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Snapdragon Wear 4100 can't fix all of the problems with Wear OS smartwatches

Fossil Sport smartwatches
Fossil Sport smartwatches (Image credit: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

As someone who wears a smartwatch every day, I'm excited for the new Snapdragon Wear 4100+ platform that Qualcomm just released. This is the chipset Wear OS watches will be running on throughout 2021, and it promises considerable upgrades in performance and battery life over the old chipset.

Wear OS has massive issues with performance and battery life — but that's just part of the problem.

It's well-known that Wear OS watches struggle mightily in both areas, whether you spend $150 or $500, and I consider it unacceptable. Wear OS watches need this new platform badly in order to have a shot at being competitive, that much is clear. But to think that simply upgrading from the Wear 3100 to the Wear 4100+ will suddenly fix all of the problems with Wear OS watches is misguided. Because, you're still getting Wear OS — and that means a long list of shortcomings.

Let's say that the Wear 4100 is a big enough upgrade to warrant giving new Wear OS smartwatches a fresh look. Well, then you will once again realize are still several ways that Wear OS needs to improve. I'll point out the biggest ones here.

Fossil Gen 5

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Performance is weak, all around. This is surely something that will be helped by the 4100+, but it's unclear how much it'll help. Wear OS performance is downright horrible at times. Apps load slowly, Assistant is nearly unusable, apps regularly hang or crash, and touch response is often slow enough that you end up making double selections or closing apps unexpectedly. Most frustrating, perhaps, is that performance isn't at all consistent, and the watch regularly slows down for seemingly no reason.

The setup process is terrible. For something that's supposed to be a simple accessory to your smartphone, this experience is a pain. The setup process is inconsistent, sometimes requiring multiple attempts to pair. The watch is unusable for at least an hour while it does something in the background after pairing. Apps on previous watches (or your phone) aren't automatically installed, leading you to a sluggish and frustrating Play Store to do it manually. And every time you swap the watch to a new phone, you have to perform a factory reset and start all over again.

Third-party apps are bad. In the classic chicken-and-the-egg problem, third-party Wear OS apps are bad — if they exist at all. Now I'm not someone who needs to have a watch loaded with apps, but it's not unreasonable to expect the big names to have a presence on Wear OS. Many of the apps are simple companions to the full app on your phone, and get the job done, but all do so with such a wide variety of quality and interface designs it's just disheartening. (I always have a good laugh at the Strava "app.") And for some reason, Google hasn't forced apps (even some of its own!) to support the rotating side button (crown) — so you're left switching between rotating and swiping depending on the app.

The watch face experience needs an overhaul. Google's included watch faces are basic, boring and limited. And while each Wear OS maker bundles its own watch faces (of varying quality) in addition to Google's, there's no reason why the included set should be this boring. Samsung crushes Google, both in variety and customizability, with the set of watch faces it ships out of the box. Thankfully apps like Facer exist, providing a ton of options and customizability, because without these Wear OS would be completely hopeless. I'm not saying Google needs to fully copy Facer, but it needs to considerably up its game in first-party faces.

The Wear OS companion app needs to do more. Most of the frustration of the setup process, app management and watch faces could be improved by just having the Wear OS phone app do more. It's baffling that the phone app doesn't let you customize your watch faces (only choose between them), or browse and install apps. Trying to customize a watch face on a tiny screen is tedious, and trying to browse through the Play Store is downright brutal — these should be available on the phone, and synced to the watch, just like notification settings.

Skagen Falster 3

Source: Daniel Bader / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Daniel Bader / Android Central)

Google's "hands-off" approach to Android development, where it creates a relatively basic operating system and lets companies make their own customizations from there, hasn't worked out in the world of Wear OS in the way it has on smartphones. Sure there's incredible diversity in terms of hardware designs, with hundreds of different watch styles, shapes, sizes and prices. But the software customization has felt woefully lacking. Wear OS has massive shortcomings, and nothing watchmakers or app developers have done so far has filled in the gap. Google has to take control of the situation and make Wear OS itself dramatically more performant, consistent, robust and feature-complete.

A new chipset is just the beginning — now, Google needs to do the work to bring Wear OS up to speed.

Upgrading to a new, modern chipset is going to improve the Wear OS experience, there's no doubt about it. Better performance and longer battery life are two things we desperately need. But it's naive to think that just running on a new platform somehow negates all of the problems inherent in Wear OS. You could provide excellent performance, and multi-day battery life, and Wear OS would still have massive usability and functionality problems that continue make it tough to recommend.

Google is expected to announce changes to Wear OS (and Android on other non-phone devices) the week of August 9, as part of its "11 weeks of Android" series leading up to the launch of Android 11. We can only hope that it has real, substantial improvements in store for the platform to coincide with the move to Snapdragon Wear 4100+. Those of us who have stuck with Wear OS, seeing the potential in the platform despite being continuously disappointed, really deserve better.

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

35 Comments
  • I disagree with your opinion. The setup process was extremely easy and my watch was not "unusable for an hour" after pairing. Also, for my use cases, the core WearOS functionality is great and reliable.
    I also find good third party apps that work just fine. Not sure what your a looking for but IMO a watch is not something I intend to interact with extensively so I dont need 100 freaking apps to do things with. Weather, time, notifications, voice commands, timers, news, calculator, Spotify, golf, etc....
    They all work wonderfully. I even bought one of the cheapest Android watches you can get, Fossil Sport. ($80 after a $20 coupon) I would even go as far as to say my expectations have been exceeded.
  • As far as setup, unfortunately, my setup process has been crazy long. Unusable for an hour, honestly. THAT'S IF it manages to pair and start syncing. I don't know why it has been doing that, and Fossil kind of knows about this as well. ☹️ Your comments are valid, but I also have had this bad experience.
  • I think Google should just concede the smartwatch space to Apple because Wear OS is not anywhere near as compelling as the Apple Watch is and the hardware and software is so far behind Apple as well. Even (I hate to say it) Samsung's Galaxy Watch is a more interesting option.
  • Point to remember here is that even if Google stopped making Wear OS entirely, it wouldn't "concede the smartwatch space" to Apple, because the Apple Watch only works with iPhones. Samsung's wearables, plus myriad fitness trackers and independent smartwatches would still exist to be used by Android users, which as we know constitute a majority of all smartphones in the world. That last point is why I find it hard to believe Google would just give up on Wear OS altogether. The Apple Watch is sort of a threat, in that it represents a great wearable experience that people are compelled to switch to (or stay with) as part of an overall move to an iPhone, but considering it can't be used with Google's own OS, there's room for Google to have its own wearables platform still ... even if it isn't toe-to-toe as good as the Apple Watch.
  • You have valid points but Google has had more than enough time to get it right with Wear OS (formally known as Android Wear) yet they continue to falter and the software is still poor along with the hardware, I think Google could match or get close to Apple if Google truly focused At least Apple put thought into Watch OS and with the iPhone as you pointed out it works brilliantly but only with an iPhone which is the point, it seems that Google doesn't truly believe in Wear OS, at least that's how I see it.
  • I have the Huawei GT2 watch, 2 week battery life, awesome build quality and display... Does everything I want a watch to do...
  • My Amazfit Pace and Stratos both last a good week with all the apps going. I downloaded watch droid and now I can reply to messages and send them, it does everything you need. Why bother with Google wear.
  • Amazfit is not a real Smartwatch. It's missing a lot of basic features, but if you new to the SM products, you could have been mislead - and that's what such products count on. Providing you a feeling you got a smart watch, while giving you a just a simple digital watch with colored screen. Or you bought it only for a specific purpose, like sports meter. Which is completely fine.
  • I hope things get better!
  • Unless Google and Qualcomm get their **** together, then Apple, Samsung and even Huawei don't have anything to worry about from Wear OS which had been a total failure, from a software and hardware point of view, Wear OS is so far behind Apple it's embarrassing.
  • Beno, what model smartwatch do you have?
  • None yet but I plan on her the Apple Watch series 3 next month and that will still be far better than anything from Wear OS.
  • Soooo, you're telling someone who has both which one is better. Okay!
    Boy, that Apple marketing has you under their thumb!
    I guess that's why you can look at a noisy iPhone photograph with poor detail, and still believe it's better...
    https://photos.app.goo.gl/8H5UgAtc8GhFnP2U7
  • I watched a comparison video of the S20 Ultra and iPhone 11 Pro Max from a YouTuber called Zollotech yesterday and the photos om the iPhone 11 Pro Max are flat out better than the S20 Ultra with only 2 occasions where I liked the S20 Ultra's photos better, for me the iPhone 11 camera is the best on the market right now, I get it, you don't like the way the iPhone takes photos but many people do otherwise they would not buy iPhones year after year and remember more pictures are taken with an iPhone more than any other phone. PS I looked at the photos and what happened? How come the iPhone pictures are so grainy? But overall the dynamic range is better on the iPhone than on the HTC U12+ especially the last pictures where the lens flare of the street lamp in the HTC U12 photo blows out the rest of the photo. But remember that was using the standard iPhone 11 rather than the iPhone 11 Pro Max which has the telephoto lens.
  • I wasn't talking about the S20 Ultra, and when have I ever said I don't like the way iPhones take pictures? To the contrary, I do like them, which is why I use iPhones for a reference. The iPhone photo is grainy because you have no choice but to use Apple's automatic night mode for shots like that. The higher the ISO in photography, the more noise and grain. The U12 used an ISO of 99 and the iPhone used an ISO of 1250, so the results are self-explanatory. Even if you take the shots with the same camera, the photo with the lower ISO will always turn out better than the one with the ISO cranked way up. These are not all different photos by the way. I only took two shots, and each image below the main shot in that example is a zoomed-in portion of the first shot from each phone. Good catch on the HTC blowing out on the street lamp, while the iPhone did a much better job on that spot. I agree with you on that point, but an objective photographer will look at the overall picture, and would probably choose the photo that did not get the street lamp as well, but got everything else right. Both photos are amazing considering how dark it really was, and I like Apple's night mode better than Google's. If you want a good laugh, this is the same shot taken with a Note 3: https://photos.app.goo.gl/SEhVvtPfMV4ug1229 Regarding the iPhone 11 versus the 11 Pro, no zoom was used, only the main camera. Remember the samples are are just blown up sections of the original photo. By the way, we spent the day with another couple who live on a small lake, and I just had to capture the landscape and sunset. I also got some nice videos of sunlight sparkling on the water, and a slow pan of the lake. We sat down on their back deck and I handed them the phone, and both of them were amazed at how the photos and video turned out. They came right out and said "Those are so clear. Our phones don't take pictures like that". My favorite shot from tonight is below, and I think you'll like it. https://photos.app.goo.gl/PmhWGrbP16DoR9Se9
  • Is that photo from the HTC U12+? It looks great.
  • Yes, that was a point and shoot from the U12+. I wish I had my Nikon with me though. There was a lot of stuff going on with snapping turtles and wildlife, and 80x optical zoom would have been handy.
  • Wow that was a point and shoot? It seems I was wrong about the HTC U12+ it seems the camera was very good and also I didn't know that thst a higher ISO will result in so much noise as in. The iPhone 11 camera, surely with Apple's "deep fusion" the iPhone 11 photo would have been better. So there's no way to manually adjust the ISO? I know with night mode you can't turn it on or off as it's automatic. I imagine your Nikon camera would have been even better with it's 80x optical zoom. Still there's no smartphone camera that can come close to that kind of zoom as the sensors are not big enough.
  • "The new processor doesn't fix anything! " Have you used it? "Well no but...I need clicks!"
  • The new processor will still be a joke next to Apple, Samsung and Huawei. Wear OS is FINISHED.
  • It certainly is :-). Full-Android watches are already here, getting smaller and lighter every year. That's the next big thing and Google probably counts on it too.
  • And that there is the real problem. Yes Wear OS has it's problems. Those though can and will be addressed in new software. The core of the problem has been and always will be Qualcomm. The 4100 as far as it's design is a joke compared to the series 3 and up. 12nm are you kidding? This should have been 10 if not 7 nm but Qualcomm isn't putting in the effort. Why should they, they're getting fat selling less performance for higher cost. Just look at the price of the 865, those prices aren't cause of parts getting hugely expensive. It's all the cost of licensing from Big Q. Until this is fixed Wear OS and android smartwatches aren't going anywhere.
  • This is where I hope the acquisition of fitbit will help
  • I'm a bit confused. I have a cheap smartwatch (Ticwatch e, $79). It is a hassle to reload all the apps when changing to a new phone. But, paring works first time, apps are responsive, I edit and modify my watch faces from the phone all the time, it plays standalone music on the watch speaker (Apple can't), or I can jam on with just the watch and my BT headphones. I get more than a day of battery with ambient mode always on, and if battery life is the OS fault, why does the Ticwatch pro get 30 days per charge in LCD mode, while the Apple watch only runs 18 hours? Yes Beno, the official number from Apple is 18 hours and it's dead, which is sooner than my $79 watch.
  • I was planning on getting the tickwatch e myself also. The only thing that held me back was some of the reviews mentioned about screen burn-in. With it only a few weeks old.
    Have you had any problems with your screen?
    I have the AmazFit Bip. I can go almost 3 weeks on one charge. Of course, it has its weaknesses.
  • I bought mine in September of 2018. No burn in yet, and an easy way to tell is to turn the flashlight feature on which makes the screen pure white. I like it, though it looks a bit inexpensive. If you are used to 3 weeks on one charge, you will get annoyed at having to charge it much more, but 35 hours for the Ticwatch is better than some other full-featured smartwatches. It's pretty rugged, and I've been surprised at the hits it's taken with no damage.
  • Im sick of saying it but it's about time Google brought a Pixel Watch to the table? if they want Wear OS to succeed they need to do exactly what they've done with the Pixel phones and create a watch to showcase Wear OS! It will never happen with Tizen but I'd love Samsung watch with wear OS combo!
  • I'm completely happy with my Movado Connect 2.0. Easy setup, lasts all day with ease, with notifications, weather, Google Fit, Android Pay and heart rate monitoring too. I sense more than a little Apple fan boy syndrome in your diatribe laden article.
  • The only complaints I ever had with my ticwatch pro would be completely solved with a more powerful and efficient SoC.
  • Google needs to up it's game with WearOS because the Apple Watch is fast approaching the ideal communications device: excellent core functionality, no need for apps ie distractions like games and social media and devoid of marketing of any sort. Most things can be done with Siri. As soon as they crack an all-day battery with 4G turned on why bother using a phone at all? The Smart watch will one day replace the phone as the core device paradigm and nobody is even close to Apple. But Siri still kinda sucks. Google Assistant is miles better than Siri but there is still no compelling Android watch to carry it off. What Google need is some sort of recognisable hardware. Everyone can recognise an Apple Watch but Wear devices all look like normal watches. We need a device that offers esim 4G, Google Assistant, speed and all the other gubbins set in a body like the first gen Moto 360. I still use my old Moto 360 every day and it looks incredible.
  • You may consider apps for Wear OS bad and insufficient, still, it's the best you can get by a huge margin, with exception of Apple watches. In most other cases, one is nearly or completely limited to what is pre-installed in the watch. Also, what makes Wear OS powerful too is the connection with the Google and other services, allowing to use navigation or read Keep shopping list you created from a SMS on the phone... I also want to point out, that the battery life is not as bad as it often seems when unprofessionally compared in some reviews. One has to compare apples with apples. If you disable Wi-Fi, assistent, gestures, AOD, use AMOLED-rated watch FACE, turn off updates and limit notifications, etc., you'll get about 3 times more battery life and you can compare it to the non WearOS watches, that usually miss some or all of the above and their battery life is thus out of the box more or less better. Finally, I don't think Google will be investing fortune into WearOS. The next big thing is comming and it's Full-Android watches. They get better every year and at the moment they only suffer from the size of hardware, being about 50% thicker than WearOS or other watches. But the advancements in HW and battery size will eventually render WearOS unfeasible to maintain, let alone develop.
  • "the battery life is not as bad as it often seems...If you disable Wi-Fi, assistent, gestures, AOD, use AMOLED-rated watch FACE, turn off updates and limit notifications, etc., you'll get about 3 times more battery life and you can compare it to the non WearOS watches" If you disable all of that, then it is no longer a "smartwatch". I get almost 2 days from my Galaxy Watch without gimping it. If I wanted a watch that didn't offer notifications, I'd wear a traditional mechanical watch.
  • Too bad Google isn't a big enough company to make and produce its own hardware and software and or buy a company that could make that happen....( do I actually have to mention that was sarcasm? ) I have a Lg Urbane that I use for sleep tracking and alarms only...still like it but it is bog slow for anything else and my daily driver is a Galaxy active 2. My wife's apple watch series 2 is showing signs of decreased battery life , but I have had a moto 360, Asus Zen watch, the aforementioned LG urbane, a Gear s2 cellular, a Gear s3 and now the active 2 which was a gift from her...all others were bought used, and the s3 still works okay, but it.woild be nice to spend money on watches that had the longevity my wife has enjoyed....
  • You mention app developers and their possible contributions.
    Here is a completely different approach to interaction with apps on a Wear OS smartwatch: https://youtu.be/UvhP6I3stSM
    Disclaimer: It's my company's app, and yes, it is geeky and niche, but the technique is general.
  • I love how the every comment is trying to defend the indefensible, and that Wear OS is a dumpster fire along with the Wear OS smartwatches themselves, I wouldn't be surprised if Google eventually gives up on Wear OS, which in my opinion is what Google should do (going back to the drawing board), because Wear OS simply doesn't have the appeal of am Apple Watch in either software or hardware.