Google’s Pixel Watch offers good hardware, but doesn’t answer the ‘why’ – TechCrunch

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It took some evasive maneuvers to get us here – building a small-scale hardware ecosystem, coupled with a few big acquisitions and a partnership with one of its biggest potential competitors. But suddenly, Google emerging as a contender in the smartwatch space doesn’t seem like an entirely far-fetched proposition.

It can be argued persuasively that the software giant has learned hard lessons from past struggles with smartwatches and headphones. Getting into a category of already mature hardware is not easy for anyone; spending over $2 billion is a pretty good shortcut if your pockets are deep enough.

While the devices are reasonably advanced in this world, things aren’t that simple. For one thing, Google’s partnership with Samsung led to an overnight increase in Wear OS’s market share. Both companies were watching Apple’s top spot from afar, so why not join forces? If nothing else, it was a quick kick in the pants for a portable operating system that languished for the better part of a decade.

Picture credits: Brian Heater

A pair of big buys is even more central to the deal. The $2.1 billion Fitbit deal was obviously the most high-profile move there — and understandably so. It’s not every day that a household name is acquired. Like the Samsung move, this deal immediately buys Google more market share, and from the looks of things, it’ll work the same way as the Apple/Beats deal: Google immediately gets in-app sales and keeps the brand name, as it uses Fitbit’s software as the basis for its first-party gaming.

The part that gets lost in a big chunk of this is the company’s 2019 $40 million purchase of Fossil IP. The deal mostly revolved around an unseen prototype that could well have served as the architecture for the new Pixel Watch hardware. Admittedly, the product is unlike anything Fitbit has ever given us before.

It’s worth noting that Google didn’t just buy Fitbit and a piece of Fossil. There is a sense in which he acquired the many companies that he himself acquired. It’s hard to point to, but there are probably bits of Pebble, Vector, Twine, and Coin (Fitbit) OG wearables, as well as Misfit (Fossil) living in this little device currently sitting on my wrist. Add in the company’s work with Samsung, and you’ve got some sort of secret history of the smartwatch universe in front of you.

Picture credits: Brian Heater

It’s an incredible cocktail of smartwatch DNA. Enough to catapult the Pixel Watch to the top of the rankings? Well no. Obviously not. But it’s enough to compete. Apple remains the insurmountable mountain for now – and let’s be honest, the company is effectively alone in the world of iPhone compatibility. Google’s competition is much closer to home.

Specifically, the company is up against Samsung, Fitbit, and a number of companies like Xiaomi, which are battling for the low end of the market. Garmin, meanwhile, is in its own outer world with little competition outside of the Apple Watch Ultra. So really, that leaves Samsung as the only immediate Pixel Watch competitor. The Galaxy Watch held the No. 2 spot for a while, so it’s still fierce competition.

Picture credits: Brian Heater

The Pixel Watch is a viewer. I really like the design here. That’s about as minimal as it gets – a big change from the Apple Watch Ultra I wore before. It’s a watch distilled down to its essence – shiny curved glass, with a haptic crown on the side. It’s also quite small. The case measures 41mm, the smaller of the two standard Apple Watch models. The screen is even smaller, at 1.2 inches, compared to the 1.53 inches of the 41mm Series 8.

We’re dealing with screen sizes where a fraction of an inch can make all the difference. Google’s device isn’t helped much by a few prominent bezels on the sides. You won’t usually notice them because all the watch faces are black. With a lighter colored face, the space would be much more visible. Ultimately, that means there’s less surface area for a touchscreen.

When it comes to clothing, I’ve long believed that the more size options, the better. Human bodies are like that, you know? Given the option, though, I’d say smaller is ultimately better. It’s much easier to wear a watch case that’s too small than one that’s too big. The 41mm case felt and looked small on my wrist, but the screen size is sufficient for most things, assuming you don’t plan on typing a lot.

Still, I’d be shocked if the Pixel Watch 2 didn’t arrive in at least two sizes next year.

Picture credits: Brian Heater

The bands snap on and off with the press of a button and a slide. It’s a bit fiddly the first time, so much so that the company walks you through putting it on and taking it off during installation. The connector is proprietary and currently only Google manufactures compatible bands. There’s a decent selection of materials and price points, and the company plans to open it up to third parties.

The Pixel Watch launches with an always-on display, although it’s disabled by default. When enabled, it effectively presents a lower resolution, slightly dimmed version of your watch face. The battery was a little disappointing in my testing, you might want to keep it off, depending on how long you’re looking to get out of it. With it, getting to the full 24 hours can be tricky. So if you plan on doing sleep tracking, maybe plan for a fast charging time.

One thing that Google managed to avoid with its late entry was the long search for meaning among smartwatch makers. Notifications were thrown like the thing in those early days. Eventually, however, health tracking became the fundamental game here, and Google managed to make its way into this world.

Picture credits: Brian Heater

Interestingly, Fitbit lives here as its own individual app. The company launched Fitbit Pay for Google Pay (the former’s fate is unclear, going forward), but the wearable brand presence is strong in the form of exercise and sleep tracking. As mentioned above in the Apple/Beats convo, Fitbit is far too valuable a brand to stop in the hardware space (especially as these devices continue to focus on a cheaper SKU), but it will interesting to see if it continues as an outsized presence on the Pixel Watch. This includes downloading the standalone Fitbit app onto a connected smartphone, although there’s something to be said for being able to transfer all your old fitness metrics.

I’ve come to love Fitbit’s tracking. The company has built a comprehensive portfolio of workout and sleep metrics that give Google an immediate head start. The Pixel Watch isn’t the most comprehensive solution by far, but Google doesn’t need to be shy about what it’s bringing to the table in 2022 either.

Looking at Fitbit’s well-received smartwatches like Versa, a key question looms over the Pixel Watch. Why? Beyond just a major company throwing its hat in the ring after many years on the sidelines, why should anyone be excited about the device, especially when the Versa starts at $150 cheaper than the $350 device (add in another $50 for LTE).

Picture credits: Brian Heater

It’s certainly not out of reach for the category. The Galaxy Watch 5 starts at $330 and the Apple Watch Series 8 at $399. Given that price has been such a big differentiator for the Pixel lineup, it follows that the company could play a similar game with its smartwatches. After all, while the Pixel holds a tiny chunk of the overall market share, those numbers are increasing here in North America, where Google nabbed 3% of first-quarter shipments.

Pixel owners seem to be precisely the market Google needs to target here. There’s probably something to be said for being the anti-Apple Watch Ultra – being small and subtle with round, glossy corners that can go with just about anything. But in future generations, the company will have to do more to distinguish the Pixel Watch from the Fitbit smartwatches that also live under the Alphabet banner now.

I didn’t understand the why here. I’m not sure Google did either. I can see why the company was so keen on the growing category, just like smartwatches and headphones before it. Google has seen all the success Apple and Samsung have had with hardware ecosystems and it wants a piece of it.

That said, if the move hits you, you could do a lot worse than the Pixel Watch, and that’s just the start.

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