Unlike the soft puck used with the first-generation Pixel Watch, Google’s new Pixel Watch 2 has switched to a charger with pogo pins, a design used by Fitbit on all of its fitness trackers and smartwatches. To complicate matters, it also appears that the first-generation Pixel Watch cases are not compatible with the new watch either. All of this may be frustrating from a user’s point of view, but it highlights why smartwatches and wearables will rely on proprietary accessories for quite some time.
Switching to pogo pin charging may seem like a step backwards, but it’s a functional option. With the Pixel Watch 2, Google and Fitbit opted to add a new multi-path sensor instead of the first watch’s single LED strip. The bonus is that the additional sensors will supposedly improve the accuracy of heart rate tracking by 40 percent. The downside is that adding more internal components leaves less room to place charging elements inside the watch.
This is a common problem with smartwatch (and other wearable) design. A few years ago I interviewed designer Gadi Amit to discover Why proprietary chargers were so widespread in this category of devices when there were universal charging standards for other devices. Amit was the founder of NewDealDesign, the agency Fitbit used for many of its previous devices. What I learned is that wearable devices are too small for USB-C connectors, and the basic design of the smartwatch itself is part of the problem. Because it has displays on top and sensor arrays on the bottom, charging areas are often limited to the bottom perimeter or sides of the device.
This is one of the main reasons why many portable chargers opt for prongs or stands. Unlike the wireless dials used by Apple and Samsung, these ensure the smartwatch stays secure rather than accidentally slipping off. Pins are popular because the contact allows for faster charging, which can help mitigate the pain of shorter-than-ideal battery life. Fitbit (and now Google) isn’t the only wearable company relying on pogo pins, either. Garmin still relies primarily on pins, as do many Fossil chargers. The downside is that the pins can corrode over time or break if you don’t store the chargers properly.
Pinless wireless charging for smartwatches also has its disadvantages. On the one hand, between companies, no two wireless chargers are compatible despite using the same underlying technology. This is because each company has their own criteria for where internal components are placed and magnetic elements are used to ensure everything lines up correctly. This is also why Qi wireless charging is not always compatible with smart watches.
The original Pixel Watch is also a great example of this. Although Google never said the device supported reverse wireless charging, several people online pointed out that it was technically possible. A server tried it too, but while I was able to load it a bit, it never worked reliably. The same goes for Samsung’s reverse charging with its devices. You can make it work with some Samsung phones, but it doesn’t work reliably with most Qi chargers. A lot of this comes down to coil placement and the fact that rounded devices don’t always lay flat easily.
But while the switch to pogo pins here makes sense, even if you don’t love it, it means you can’t use the original Pixel Watch charging puck if you upgrade. That leads to electronic waste. Likewise, it seems that the first generation Pixel Watch cases are also incompatible with the new watch. 9to5Google found that several Amazon sellers have change his listings say that their cases only work with the original Pixel Watch. This is likely because the Pixel Watch 2’s digital crown is more flush with the screen and the side button protrudes a little less. The microphone placement is also slightly different. You probably won’t have to wait long before Pixel Watch 2 cases hit the market, but it’s annoying considering the Pixel Watch’s screen is prone to cracking and scratches, and Google doesn’t offer repair options for the watch.
This is not a problem unique to Google. It’s just that most wearable companies try to wait a few generations before making adjustments so that accessories can remain backward and forward compatible for as long as possible. The Pixel Watch, however, is very new, so these changes turn out to be more noticeable. For its part, Google seems to have decided that the benefits of the new sensor suite and refined design outweigh the disadvantages.