Google Assistant on the Galaxy Watch 4 is great except for one thing

When Google and Samsung announced Wear OS 3 last year, I had lots of questions about how well Google services would run on Samsung hardware. Of Google’s expansive suite of apps, I was most curious about Google Assistant. The only catch was it wasn’t available when the Galaxy Watch 4 lineup launched — and there were only vague promises as to when it would actually be available. But yesterday, Google Assistant finally arrived on the Galaxy Watch 4, and after a few hours of playing around with it, I’m cautiously optimistic.

Google Assistant was already a feature on older Wear OS 2 watches. It just wasn’t great. Because Wear OS 2 watches struggled with underpowered hardware, Google Assistant was often laggy and never fully lived up to its potential. Asking for more than the most basic queries was a crapshoot. Meanwhile, Samsung’s Tizen watches had snappy performance but only offered up Bixby. And Bixby… is Bixby. Despite Samsung’s efforts, it’s just not as useful as other digital assistants. All this to say: once the Google Assistant was available for the Galaxy Watch 4, I installed it as fast as humanly possible.

It’ll show up as an update in the on-wrist Google Play Store.

Installing Google Assistant

Setting up Google Assistant on the Galaxy Watch 4 isn’t hard. The only thing you have to do is make sure your phone and watch are running the latest software. Once that’s done, launch the Google Play Store app on your wrist. You can then either search for “Google Assistant” or scroll down to My Apps. Either way, you should see a button that reads “Update Assistant.” After that, follow the prompts to activate Google Assistant on your phone.

It’s at this point that you can either opt in or out of Voice Match, which allows Assistant to create a personalized voice model on your device. You’ll also see a message alerting you that if you elect to have the watch listen for the “Hey Google” wake phrase, it’ll impact battery life. (More on this in a bit.)

I told Bixby to take a hike by reprogramming my shortcuts.

You can also take the extra step of reprogramming the watch’s home key (the one with the red trim in the upper right) to launch Google Assistant instead of Bixby. To do that:

  • Open the Galaxy Wearable app.
  • Select Watch settings.
  • Tap Advanced features.
  • Under the Home Key menu, you can either program Assistant to launch via a double press gold press and hold.

After that, you can take a page from Marie Kondo’s book, thank Bixby for its service, and wish it well in its future endeavors. (You can’t, however, fully uninstall Bixby. I tried.)

Good performance, terrible battery

Broadly speaking, Google Assistant on the Galaxy Watch 4 is the best it’s ever been on a Wear OS watch. However, that’s a low bar, and it’s not all rainbows and butterflies.

The main thing is that Google Assistant is much faster on the Galaxy Watch 4. That’s not surprising given this watch has a more powerful processor than every other Wear OS watch you can currently buy. The Assistant understood my commands, whether it was to message my husband, set a timer, or tell me whether it was going to rain today. I also didn’t have to wait with bated breath for Google Assistant to process things. Even if it botched a command — which all digital assistants occasionally do — it did so quickly. That said, the watch does have to be awake for any voice command to register.

Between Assistant on the Galaxy Watch 4 and Siri on my Apple Watch Series 7, I’d say the performance is quite similar. Both are quick to wake up, understand the majority of my mumbling, and take about the same amount of time to answer queries. However, Assistant has a slight edge when it comes to delivering useful search results. For example, I asked both Assistant and Siri to find me the closest auto repair shop. While Google Assistant was able to recommend nearby shops that were highly rated and easy to get to, Siri found me one repair shop with no ratings and several parking garages.

It’d almost be perfect if it weren’t for the fact that enabling Google Assistant has been a major battery drain in the short time I’ve been using it. While testing the feature, I had the always-on display enabled and the watch listening for the “Hey Google” trigger in the background. After about two hours, it went from fully charged to 80 percent. At this rate, I’ll be lucky to make it to bedtime. With the same settings enabled on the Series 7, for the same period of time and use, I’m only down to 92 percent. I can’t say it’s a shock, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.

While it took a while for Google Assistant to arrive, now that it has, the majority of Google’s services are available as apps on the Galaxy Watch 4. In addition to Assistant, apps like Gboard, Google Pay, Google Maps, and YouTube Music can all be downloaded directly from the Play Store. Meanwhile, Google Home and Google Wallet are set to arrive later this year. Calendar is still missing from the bunch, but by and large, Android users don’t have to stick with Samsung’s preinstalled apps if they don’t want to anymore.

Ultimately, with Google Assistant, I can actually see myself using a digital assistant on a Samsung smartwatch. That’s a first. It was also a much more enjoyable experience than Assistant on Wear OS 2. So while I can see users opting to stay on Samsung Pay or choosing Spotify over YouTube Music, Google Assistant makes more sense for all but the most diehard Bixby fans. It’s hard to say how much of this experience will apply to the forthcoming Pixel Watch — though I’m optimistic that the good performance here will translate. I’m also hopeful that Samsung might figure out how to make its next-gen smartwatches more power-efficient. But in the meantime, I wish Galaxy Watch 4 owners didn’t have to accept worse battery life in exchange for a good digital assistant.

Photography by Victoria Song / The Verge

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