Wear OS vs. watchOS

Comparing the top two wearable platforms

Multiple smartwatches on an arm

Elias Villagran / Flickr

While several smartwatches are available running proprietary software, the dominant platforms are Google’s Wear OS (formerly Android Wear) and Apple’s watchOS. These two operating systems provide different functionality, customization, and feedback to their respective devices. We've compared the two to help you decide which one is right for you.

Overall Findings

Wear OS

  • Swipe to move between screens

  • Use voice commands to navigate and access features

  • Multi-platform

watchOS

  • Home screen is a clock with apps stored in another place

  • Use voice control with Siri digital assistant to dictate messages and make phone calls

  • Locked to one type of phone

Which wearable operating system you go with will largely depend on what kind of phone you use. WatchOS is designed to work with Apple's iPhones only. Wear OS works with both iPhones and Android devices, but it loses some features when it pairs with an Apple device.

Device Compatibility: Wear OS Offers More Choice

Wear OS

  • Pairs with both Android and iOS devices

  • Available on multiple devices

watchOS

  • Only works with iPhones

  • Available for Apple Watch

Smartwatches pair with your phone via Bluetooth to bring notifications and other functionality to your watch display, and this only works when the devices are compatible.

If you own an Android handset, you’ll want a smartwatch running Google’s Wear OS to reap the benefits of at-a-glance Google Now notifications on your wrist. Even if you have an Apple phone, however, you can still use Wear OS. You just won't get full connectivity with your apps. Similarly, if you’re considering the Apple Watch, it only makes sense if you have an iPhone (version 5 and later).

As far as devices that support each operating system, Wear OS also offers a little more flexibility. It's available on dozens of smartwatches from manufacturers including LG, Samsung, and Motorola. In contrast, watchOS is only available on one device, the Apple Watch, although it does have multiple models with different functionalities.

Interface: A Matter of Preference

Wear OS

  • Interacts with Google Now

  • Interface is window/panel-based

  • Physical buttons depend on device; navigate using taps and swipes

watchOS

  • Interface based on apps

  • Navigate using taps, swipes, voice commands, side button, and Digital Crown

Wear OS draws heavily from Google Now, the intelligent “personal assistant” that delivers up-to-date information on the weather, your commute, your recent Google searches and more. If you own a Wear OS smartwatch, you can expect context-based updates to pop up on the screen. Plus, navigating the Wear OS interface is easy; you simply swipe to move from one screen to another.

The Apple Watch UI is quite different than the Wear OS interface. For one, the home screen displays the time as well as your installed apps (represented by bubble-shaped icons). It's an attractive and colorful setup, though it might look too busy for some users. To jump into an app, tap its icon.

To get back to the home screen, you press the “digital crown,” a nub on the side of the watch face that can also scroll and zoom in and out of on-screen content. The Apple Watch also has a side button that shows recently opened apps and unlocks Apple Pay.

Like Google’s Wear OS, the Apple Watch interface incorporates swiping for easy, at-a-glance info and updates from your apps. But watchOS provides a few more options based on the Apple Watch's standard, physical buttons.

Voice Control: Apple Watch Wins on Features

Wear OS

  • Voice control to send messages, set alarms, and other shortcuts

watchOS

  • Voice control via Siri, the same digital assistant as on other Apple devices

  • Microphone works with speaker to allow phone calls and walkie-talkie function

  • Dictate text messages, open apps, control smart home accessories

Wear OS offers support for a slew of voice commands that work as shortcuts on your smartwatch. You can set reminders, send short text messages and pull up directions. There’s no built-in speaker, but you can technically answer a call from the watch.

With the Apple Watch, you can reply to messages via voice dictation, and you can ask Siri questions just like you can on the iPhone. You can even have a quick call thanks to the built-in speaker and use the Walkie-Talkie app to communicate with your friends who also own Apple Watches.

Because watchOS has Siri in it, it has most of the voice-control functions as the iPhone. You can open apps and even control devices like smart bulbs and thermostats without picking up your phone.

Apps: Both Platforms Have What You Need

Wear OS

  • Thousands of available apps

  • Dedicated section in the Google Play store

watchOS

  • Thousands of available apps

  • Native apps are available, but many mirror iPhone version

Both Wear OS and the Apple Watch have thousands of compatible apps, and the number will only continue to grow. There’s a dedicated Wear OS section in the Google Play store, and here you’ll find Amazon and the popular running app Strava.

The Apple Watch has many high-profile apps in its arsenal, including one from Starwood Hotels that can be used to open your hotel room. With the American Airlines app, Apple Watch users will be able to scan boarding passes from their wrists.

While apps are available for both platforms that run natively on their device, not all of the programs make the most of this feature. For the most part, smartwatch apps deliver notifications from the phone they're paired to so that you can see them with a quick glance at your wrist. Both platforms have impressive native apps, however.

Final Verdict

Both platforms have their strengths and weaknesses. As of now, the Apple Watch supports more of the apps you're likely to use, and it offers a unique, visually striking interface. Google's Wear OS, on the other hand, has a cleaner look and a wider variety of voice control options.

If you're ready to purchase a smartwatch, ultimately it comes down to which smartphone you already own and which features matter most to you. In any case, expect to see improvements on both platforms down the line.