(Pocket-lint) - Fossil - now a veteran in the smartwatch market - is virtually single-handedly keeping the Google Wear OS platform running. Yes, there are others, but with the mix of styles, popular brand names and being relatively affordable, it is the brand to go to for an Android-based smartwatch.
For its Gen 5 series, Fossil packed in the much-needed Snapdragon 3100, a heart-rate sensor and GPS location tracking as well as replacing the sluggish and weak wireless charging disk for a much more reliable and speedy contact charging system.
Even with CES 2020 behind us, Fossil's latest products still use this same hardware, so it's really all about choosing your style.
You'll find a look, no trouble
- Stainless steel quick release mesh band
- 44mm case (on our review unit)
If there's one thing Fossil knows how to do well, it's fashionable watches. So when it creates smartwatches, it builds them in different styles, colours, finishes and with different straps and bands available.
Or unit - named the Julianna - has a black 44mm case with a gold coloured bezel around the watch face, and a black Milanese-style steel watch band. Unlike Apple's Milanese, which conveniently uses a magnet to ensure endless versatility, the Fossil method uses a clasp, which you have to adjust until you find the fit that works for you.
Thankfully, this isn't an overly difficult process, as you release the clasp by flicking up a portion that holds it tightly to one of the strap's indents, slide it, then lock it back down in place. You can do it with a small flat-head screwdriver or anything else with a small, slim, flat edge.
The good thing about this style of watch strap, which is essentially micro-sized chainmail, is that it's as strong as it is flexible. It fits perfectly around the contours of your arm and is comfortable. If you ever fancy changing it out, there's a quick-release system to detach it from the case. We switched it out for the brown leather Fossil strap from the third generation Fossil series.
As for the casing and design of the watch itself, it looks and feels slimmer and more modest than some of the previous designs. While watches like the Gen 3/4 Explorist had quite a heft to them, the Julianna and Carlyle Gen 5's are subtle, svelte and less bulky.
There is a slight issue with the Julianna though: size. Originally pitched to us as a watch for narrower (supposedly female) wrists, the Julianna is 44mm. That's a big watch size, and both the women who tried it on for testing purposes found it far too large to be comfortably worn throughout the day. So in the end, it found its way onto this male reviewer's arm instead. It might not be the most traditionally masculine, but with the dark brown leather strap we rather like it.
Of course, there are other styles and colours available, so don't let any of that put you off the series. One version of Julianna has shiny little imitation diamonds dotted around the frame and along the middle of the metal link bracelet.
We do like the design of the buttons along the right edge, though. They're small and give a nice firm spring feel when pressed. What's more, the middle crown can be turned to control what's on the screen, so you can scroll it up to get to your notifications or scroll down to view the quick settings pane. It's tremendously pleasing (and useful) when you don't want to use the touchscreen.
If there's one feature that immediately draws buyers to Wear OS over Apple Watch, it's arguably that the watch has a round display, while Apple Watch seems to be sticking forever to the rectangular watch screen.
It might be difficult to create a user interface with text that works well on the round screen, but there's no denying that in some situations a round watch just works better. Let's not forget, a lot of the reason anyone buys a watch is purely for the way it looks. Round screens are a must-have for some.
As for the actual display quality, it's certainly a decent panel. It's AMOLED, so the pixels can switch off individually, creating an inky black and high-contrast look. It also means you get that always-on ambient mode which uses a lot less power than the fully-on watch face.
Colours are vibrant, and you can always see the time in its default mode. In ambient mode - as has been the case for some time - you see the time update minute-by-minute with minimal brightness and no animations to process. This ensures battery longevity.
Actually useful for exercise
In previous years, Fossil's watches weren't particularly adept at tracking your workout sessions. They lacked both GPS and heart-rate sensors, but the latest watches (from Gen 4 onwards) have had them both built in, and so you can install apps like Strava to track your running sessions, and get all the health data you'd hope to get in a fitness tracking watch.
What we will say is that you do need a third-party app to make the most of this. Google's own Fit app is a bit lightweight, and so it's best to find another. Thankfully, Google Play is full of options that you can install, whether it be Strava, Nike Run Club, or another decent app.
The big advantage to having GPS built-in is that you can use these apps without having to have your phone on you at the same, the watch does the tracking free and untethered from its smartphone overlord. It does seem to take a minute or two to latch on to the location though, and that can mean the end result ends up being a little off.
On a 10K running route, we compared the Fossil against the Apple Watch S4, and it was consistently 100-200 metres behind the Apple Watch. Another issue we saw during a test session was that the Fossil seemed to stick on 1.3km for about five minutes, falling way behind the Apple Watch's distance tracking, until it seemed to jump back up to a more accurate distance. After that it was updating properly, so it may have just been a minor blip.
Inside, the 5th Gen Fossil is powered by the Snapdragon 3100, again an upgrade on the previous 2100 which had run on smartwatches for far too long. With the new chip, the software and experience seems considerably smoother. Animations are a tiny bit stuttery, but not massively so. What's more, various elements tend to load much quicker than before, whether that be the Play Store list of apps, or any installed app in general. It's been a long time coming, but we're glad it's finally here as our biggest previous moan about Fossil watches has been rectified.
- No more Qi wireless charging
One of the most disappointing features of previous Fossil watches - stretching back generations - was the speed at which they charged. They used a wireless charging disc similar to the Apple Watch, which snapped on to the back using magnets. Except, not only was the magnetic connection quite weak, but it also delivered the power sluggishly. It would take hours to fully charge a watch, which essentially meant you were forced to charge it overnight, every night.
With the fifth generation, things have changed. There's still a magnetic charging disc, but the magnets are much stronger and snap-on with a decent amount of force. What's more, it doesn't use a wireless charging technology like Qi to deliver the power. Instead, there are two gold rings on the underside of the watch case, and two little pins that stick out of the charging disc that line up perfectly with the two rings.
With the combination of actual contact and a decent magnet, the watch doesn't need lining up - it just snaps easily into place and charges much more quickly than before. After 35 minutes plugged in can deliver around 60 per cent of the battery. So rather than take three hours or more to fully charge from zero, it can do so in around an hour.
The weird part about the charging was similar to the GPS data freezing during our run. Several times during charging it would show the same battery percentage for a good few minutes, before jumping up to a much higher level. It wasn't constantly updating in real time.
Wear OS improved, but not perfect
Fossil might be leading the charge in the world of smartwatches with its plethora of styles and brands, but when it comes to software it seems Wear OS is lacking in a couple of areas in comparison with the Apple Watch. Perhaps most key is the approach to health metrics and how it handles that data.
Gen 5 watches have heart-rate monitors, so you can keep an eye on HR over the course of the day, you can even use Google Fit - or any number of tracking apps - to log in your running or activity settings. Open up Google Fit on a smartphone, though, and you're greeted by quite basic data.
You don't get a the in depth trends like you might on Garmin or Apple's services. Likewise, the general "Move Minutes" and "Heart Points" are a bit simple. But then again, if your only aim is to make sure you move enough, and briskly enough, then these measures are good enough. Just don't expect to be able to dig down deep into your running performance.
What the Fossil 5 can do is show you useful - however sparse - charts on your sleeping and your daily, weekly and monthly heart-rate patterns.
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WearOS works best with Android phones when it comes to interacting with notifications from your phone. You can reply to messages from your wrist, using your voice or the touchscreen. With iOS on iPhone, you're limited to just viewing the notifications, without the ability to interact or respond to them from your wrist.
Fossil's 5th generation smartwatches solve many of the issues we had with previous years' devices: there's no smoother performance and added functionality like GPS and heart-rate monitoring. Plus, the battery isn't sluggishly slow to charge any more. That's a lot of pain points wiped out. As a result, Fossil is still the brand to go for if you're after a fashionable smartwatch and aren't an Apple user.
While we did have a couple of tiny issues with GPS data loading during running sessions, there was nothing so severe that we'd discourage you from buying one. In all the key elements you'd want your smartwatch to perform, the 5th Gen Fossil does well. It's smooth, reliable, and a lot quicker than many other previous generation Wear OS watches.
Even if this particular model doesn't work for you, Fossil has a whole host of styles and brand lines in its huge consumer brand, so there's no shortage of smartwatches with similar features, but in a style more to your liking. And that is arguably the joy of Fossil: it's fashion first, but it has now made the tech side of its watches much better too.
Skagen Falster 2
Another under Fossil's family umbrella, the Skagen Falster 2 is a lovely, small and minimalist smartwatch. If the Julianna is a bit too flashy for you, the Falster is the perfect antidote.
Apple Watch Series 5
If you're an iPhone user, there's really no better smartwatch experience for you than the Apple Watch, and the latest offering is better than its predecessors. It finally has an always-on display, and its fitness tracking nouse isn't matched by any other smartwatch without going more towards the dedicate fitness and exercise devices from the likes of Garmin and Fitbit.
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Michael Kors Bradshaw 2
This watch oozes quality and style, delivers a plethora of features - from waterproofing and built-in GPS to a built-in speaker and customisable watch faces - and offers great overall performance. For the Michael Kors fan, it is everything you could ask for in a smartwatch, perfectly blending traditional Kors style with modern day smarts.