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Fossil Gen 5 Review: The best Wear OS has to offer probably isn’t enough [Video]

The biggest name in Wear OS is Fossil, and the company isn’t showing any signs of slowing down with Google’s platform, either. While Google basically ignores its existence, Fossil is pumping out hardware, and now making some modifications to the software, too. The Fossil Gen 5 smartwatch is currently the best Wear OS has to offer — it’s just a shame that it’s still not enough for most people.

Hardware & design

The strength of Wear OS smartwatches has always been their design. While the Apple Watch’s design has caught on over the years, it’s hard to dismiss the beauty of many watches running Google’s Wear OS, many of which are designed by Fossil.

The Fossil Gen 5 is another great example of excellent design. The watch has a clean look with a body made from stainless steel. It may be a bit of a boring design in the world of fashion watches, but the thing is, it holds its own in that market. That’s something the TicWatch Pro can’t say and the Apple Watch arguably can’t, either. The Fossil Gen 5 is just a good-looking watch.

The overall size, however, is not very small. The 44 mm case is going to be big on some wrists. I wear watches around this size all the time, so it feels natural on my wrist, but others may feel it’s a bit too big. It’s all a matter of personal preference. That size leaves room for a standard 22 mm band to be attached. The stainless steel band that came with my review unit looks great with almost any outfit, but keep in mind that you’ll need to resize it to fit your wrist. There are tools available online to do this, but anyone who’s never tried it before might want to stop by their local jeweler.

fossil gen 5 wear os

On the back of the watch is a heart rate sensor. Fossil says that it’s new and improved compared to its previous watches, but I can’t say I noticed a difference. Regardless, you probably shouldn’t be buying this watch for fitness features in the first place. It’s good enough for basic features like step tracking and the like with Google Fit. Fossil also preloads an app called Cardiogram that helps you keep track of your heart health. Personally, this isn’t really my area of expertise, but it’s nice to have a few basic health features on hand.

Unfortunately, the charging pins around that heart rate sensor are unchanged from Gen 4. Many users saw the backplate or charging rings from Gen 4 and Fossil Sport watches simply fall off. That’s obviously concerning, and one would hope it would be fixed here, but Fossil previously told me that the problem was fixed on Gen 4 watches and was unchanged on this newer model. I have a feeling it didn’t quite work based on user reports. I hate seeing those reports, because I really like the magnetic charger that Fossil uses with this watch.

Another issue some reported on the Fossil Sport was a “sticky” power button. After three months using the Gen 5, I can say it doesn’t seem like that will be a problem.

As for the display, it’s as good as any other. The AMOLED panel is vibrant, bright, and gets the job done well. It doesn’t work as well in bright sunlight as the dual displays of watches from Mobvoi and Casio, but the “Sunlight Boost” toggle in the software does help matters. Oh, and there’s actually a speaker on this watch, too. It can handle phone calls and Google Assistant responses and is a handy addition, but it’s not really a huge deal, if you ask me.

fossil gen 5 wear os

Software & performance

It’s pretty much the same old story when it comes to Wear OS. It’s been a couple of years now since the platform was rebranded, but Google hasn’t solved any problems regarding its apps or performance woes.

In terms of performance, the Fossil Gen 5 is pretty much as good as you’ll get — for now. The combination of a Snapdragon Wear 3100 and 1 GB of RAM means animations are smooth and Google Assistant is quick to load up and respond to queries. Apps also load up way quicker compared to previous Wear OS watches. It’s still not fast, but it’s not dreadfully slow now. Overall, it just means that Wear OS is a lot more usable.

fossil gen 5 wear os

However, that’s the problem. Wear OS is just usable on this watch. While the platform absolutely nails notifications and, if you ask me, has a well-thought-out design with its directional swipes and handy “Tiles,” it lacks the app support that would make it truly compelling.

As it stands right now, Wear OS doesn’t stand out for basically anything except that it works well with Android phones. Apple is literally lightyears ahead when it comes to features, with incredibly compelling health features and handy apps as well. Even the one thing that Wear OS did have — an always-on display — made its way onto the latest Apple Watch Series 5.

fossil gen 5 wear os tiles

That’s a shame for the Fossil Gen 5. It still stands out from its hardware design, but as a smartwatch, its sales pitch is basically, “I’m pretty.” The software just can’t back up the hardware when it comes to competing with the likes of Samsung or Fitbit, and it’s even further from the Apple Watch. It’s just sad.

Battery life

One thing that Fossil has done with Wear OS, though, is work on battery life. That’s usually a big problem for Wear OS watches, but the Fossil Gen 5 manages to help users squeeze out more power with some helpful battery-saving modes.

We’ve got a full article detailing how these new battery-saving modes work, but you only really need to know about the three main presets. By default, you’ll be using the “Daily” mode. This is the full-featured Wear OS experience. You’ll have an always-on display, motion gestures, raise to wake, and more. In this mode, you’ll have to charge every single night, and in my testing, I usually ended a day at around 30% with this mode enabled. There’s also “Time-Only” that turns the smartwatch into a dumb watch and gives you just the time for up to a week on a single charge.

fossil gen 5 wear os battery modes

Then, there’s “Extended.” This mode is actually pretty clever if you ask me. It turns off features you probably don’t need, including the always-on display, speaker, Wi-Fi, Location, touch/tilt to wake, NFC, and “Ok Google” detection. It also turns off the Bluetooth connection when you go to sleep. The timing of that can be customized, but by default it turns off at 10 p.m. and turns back on at 6 a.m. With this mode enabled, you’ll still get notifications and most of the Wear OS experience, but also roughly three days on a charge, based on my usage.

If you want to fully customize your settings, there’s an option for that, too. The “Custom” preset lets you toggle features off or on to suit your needs. My usual setup was to disable everything except tilt-to-wake, and this generally gave me two comfortable days without recharging the watch, if not a little more.

Final thoughts

Here’s the thing. I like Wear OS. Most people don’t. Most people see it as a flawed platform that Google should either revamp, or in traditional Google fashion, kill off. I sit somewhere in the middle. The platform as a whole is well-designed and I think it has potential, but it’s been four years, and Google still hasn’t done anything with that potential.

With the Fossil Gen 5 smartwatch, Fossil makes the best of a bad situation. The watch has the best specs Wear OS currently has to offer, 1 GB of RAM, and a processor based on one from 2014. It’s not Fossil’s fault that Google and Qualcomm don’t offer anything better. Given that, the Fossil Gen 5 is utterly spectacular, but a quick look at basically any other platform shows how far behind Wear OS is.

It’s hard to recommend a $300 smartwatch with so many negatives to basically anyone. If those negatives don’t turn you away, I think you’ll be happy with the Fossil Gen 5. Otherwise, you’re better off looking at smartwatches from Samsung or Fitbit.

Where to buy

Fossil Gen 5 is available in its Carlyle and Julianna variants from the company’s online store as well as retailers such as Amazon. You’ll pay the same $295 for all variants including the options with silicone, leather, or metal bands.

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Ben is a writer and video producer for 9to5Google.

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