The new $550 Pixel Watch is particularly exciting because it represents Google’s first effort, although it clearly falls short when compared to the extremely refined Apple Watch, now in its eighth generation.
The Pixel Watch is one of the most sophisticated Wear OS watches ever, sliding smoothly between tiles and apps, offering a range of customizable watch faces with Apple-style complications, expertly tracking workouts and heart rates, and even offering fall detection. Pretty much anything you can do with an Apple Watch you can do here, including stream music straight to earbuds, tap to pay, and connect to cellular data networks (with the pricier cellular model).
But Google also relies on the clock. The voice assistant and smart home apps are better than Apple’s, and the turn-by-turn Google Maps guidance is great for hiking and biking.
But the Apple Watch S8 (starting at $630) is prettier and more capable. Side-by-side, the Pixel seems slow, and its huge black bezels are very noticeable. Apple’s fitness rings are more digestible and tracking more complete than Google’s Fitbit solution, and Apple Watch’s battery lasts much longer.
It’s a similar story with the Pixel Buds Pro ($300) versus the second-gen AirPods Pro ($400). Google is cheaper and delivers a product that beats most of its Android contemporaries, but Apple is more experienced in this category. The noise-cancellation on the AirPods is more complete, the pinch control is less prone to accidental touches, but both are comfortable and sound good.
If you look at the ecosystems as a whole, you can see where the big differences lie.
Apple makes small iterations every year, but it’s clearly building towards a place where its products are essential for navigating both the real and virtual worlds. The introduction of an always-on display for the iPhone 14 Pro instantly surpassed the longstanding implementation of Android with widgets and information that help keep the phone at the center of your communication, agenda, smart home, entertainment and fitness. Meanwhile, the advanced compass capabilities in the watch – which let you drop virtual markers and bring you back to them later – and the decibel-lowering AirPod tech point to a desire to augment the natural world with technology in ways that on a phone would be awkward.
In comparison, the Pixel range has always been about Google showcasing its Android software and artificial intelligence capabilities, and we’re seeing that on the latest phones with features like the ability to transcribe voice messages between languages in real-time translate and take sharp pictures from old photos with a lot of motion blur. The move into the smartwatch space is an extension of that, showing how Google’s massive mapping, data and AI capabilities can be put to work on people’s wrists. As with Android on phones, this will likely lead not only to more useful Pixel devices in the future, but also to devices from other manufacturers that use (and support) Google software.