I also enjoy the complication-heavy faces, like Utility and Index, which let you basically surround the clock with up to five fields. Because most of these use a black background, they tend to blend nicely into the bezel, making the borders seem invisible. But the Photos face makes the thick edges painfully obvious. One of the pictures I picked is so cramped that the top of my friends’ faces are cut off and we look extra squished together. Unlike the Apple Watch, the Pixel doesn’t let you move and scale your pictures.

The Pixel Watch on a person's wrist with a photo as its background.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Since I mostly use a non-Photos face, the thick bezels don’t bother me too much. Every bit of information I want to see is easy to read, and the colorful text on black background is great for readability. I sometimes wish fonts were bigger or thicker, but by and large I didn’t have trouble.

Google likes to take potshots at Apple for copying its ideas like crash detection and always-on display, but is happy to mimic watchOS features itself. The new watch faces with complications on them are ripped right off an Apple Watch, while the side-swiping navigation is basically Samsung’s Tizen interface. There’s nothing wrong with incorporating great ideas into your product — just don’t be a pot calling the kettle black.

That said, setting up your Pixel Watch and monitoring your data through your phone is very similar to the experience on Samsung and Apple devices. On all three, you have a separate app to do things like customize watch faces, organize the order of your tiles and choose which apps can send notifications to your wrist. To view your exercise or sleep data, you’d have to go into each company’s respective Health app (or in the Pixel Watch’s case, Fitbit). These are all pretty typical, other than Google’s app not being named Google Health.

The Pixel Watch on a person's wrist, showing their heart rate range for the day.

The good and bad of Fitbit’s health and fitness tracking

There’s good and bad news with the Pixel Watch basically relying on Fitbit’s system to deliver health and fitness tracking, and I fear the bad may outweigh the good.

Let’s start with the positive: Fitbit has arguably the best wellness-tracking system around. It was one of the first to start tracking your heart rate during sleep to determine what zones you are in. It was also among the earliest to introduce cycle-tracking, and its workout page does a great job of showing what cardio zones you’re in through a ring around the screen.

Fitbit is one of the few companies in the space that makes sure to incorporate rest and recovery into its depiction of your overall wellbeing, giving you a readiness score based on your sleep and stress data. By virtue of being a pioneer in the fitness tracker industry, Fitbit also has comprehensive knowledge of how to translate user behavior and heart-rate info into useful insights and features.

I could go on about how accurate Fitbit’s sleep-tracking is but here’s an example that says it all. On Sunday night, after doomscrolling in bed for about an hour, I took one last look at the screen to check the time right before I flipped over and finally gave in to sleep’s heavy pull. It was 1:04am, and I can’t remember anything after that. According to the Pixel Watch, I fell asleep at 1:05am. Most other smartwatches don’t get this close.

Three screenshots of the Fitbit app showing the sleep tracked over two different nights from the Pixel Watch.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

It’s hard to tell just how accurate most consumer-grade heart rate trackers are. All I can say is that the Pixel Watch’s readings always came within one bpm (beat per minute) of the Apple Watch Ultra, which itself was always within two bpm of Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 5. If we’re using the industry’s leading smartwatches as the benchmark here, then the Pixel Watch performs as expected.

The bad news is, while the Pixel Watch benefits from Fitbit’s expertise, it also suffers from syncing issues that plagued the company’s older devices. Often, my data would take so long to show up on the watch or app that I thought it hadn’t tracked any activity or sleep at all. On Friday night, the Apple Watch Ultra logged my disappointingly short night of 3 hours and 50 minutes. It took the Pixel Watch until Sunday afternoon before that session showed up in the Fitbit app. My overnight data for Sunday night also took at least 10 minutes to reflect in the app, which isn’t too bad, but compared to the instant syncing of the Apple Watch and the iPhone, it felt like forever.

Similarly, the results of an outdoor walk on Sunday did not appear in the Fitbit app until hours later, causing me to panic about my progress in a friendly competition. Also, while Samsung and Apple will actually alert you when they notice you’ve been walking or exercising for awhile, the Pixel Watch remains quiet. In fact, I thought it was malfunctioning and not detecting my brisk mile, and I started to get quite angry. It wasn’t until much later when the walk showed up in the Fitbit app that I realized it had actually counted my activity.

Three screenshots from the Fitbit app showing data from the Pixel Watch. On the two right screenshots, the words Fitbit Premium sit at the top with a red banner.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Once I got used to the gaslighting, I started to enjoy looking at my data in the Fitbit app. You can tap into pretty much every metric to get a detailed view of your activity over the last 24 hours. For some pieces of data, though, like your breathing rate, resting heart rate and heart rate variation, you’ll need to pay the monthly $10 for Fitbit Premium to see info beyond a week. And even then, you’ll only see the last 90 days of your trends and personal ranges.

This to me is the worst thing about the Fitbit integration. When I imagined what the Pixel Watch would deliver, I never expected any of my long-term data to be paywalled. I was especially dismayed to learn that the sleep score and data about time spent in various sleep zones would also be locked behind Premium, and that basic users would only see how much time they spent asleep. I could see why Fitbit might keep their best-in-class sleep tracking behind a subscription fee if the competition wasn’t offering anything similar, but even Apple, which has been the worst at sleep-tracking, now delivers the same reports for free. And Samsung has been doing it for years!

I worry about Fitbit Premium setting a precedent. I don't like the idea of paywalling long-term or deeper insights into your own health data turning into a trend. But what I find most egregious is that Google thought this was acceptable for its first-ever smartwatch. When you’re already facing stiff competition from Apple and Samsung, the right move isn’t to ask users to pay more for data your rivals display for free. The worst thing is — this isn’t even the worst thing about the Pixel Watch.

The Google Pixel Watch on a person's wrist showing a chart about time spent in various heart rate zones.

Battery life and performance

The most troubling and disappointing aspect of the Pixel Watch is its battery life. When Google promised 24-hour runtime on this device, there must have been a lot of caveats. I generally got through about 12 hours with the watch before I started getting low-power warnings. That’s typically with Always On Display enabled and tracking at least three workouts a day, two of those being outdoor walks using GPS.

When I left the companion phone at home, meaning I didn’t get served notifications as often, I saw a few hours more. Unfortunately, with Apple and Samsung watches typically clocking close to two days (if not more), Google’s smartwatch lags seriously behind in this department.

This sort of battery life would be fine if you don’t expect to use the Pixel Watch to track your sleep. But not only does it usually die before I go to bed, Google states that you need to have at least a 30 percent charge before it can log your results overnight. My colleague Sam Rutherford said that in his experience, you’d need closer to 40 percent for the watch to last until the morning, and that with 30 percent he wakes up to a dead screen.

The Pixel Watch also recharges fairly slowly. While it did get from 3 percent to about 36 percent within an impressively quick 18 minutes, reaching 100 percent usually took at least an hour. To be fair, Google does say it takes 80 minutes to fully charge the watch. I was able to quickly get 30 percent for a morning workout by plugging in at my gym, but had to wait painfully long for the device to completely fill up afterwards so I could do more battery testing.

The Pixel Watch on a wrist held up against a brick red background. On its screen is the time and three complications below it.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

I suspect that part of the reason the Pixel Watch’s battery life lags the competition is that it reads your heart rate more frequently than others. Google said that it included a dedicated low-power coprocessor to make sure that this higher sampling rate wouldn’t tax the battery too much, though, so there could be another reason. The coprocessor also takes care of tasks like keeping the Always On Display running, while the more capable (and power-hungry) Exynos 9110 manages other processes.

In general, the Pixel Watch was fairly responsive — I was impressed by how quickly Assistant responded and transcribed my questions, and I loved the little bumps of haptic feedback and cute noises that played throughout the interface. But trying to create or edit new watch faces often resulted in lag, and I frequently had to wait when pulling up my daily activity reports.


I like the Pixel Watch, but I’m not in love with it. I’m tempted by its lustrous appearance, its bodacious curves and its general shininess. It’s a perfectly capable smartwatch that does the things modern smartwatches do, and it does many of them well. But short battery life and odd Fitbit-related choices take the Pixel Watch from reliable companion to problematic partner. At $350, the Pixel Watch is slightly cheaper than the Apple Watch Series 8, but much pricier than the $280 Galaxy Watch 5. Google's debut smartwatch is a first-generation product which I would normally be inclined to be more forgiving about, but the company has had too much development time for me to cut it any slack. The Pixel Watch is fine if you don't want to track your sleep or don't mind charging it more than once a day, but simply put: this isn't the Apple Watch rival the world has been waiting for.

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