The smartwatch landscape is broadly divided into three camps: Apple Watch, the ever-evolving range of Google Wear OS smartwatches, and…everything else. Well, it’s probably unfair to group all other wearables into an “everything else” bucket because, to be honest, many of the smartwatches and fitness bands in this “miscellaneous” category are really great.
No, what I mean when I say “everything else” is that these watches use a purpose-built operating system – separate from Apple’s Watch OS and Google’s Wear OS. While a smartwatch with a custom operating system has many implications (most of which are outside the scope of this article), one of the big decisions you make when choosing a non-Apple, non-Google smartwatch is which one intelligent assistant you will use.
While the ease with which Siri can navigate your Apple Watch isn’t surprising, and the somewhat lackluster performance of Google Assistant on a Wear OS device makes this category of watches unhappy, there’s a whole landscape of watches that cater to Alexa – Voice of Amazon have turned assistant. And that’s pretty unique, because Alexa has a definite place in the world of voice assistants – mostly in terms of DIY use cases and cross-device compatibility.
But what’s it actually like to pick a smartwatch solely for Alexa functionality? Well, I got my hands on a few different watch classes, including a Fitbit Versa 2 and Xiaomi’s new flagship S1 smartwatch (currently only officially available in some markets), and spent the better part of a week asking Alexa to control my life check. That’s how it went.
Which smartwatches have Alexa
The first key consideration for this story was to determine which smartwatch brands are actually embracing Alexa. First, there’s Fitbit’s range of trackers and watches. I generally really like what Fitbit is doing with a custom OS, especially when it comes to battery life, but I’ve honestly never spent much time calling Alexa to start a workout or reading my calendar to myself. But Fitbit needed to integrate Alexa to get the competitive edge of voice-activated commands — though that could change now that Google owns Fitbit.
Then there are the “third party” watches – the most famous manufacturer of which is probably Amazfit. These budget watches and straps aim to give you wrist notifications, basic workout features, and about 70% of a smartwatch experience at a bargain price. This is probably the sweet spot for using Alexa.
The final category is the “high-end” custom OS watches. For this story, I’m giving the Xiaomi S1 watch a spin for its custom OS, but you can find a few options in the higher-priced watch space that use a custom OS – most notably the Samsung Galaxy Watch line (moved to Wear OS before the fourth installment , That means).
Alexa for every day
Before I get into my actual experience of using Alexa in my everyday life, it’s important to underline what “built-in” Alexa functionality actually means. While an Alexa-specific device like an Amazon Echo or Fire TV works out of the box, a “built-in” device is a third-party tech device that, after some setup, is meant to work hand-in-hand with Alexa — usually via an Alexa app on your phone . Devices like the FitBit Versa 2 and Xiaomi S1 require you to update the firmware, connect the device to an Alexa app on your phone, and be in an area where this feature is supported. Once it’s set up, you’ll have hands-free access, but it takes some time to get it up and running.
In practice, Alexa felt like an interesting voice assistant to have on-demand, most likely due to the fact that I’m used to Alexa living in my smart home more than my pocket. My go-to on-the-go voice assistant is Siri, and even then I really only use it on my Apple Watch to quickly start a workout or awkwardly reply to a text when I can’t get my phone out of my pocket. Alexa, with her intricate, DIY-friendly patchwork of skills, means there’s a little more to experiment with as I wander around.
First, I found that Alexa actually worked a little better than Siri when I asked her to search the web for me. Siri often sends back the wrong information or asks me to go to my phone more often. Alexa, on the other hand, seemed more comfortable answering my question, at least in most cases. Similarly, since the Alexa app more easily integrated other app functions, triggering scheduling in my Google ecosystem (like meetings and to-do lists) was more seamless. Of course, Siri can handle this with Apple’s ecosystem, but not very seamlessly with third-party options. That’s all anecdotal, and your mileage may vary, but in general I think Amazon built a bolder voice assistant because it’s not quite as secure – especially when you factor in Alexa’s tens of thousands of skills, which still outstrip what that Google Assistant brings to the table.
Alexa with any device
Perhaps the most important consideration when determining the Alexa difference is how many third-party devices Amazon chose to interface with. Since both Google and Apple tend to keep their ecosystems firmly in their grip, if you ask for functionality, they’ll default to first-party devices. Amazon, on the other hand, has been taking painstaking steps to build a massive rolodex of speakers and smart home devices. While the numbers vary quite a bit, Amazon usually has an edge of a few thousand devices with its compatibility list. Google Assistant and Apple lag miserably in this regard.
To be fair, my smart home is a bit mixed. My thermostat is a Google Nest Learning Thermostat while my TV streaming device of choice is an Apple TV. But much of the rest of my smart home system is powered by the budget-friendly company Wyze. Between smart locks, Wi-Fi cameras, a monitored security system, and even a robot vacuum, the Wyze app is a common smart home control interface for me. And while Google integration is said to be supported, the best functionality I’ve found is with Alexa. So having Alexa on my wrist to open a door or turn off a camera came in handy. And this should probably apply to a wide range of other devices as well, including the obvious Amazon-friendly Ring devices and Ecobee’s popular range of smart thermostats.
And this is where I think the Alexa-on-your-wrist thing really shines. Apple’s HomeKit functionality really isn’t there yet and requires a lot of fiddling to get started, and Google’s approach works best with first-party devices. Amazon is the ecosystem without an ecosystem, so you’ll have better luck with a wider selection of third-party devices.
The final result
As unsatisfactory as it may seem, the answer to the question “Is Alexa the best wrist-worn voice assistant” really depends on your priorities. For me, I think I’ll still have Siri as my favorite purely because so much of my mobile lifestyle is based on Apple. But if I prefer Android phones and a PC laptop, I could change my tune to Alexa.
For the battle between Google Assistant and Alexa, Google may have won the first-party battle, but for compatibility across a wide range of devices, Alexa is a really clever little helper. If you’re in the market for a smartwatch and voice activation is a feature you’re looking for, I’d recommend taking a look at your list of “must-have” device integrations. When it comes to something beyond the main Google Nest/Google Home infrastructure, Alexa could open up a better, more futuristic life.