Stress is usually something to avoid, but when reviewing a high-profile smartwatch with stress-tracking as a standout feature, experiencing stress can provide valuable insights. During my testing of the Pixel Watch 2, I was going through a period of emotional turmoil. I was serving as the maid of honor at our senior commerce editor’s wedding, dealing with a family funeral, and receiving updates on my best friend’s cancer diagnosis. Coupled with the excitement of Google’s hardware launch event and a tight deadline for this review, my emotional state provided the ideal scenario to evaluate the Pixel Watch 2’s body-response sensor.
Google has introduced several new features in its second-generation smartwatch. The company has upgraded the heart rate sensor, added a skin-temperature sensor, reduced the weight of the case, and integrated a more powerful processor to extend battery life. While the Pixel Watch 2 may not exhibit significant changes externally, it offers enhancements that genuinely enhance daily usability.
Pixel Watch 2: Design
Despite my admiration for the round and shiny case of the Pixel Watch 2 and its tactile feel, one issue stands out quite prominently. It’s the crown on the right side of the case, which protrudes and is exceptionally prone to accidental triggering when you bend your hand backward. I’ve inadvertently activated the emergency SOS menu twice already. This becomes particularly bothersome during workouts, especially push-ups or while on a stationary bike. The workaround is to adjust the watch so that the screen rests on the inside of your wrist, but even then, I’ve unintentionally pressed the knob once. To be fair, I’ve encountered a similar issue with the Apple Watch, particularly the Ultra version, but Google’s wearable dial feels a bit more obtrusive.
Fortunately, these unintentional activations don’t occur frequently enough to significantly disrupt my workouts, and I genuinely appreciate the aesthetic of the Pixel Watch 2. In the year since I reviewed the original, I’ve become more proficient at changing bands using Google’s press-and-twist mechanism, allowing me to switch out the plain gray sport band I initially received for a more appealing option, like the slim black metal strap I saw at the Pixel launch event.
On paper, the watch is five grams lighter than its predecessor, which featured a stainless steel case. This year’s model is crafted from recycled aluminum, and I haven’t encountered any scratches or damage to it. Despite using a less robust material, the new Pixel Watch retains an IP68 rating for dust- and water-resistance, along with the same 5 ATM water pressure resistance as the original. In comparison, the Apple Watch Series 9 boasts similar features, with an IP6X rating for dust resistance only, and it can withstand submersion in water up to 50 meters. Interestingly, the lightest model of the Series 9 weighs approximately one gram more than the Pixel Watch 2.
Similar to the previous year, Google offers the Pixel Watch 2 in a single size: 41mm. For my relatively small wrist and good eyesight, this size felt appropriate. I encountered minimal issues with onscreen button navigation, but I understand that there might be individuals who wish it came in a larger size.
A significant aspect of the Pixel Watch 2’s updated design resides on the underside of its case. It houses three new sensors: a multi-path heart rate reader, a skin temperature sensor, and a continuous electrodermal activity (cEDA) sensor. The heart rate scanner is expected to be more accurate due to its multiple diodes, in contrast to the single LED in the center. Although I initially had concerns about increased contact with my wrist potentially causing discomfort, I didn’t notice any significant difference.
Heart-rate and fitness tracking
The updated sensor array equips the Pixel Watch 2 to monitor an even broader range of your physiological data compared to its predecessor. It can now keep tabs on your overnight skin temperature and track the number of minutes per day you experience a “body response.”
However, to delve into the latter term, you’ll need to wear the device to bed for at least three nights before receiving a body temperature measurement. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to see these results yet. During the weekend, I was traveling and had forgotten to bring the Pixel Watch 2’s charger. Additionally, on some nights, I prioritized charging the device for testing the next day, as I’m not particularly fond of wearing a watch to bed.
With the new heart rate sensor, the Pixel Watch 2 aims to provide more accurate readings during intense physical activities, ensuring a better evaluation of my HIIT sessions.
Throughout this week, I’ve worn the Pixel Watch 2 alongside the Apple Watch Series 9 during all my workouts, and, for the most part, they displayed similar results. It’s worth noting that to view your Google Watch’s stats, you still need to utilize the Fitbit app. In contrast, Samsung and Apple devices allow you to access these statistics through their native health apps. As a side note, the AI chatbot demonstrated at Google’s recent keynote won’t be available in the Fitbit app until at least 2024.
On the Pixel Watch itself, initiating a workout session requires you to launch the Fitbit Exercise app or configure a tile. To view your data on the device’s screen, you’ll utilize the Fitbit Today app. While I understand Fitbit’s intention not to be absorbed into the Google ecosystem, this still makes the Pixel Watch 2 feel somewhat disconnected compared to its competitors.
During my HIIT sessions, both Apple and Fitbit displayed the same duration and average heart rate. However, they differed when it came to statistics such as calories burned and the time spent in various cardio zones. The Pixel Watch 2 often indicated that I spent more time in the “vigorous” and “moderate” ranges, while the Series 9 identified more time spent in “Zone 1,” “Zone 3,” and “Zone 4.” Apple’s clear labeling of the number of beats per minute for each of these zones provided better clarity compared to Fitbit’s data presentation.
Based on my recollection of these workouts and how breathless I felt, I believe Apple’s calculations were more accurate. Nevertheless, it’s essential to acknowledge that these devices are not precision scientific instruments, and such data is best utilized for tracking your progress over time rather than assessing individual session performance. I appreciate Apple’s automatic tracking and display of post-workout heart rate, as this metric offers valuable insights into heart health.
One of the notable omissions in the original Pixel Watch was the absence of automatic workout start and stop prompts. While it would record your activities without requiring manual launch, the initial Pixel Watch wouldn’t notify you if it detected you had been, for instance, briskly walking for a period. It also didn’t remind you when your activity ceased.
In this year’s model, the Pixel Watch 2 introduces these prompts for initiating and concluding seven types of activities, including walking, running, rowing, and outdoor biking, among others. It’s a straightforward yet gratifying feature that brings me considerable convenience. I commonly track the 20-minute journey to and from my gym, and I don’t always remember to initiate it when I depart. Receiving a reminder after ten minutes of walking usually relieves me of any frustration, particularly compared to the disappointment I feel when realizing at my destination that I neglected to launch the tracker.
New features: Stress and body-response management
Speaking of the feature that intrigued me the most this year, I was eager to explore the body-response measurement system. The term “body response” may sound somewhat vague, but in this context, it specifically refers to how your body reacts to stress. Utilizing the cEDA sensor, the Pixel Watch 2 identifies physical signs of stress and prompts you to record your mood or go for a walk when it detects such signs. Generally, cEDA sensors monitor abrupt changes in sweat levels. Google utilizes this data, alongside your heart rate variability, to assess your stress levels.
During the few days that I’ve had the Pixel Watch 2 on my wrist, my stress levels have been relatively high. As mentioned earlier, I’ve experienced various emotionally intense moments, and for the most part, the device appeared to detect about one-third of them. For instance, it recognized that I had a body response around 8:50 am on the morning of the wedding, which coincided with the time the bridesmaids and I rushed to finish getting dressed for photos. However, it didn’t pick up on my excitement when I received a message with positive news from my best friend about being in a relatively early stage of cancer. When it did detect a reaction, it typically issued an alert about 15 to 30 minutes later, leaving me sometimes struggling to recall the trigger.
When the Pixel Watch 2 detects one of these moments, it can prompt you to log your feelings or initiate a walk, provided you’ve enabled the feature. However, the challenge lies in the somewhat unclear presentation of results. To begin with, when you review your daily report in the Fitbit app, you’ll find the “Body responses” section under “Stress and mindfulness,” which displays a duration of minutes. This figure doesn’t represent the number of instances you experienced a reaction but rather the total duration of emotions you logged throughout the day.
For example, on a Tuesday afternoon, the app might show “5 minutes” under “Body responses,” along with a mark on a horizontal scale that ranges from 12 am on the left to 11:59 pm on the right. Tapping on this card provides additional details, such as a stress management score, the number of mindful days, and a weekly summary. Scrolling down allows you to view all the body responses recorded in previous days, where you can see, for instance, that Monday was particularly stressful, with 36 minutes of body responses labeled as “frustrated.”
On days when I logged different emotions, such as “stressed then content” on a Friday, the app provides some useful information. While I still find the measurement in minutes a bit peculiar, I can see it serving as a useful reference when comparing stressful days in the future.
You can edit your recorded moods via the app and assign them to detected body responses that you might have overlooked labeling in the moment. However, I encountered a peculiar issue on Monday afternoon when emotions I labeled for body responses registered on a Friday showed up on the Fitbit Today dashboard on the watch as if they were recorded on Monday. This seems like a bug that should have been addressed, especially considering that Fitbit has offered stress management tools since the release of the Sense smartwatch in 2020.
Google’s approach to tracking emotional well-being appears somewhat less sophisticated compared to watchOS 10. While Apple’s system doesn’t monitor bodily changes, it offers a broader range of mood options for users to log. On the Pixel Watch 2, you can only select from eight predefined choices like “Excited,” “Content,” or “Sad.” In contrast, an Apple Watch offers dozens of labels and varying intensities. On a couple of occasions, I found that none of the eight terms offered by Google accurately captured what I was feeling, and I had to select a term that didn’t entirely align with my emotional state.
Nevertheless, these issues appear relatively easy to address through future software updates and shouldn’t deter me from recommending the watch. I’m encouraged to see major tech companies increasingly consider emotional and mental well-being as integral to overall health. Providing users with an accessible way to log their emotions will assist them in having more informed conversations with therapists or healthcare professionals.
Performance and in use
In addition to the new sensors, the Pixel Watch 2 boasts an upgraded Snapdragon Wear 5100 processor, ensuring greater responsiveness and improved power efficiency. Navigating through the Wear OS 4 interface is remarkably smooth, with most statistics promptly displayed. Employing the smart home shortcut to turn off my lamp proved to be exceptionally convenient, and it responded swiftly.
I was pleasantly surprised by the rapid loading of my inbox in the Gmail app, and I haven’t encountered any difficulties in reading text on the screen, despite the generally cloudy weather. The Pixel Watch 2’s AMOLED panel offers up to 1,000 nits of brightness, though it’s worth noting that the Apple Watch Series 9 can reach up to 2,000 nits.
The Google Assistant exhibited a slight delay in understanding my voice commands, especially when compared to Siri on the Series 9, which processes commands on the device itself. I hope Google considers introducing on-device Assistant processing for its smartwatch in the near future. On a day when I accidentally left my phone at home while heading to the gym, Siri was still capable of initiating an outdoor walk workout, whereas the Google Assistant remained unresponsive. Both watches lacked cellular connectivity and operated offline. I had a good laugh when I later checked the Fitbit app and discovered it had recorded a 7-hour walk during which I had supposedly traveled a mere 0.9 miles.
Here’s what actually occurred: I was on a vigorous hike with some spirited friends, engaging in friendly races up hills, and I failed to notice that the Pixel Watch 2 was running low on battery. Before it shut down, it had detected that I had been “walking” for some time and suggested I start tracking my activity. I complied, and shortly afterward, the watch powered off. It still retained some battery power, as aggressively tapping the screen would briefly display the time along with a red empty battery icon.
I suspect that it continued to track the duration of my workout in the background but was unable to record any other metrics, such as distance or steps. This is somewhat humorous because Google claims that your stats are logged until the device shuts down, at which point they are uploaded and synchronized with the Fitbit app once the watch is recharged and turned back on.
Another minor issue I encountered with the Pixel Watch 2 is that you need an internet connection for your data to sync with the smartphone app, even if your devices are paired via Bluetooth.
For Fitbit Premium subscribers (priced at $10 per month), the LTE model allows you to send emergency communications, even if you lack a cellular plan for your watch or are out of your provider’s range. Please note that this feature is exclusive to the LTE model and does not apply to the Wi-Fi only version. This feature is particularly beneficial for the new Safety Check feature, brought over from Pixel phones by Google. With Safety Check, you can select an activity such as walking alone, hiking, or going for a run. You can then set a timer for the expected duration of your activity and confirm your emergency contacts.
When you’re just one minute away from the timer ending, the watch will vibrate and remind you to stop the timer. If you fail to do so, your emergency contacts will receive a selection of information you can choose to share, including your live GPS location and whether you’ve called emergency services. You can also opt to notify them if your battery runs out.
All of these features need to be configured within the Fitbit or Watch app on your phone, leading to another observation: I hardly ever need to delve deep into the Apple Watch’s settings to enable new, helpful features. With the Pixel Watch 2, I had to ensure I enabled everything, including reminders to start and stop workouts, which seemed like features that should be activated by default. This difference exemplifies the Android vs. Apple experience, where the former tends to require more involvement but offers greater customizability. For instance, you can add a tile to make your preferred functions more accessible. Apple products, on the other hand, require less configuration out of the box but offer less flexibility in organizing apps.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the Pixel Watch 2, and it’s worth noting that this year’s model comes with Always On Display enabled by default, unlike the original version. Google may have received feedback on this default setting, and future models might come with more features activated by default. Activating Always On Display makes more sense, but it’s essential to consider its impact on battery life.
Battery life and charging
Equipped with its new processor and a slightly larger battery, the Pixel Watch 2 is designed to offer a full day’s use with Always On Display (AOD) enabled. I was pleased to observe that at the end of the day, when I removed the watch, it typically still had around 35 to 40 percent battery life remaining, which is ample to track your sleep throughout the night, as per Google’s recommendations.
My only concern lies in scenarios where I decide to wear the watch to bed instead of charging it overnight; there might not be sufficient time to recharge it adequately for my morning workouts. The Pixel Watch 2’s revamped contact charging system is intended to restore the battery to 100 percent in approximately 75 minutes, which is only five minutes quicker than the previous year’s model.
While this improvement may not be dramatic, I was relieved to find that I could increase the watch’s charge from 29 to 44 percent in just about 5 minutes. This boost provided enough battery life for me to complete two outdoor walks, a circuit training session, and various workouts with heart-rate range and pace alerts enabled. Even after all these activities, I still had 21 percent battery life remaining by the time I was able to plug the watch back in.
In general, the Pixel Watch 2’s battery life is almost on par with that of the Apple Watch Series 9 (41mm model), bringing it closer to its primary competitor. While it doesn’t match the extended battery life of Samsung watches and other activity trackers, it compensates with its higher pulse sampling rate of once every second. Unfortunately, like its predecessor, the Pixel Watch 2 does not support wireless charging, meaning you can’t utilize your Pixel or Samsung devices to share power while on the go.
I find myself in a state of conflict regarding the Pixel Watch 2. It undeniably represents a significant improvement over its predecessor, introducing a range of unique features that differentiate it from its competitors. Notably, its stress management tools are a standout feature not yet offered by rivals like Apple. Fitbit, or Google now, maintains its position as a leader in heart rate measurements and insights, benefitting from years of experience and expertise in this field. However, certain software idiosyncrasies and convoluted data presentation can be a hindrance.
The Pixel Watch 2 signifies Google’s effort to narrow the gap between itself, Apple, and Samsung in areas such as battery life, while also gaining an advantage with its innovative approach to stress measurement as a component of overall well-being. Although it may not claim the title of the absolute best smartwatch on the market, it is increasingly establishing itself as a strong contender, particularly for Android users.