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As Apple Watch Rivals Vanish, Smartwatches Get Expensive and Locked Down

As Apple Watch Rivals Vanish, Smartwatches Get Expensive and Locked Down

Four years ago most smartwatches worked with most phones, whether you had an iPhone or an Android handset. Yes, the Apple Watch always has — and likely always will be — an iPhone-only device. But Samsung, Fitbit, Mobvoi and even Amazon were making watches and fitness trackers that supported both iOS and Android by default. Some companies used Google’s early versions of Wear OS to build these watches, or they used a proprietary operating system like Samsung’s Tizen. 

But one by one these companies either dropped iOS support or, in Amazon’s case, outright left the wearables category. Samsung’s since partnered with Google on Wear OS development. Fitbit — a former champion of iOS and Android development before Google bought the brand — only released one cross-platform wearable last year, with the Fitbit Charge 6 alongside the Android-only Pixel Watch 2. Mobvoi’s TicWatch Pro 5 is Android-only after supporting iOS on earlier watches.

Read more: Best Smartwatch for 2024

Most recently Fossil announced that its Gen 6 watch will be the company’s last Wear OS smartwatch, which removes from the field one of the more affordable ways to use Google’s Wear OS 3 as an Apple Watch alternative. (Montblanc’s $1,295 Summit 3 Wear OS watch is still on sale, but that’s far more expensive.)

Fossil x Razer Fossil x Razer

The Fossil Gen 6. This particular model is cobranded with Razer.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

It’s a disturbing trend for consumer choice to see so many companies cede iOS development to the Apple Watch. Fossil acknowledged in its announcement that the decision to leave the smartwatch space was something of a strategic retreat. 

“Fossil Group is redirecting resources to support our core strength and the core segments of our business that continue to provide strong growth opportunities for us: designing and distributing exciting traditional watches, jewelry, and leather goods under our own as well as licensed brand names,” the company said when announcing the departure.

The decision might also be based on sales numbers. According to IDC analyst Francisco Jeronimo (h/t 9to5Google), Fossil sold 19 million watches from 2015 to 2023, which only equated to 2.2% of the market. By comparison the Apple Watch has sold 248 million watches in the same span of years, Jeronimo notes. 

Despite those lower sales numbers, Fossil is still pledging to support its Gen 6 customers with a few more years of security updates and software support. It’s since discounted its Gen 6 to a rock-bottom $99 price, compared to its $299 retail launch price. Aside from its cross-platform support, Fossil’s Gen 6 line is notable for being about as fully featured a Wear OS watch as those made by larger companies. It includes access to the Google Assistant — unlike the TicWatch Pro 5, which can only install Amazon’s Alexa assistant.

More affordable cross-platform watches do exist, but they’re increasingly filling audience niches and run on their own operating systems. Garmin is one of the biggest smartwatch makers left that support any phone, with many of its models featuring a heavy focus on fitness tracking. There’s also Amazfit, whose watches use its own Zepp OS. And you can find a variety of somewhat sketchy smartwatch options on the Temu marketplace

Outside of those companies, it’s increasingly looking like the biggest smartwatch companies are also the biggest smartphone companies. This has resulted in a market led by expensive smartwatches that lose their functionality if you don’t pair them up with the right phone.

Reverse wireless charging Reverse wireless charging

Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 6 being charged by a Galaxy phone.

John Kim/CNET

Google’s Wear OS has become harder for third parties

As the smartwatch industry is increasingly run by the companies that make phones, it’s tougher than ever for a separate entity to break through.

It’s not hard to see why. Apple successfully lured iPhone customers into buying Apple Watches by offering easy access to Siri, iMessage and fitness tracking features. While a subscription isn’t necessary to use the Apple Watch, Apple Fitness Plus provides an additional upsell by pulling the watch’s workout data directly into its exercise videos.

Samsung and Google are following much the same playbook for its Galaxy Watch and Pixel Watch lines respectively. Both companies are selling watches that offer perks when you pair them up with most Android phones. Samsung locks away Galaxy Watch features like its ECG sensor unless the watch is paired up with a Galaxy phone. Meanwhile Google’s Pixel Watch line will likely showcase the upcoming Fitbit Labs AI program, in which Fitbit Premium subscribers will get health insights derived by artificial intelligence. 

With so much effort being poured into these bigger companies’ watches, companies like Fossil and TicWatch have to do a lot more work in order to have their watches stand out. Fossil tried to leverage its legacy in the watch space, rebranding its Gen 6 watch for several of the company’s other brands like Skagen and Diesel. TicWatch perhaps is most notable for including a lower-power secondary screen into its watches, which gives them days of battery life since their OLED display doesn’t need to be powered at all times.

TicWatch Pro 5 TicWatch Pro 5

The secondary screen on the TicWatch Pro 5.

Mike Sorrentino/CNET

But Fossil and TicWatch — despite running Wear OS — have each lagged in software support. Both companies needed time to update their earlier Wear OS 2 watches so they could support Wear OS 3. Earlier TicWatch models received the update in late 2023 after a two-year wait

Both companies also have a mixed record of Google Assistant support, with Fossil’s Gen 6 briefly losing it and then getting it back. Earlier TicWatch models lost the Google Assistant when Wear OS 2 support for it was sunset. TicWatch’s newest Pro 5 watch isn’t even promising to support the Google Assistant, and is instead encouraging customers to install Amazon’s Alexa assistant.

I asked a Google spokesperson about the Assistant. They said that while Google can’t share the technical requirements for the inclusion of Google Assistant on smartwatches, it’s on track to arrive on watches from other companies in the future.

“Our priority with Wear OS is to deliver a high performing platform for our partners and users, and we work with each OEM to take the time to ensure our apps and services deliver a quality experience (and that technical requirements are met). In addition to Pixel and Samsung, Xiaomi also launched their watch last year with Google Assistant built-in, and more from other OEMs to come soon,” the spokesperson said.

These differentiators don’t have to be death knells for other smartwatch competitors. But these constraints are making it tougher for smartwatch makers that aren’t also invested in the phone space.

The Pixel Watch 2 (left) next to the Pixel Watch (right) on a pink background The Pixel Watch 2 (left) next to the Pixel Watch (right) on a pink background

The Pixel Watch 2 (left) next to the Pixel Watch (right).

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Why can’t we have more midrange watches?

Even if the smartwatch space ends up largely mirroring and being led by smartphone makers, that doesn’t mean that smartwatches need to continue being so expensive. If there were also more affordable watch options, it would be easier to accept the fact that these devices only work with one phone OS or the other.

While I wouldn’t call $249 cheap for a watch, Apple has offered an Apple Watch SE model at that starting price that includes most of the $399 Apple Watch Series 9’s features aside from the always-on display and ECG tracking. Apple’s Certified Refurbished store knocks the SE down even further to $209.

But over on the Android side, the cheapest new Wear OS watch appears to be the $250 Samsung Galaxy Watch 6. Samsung used to offer an “Active” line of watches that were slightly cheaper than the mainline Galaxy Watch, but the company hasn’t continued that line for a number of years. Google’s Pixel Watch 2 has a $299 starting price, which could still be viewed as expensive for a watch that serves up notifications and fitness tracking.

I’d like to see both Samsung and Google mirror their more affordable “A” phone lines — the Galaxy A54 and the Pixel 7A — in their watch brands. Ideally these could be midrange Wear OS watches that are priced between $100 and $200 with some feature omissions, like removing the ECG tracking. It would be even better if both companies would consider a degree of iOS support to compete in a price range that the Apple Watch currently doesn’t occupy.

The Garmin Venu 3 on someone's wrist The Garmin Venu 3 on someone's wrist

The Garmin Venu 3 impresses overall with its long battery life and wide selection of health features. 

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

The best cross-platform options not made by a phone maker

Garmin and Amazfit appear to be the best alternatives to the more expensive watches. That may be a surprise since both brands appear to have more in common with the trackers Fitbit used to prioritize than they do with the Apple Watch. 

Garmin has hybrid watches, starting at $180, with physical hands like a standard watch and a screen that gives notification previews. Its more smartwatch-like $299 Vivoactive 5 and $399 Venu 3, however, fall squarely into the same price ranges as the bigger smartwatch makers. Garmin differentiates itself by touting its watches’ battery life (they can easily go for days between recharges), their GPS features for runners and an exhaustive number of fitness tracking options. 

Amazfit has also been eying bargain hunters over the last several years. While we haven’t tested the company’s more recent watches, the $200 Amazfit GTR 4 was first released in 2022 and is still on sale. It has an OLED display that runs the company’s Zepp OS. Amazfit also has a $120 GTR Mini watch with heart rate monitoring, a blood-oxygen sensor and stress monitoring. 

If you want to stick to a more well-known option, you can still buy the Fitbit Charge 6 at $160 or the Versa 4 at $200. Be aware that Fitbit appears to be deprioritizing the Fitbit OS that those devices run on, turning its focus to the more expensive Pixel Watch. But hey, at least the Charge and Versa run on iOS and Android. 

The article was first published here

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