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Google Pixel Watch 2 hands on: New biometric sensors in a slightly lighter package

Plus a better processor and workout features.

Photo by Cherlynn Low / Engadget

When Google debuted the Pixel Watch last year, hopes were high that it would be a real rival for the Apple Watch. But, due to subpar battery life and some friction around integrating Fitbit’s health-tracking features, the company failed to deliver a truly satisfying contender. The hype for the Pixel Watch 2 is significantly less than for its predecessor, and Google needs to convince us it adds enough to justify an upgrade.

From the outside, the Pixel Watch 2 brings a fairly modest set of updates, but it offers some compelling new features that could make it one of the best health and wellness-tracking wearables around. At a starting price of $350, the Pixel Watch 2 sits between the $300 Galaxy Watch 6 and the Galaxy Watch 6 Classic, as well as the Apple Watch Series 9, which both cost $400. It offers a multi-path heart rate monitor and introduces body-response and skin temperature sensors, along with new apps and personal safety features that both help set it apart from and catch up to the competition.

Most of the changes coming to the new Pixel Watch aren’t things I could easily test at a brief hands-on session, like the new body response tracking tools or how much more accurate the multi-path heart rate sensor is. I also couldn’t tell you whether the added Safety Check feature will give me peace of mind when venturing to strange places on my own.

What I was quickly able to confirm was that, on the surface, the new Pixel Watch is just as attractive as before. The domed glass and round face look just as smooth, and Google says it’s made the case a whopping 5 grams lighter, while the glass covering the screen is a bit thinner. The company also says its recycled aluminum housing makes the haptic feedback on the rotating crown feel a bit more noticeable (even though the vibrating motor is the same).

That decrease in weight should make the new Watch more comfortable to wear, especially if you plan to keep it on in bed. I barely noticed it was lighter when I tried one on, but I assume most people would have trouble detecting a mere 5-gram difference.

More importantly, Google said it redesigned the back housing to contain the three new sensors and help maintain contact with your skin. This will also keep the heart rate reader in place during vigorous activities for more consistent measurements. Usually when I hear about this sort of watch case design, I worry about it being uncomfortably snug, but the Pixel Watch 2 I tried on felt pleasant enough. Like I did last year, I love Google’s woven loop band, which is as easy to wear on my wrist as a scrunchie.

Side view of the underside of the Pixel Watch 2, showing its contact charging setup and new sensors, as well as its crown and button on the edge.
Photo by Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Speaking of, the company is also rolling out new accessories, including a lighter perforated sports band and a narrow strap of metallic links. Swapping these out is still fairly easy using Google’s proprietary push-and-click mechanism, which it’s previously described as similar to switching out lenses on a DSLR. There are also new watch faces which are similar to the ones we saw Apple launch on its smartwatches this year, that place information at the farthest edges of the screen, as if they were right on the bezels.

The Pixel Watch 2 is still only available in one size (41mm) and its AMOLED screen has the same 320 ppi pixel density as its predecessor. It even goes up to the same 1,000 nits of brightness, though Google has tweaked the font size and color scheme in things like the workout app to make them easier to read. I haven’t had any trouble seeing my activity stats on the Pixel Watch, and the 41mm size sits nicely on my relatively small wrist. But I imagine there are people who might prefer a larger screen.

Animations also look smoother, according to the company, thanks to the Pixel Watch 2’s quad-core Snapdragon Wear 5100 processor. Not only does it have more cores than the Exynos 9110 in the original watch, the new chip uses a 4nm design compared to the Exynos’ 10nm process. That means it’ll be more power efficient, and together with its slightly larger 306mAh battery (up from 294mAh on the previous model), we should be getting longer runtimes.

A Pixel Watch 2 with the new slim metal strap, sitting on a stand on a wooden surface. Its screen shows the time as
Photo by Cherlynn Low / Engadget

But, because the Pixel Watch 2 comes with its always on display (AOD) enabled by default, battery life is listed as the same 24 hours as last year, when the number was given without the AOD on. I expect if you disable the AOD, you might get a few more hours, but that’s not something I can confirm without testing the device out myself. Google also implemented a new contact charging design on the underside that it says can help you get 12 hours of juice after plugging in for 30 minutes, while getting fully charged should take 75 minutes. Unfortunately, there's no wireless charging, which seems like a real oversight.

Along with the updated contact charging is a slew of sensors. The body response sensor, which is a continuous electrodermal activity (cEDA) monitor, looks for microscopic beads of sweat. Using data from that and the skin temperature sensor, as well as your pulse and heart rate variability, the Pixel Watch 2 will guess when you’re feeling stressed and suggest you log your emotions and try a guided meditation or go on a walk.

This is far from the first time Google (or, more accurately, Fitbit) has offered similar stress management features, since it rolled out an EDA sensor on its Sense smartwatch in 2020. But while the company may have had a few years of experience tracking this metric, it still isn’t an exact science. I didn’t wear the demo unit long enough for it to say I felt stressed (even though you better believe I was), so I couldn’t check out its suggested actions. But I’d be curious to see what sorts of patterns I would glean from wearing this in the real world over time.

The Pixel Watch 2 on a person's wrist, showing a workout metrics screen.
Photo by Cherlynn Low / Engadget

I’m also keen to put the new heart rate sensor to the test at my daily HIIT workouts, but I’m actually most excited about something that should have been on the Pixel Watch from the start: automatic workout start and stop reminders. One of my complaints about last year’s model was the lack of alerts if you’ve been active for a while. In fact, I’ll just quote my review here:

“Also, while Samsung and Apple will actually alert you when they notice you’ve been walking or exercising for awhile, the Pixel Watch remains quiet. In fact, I thought it was malfunctioning and not detecting my brisk mile, and I started to get quite angry. It wasn’t until much later when the walk showed up in the Fitbit app that I realized it had actually counted my activity.”

With the Pixel Watch 2, you should be nudged after you’ve been doing one of seven common workouts for a while. They include running, outdoor cycling, spinning, walking and rowing. Importantly, you’ll also be prompted to end a session after you’ve stopped doing one of those things for some time.

For outdoor runners in particular, the new pace coaching feature should be helpful. Meanwhile, those looking to hit and maintain specific heart rate zones will appreciate the ability to set target numbers and get haptic and voice alerts to help stay within range. Though I did get on a treadmill after putting on a Pixel Watch 2, I didn’t work out long enough to trigger the automatic start.

Something else I would prefer to evaluate outside of the demo space was the new Safety Check feature. It joins fall detection and emergency SOS as part of Google’s suite of personal safety tools, and is quite similar to what Apple offers in watchOS and iOS. Specifically, the Pixel Watch 2’s Safety Check reminds me a lot of Check In in iOS 17. The latter has you start a session with a friend or loved one in Messages, and end it when you arrive home with your phone. If you don’t make it to your destination in a set amount of time, your contact will be alerted and sent some info about your location.

The Pixel Watch 2 on a person's wrist, showing a list of apps on its screen. Just three are in the scene, and they are
Photo by Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Google’s approach is very similar — you go to the Personal Safety app on the Pixel Watch 2 and select Safety Check. This lets you start a timer for your preferred amount of time. When that runs out and you don’t tell the watch you’re okay, Google will let your pre-set contacts know something is up and share your last known or live location.

Safety Check feels like something that’s nice to have on occasion, but what might really improve your daily interactions with the Pixel Watch 2 are updated Google apps like Calendar and Gmail. And in yet another change that sounds very similar to something Apple brought this year, the Google Assistant is getting support for health and fitness queries so you can ask for your real-time or historical stats without touching the screen. Unlike Apple, though, the Pixel Watch 2’s assistant requests are not processed on-device, so they’ll require an internet connection.

There are a lot of changes coming to the Pixel Watch, and some feel more meaningful than others. But will they make for a significant update this year? Is Google simply catching up to Apple and Samsung, or is it leading the way by introducing body-response measurements? Those are questions better answered after some time with a review unit. For now, if you're already excited by the new features, you can already pre-order the device or buy it on October 12. The Pixel Watch 2 is available in silver, black and gold cases with a variety of straps and come with six months of Fitbit Premium included.

Follow all of the news live from Google’s 2023 Pixel event right here.