Google plans to give Watch Unlock a boost with ultra-wideband tech

Pixel Watch 2 on keyboard with OnePlus Open in the background
(Image credit: Andrew Myrick / Android Central)

What you need to know

  • Watch Unlock is a Pixel-exclusive feature that automatically unlocks your smartphone when it is near your watch. 
  • Currently, the Pixel Watch uses Bluetooth connectivity for Watch Unlock, and it can be fickle. 
  • Google is supposedly improving Watch Unlock by using ultra-wideband connectivity in place of Bluetooth. 

Watch Unlock is a useful Pixel feature that can unlock a nearby Android phone with a paired Pixel Watch, and it might be improved soon. Code snippets found within the Play Services app hint at changes to Watch Unlock. Most notably, the feature is expected to drop Bluetooth in favor of ultra-wideband (UWB) connectivity. UWB would be a more precise and faster way to gauge the distance between the Pixel Watch and a paired Android phone.

The references to UWB support were first spotted by 9to5Google. Inside the Play Services app, code refers to the Watch Unlock feature as ActiveUnlock. With this in mind, we can see the code strings that connect Watch Unlock and UWB:

  • ActiveUnlock__enable_uwb_ranging
  • ActiveUnlock__enable_uwb_ranging_validation

Since the Watch Unlock feature is only available for use on Pixel devices, it's reasonable to assume that Google will release a smartwatch with UWB. While the Google Pixel Watch 2 was rumored to include a UWB chip, it was apparently scrapped before the watch's final version debuted. Presumably, Google will ship the upcoming Pixel Watch 3 with a UWB chip for use with the upgraded Watch Unlock feature. 

Among other improvements, using UWB for Watch Unlock will likely improve the speed at which your phone can unlock after detecting your watch nearby. To take advantage of this functionality, you'll need a smartphone and a smartwatch with UWB support. Unless Google plans to expand Watch Unlock to smartwatches from other brands, the Pixel Watch 3 has a good chance of including a UWB chip. 

Google Pixel Watch worn on a wrist

(Image credit: Namerah Saud Fatmi / Android Central)

9to5Google also found other references to UWB in the Play Services app. These explain what happens if UWB is unavailable for a few reasons:

  • <string name=”downgrade_channel_name”>Downgrade</string>
  • <string name=”downgrade_channel_description”>Shown when Watch Unlock is temporarily unavailable due to ranging method restriction.</string>
  • Watch Unlock is temporarily off
  • Ultra-wideband is unavailable in this country. You can still use Watch Unlock but may experience a slight delay and less accuracy.

These snippets essentially confirm that UWB support will improve the Watch Unlock feature. If the UWB version of Watch Unlock isn't available, the code strings say that Watch Unlock will be available, but there might be "a slight delay and less accuracy." That implies that UWB is faster and more accurate than using Watch Unlock over Bluetooth. 

While the code snippets give us a good idea of what's coming, nothing is confirmed yet. However, the Pixel Watch 3 is sizing up to be a big upgrade, as previous reports indicated that a larger-screened version will be available

Brady Snyder

Brady is a tech journalist covering news at Android Central. He has spent the last two years reporting and commenting on all things related to consumer technology for various publications. Brady graduated from St. John's University in 2023 with a bachelor's degree in journalism. When he isn't experimenting with the latest tech, you can find Brady running or watching sports.