Larry Magid: Pixel Watch 2 adds health features, improves performance

New safety features are also now available

Google is best known for its search engine and other services, but it is also a hardware company with a growing portfolio of products that includes phones, tablets, smart speakers, smart displays, home automation devices, and now, smart watches.

In this regard, it competes with Apple and Samsung, particularly in the phone and wearables markets. When it came to watches, Apple and Samsung were both ahead of Google, but last year, Google introduced its first smart watch, the Pixel Watch, and has just released the Pixel Watch 2, along with new versions of its Pixel phones and a new Fitbit 6 fitness tracker.

Both the new watch and the tracker are products of Google’s acquisition of Fitbit in 2019. Fitbit has long been the leading manufacturer of fitness trackers. The new Pixel Watch 2, which has most of the features you’d expect from a high-end smart watch, uses the Fitbit app to display health and fitness data but also has its own watch app for picking and editing a watch face, adding tiles to add or access apps, and configuring how the watch handles notifications. The Watch 2 is now a well-equipped fitness tracker and smart watch with an ever-expanding collection of apps from Google and other companies thanks to these two apps.

Although I’ve tried other watches, including some from Apple and Samsung, I’m most at ease with the Google Watch because I came to it after owning a Fitbit for several years, so the user interface was familiar, and the watch could access fitness and health data stored in my Fitbit account dating back before Google acquired Fitbit.

However, Google has stamped its authority on Fitbit, requiring you to use a Google account to access the watch and Fitbit data, as well as data from other Fitbit devices.

After a promising start with last year’s Pixel Watch, Google now has a more refined offering with the Pixel Watch 2. The new watch is $349 or $399, with the higher-end model including cellular LTE connectivity. Your cellular carrier will most likely charge a monthly fee to provide LTE to the watch, but you don’t need the LTE model or service if you have your cell phone with you. The watch is available for purchase from the Google Store, which is currently offering a trade-in allowance for older watches. It may also be available from other sources, such as cellular carriers, with discounts or subsidies.

The new version looks identical to last year’s watch, but it’s slightly thinner and 10% lighter thanks to a new case made of 100% recycled aluminum, according to Google. They also improved the ergonomics by adding a slightly larger crown that makes it easier to turn on the display and select apps, though you can do those and other tasks from the watch’s touch screen as well.

Turning it over, however, reveals new sensors that improve the way it tracks heartbeats, skin temperature, and signs of stress. What you don’t see is a faster processor or a low-power co-processor, but if you wear the watch all day, you’ll understand why. Last year’s model struggled to last a full 24-hour day without charging, but the Watch 2 is more energy efficient. I can now easily get through a day on a single charge, but because I sleep with the watch, I still need to find times during the day to top off the charge so that the watch stays awake on my wrist while I sleep. Fortunately, Google improved the charging speed as well. According to Google, you can get a 50% charge in 30 minutes. I didn’t time it, but it charges quickly.

While you sleep, I am keeping an eye on you.

I wear the watch at night because it monitors my overnight pulse rate, oxygen levels (SpO2), sleep duration (including stages of sleep), and irregular heart rhythm, which can be a sign of atrial fibrillation (AFib), a potentially fatal heart condition. The watch, like last year’s model, can be used to take an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), but doing so requires you to sit still and rest your finger on the crown. The new Afib detection method is automatic and passive, though you must still be sitting or sleeping. According to Google, it has a positive predictive value of 98.2% based on a “clinical study with over half a million participants.” Users are advised to consult a medical professional if they receive a notification, as with all health data.

Searching for stress

Google is particularly proud of the watch’s Body Response feature, which employs a new continuous electrodermal activity (cEDA) sensor capable of detecting signs of stress. When it detects that you are stressed, it will notify you and prompt you to “either reflect on how you feel at that moment or take actions to reduce your stress, such as guided breathing or a mindfulness session.” I understand why that is important, but it is not a feature I find useful. Maybe I’m too stressed to notice my stress.

The Watch 2 can now start and stop exercises automatically, which is useful if you forget to start them on your own.

If you recognize any of these features, it’s because the Pixel Watch 2 has borrowed them from other Fitbit devices, such as the Sense 2 tracker. The Pixel Watch from last year had many smart phone features but fewer fitness and health measurements than the Sense 2 and some other less expensive Fitbit trackers. Google is attempting to give you the best of both worlds with the Watch 2.

Security features

In addition to providing health information, the watch can help keep you safe or at least get you help if you fall. If the watch detects a fall, it can alert emergency personnel or your personal contacts. They added Medical ID, emergency sharing, and a safety check this year. If you don’t return from a hike within a certain time period, for example, safety check can notify loved ones, sharing your last known location that they can pass on to first responders. Google and Apple, both of which have safety features on their watches, place a premium on safety.

The Pixel Watch is compatible with any phone running Android 9 or higher, including Pixel phones. It does not work with iPhones, unlike Fitbit trackers.

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