It’s 2022 and Google finally has an answer to the Apple Watch. It’s the Pixel Watch, which is basically a Fitbit designed to work only with Android phones and apparently a direct counterattack to Apple’s wearable that only works with iPhones.
The only losers in the ongoing feud between Apple and Google, however, are us.
Almost a decade ago, Fitbit was a popular brand that made fitness tracking wristbands and tiny pedometers for counting steps. One of its selling points was that the trackers worked with phones running Google or Apple software.
But soon after the Apple Watch was introduced in 2015, Fitbit’s sales declined and its stock plummeted. In 2021, Google acquired the company for $2.1 billion.
The $350 Pixel Watch, which includes Fitbit’s health-monitoring software and will be released on Thursday, is the first Google-branded smartwatch resulting from this merger. It requires an Android device to run apps and collect data. So while the Pixel Watch, with its sleek and sleek design, is a worthy rival to the $400 Apple Watch, it’s disappointing that Google has limited its compatibility to Android.
From a business perspective, it makes sense for Google to tie the Pixel Watch to Android. If the watch becomes a hit, it could give iPhone owners a reason to switch to Android.
It is precisely a page from Apple’s playbook. According to my sources who have worked on the Apple Watch, Apple considered years ago to make its watch work with Android phones to increase sales – in the same way that iPods became popular in part because they were compatible with Windows computers. But the company concluded that an Apple-dependent Watch would keep iPhone users loyal to the brand and could persuade some Android users to convert.
Ultimately, if we buy one of these watches, it becomes harder for us to upgrade later to an iPhone or Android phone if we ever become dissatisfied with either ecosystem – because in addition to throw away a phone, there’s a watch to get rid of, too. Keep this in mind before considering buying a Pixel Watch or Apple Watch.
To do side-by-side comparisons, I spent a few days wearing a Google Pixel Watch on my left wrist and the latest Apple Watch on my right. (Yes, I probably sounded a little weird.) Here’s what I learned.
The new Google Pixel Watch, which has a round face, looks more like a traditional watch. (Google via The New York Times) The Setup
When you first turn on the Pixel Watch, it asks you to pair the device with an Android phone. To do this, you use the phone to download the Pixel Watch app through the Google App Store.
The Apple Watch setup is similar. You point an iPhone camera at the watch face to link it to your data, then add biometric information, like your height and weight.
To start collecting health data on the Pixel Watch, you need to download the Fitbit app and create an account. The Pixel Watch relies heavily on Fitbit’s software. To track a workout, press a side button and select the Fitbit Exercise app. From there, you choose from a selection of workouts including biking, hiking, and martial arts.
I’m a rock climber, so on the Pixel Watch I selected the indoor climbing workout in the Fitbit app, and on the Apple Watch I selected the climbing workout in the app Workout from Apple. As I climbed for half an hour, both watches measured my heart rate and estimated the amount of calories I had burned.
To my surprise, the Pixel Watch consistently measured a lower heart rate than the Apple Watch. On harder climbs when I was feeling really out of breath, the Apple Watch gave a heart rate reading of 150 beats per minute, and the Pixel Watch gave a heart rate reading of 125 beats per minute. On the easier climbs, the Apple Watch measured around 130 beats per minute and the Pixel Watch 110. In a few instances, like when I was sitting down to rest, both watches showed the same heart rate.
Throughout the workout, I counted my heart rate the old-fashioned way by taking my pulse and got the same measurement as the Apple Watch reading.
Google said in a statement that its Watch and the Apple Watch use different algorithms and that it believes the Pixel Watch’s heart rate tracking is accurate.
After completing the rock climbing workout, I washed my hands to test out a feature that was clearly created during the pandemic. The Pixel Watch has a handwashing timer app, which you need to activate by pressing a button before washing your hands to show a 20-second countdown. It’s a sad copycat of the Apple Watch’s handwashing timer, which automatically counts down once its sensors detect water splashing on your hands.
I also wore both watches to sleep. On Friday morning, the Fitbit app said I had about six hours of sleep, and it showed a score of 77 out of 100 – a “fair” rating for my sleep quality. The Apple Watch said I slept for about the same amount of time, but didn’t show a rating. (I’d rather not have a note; I already know when I’m having a bad night’s sleep and don’t need an app to make me more anxious.)
Battery life and other features
Both devices had battery life that lasted just over a day; the Pixel Watch lasted a few hours longer than the Apple Watch before needing to be recharged. In general, both wearables needed to be charged daily to keep up with my routines.
Like the Apple Watch, the Pixel Watch has aspects that make the accessory serve as an extension of a smartphone. The watch can be set to mirror text notifications and make phone calls, features that work well.
The biggest difference between the Pixel Watch and the Apple Watch is the design. The Pixel Watch’s circular dial looks more like a traditional watch, which I’m fond of. The Apple Watch’s rectangular face squeezes more pixels onto the screen and looks more like a calculator watch. (Although it’s hard for either to look as good as an old-fashioned watch with analog hands.)
At the end of the line
What you do from here depends on your relationship with your phone. If you have a strong commitment to Android and aren’t focused on measuring your heart rate, a Pixel Watch might be a good accessory to have. Similarly, an Apple Watch, which has more advanced features including a body temperature sensor to predict ovulation, can be nice to have if you prefer iPhones. But neither is so indispensable as to force most people out of their phone ecosystem of choice.
If you’re not ready to commit to Android or iPhone and just want to track your fitness, there are plenty of wearables that don’t require a specific type of phone to work, like the $150 Fitbit Charge 5. or the $330 Garmin Vivoactive. 4S. For some, the freedom to move freely between devices is the most important feature of all.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times