Hardware Review: Fossil Smartwatch HR

I haven’t reviewed any hardware in quite a few years now, so I thought it would be a good thing to fit in this new “season” of blogs following my pause. It also has some significance for me, because what I’m going to review is an accessory I needed to replace because of the original lockdown. But let’s me start from the beginning.

Why Do I Wear A Smartwatch

You may remember that many years ago, I started wearing a smartwatch, because my employer of the time (Google) gave us employee one for Christmas. My guess at the time is that this watch was quite the flop, being a first generation Android Wear (now WearOS) without a button (and thus making it incompatible with the soon-after new version of the operating system).

I actually got used to the idea of having a smartwatch, particularly to be able to enjoy the company of friends without checking my phone every time a new notification arrived — a quick glance to my wrist would tell me if the notification was important or not, which is really all I needed. It might sound strange, but I found that adding a notification display meant I was paying more attention to what was going on around me.

I didn’t really care much for the step counter functionality (nice, but not something I usually bother with), and it didn’t have heart rate monitoring. While it did have a few touch-screen features, most of the stuff I tried was not going to make or break my day. The “Okay Google” integration would be neat, if my accent was more compatible with the voice recognition, although I guess I did use it a few times as a timer while cooking, including at least once stopping the timer with my nose (because my hands were dirty).

What was clear to me very early on, though, was that the biggest annoyance with the LG Smart Watch was the fact that it was a device built to look and feel vaguely by a watch, but manufactured by a company that hadn’t made watches before (at least, not good ones). The original rubbery strap was making my wrist sweat, and it kept catching on my hair. So I gave in, and a few weeks after using the watch, I went to a jeweler in Dublin to buy a new (leather) strap. Quality wasn’t great but it was definitely a big improvement.

Originally at the office I’d been discussing getting a metal strap instead, one of those closed loops. But beside the practicality of charging the device by sandwiching the charger between the body and the strap, we heard reports from others who attempted it that it would mess with the Bluetooth reception, and thus the battery life.

I eventually bought not one, but two separate straps from Filson, one tan and one black, both leather, in separate occasion: the first time, because the original strap I got in Dublin was falling apart already, and I nearly lost my watch, and the second because I was going to be at a wedding, and the tan watch strap didn’t fit with the gray suit I was going to wear.

Thankfully, the watch used the “standard” 22mm strap size, so it was very easy to change the strap as needed. The first time I actually asked the store to change it for me, but then they also showed me how to do it myself (the Filson straps come with the tool needed to un-do the latches.)

My Second Smartwatch

Eventually, my LG Smart Watch stopped charging. It was due to happen, because people had been reporting bad oxidation on the contacts for weeks by then, but I guess it was aggravated by my stay in Singapore, where it was horribly humid — it was May, during the first SREcon Asia.

At that point, I knew that Fossil, who have been making watches for many, many years, had been selling WearOS smartwatches. I actually had been looking at them in London, together with friends, a few months before, and I knew that they were about to release a new generation that would not have the “flat tire” look into them. I didn’t care about the look — but I cared about the fact that, with the new generation about to be released, the older one would be discounted.

So for lunch break between talks, I organized a lunch with colleagues at a close-by shopping centre, that happened to have a Fossil store, and bought myself a Fossil Smartwatch: Marshall Q Gen 2, this time with a steel metal strap. I really liked the style of it (Fossil being a watch manufacturer who happened to make smartwatches rather than the other way around, made all the difference). And it served me well for just under three years.

Over those three years, I have also rotated the strap — the Fossil Smartwatch Gen 2 also had the same 22mm pitch as the LG one, so from time to time I would replace the steel strap with one of the Filson leather ones – depending on where I was going, with who, and wearing what. Yes it’s the kind of accessory that you end up actually enjoy matching around.

In addition to the already mentioned notification use, I have used the Dexcom watchface back when I tried out the G6, which was interesting, but not exactly my idea of friendliness. I also had a few different apps for payment with QR codes (if I’m not mistaken the only one that was worth its salt was Caffé Nero), and I have used it once or twice to board a Delta flight (I have boarded many Delta flights, don’t ask.) But those have always been more gimmicks than practical options.

Unfortunately, back when the first lockdown started, I made the mistake of leaving my watch to charge on the side of my bed… for weeks. Not sure if it was the lack of charging protection, or overheating, or something else, but it turned out that, at first, I started seeing a black spot in the middle of the display, and eventually, when I actually picked up the watch to wear it, I found that the top display was unseated from its place, and the Lithium battery looked very puffed up. Oops!

So basically, I have not had a smartwatch on my wrist since the beginning of the lockdown. Which was alright when spending all the time at home, but it started being inconvenient as we got our vaccine and started taking the first few tentative steps out of the flat into the scary outside.

A New Smartwatch

Of course my first thought was to go for a new Fossil Gen5E with Wear OS, which added NFC support, and even the ability to get an eSIM to connect it directly to LTE — although the latter is only available with Vodafone at the time I looked, and given they’re reintroducing European roaming fees, I’ve got zero intention to use their services.

But I also noted that Fossil sells not one, but two variants of “hybrid” smartwatches: one of them is pretty much identical to a classical watch, but includes a way to receive signals from your phone that tells it you’ve got notifications or other similar details, which didn’t sound like my cup of tea — the other was a lot more inviting: instead of a touchscreen LCD, the Smartwatch HR comes with a tinted eink screen (to match the colours of the chosen style) behind two “classic” watch hands.

Unlike the non-HR version, the hands are most definitely not mechanical, since they are made to “dance around” when you flick your wrist, and move away when you’re using the eink screen to give you as much visibility as possible. The screen itself includes a “rest position” of four configurable “complications” (although the default is what I kept: current weather, heart rate, step counter, and date), and can be set to display the notifications from your phone.

Basically, given the current times, this is all I need from a watch: time, notifications, weather, and I’ll take step counter and heart rate just for a laugh. Well, no, actually I’m happy about the step counter because of Pokémon Go Adventure Sync, but that’s another story.

In exchange for not having voice commands, touchscreen display, and all those kind of things, what I win is not having to charge my watch every night: the battery is declared to last some twelve days, and I can confirm it lasts more than a week. This is possibly less of an issue now that we’re in lockdown, but knowing that I could go for a weekend with my wife somewhere and not curse myself for not having taken the charger of the watch is actually a much relaxing thought.

The watch itself is also much lighter to keep on the wrist, to be honest. I’m actually wearing it in the house, not just out and about, and I barely notice it. I have not slept wearing it, though it does have sleep tracking, supposedly, but that’s not something I ever did, not with any watch — putting the watch on every morning is part of a ritual for me. I think even getting used to sleep with the wedding band felt awkward at first.

Of all the features, probably the most important for me is the ability to receive notifications, as I said before: it allows me an at-a-glance view of what’s going on, which makes the difference between me ignoring something, or asking the person I’m with for a moment to look at something. I was originally skeptical about the Fossil HR, because some of the reviews insisted that it only supported notifications from a handful of apps — either this is the case for iOS only, or it’s a limitation of an older app version: on my Android phone, I could configure whichever app I wanted to receive notifications from.

The main notifications I need, like most other people, are instant messaging apps — because we’re back in the same situation we were when Trillian was useful, except that we can’t have it. In this, the HR performs very well, I have no problem seeing the full message in notifications from either WhatsApp, Viber, or Telegram. Email also works great, with Fastmail showing the subject and sender with no issue.

Possibly secondary in choice, but admittedly very much important, are the Libre 2 notifications. With the new sensors that Abbott eventually rolled out to the UK, a Bluetooth push is sent to the phone when reaching a defined threshold (low- or high-blood sugar alert — in my case the risk is mostly with lows, so I set it only to buzz me for that one). Receiving the notification on my watch could easily be a lifesaver, as it means I can notice it even when I might be feeling too distracted to take my phone out.

The only downside is that when the text of a notification is changed, the watch will buzz out again. This is great if you have a notification with a counter of things that you need to keep in mind, but not so great for the two hours when your sensor is about to expire or starting up: the app shows a notification with the countdown of minutes remaining in either situation, and that means every minute the watch buzzes. Quite annoying, and I wish I could have a reliable way to shut up those notifications — unfortunately, the Fossil app only allows me to select which apps, and not which notification class (quite understandable there).

Also worth noting one caveat: unlike the Gen2 Marshall Q, leaving the watch to charge does not disable notifications. This is great if you really need it to tell you something important, like a sugar low… less great if your local Pokémon Go group is very active in the early morning and you like to sleep in.

In addition to all of this, the Smartwatch HR includes media controls (haven’t tried them), and some type of fitness routine tracking. This only triggered once by mistake while we were walking back from the local park after playing Pokémon. I m not really a fit person.

What Could Change My Mind

As I said above, right now this watch is pretty much all I need for myself. But that might indeed change in the future — beside not flying at all during the pandemic, I have overall stopped traveling as often as I used to – and in part that’s because I’m no longer longing to escape Dublin at any chance – so features such as boarding passes are not that compelling to me. On the other hand, if vaccination certificates become more acceptable to check at venues, then it might be interesting to have something able to show them straight on my wrist.

Similarly, while NFC-based payments are an interesting novelty, using the phone for those is not particularly cumbersome. But maybe I could see a point if I could scan my Libre sensor with my watch — although that would only work on alternating fortnights as I wouldn’t be able to easily scan a sensor on my left arm with the watch. So probably that wouldn’t be much of an interest to me.

If I did move to Dexcom or similar CGM setups, or if Libre were to provide real-time readings over Bluetooth, and they did support WearOS (which to be honest sounds like they would, Dexcom does already and it would be silly to miss that), it would definitely be more useful to see the graph of the last few hours. So that would definitely be a consideration.

I have over time done a number of things directly from my watch without having to look for the phone, particularly when it came to quickly answer a message or turned on/off a light or similar. While most of these are only feasible with a “full” smartwatch, I don’t think any of those are that much important to me.

While the LTE model did pique my inner geek, I realized I would have pretty much no use for it, except for avoiding taking my phone with me in some circumstances. This would be a much more useful proposal if it wasn’t that my phone is also my main glucometer nowadays, which means it’s always with me and always charged. And also, I play Pokémon Go, so you’d be hard pressed to find me without a phone at hand when I’m out and about — a hundo could just be around the corner!