Wear OS 3: our first impressions of the revamped OS

There's still a lot we don't know about Google and Samsung's big smartwatch play
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The release of the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 gave us our first opportunity to look at Wear OS 3, Google's promised revamp of its smartwatch operating system that Samsung has helped to rebuild and rework.

We've been here before. Google has given Wear a 'revamp' and even changed the name to mark that supposed shift in approach and thinking. Ultimately though, it's an OS that has continued to underwhelm – not only in terms of our expectations but its 3% market share in 2020.

The Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 is the first smartwatch to run on new Wear 3 with a Fossil Gen 6 smartwatch likely to come next.

It's also been confirmed that the TicWatch Pro 3 and TicWatch E3 will be updated at some point this year or next year.

We got hands on with the Galaxy Watch 4 – so what have we learned about Wear OS 3? Well, I'd say there's still a lot of questions.

Using Wear 3

The first is whether what we've seen on Samsung's new watches is exactly what we can expect to see on that Fossil Gen 6 and when those TicWatches receive the software upgrade.

Will the interface entirely mirror what we experienced on the Watch 4 – and how much of that is Samsung's One UI Watch overlay?

It didn't feel hugely different from what was offered on Samsung's Tizen-based smartwatches. That's not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of what Samsung built into Tizen made it a more polished OS than Google's Wear. It's just that I was hoping to be blown away by something more radical and that's not the feeling I got.

What we can glean from the Watch 4 is that Tiles and quick settings feel very similar to current Wear and you can swipe down from the watch screen just like you can on current Wear watches. Though we haven't seen what the promised third party Tiles will look like just yet.

The interface has a more stylised look than what Wear 2.0 offers and Samsung has moved the app screen to the place you'd usually find your notifications stream on Wear, so it seems where those gestures take you could be changing.

How much is this down to the presence of Samsung's own UI? I'd like to think other hardware partners might want to skin the version of new Wear running on their smartwatches too, but it's not clear whether that will be the case just yet.

Wear is the iPhone love?

Wear OS 3: our first impressions of the revamped OS

Perhaps the biggest question thrown up by Wear on the Galaxy Watch 4 is the lack of iPhone support.

Google has spent the last few years trying to improve the compatibility of Wear OS on iPhone, adding support for standalone apps and even offering Google Pay access.

Samsung's new smartwatch will only work with Android phones, which raises the question if other Wear watches will follow suit.

It would feel like a huge step backwards not to offer some form of iPhone support, but it's surprising to think one of the most high profile smartwatches to use Wear OS 3 doesn't.

Fitbit MIA

We don't know if the same sensors will be available across all Wear OS 3 watches either.

We know from Google's I/O keynote and accompanying developer sessions centred around Wear that Google and Samsung have designed a new health services platform to help developers build health and fitness services.

The question is whether developers will have access to the new BioActive sensor introduced on the Watch 4, which combines PPG, ECG and BIA sensors on one chipset. The TicWatches certainly don't have those features right now and will be interesting to see if Fossil also prioritises these features as well.

Samsung's fitness tracking features appear still firmly in place, but we were told that Fitbit would be powering the fitness tracking experience.

There's little signs of that right now, though the addition of blood oxygen monitoring during sleep is something we've seen present on Fitbit's smartwatches and wasn't available on Samsung's Tizen smartwatches.

Slick app integration

Wear OS 3: our first impressions of the revamped OS

Google apps do seem ready to go. The watches we got to play around with had the Play Store, Google Pay and we spied third party apps like Strava too.

We know YouTube Music will be added for launch as well.

Samsung will be letting you choose between Samsung Pay and Google Pay and the same will be true for Samsung Bixby and Google Assistant smart assistants.

However, until we can connect these watches to the companion apps, then we can't comment whether those new standalone apps are a noticeable step up in performance.

Battery life question marks

Setting up and pairing the Watch 4 will be done through Samsung's Galaxy Wearable app, so what does that mean for the Wear OS app?

Will that still be part of the equation or will it be over to the hardware makers to provide the app to get things up and running? It's another unanswered question.

Hopes that new Wear would bring a battery boost were pretty much confirmed back at Google's I/O. Samsung's new watches offer up to 40 hours, which is around 1.5-2 days – which is pretty much what most newer Wear 2 watches max out at.

This unified OS promised big increases in performance and the ability to better handle power-hungry features like 24/7 heart rate monitoring. It's clear though that when you want to use with all features in use, a few days away from the charger is where we're still at.

So am I still excited for Wear OS 3? Yes, I am, but I can't say that what I've seen so far has stirred any of that excitement just yet.

Wear OS 3 on the Galaxy Watch 4 doesn't yet feel hugely different from Tizen on the Watch 3.

I want to see more of the Fitbit influence that was promised, and get a better sense if the iPhone is still part of the Wear equation.

Right now, I'm not entirely convinced, but that might change once I've got one on my wrist for longer than a couple of hours.

How we test

Michael Sawh


Michael Sawh has been covering the wearable tech industry since the very first Fitbit landed back in 2011. Previously the resident wearable tech expert at Trusted Reviews, he also marshaled the features section of T3.com.

He also regularly contributed to T3 magazine when they needed someone to talk about fitness trackers, running watches, headphones, tablets, and phones.

Michael writes for GQ, Wired, Coach Mag, Metro, MSN, BBC Focus, Stuff, TechRadar and has made several appearances on the BBC Travel Show to talk all things tech. 

Michael is a lover of all things sports and fitness-tech related, clocking up over 15 marathons and has put in serious hours in the pool all in the name of testing every fitness wearable going. Expect to see him with a minimum of two wearables at any given time.

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