Can a Smartwatch Replace a Phone? Part Two

On 1 January, the start of the new year, I set myself a challenge to replace my phone with a smartwatch, limiting use of my phone to one hour each evening. You can read more about the rules I set myself and my expectations going in here. Many colleagues and friends warned me that the experiment was ambitious at best and most likely doomed to fail. Many felt they already knew the obvious answer to the question of whether a watch could replace a phone and, if I’m being honest, so did I.

However, my quest wasn’t in vain. Throughout the month I was forced to use my Google Pixel Watch in ways I didn’t know were possible. Will I continue to use it like this? In most cases, no. Am I particularly glad the option is there? Again, mostly no. But I did gain insight into what smartwatches need to change to improve the standalone experience.

Let’s start by looking at the reason we all started carrying phones in the first place — staying in contact when on the move. On my Pixel Watch, I immediately ran into problems with app integration. Most of my communication goes through WhatsApp, and the native support on my smartwatch was dreadful. I could reply to texts, but picture messages or voice notes required a third-party app like Informer to access.

Beyond this, I found that the texting and calling experience on a Pixel Watch was mixed. If you’re caught without headphones, repeatedly talking to your wrist before quickly slamming the watch into your ear to hear the reply is certainly not ideal. But if you’re already listening to music or a podcast and receive a call, the added clarity and hands-free experience is arguably better than using a phone.

Texting, however, is a complete nightmare. The tiny screen doesn’t lend itself to reading or sending messages longer than a single sentence; swipe-to-text is good when you get the hang of it but useless on a rickety bus or train; and speech-to-text works well but relies on you having no shame about talking to your wrist in public, bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase “talk to the hand”.

I also had issues receiving SMS messages on my watch. A few times when I knew someone had just sent me a message, it would fail to appear on my watch. This happened a lot more often when my phone was turned off, leading me to question if the cellular capability of the watch was only being used to connect to the phone, rather than receiving messages directly through my mobile operator.

Another way that smartphones have completely changed our daily lives is through navigation and mapping. When paired with a phone, I’ve found the navigation features on smartwatches to be capable. However, when the phone is removed, problems begin to arise.

Navigation by walking, cycling and driving are all fairly well-supported, although the small screen does present some problems when travelling at anything above a reasonable jogging speed. When it comes to public transport, using a watch to navigate is impossible — Google Maps and Citymapper require a link to a phone to deliver public transport routes to the watch. I foolishly chose damp, cold January for this experiment, so I was often forced to walk when I’d rather have caught the bus.

The lack of a camera is the final aspect I knew I’d miss, but I was able to turn into a positive. I’ve had a 35 mm film point-and-shoot camera gathering dust for years, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a single roll of film developed from it. At the start of this challenge, I wasn’t even sure if it worked. But with no phone, this was an opportunity to throw it in my bag and hopefully remember to use it. I’m pleased to say I managed to get two rolls of film developed, the fruits of which you can see below. Whether I’ll continue to use it now that I have my lovely Google Pixel 7 Pro camera back remains to be seen, but it was a happy diversion for the month.

There is, of course, a whole list of other things that we can do on our phones that I had no illusions about being able to do on a smartwatch, from transferring money to watching videos. But in my efforts to recreate the phone experience on my watch, I did find some unexpected capabilities that third-party developers have made for WearOS.

For example, Uber has a WearOS app, and I found and used a couple of recipe apps as well. Most surprisingly, I found a reasonably capable web browser. I didn’t push it to its absolute limits, but it did come in handy for those moments when you desperately need an answer from a search engine.

Overall, communication and mapping were my two main grievances from the whole experience, and shamefully I must admit I wasn’t entirely successful in tearing myself away from social media and YouTube — my laptop ended up bearing the load, being carted from room to room at home. Of course, this wasn’t an option when I was out and about, so I found other ways of entertaining myself on long bus or tube rides. Reading became an almost daily activity, which certainly wasn’t the case in the past, and so far this has carried on into February.

Ultimately, though, despite the few positives, the experience was a bit of a nightmare and not something I’d recommend. The nuances of the frustrations and minor inconveniences I felt are too many to list here, but I did come away from the month thinking that a smartwatch could be a reasonable alternative to a smartphone, for some people in some scenarios with some upgrades to app integration and connectivity.

The continued existence and release of new feature phones prove that there’s an appetite for more stripped-back experiences, and the fitness and health capabilities of a smartwatch add a nice utility without being obtrusive. There’s still a long road to travel before this is even a slightly reasonable way to live, and I fear that without clear market demand, the investment it’d take to get there is unlikely to ever be made. But I live in hope.