Sep 04, 2023

The Pixel Watch 2’s switch to pin charging is a very functional choice

By Victoria Song, a senior reporter focusing on wearables, health tech, and more with 11 years of experience. Before coming to The Verge, she worked for Gizmodo and PC Magazine.

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Unlike the smooth puck used with the first-gen 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. Complicating matters, it also looks like first-gen Pixel Watch cases aren’t compatible with the new watch, either. All this can be frustrating from a user standpoint, but it highlights why smartwatches and wearables will rely on proprietary accessories for a good long while.

Switching to pogo pin charging might seem like a step back, but it’s a functional choice. With the Pixel Watch 2, Google and Fitbit opted to add a new multipath sensor instead of the single strip of LEDs on the first watch. The upside is the additional sensors will purportedly improve heart rate tracking accuracy by 40 percent during vigorous activities. The downside is adding more internal components leaves less room to place charging elements within the watch.

This is a common issue with smartwatch (and other wearable) design. A few years ago, I interviewed designer Gadi Amit to suss out why proprietary chargers were rampant in this gadget category when universal charging standards existed for other devices. Amit was the founder of NewDealDesign, the agency Fitbit used for many of its earlier devices. What I learned is that wearable devices are too small for USB-C connectors, and the basic smartwatch design itself is part of the problem. Because you have displays up top and sensor arrays on the bottom, charging areas are often limited to the bottom perimeter or sides of the device.

This is a major reason why many wearable chargers opt for pins or cradles. Unlike the wireless pucks used by Apple and Samsung, these ensure the smartwatch stays secure instead of accidentally sliding around. Pins are popular because the contact allows for faster charging — which can help blunt the pain of shorter-than-ideal battery life. Fitbit (and now Google) is not the only wearable company that’s relied on pogo pins, either. Garmin still primarily relies on pins, as do many Fossil chargers. The downside is that the pins can corrode over time or snap off if you don’t store chargers properly.

Pin-less wireless smartwatch charging has its cons, too. For one, between companies, no two wireless chargers are cross-compatible despite using the same underlying tech. That’s because each company has its own spin on where internal components are placed, and magnetic elements are used to make sure everything aligns properly. It’s also why Qi wireless charging isn’t always compatible with smartwatches.

The original Pixel Watch is also a great example of this. Although Google never said the device was compatible with reverse wireless charging, several people online noted that it was technically possible. Yours truly also attempted it, but while I could charge it for a bit, it never worked reliably. The same is true for Samsung’s reverse charging with its devices. You can get it to work with some Samsung phones, but it doesn’t reliably work with most Qi chargers. A lot of this boils down to coil placement and the fact that rounded devices don’t always easily lie flat.

But while the switch to pogo pins here makes sense — even if you don’t love it — it does mean you can’t use the original Pixel Watch charging puck if you upgrade. That leads to e-waste. Likewise, it appears that first-gen Pixel Watch cases are also incompatible with the new watch. 9to5Google found that several Amazon sellers have changed their listings to say their cases only work with the original Pixel Watch. This is likely because the Pixel Watch 2’s digital crown sits more flush to the screen, and the side button protrudes ever so slightly less. The microphone placement is also slightly different. You likely won’t have to wait too long before Pixel Watch 2 cases hit the market — but it is irksome considering the Pixel Watch’s screen is prone to cracks and scratches, and Google doesn’t offer repair options for the watch.

This isn’t a Google-only problem. It’s just most wearable companies try to wait a few generations before making tweaks so that accessories can remain backward- and forward-compatible for as long as possible. The Pixel Watch, however, is very new, so these changes happen to be more noticeable. For its part, Google seems to have decided that the benefits of the new sensor array and refined design outweigh the cons.

Correction, October 6th, 2023, 4PM ET: This article has been updated to clarify the 40 percent accuracy in heart rate refers to vigorous exercise. We regret the error.

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