In the smartwatch space, Apple and Samsung have long battled over pole position, with their signature wearables running on watchOS and Tizen, respectively. 2021, however, marks a notable shift, with Samsung teaming up with Google to rework the latter's long-standing but often maligned wearable operating system and in the process, embracing it as its own.

With such a significant change in the potential future of the wearable landscape, this feature unpicks everything that the newest iteration of Google's Wear OS brings to the table and which devices it might influence.

What is Wear OS 3?

Google introduced its own-brand wearable operating system – Android Wear – back in 2014, with smartwatches from the likes of LG and Motorola serving as the debut hardware for the release.

In 2018, Google rebranded Android Wear to Wear OS, releasing version 2.0 a few months after the name change; bringing about a tweaked user interface and new functionality.

Fast-forward to Google I/O 2021 and the company announced that it had struck up a new partnership with Samsung, with the intent of implementing the next major evolution of the Wear OS platform; using insight from the South Korean tech giant's experience and success in the space to do so.

As part of this announcement, Samsung also confirmed that its next smartwatches (then unannounced but later revealed to be the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 and Watch 4 Classic) would be the first timepieces to showcase this newly-revitalised wearable operating system (replacing Samsung's long-standing Tizen OS as a result).

What features does Wear OS 3 offer?

While hardware manufacturers can tweak the sorts of functionality their Wear OS watches bring to the table, Wear OS itself comes with a fundamental feature set that can be expanded upon – depending on factors like price point or target audience.

Basics include notification synchronisation with a connected smartphone, clock, timer and alarm functionality, fitness tracking (with support for various activities, along with heart rate and route tracking – with GPS support), contactless payments (via NFC) using Google Pay, Google Assistant queries, making and taking calls on-wrist, audio playback, and third-party app and watch face support, by way of the Google Play Store.

Wear OS 3 specifically brings about another UI redesign, intended to make interaction easier and faster, with the ability to jump between recent apps with a double-press of a watch's side button.

At its I/O 2021 developer conference, Google also promised that Wear OS 3 would offer up to a 30% reduction in app load times, compared to the then-current iteration of Wear OS, along with refinements that improve power efficiency too.

"A world-class fitness service from Fitbit" – which Google completed its purchase of at the start of 2021 – is also reportedly part of the equation; with activity tracking, goal celebrations and motivation reminders all coming to the platform.

Tiles (essentially widgets to the right of your main watch face) are an existing Wear OS element that after their introduction in 2019, have only recently been opened up to third parties. An updated Tiles API makes it easier for developers to leverage the feature too, so expect a far wider array than anything you've seen on Wear OS before, as version 3 matures.

New functionality from existing third-party experiences, like offline playback on Spotify, is also something we'll likely continue to see more of as Google works to strengthen the platform.

When does Wear OS 3 launch?

Google and Samsung first made mention of their 'unified platform' (a marriage of Google's existing incarnation of Wear OS and Samsung Tizen smartwatch experience) at I/O 2021 but didn't reveal an official launch date at the time, only teasing its debut on what eventually became the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 family.

At the time of writing, the Galaxy Watch 4 and Watch 4 Classic are the only wearables currently enjoying the delights of this latest and greatest iteration of Wear OS. For everyone else, there looks to be quite a wait.

With companies like long-time Wear OS advocates Fossil promising the update for its latest Gen 6 smartwatches, but not until the latter half of 2022.

Which watches support Wear OS 3?

If you like the sound of the functionality on offer, you'll likely want to know which smartwatches actually support the revamped wearable platform.

Despite initial claims from Qualcomm that Wear OS 3 could potentially run on any Snapdragon Wear 3100 (or newer)-powered smartwatch, Google states that the platform won't work on a watch sporting anything older than a Snapdragon Wear 4100.

Here's the current list of watches confirmed to support Wear OS 3 and when to expect the update.

Wear OS 3 at launch (currently available):

Promised update to Wear OS 3 in H2, 2022:

Wear OS 3 at launch (rumoured):

It's also worth noting that – according to Google – existing smartwatches on the upgrade path to Wear OS 3 may fall prey to unspecified “impacts” in “some limited cases.”

Presumably, as a result of the performance demands of Wear OS 3 against existing chips, like the Wear 4100 and 4100+, current users might find that they're better sticking with whatever version of Wear OS 2 they're currently enjoying, which is receiving support and new functionality to more closely match Wear OS 3.

The move to Wear OS 3 also requires users to perform a factory reset in order to install.