Discover more from Multicore
Pixel Watch 2 review: Google gets it right this time
The second-gen Pixel Watch is a big improvement
Alongside the Pixel 8 Pro, I've also been testing Google's Pixel Watch 2 for the past week. This is going to be a much simpler review to write: the Pixel Watch 2 is very similar to its predecessor, but it’s also much better, and that mostly comes down to a single component upgrade.
Last year's first-gen Pixel Watch was a solid first attempt to recalibrate Google's smartwatch strategy. It wasn't the first device running Wear OS 3; Samsung had already put out a couple of watches after merging its Tizen platform with Google's. But the Pixel Watch, true to form, was the first to present an unadulterated Google experience.
The Pixel Watch 2 has a near-identical design to its predecessor. It's still built around a 41mm circular case with dramatically domed glass atop a 1.2-inch screen. The case is now made of polished aluminium rather than stainless steel, but frankly I couldn't tell the difference myself — it's just slightly lighter. The crown is also a little bigger and feels quite a bit smoother.
While the screen's bezels are quite thick compared to competitors like the Apple Watch, I actually think the design looks great in person. The curvature of the glass means the screen area stays totally flat before the falloff; it reminds me of certain Ikepod or Issey Miyake models. I wouldn’t mind a slightly larger model, but I really do think this is a genuinely attractive watch.
Ikepod, of course, is the watch brand conceived by superstar designer Marc Newson, who ended up moving to Apple to work with Jony Ive on the Apple Watch and brought his rubber strap design with him. Google does not get points for inspiration here, especially considering how similar Wear OS 3's crown-driven interface is to Apple's watchOS. Even some of the new watch faces clearly lift years-old Apple ideas, like temperature complications that show highs and lows on a curved scale around the edge.
But Google does get points for pragmatism. The Apple Watch was so far ahead of its Android competition — as were Samsung's Tizen-based watches — that rebooting the UI in that direction was almost certainly the best option available. Pixel phones are the Android equivalent of the iPhone; they set the standard for the platform. The point of the Pixel Watch is to provide a credible smartwatch alternative within that ecosystem. The first-gen Pixel Watch achieved that, more or less, but the hardware wasn’t quite there.
The biggest problems with the Pixel Watch were its performance and battery life. Perhaps reflecting Google's protracted efforts to produce a credible smartwatch, it used an ancient Samsung chip from 2018, which resulted in laggy scrolling and frequent mid-day charges if you wanted to use the always-on display.
The Pixel Watch 2 has a Qualcomm 5100 chip, which doubles the cores and is manufactured on a more efficient 4nm process. Google claims 24 hours of battery life with the always-on display enabled — which is now a default setting, unlike on the first-gen Watch — and my testing bore that out. It's a huge improvement.
Performance is just stratospherically better. I've never seen an app take more than a second to load, and I can't get lists to lag no matter how frantically I turn the crown. It's not like I want my smartwatch to be a computational monster, but the Pixel Watch 2 feels like it's running within reasonable expectations of its capabilities, unlike the first-gen model.
Multicore depends on readers; please consider a free or paid subscription!
Power efficiency is a similar story. I usually wear my watch — Pixel, Apple, or otherwise — to bed and charge it at my desk while I'm in the shower. That means I rarely worry about battery life because I'm starting with a full charge from late morning. On a road trip this past week, though, I found the Pixel Watch 2 would consistently last longer than 24 hours. I'd charge it overnight, strap it on at 9am, and wake up the next day with more than 20% charge remaining.
This is a big deal, because the first-gen Pixel Watch couldn't even reliably make it through a single day with its always-on display enabled. That's a dealbreaker for a smartwatch, at least for me, and particularly when I’m travelling. I'm confident the Pixel Watch 2 will last most people a full day, which means they can fit it into a daily charging routine without getting caught out by the need for emergency top-ups.
Speaking of, the Pixel Watch 2 has a new fast charger that I found could get the watch from empty to full in a little under 75 minutes. However, it now relies on pogo pins rather than the fully inductive (and now incompatible) first-gen charging puck. This means you can only place the watch on its charger at a right angle, which is a lot less elegant if you're used to just aiming it in the general direction of a magnet.
It's possible that the new pogo-pin design has something to do with the upgraded heart rate sensor, which now occupies a much larger space on the back of the watch. I am really not who you want to be testing the accuracy of this kind of thing; all I ever do is walk my dog, ride my bike, and play pickup basketball. But I've still found the Pixel Watch 2 to be a solid casual fitness tracker, even though the initial setup with Fitbit is a little fiddly. The Watch 2 requires you to use the Fitbit app with a Google account, which is a slightly messy step that will hopefully lead to sleeker integration in the future.
The Pixel Watch now has new Gmail and Calendar apps, both notable omissions from Wear OS until now. Each app is quite simple but does what you’d expect; you get a scrolling list of your inbox and events and can act upon them with basic commands. If you really want to reply to an email with a keyboard on the Pixel Watch’s screen, you can do that, as well as using voice input or simply selecting emoji.
My favourite new Pixel Watch feature is admittedly a niche one: you can pair your watch with a new Android device without needing to wipe and restore it. The process only takes a couple of minutes, which is a huge deal if you’re like me and test several Android phones a year, because now you can just keep the same watch setup no matter what phone you’re using.
The fact that I’m excited about that feature should give you a good idea of my feelings about the Pixel Watch. Now that I can bounce it between devices, and now that it consistently lasts a day between charges, I actually think I will continue to wear this as my main smartwatch.
Part of that is that it’s been a slow year for the Apple Watch, so I’m not planning to upgrade. I wouldn’t say the Pixel Watch is a better product than Apple’s, but I personally prefer how it looks and it handles almost all of the functionality I need. Since I always carry an iPhone and an Android phone, the choice comes down to the one that I’d rather wear, assuming each option meets a certain level of functionality.
The Pixel Watch 2 more than meets that bar and sets a new standard for Android smartwatches. If you use a Samsung phone, then a recent Galaxy Watch might still be a better option, because those are consistently solid devices and there’s a degree of Samsung-specific integration going on. Otherwise, I think the Pixel Watch 2 is an easy choice. It’s the first time Google has put its full weight behind a smartwatch that I can strongly recommend.