It’s been a while since I touched Wear OS, Google’s smartwatch platform. So, when a fire sale on Fossil sub-brand Misfit offered up a Wear watch for $15, I jumped on it. Despite spending less on the Misfit Vapor X than I do on a fajita special at my favorite Mexican place, even including the watch band and charger I had to buy, I still feel fleeced.
Regretting a purchase that almost anyone would call an “impulse buy” doesn’t bode well for Wear OS. In fact, it’s so bad that It makes me worry about Google’s attempted acquisition of Fitbit. There’s just so much that has gone wrong (and still can).
The Airing of Grievances
I could spend several thousand words telling you what’s wrong with the Misfit Vapor X, but to save everyone some time, I’m gonna rock this Frank Costanza style. Here’s a list of things that bug me after a week of using this thing:
- The battery can’t reliably handle a day of use, even with the gesture detection turned off, so I have to touch the screen or a button to wake it up.
- That poor battery means it can’t handle sleep detection. Does this thing have sleep detection? I dunno, let me check … aaand the Fit app crashed. (It doesn’t have sleep detection.)
- It takes an hour to recharge, even though the battery is less than a tenth of the one in my phone.
- Animations are sluggish and touch detection is spotty, making the actual navigation of the interface a chore.
- Even though Google’s Fit program is preloaded, heart rate detection is periodic instead of constant.
- Installing watch faces and apps is inconsistent from my phone, making me do it all from the watch itself. Have you ever tried to use a keyboard on a 1.2-inch display? Don’t.
- The watch constantly loses Bluetooth connection, and connecting over W-Fi was so slow that it wasn’t worth the hit to the battery.
- The watch’s “crown” is actually a wheel, which is nice for accurately selecting things in a list. But pressing it like a button is a “Home” command, not a select command … so you still have to use the screen to make selections in that list. Ugh.
I could go on, so I will.
- I’m a lefty, so I wear a watch on my right wrist. There’s no option to flip the interface so I can use the buttons easily with my left hand.
- The selection of available Wear apps reminds me of using PalmOS: tons and tons of little tools that are already on my phone and do better there.
- Despite highly promoting a transition from Google Play Music to YouTube Music, Google hasn’t actually made a Wear OS app for the latter. You hear that? There’s no Google app for the Google (YouTube) music platform on the Google wearable operating system.
“You’re Not Making Wear OS Better…”
Google knows that Wear OS, in a word, sucks. It’s trying to improve it, or at least it says that it is, with an upcoming software update and another new Qualcomm chip that’s intended to boost performance and battery life. Which is what the last one (the chip that’s inside this $15 watch) was supposed to do. Oh, dear.
Google doesn’t seem ready to completely abandon Wear OS (which has already been rebranded once, from the original “Android Wear”). Despite its generally poor reputation, new models are coming out at a regular clip, mostly from old-fashioned watch brands that don’t have the technical chops to make their own wearable from the ground up. Whether that’s worth sticking around for, I couldn’t say.
But whether or not Google wants to stay invested in Wear OS, it’s sticking around for smartwatches and wearables in general. We know that because the company is trying to buy Fitbit lock, stock, and barrel.
“…You’re Just Making Fitbit Worse”
Google wants Fitbit. Exactly why isn’t totally clear, but the safe bet is A) Fitbit’s enormous pool of lucrative fitness data, B) Fitbit’s know-how in making efficient easy-to-use hardware and software, or C) both.
Google has told regulators that it’s not interested in Fitbit’s user data, that it wants to combine Google’s software with Fitbit’s hardware. From the desk of Google’s SVP of Devices and Services: “This is about devices, not data.” Taking Google at its word here might not be wise, because international megacorps have been known to bald-face lie when they’re trying to clear a regulatory hurdle. But let’s do it anyway.
There are a few ways that this could go down. Google could scrap Wear OS and make Fitbit’s less-powerful software the new standard for Google’s smartwatch platform. That doesn’t seem likely, if only because Google’s aspiration has always been to match full-powered competitors like the Apple Watch and Samsung Galaxy Watch.
A more likely outcome would be Google trying to implement Fitbit’s successful watch line and fitness app into Wear OS and Google Fit, respectively. That’s the kind of prospect that has the most dedicated Fitbit users shaking in their cross-trainers because they’ve invested years of time and hundreds of dollars in Fitbit’s self-contained ecosystem.
Our editor Cam has said this is the reality that he’s dreading, as he’s a dedicated Fitbit user himself. In our appropriation of the meme, he’s playing a distraught and disapproving Hank Hill.
The third way is for Google to stop its work on Wear OS, stop Fitbit’s development of new hardware and improved software, and make something new out of the peanut butter-and-chocolate combination of the two. That would be the hardest to achieve in both technical and business terms, but it has the best possible outcome: Google developing a first-party wearable platform that’s actually worth using.
Oh, and an option to make wearable hardware that’s worth more than fifteen bucks.
The Better Alternatives
If you want a full-function wearable akin to the Apple Watch, then buy an iPhone … and an Apple Watch. But if you’d rather use Android, as I would, then the next best thing is Samsung’s Galaxy Watch line. While not officially running Google’s software, and thus requiring quite a few extra apps on the phone side, the Galaxy watches are solid wearables with an excellent interface and performance. And no, you don’t even need a Galaxy phone to use a Galaxy Watch.
If you don’t need a “full-power” wearable with a focus on expandable apps, go for Fitbit. The Versa and Versa 2 are health-focused but can handle basic tools like weather and music just fine, and go for several days without needing to be recharged. They’re much more affordable than the watches from Apple or Samsung, too. The Versa 2 even has Amazon Alexa built-in for voice controls.
Of course, the only thing that gives me pause in recommending Fitbit as a wearable platform is the potential Google purchase, which could leave us in any number of situations outlined above … almost none of them good.
If you want the promise of longevity in a smartwatch platform, Samsung’s Galaxy series is by far the best bet. If you want the best fitness tracker you can get and don’t mind the possibility of ending up on a shell of a service by this time next year, Fitbit is still an excellent purchase.
Pick your poison.