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Wear OS in 2020: The most stagnant smartwatch platform
2020 has been a dumpster fire of a year, and tech companies are feeling the burn as well. They’ve been forced to push back product launches and delay software updates for consumer tech, not to mention doing so while working from home.
I wish I could say the troubles of 2020 are the reason Google’s Wear OS isn’t flourishing, but that’s unfortunately not the case. Google has struggled to stay on top of Wear OS development for years. It’s consistently behind on bringing new features to the platform, and it still relies on third-party watchmakers to make up for the OS’s shortcomings.
The wearables market is growing quickly and shows no sign of stopping. Dedicated fitness companies have released game-changing health technology for wearables. On the other end of the spectrum is the Apple Watch. It has basically become the benchmark device for how other smartwatches should function.
Google finds itself somewhere in the middle. It’s not a fitness and health company. Google is constantly playing catch-up in its efforts with Google Fit. It’s also not the smartwatch developer we all hoped it would be — notable software updates for Wear OS are few and far between. Those that do arrive on the platform are, again, usually playing catch-up to competitors.
Also read: The best Wear OS watches you can buy
That’s all to say, the state of Wear OS in 2020 has been underwhelming. I want so badly to stay positive and to say Google will turn things around in 2021. However, I just don’t see that happening. Let’s talk about Google’s year in review for Wear OS.
All of the Wear OS watches launched in 2020
If our research is correct (and please sound off in the comments if we missed any!), 11 new Wear OS watches launched in 2020. Here’s a brief overview of all the new devices:
- Suunto 7: The Suunto 7 is the Finnish fitness company’s first attempt at a Wear OS smartwatch. It’s Suunto’s worst GPS watch to date, but the best Wear OS watch for fitness.
- Skagen Falster 3: The Skagen Falster 3 (finally) has solid hardware and comes in a variety of minimalist styles and colorways.
- Diesel Fadelite: The Diesel Fadelite won’t win any performance awards, but it’s one of the hottest-looking Wear OS watches this year.
- Tory Burch ToryTrack: Tory Burch’s new Wear OS smartwatch might be the best-looking smartwatch for women. It’s tough to find, but Macy’s seems to reliably have it in stock.
- Montblanc Summit 2 Plus: Montblanc’s third-gen Summit 2 Plus smartwatch competes directly with Tag Heuer’s new offering (below). This LTE-connected luxury Wear OS watch will set you back $1,170 from Verizon.
- Tag Heuer Connected (2020): Tag Heuer released another luxury Connected watch running Wear OS. Ranging from $1,800 to $2,550, these third-gen smartwatches should be suitable for wear during business meetings or even at the gym.
- Oppo Watch: Oppo has a bad habit of copying Apple. However, the Oppo Watch is actually one of our favorite Wear OS wearables from this year.
- Mobvoi TicWatch 3 Pro (GPS and LTE): Mobvoi’s TicWatch Pro 3 is the first Wear OS watch to run on the Snapdragon 4100 chipset. And boy, it does not disappoint.
- Hublot Big Bang E: For the low, low price of $5,200, you can purchase Hublot’s Big Bang E watch running Wear OS. Just don’t expect it to launch with top-end specs or even built-in GPS.
- Fossil Gen 5E: Fossil followed up the excellent Fossil Gen 5 smartwatch with the Gen 5E. It’s a cheaper Gen 5 that comes in multiple sizes.
- Citizen CZ Smart: The CZ Smart, Citizen’s first-ever Wear OS watch, is classy and pricey, but might not have the specs to match.
Qualcomm finally delivered on a more power-efficient chip
The big news of the year was Qualcomm’s announcement of the Snapdragon Wear 4100 and 4100 Plus chipsets. They will no doubt power the next few generations of Wear OS watches.
Qualcomm’s last-gen 3100 series chips were all-around decent performers, but only if they were coupled with enough RAM to power Wear OS. The majority of the new watches launched in 2020 indeed had enough RAM (we say 1GB is the bare minimum), so performance is no longer a huge issue. Regardless, with watchmakers upping the RAM and the inevitable shift to the new 4100 series chips, Wear OS performance issues should be few and far between going forward.
Performance boosts and battery life improvements are the Snapdragon Wear 4100 series’ selling points over the last-gen chips. They’re built on a smaller 12nm process. Both feature improved 1.1GHz clock speeds, which results in an 85% performance increase. RAM and GPU improvements were also added to the 4100 series.
Don’t miss: The best smartwatches you can buy
The new chips are also able to provide much better battery-saving features over the 3100 series. However, the 4100 Plus chip takes it to the next level with its new co-processor. The battery-friendly co-processor handles ambient tasks like step tracking and haptics, which moves these functions away from the primary processor to save power. This is also an important improvement for those who use their smartwatches for sleep tracking.
No watch has yet adopted the Snapdragon Wear 4100 Plus, and only one has used the standard 4100.
Despite these improvements, companies have been slow to adopt the new 4100 platform. Currently, you can only find the Snapdragon Wear 4100 on one device — the TicWatch Pro 3. No smartwatch has yet adopted the 4100 Plus. We saw a similarly slow adoption rate with the last-gen 3100 series. Therefore, it might be some time before we see the older 3100-powered watches fade out. Keep in mind, smartwatch releases are not the same as smartphone releases. Watchmakers usually don’t rush out to launch a device with the latest and greatest chip just because it’s there. We’ll likely see a few more 3100-powered smartwatches launch before we’re in full-on 4100 mode.
Just one decent software update in 2020
We’ve covered the hardware, now let’s talk software. Google usually releases Wear OS updates sporadically and without much fanfare. 2020 was no different. It kicked off the 2020 Wear OS update schedule in April with a small, useful addition to the clock app that brought hand-washing reminders.
The big Wear OS update for 2020 didn’t arrive until September. Coinciding with the launch of the Snapdragon Wear 4100 series, Google rolled out a fall update with support for the new chipsets and faster performance for existing watches. Specifically, Google said improvements to the CPU core should bring a 20% speed increase in app loading time. The update also brought an improved pairing process, a new weather widget, and a bonafide hand-washing timer.
The fall update also had some developer-focused additions. Those included some of “the best” Android 11 features like Kotlin support and Jetpack libraries.
A handful of small updates on Wear OS arrived this year courtesy of Google Fit, too. An update (announced on a help forum, of all places) in April introduced redesigned Google Fit tiles on Wear OS. More recently, the Google Fit update from November brought a recent workouts tile, as well as more information-dense workout screens.
Read more: Everything you need to know about Google Fit
I don’t want to completely diminish Google’s work on Wear OS here. The fall update did improve performance, which is crucially the Achilles’ heel of older watches. But glance over to see what any of its competitors are doing, and you’ll quickly realize Google is putting minimal effort into being a leader in this category.
Apple, Samsung, hell — even Fitbit — are constantly announcing new app partnerships, software updates, UI improvements, and more for their respective platforms. The first two companies make a big deal out of these updates. They make a point of announcing interesting features on stage at major product unveilings. That might sound unnecessary, but it gives everyone a sense of trust that the company cares about what it’s developing. When a company announces a software update on a help forum, it doesn’t quite instill the same feeling.
Google is constantly getting out-developed by its competitors.
Wear OS users have been dealing with the pains of an underdeveloped platform this year. Look no further than the shuttering of Play Music. This year the company axed Google Play Music and the Wear OS companion app along with it. Unfortunately that “seamless transition” Google promised to YouTube Music was never fully realized for smartwatch users. Google announced on August 4 that Wear OS users would soon no longer be able to use or download Google Play Music on their devices. A few months later, the company released a YouTube Music app for the Apple Watch, but not for Wear OS. As of this writing, YouTube Music still isn’t available on Google’s own smartwatch platform. All the company has to say regarding YouTube Music on Wear OS is “stay tuned.” Right.
Add to that Spotify’s apparent hesitation to develop offline music playback for Wear OS, and you have a smartwatch platform that is significantly lacking not only in music support, but support in general.
Treading water until Fitbit joins the team?
We have yet to touch on one important milestone in Google’s wearable journey: the Fitbit acquisition. It’s now been over a year since Google announced it would acquire the fitness juggernaut for $2.1 billion.
Big acquisitions take time to go through all the approval processes, so this year-long delay was pretty much expected. As of December 17, 2020, Google has just received approval from the EU for the deal to go through. That is as long as the company refrains from using Fitbit’s data for advertisements. The deal has been under scrutiny by the DOJ since December 2019, while regulators supposedly called for even deeper investigations into the deal last April.
The Google-Fitbit deal is a wait-and-see situation for now.
We have already covered the ins and outs of the Google-Fitbit acquisition in great detail. Suffice it to say, Google will use Fitbit’s hardware, software, and of course data to bolster its wearable portfolio. After all, Google has yet to produce any first-party Wear OS hardware. Acquiring a gigantic fitness tracker company is one way to skyrocket itself into the wearables space.
There appears to be some treading water on Google’s part while the Fitbit acquisition goes through. Why would it waste time on its own operating system while — presumably any day now — it could bring on new talent with an already-established wearable portfolio? I’m not claiming to know what Google’s plans with Fitbit’s device ecosystem will bring. However, I’d be much more comfortable with that being Google’s excuse for not focusing on Wear OS as opposed to the alternative — that the company simply isn’t able to devote the time and resources into maintaining a decent smartwatch OS.
Focus on the pain points in 2021
Despite everything I just said, despite the continuous wearable market reports with Wear OS nowhere to be found, despite the empty comments from Google execs claiming that Wear OS isn’t a dying platform, I would really like Google to continue focusing on Wear OS. It has the potential to go toe-to-toe with the best smartwatch platforms out there. The company just isn’t doing enough to keep it relevant to users’ needs in 2020.
Next year, I would love to see a greater focus on making the platform more feature-rich. Don’t just play catch up (although there is plenty of that to be done). Google should develop features for Wear OS like it does with Android proper. The company needs to be a leader in the market it helped create with Android Wear years ago.
Everyone loves new features, but there’s also work to be done on the core Wear OS experience. We polled our readers this month on their least-favorite parts of Wear OS. Out of nearly 5,000 total votes, the overwhelming pain point with Wear OS is battery life.
This is a tricky one. Google needs to ensure Wear OS is well-optimized while watchmakers need to ensure their devices have things covered on the hardware side. Both Google and OEMs are also relying on Qualcomm’s chips to deliver power-efficient processors. Battery woes will no doubt diminish once more people have Snapdragon Wear 4100 devices on their wrists, too.
Following battery life woes, nearly 20% of our readers complained about the lack of updates issued to the platform. Obviously, we want more frequent Wear OS updates (see the section above), more third-party partnerships (hello Spotify), and better support for Google’s own apps.
Wear OS doesn’t need a complete overhaul. It just needs some attention. We know that, users do too, and so does Google probably. When and if the company will ever give it the attention it needs is another question. Here’s hoping 2021 brings a little more variety and stability to the platform.