Fossil Gen 6 Hybrid analog smartwatch review: bling, not zing

The first time I saw Fossil’s hybrid analog smartwatches was in a backroom at IFA 2019. I’d just seen a small army of smartwatches from Fossil — and every other designer brand under its umbrella. I remember feeling weary. Most of those watches were basically different flavors of the same smartwatch. But when a spokesperson showed me the Fossil Hybrid HR, I perked up. A hybrid smartwatch with an E Ink display? That was a rare sight after Pebble’s untimely end, and I was intrigued to see what it could do. Three years later, I’ve got the $229 Fossil Gen 6 Hybrid ($249 as tested), and while it’s kept the same DNA as the original, I can’t help but feel that Fossil’s gotten ahead of itself.

The Gen 6 Hybrid keeps the E Ink screen, customizable watchfaces, and basic fitness tracking. Its analog hands still cleverly move out of the way when you’re navigating the dashboard or reading notifications. It adds the ability to measure blood oxygen, a new heart rate sensor, Amazon Alexa, and a redesigned dashboard. Fossil’s companion app has also been refreshed — but barely. Oh and, uh, Fossil has gone in a slightly new direction with the design.

Style can make or break a hybrid analog smartwatch, especially compared to other wearables. Let’s put it this way: the Gen 6 Hybrid with a silicone strap costs the same as the Fitbit Versa 3 but doesn’t have a touchscreen or nearly as many features. That means you’re paying extra for style, so it had better look the part. Previously, Fossil made a strong case for paying a premium for a stylish hybrid analog. This time… not so much.

The watch has two versions: the 45mm Machine and the 41mm Stella. As soon as I unboxed my Stella review unit, I knew this watch was not for me. This is the sort of watch I envision Kim Kardashian wearing in a luxury perfume ad, her dark eyes piercing your soul as she whispers, “I have expensive taste.” It’s not that the watch is hideous; it’s more that the 150 hand-placed Czech crystal pavé setting and link bracelet ooze of ostentatious glitz. I wish I could say I prefer the Machine, but that watch has an overly masculine vibe with very aggressive knurling that didn’t suit my lifestyle, either. I also don’t love how the display seems so much smaller even though it’s the same size as its predecessors. Of course, these are my personal preferences, and from perusing the SKUs, it’s more of an issue with the Stella models than the Machine models.

For some reason, the Gen 6 Hybrid’s screen seems smaller even though it’s the same size. From left: Withings ScanWatch, Fossil Hybrid HR, Skagen Jorn, Fossil Gen 6 Hybrid

What bothers me about the Stella design is how it somewhat pigeonholes your style. The Stella is for glamorous women, and too bad if you’d like a more versatile unisex design for everyday wear. That’s disappointing: the original Fossil Hybrid HR and the Skagen Jorn (Skagen’s version of the watch) had more flexible case designs. You could get a pavé setting or not. There’s only one non-pavé version of the Stella, and if it doesn’t suit your taste, you’re out of luck. Case in point: my spouse would rather clean the litter box than wear this Gen 6 Hybrid, but they wore my Hybrid HR review unit for a few weeks because it was lightweight and fit their fashion sense. And the kicker is that the Gen 6 Hybrid is noticeably heavier than both its predecessors.

As a smartwatch, the Gen 6 Hybrid gets you all the basics — and some modern features you might not expect. For instance, you can set timers and stopwatches, check the weather, ring your phone, view notifications, and control your music, but don’t expect to reply to text messages or take calls on your wrist. That’s all you really need from a hybrid analog, but Fossil’s also added Alexa and SpO2 spot checks to give the watch a little more oomph. That’s cool on paper, but in reality, the new features don’t really add much.

The Fossil Gen 6 Hybrid’s sensor array

The Gen 6 Hybrid has a new heart rate sensor and SpO2 sensors as well.

The Fossil Gen 6 Hybrid with an Alexa query displayed on the screen

Alexa is one of the new additions to the Gen 6 Hybrid. But you can also see how cramped the screen looks when reading notifications.

SpO2 monitoring — whether it’s measured passively in your sleep or on demand — is an increasingly common feature as more wearables focus on recovery and sleep. The Gen 6 Hybrid does the latter. Taking a reading on the watch is easy enough. You just place your hand flat on a surface, keep still, and wait. But during a few of my attempts, the process was interrupted by notifications, and I had to restart the process. My results were on par with a pulse oximeter, but that’s not really a reason to have this feature. (Reminder: you should never ever use smartwatches in lieu of a pulse oximeter for medical reasons. They’re not cleared for that purpose and are not a diagnostic tool of any sort.) Passive SpO2 monitoring during sleep can at least give you a sense of your respiratory rate or if you frequently experience breathing disturbances. There’s not much you can do with the information from spot checks.

Meanwhile, adding Alexa is more of a party trick than a useful tool. It can be decent if you use Alexa to control your smart home, but it’s not as good as Google Assistant or Siri when it comes to answering queries. (It is better than Samsung’s Bixby, but that’s a low bar.) Plus, the Gen 6 Hybrid has a 0.94-inch display with a resolution of 254ppi. Whatever answers you do get barely fit within the display and are in the world’s thinnest, tiniest font. And that’s if you get answers. Many times when I tried using Alexa, I got a message saying it couldn’t connect and that I should move closer to my phone to try again. A few of those times, I was in the same room. That defeats the purpose of having a digital assistant on your wrist!

A close up for the Fossil Gen 6 Hybrid’s dashboard

The circular dashboard reminds me of Samsung’s Galaxy Watches. It makes navigating menus much easier than before.

A more meaningful update is the streamlined dashboard. It’s now a circular menu, much like what you see on Samsung’s Galaxy Watches. That makes it so much easier to scroll and find which feature you want to use. I also appreciate that Fossil made it clearer which button to press to go back to a previous menu, start, stop, or pause a workout, and return to the homescreen. Navigating menus on the Gen 6 Hybrid can be a pain compared to the Apple Watch, but it’s a notable improvement from previous versions.

The E Ink display hasn’t changed much, meaning it still has the same problems as its predecessors. The refresh rate is similar to a Kindle, which is to say slow for a smartwatch. That makes reading your notifications a little annoying as you have to scroll down, wait a beat for the screen to refresh, and then repeat the process two seconds later. The small font size is also impossible for reading metrics mid-exercise. I appreciate that E Ink doesn’t cause as much eye strain, but I would’ve liked the notifications to be more readable as well.

The Gen 6 Hybrid also has the same fitness tracking issues as previous models. While heart rate tracking was within five beats per minute of my Apple Watch Series 7, it’s not a good tool for heart rate zone training. Again, the E Ink refresh rate is ill-suited to real-time activity tracking. Likewise, distance tracking is unreliable. On a 2.08-mile walk recorded by my Apple Watch, the Gen 6 Hybrid logged 1.5 miles. On a 3-mile run, the Series 7 logged 3.0 miles, my running app clocked 3.02 miles, and the Fossil watch recorded 3.8 miles. I expected less accuracy since the Gen 6 Hybrid relies on your phone’s GPS to record your runs. But as you can see, my running results wildly differed on my phone and the watch. (That said, both recorded accurate route maps. Go figure.) Sleep tracking was broadly accurate, but I didn’t get much context beyond sleep stages and duration.

Normally, I’d say results like these are a deal-breaker, but that’s not the case here. No one expecting detailed fitness tracking should buy a watch like this. Personally, I’d never run or work out with this watch aside from testing purposes. Not only is cleaning skin crust and sweat from stainless steel links gross but also it’s too heavy to run with. This watch is much better suited to overall wellness and making sure you’re getting in your steps. The Gen 6 Hybrid is a smartwatch that can track fitness but wasn’t made to track fitness.

The Fossil Smartwatches app on an iPhone next to the Gen 6 Hybrid

You can easily customize your watchface in the Fossil Smartwatches app. I chose a picture of my dog.

More disappointing is the Gen 6 Hybrid’s shortened battery life. You get an estimated week on a single charge, while the Hybrid HR and Skagen Jorn got about two weeks. I’m not sure why that is, but it likely has to do with the new features and sensors. Of course, battery life is always dependent on usage. It’s been over a week since I charged the Gen 6 Hybrid, and I still have over 70 percent battery. Though, admittedly, I haven’t used this quite as heavily as other watches I’ve tested.

Fossil made smart choices here, but it also made some unforced errors trying to fix things that weren’t broken. On the one hand, the circular dashboard made the user experience better and addressed one of the more annoying things about previous Fossil hybrid analogs. On the other, no one needed on-demand SpO2 or Alexa, especially not at the expense of a week of estimated battery life. Adding a better heart rate sensor is good, but its benefit is muted thanks to unreliable GPS tracking. Meanwhile, Fossil threw out a unisex design with lots of options for a more luxe watch with a specific look.

The Fossil Gen 6 Hybrid on a wrist

Not my usual style. It goes with exactly nothing in my wardrobe.

What really holds the Gen 6 Hybrid back is its price. If it were more affordable, I could easily look past its shortcomings, as I did in the past. But the version I tested costs $249, and for the same price, I could buy the 40mm Samsung Galaxy Watch 4. Meanwhile, the Apple Watch SE starts at $279. Both of these smartwatches will get you much more bang for your buck. As for hybrid analogs, the Withings ScanWatch costs $279.95 and has FDA clearance for ECGs and monitoring sleep disturbances. The Garmin Vivomove Sport is only $179.99, stylish as hell, much better at fitness tracking, and most importantly, it nails the right mix of form, function, and price. Unless you really love the Gen 6 Hybrid’s design, there are so many better options.

The Gen 6 Hybrid isn’t a horrible watch. It does what it’s supposed to for its target audience. That might’ve been enough in 2019, but in 2022, that’s just not going to cut it.

Photography by Victoria Song / The Verge

Originally appeared on: TheSpuzz