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Fossil Q Explorist Gen 4 review: Beautiful design, underwhelming performance

Our Rating 

The Fossil Q Explorist has all the features you could ask for, but it’s let down by a slow, dated processor

Pros 
Attractive design
Google Assistant
Cons 
Poor battery life
Slow
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We weren’t particularly impressed by last year’s Fossil Q Control (3rd-gen) because, despite having plenty of aesthetic appeal, it had a distinctly underwhelming feature set. In particular, its lack of GPS and NFC were a deal breaker, because nearly all similarly priced rivals give you the option to make contactless payments and accurately track workouts.

With its new fourth-generation smartwatches, Fossil has fixed these flaws, adding NFC, GPS and an optical heart-rate sensor, the latter first of which was included with the 3rd gen Q Control. Best of all, though, you can buy the new Q Explorist for just £250. To find out whether it’s worth buying, read on.

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Fossil Q Explorist review: What you need to know

As with previous Fossil smartwatches, the fourth-generation Explorist runs Wear OS (formerly Android Wear), which means it can be used with both Android and iOS devices. And unlike its third-generation predecessor, this model includes all the features you’d expect of a flagship smartwatch including heart-rate tracking, NFC for contactless payments, and GPS for tracking your runs and bike rides.

It’s also waterproof to 50m, so you can keep it on in the shower and use it to track your swims. Although it has a built-in speaker, enabling you to use Google Assistant, there’s no speaker, so you can’t use the watch to take calls from your wrist. Moreover, there’s no 4G support, which means you’ll need your phone nearby (or a known Wi-Fi network) if you want to receive and respond to notifications.

Fossil Q Explorist review: Price and competition

With prices starting at £250 for the Black Silicone variant, the Fossil Q Explorist is up against some pretty stiff competition. For iPhone users, spending just £30 more buys you the older Apple Watch Series 3 (£280), which is still a superb smartwatch despite being over 12 months old. The Apple Watch Series 4 is predictably better still, thanks to its 30% larger screen and faster processor, but you’ll need to spend £400 LINK to have the privilege of owning one.

Another option for both iPhone and Android users is the excellent Samsung Galaxy Watch (from £280), which runs Samsung’s Tizen OS. It might be chunky, but it boasts superb battery life (up to seven days on the 46mm model), GPS, NFC and supports offline Spotify playlists.

If you want to spend a bit less, then the Mobvoi Ticwatch E and S (from £120) are great budget options, or you can go even cheaper still with the £50 Amazfit Bip, which boasts a staggering month-long battery life.

Fossil Q Explorist review: Design

The fourth-generation Fossil Q Explorist is a great-looking watch, borrowing most of its design cues from the previous, third-gen model. At a glance, the watch resembles a traditional, mechanical timepiece more than most of its smartwatch rivals, thanks to its large flat glass front, notched bezel and crown-style buttons.

However, what distinguishes the Q Explorist from a mechanical wristwatch is its superb 454 x 454, 1.4in display. Unlike last year’s Q Control, which had a visible air gap between the glass and display, the Q Explorist’s OLED panel is right at the forefront, and it’s pin sharp, bright and colourful.

Strangely, there’s no prominent branding – the only visible logo is a small one on the strap buckle – but if you want everyone to know your watch is made by Fossil, you can choose from a range of excellent customisable watch faces from the manufacturer. The Q Explorist’s OLED display is set to always-on by default, and with this in mind, all the watch faces also have thoughtfully designed low-energy counterparts that appear after a few seconds of inactivity.

READ NEXT: Best smartwatches

Despite measuring 45mm across, the watch doesn’t feel excessively chunky. Indeed, for the comparison, it’s both 15g lighter (48g vs 62g) and 2mm thinner (11mm vs 13mm) than the similarly sized 46mm Samsung Galaxy Watch. Consider that the Galaxy Watch has a 0.1in smaller display, and you’re getting plenty of screen real estate for not too much bulk.

Flip the watch over and you’ll find the Q Explorist optical heart-rate sensor, which protrudes slightly from the back of the casing. This isn’t so pronounced as to cause discomfort and it also doubles up as a subtle notch for helping secure the watch’s magnetic “wireless” charger.

In terms of design, my main gripe with the Q Explorist is that the rotating crown used to scroll through menus can be quite fiddly when the watch is worn on your right arm – something to consider for you left-handers. Secondly, although they might look great, the lugs where the watch straps attach have sharp edges on both the front and back, which sometimes dig into your skin.

The watch is available in five different colours, which come with a variety of straps made from different materials. Whichever model you choose, though, you can use any standard 22mm band to achieve the look of your choice.

Fossil Q Explorist review: Features

Where the previous Q Explorist lacked GPS, NFC and a heart-rate monitor, all three features have been added to the gen-four watch, making it an altogether more appealing device. Indeed, you can now leave the house without your phone, and accurately log the distance and time of your workout, while keeping tabs on your pulse.

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While it’s perfectly adequate for logging the occasional walk or run, however, the Q Explorist is no replacement for a dedicated multisport watch. To elaborate, although its optical heart-rate sensor produced numbers in line with what I’d expect to see at rest, it was much more flakey during exercise.

To give an example, following a bike ride, I compared the data to that logged by the watch to my Garmin trip computer and chest strap, and the results were a long way off what they should have been. Cycling is often a challenge too far for wrist-borne optical sensors because of all the vibrations transmitted via the handlebars, but for the Q Explorist to record an average pulse of 90bpm when it was closer to 150bpm indicates it’s far from dependable.

The NFC is a great addition, though. It took only a few minutes to set up Google Pay, and making a contactless payment at the supermarket was as easy as it would have been using a tangible debit card. Best of all, it works without an internet connection, so you can pick something up at the shops on the way back from a run even if you’ve left your phone and wallet behind.

Fossil Q Explorist review: Wear OS and Performance

Elsewhere, everything is pretty standard fare for Wear OS as far as features are concerned, except that OS has just been redesigned for Wear OS 2. Where Google Assistant was most easily summoned using the “OK Google” wake word or by long-pressing the main button in the past, you can now also access it with a single swipe right from the homescreen.

Just like the Google Now launcher for Android, it shows you everything you need to know for the day ahead in one place including weather and travel info and calendar entries. In short, then, Wear OS’s best feature has got even better.

Swipe right, and instead of changing watch faces, you now get direct access to Google Fit, which as also received a sizeable update. Instead of letting you set a simple time- or distance-based goal, the app now monitors your overall activity levels in terms of “move minutes” and “heart points”, which are displayed in rings. Sound familiar?

Finally, the Quick Settings menu has had a bit of an overhaul, too. As such, there are also handy shortcuts for accessing Google Pay and enabling power-saving mode, along with icons for aeroplane mode, do not disturb, brightness and settings. Overall, these tweaks feel like a significant improvement, because finding what you need is both faster and more intuitive. It’s only the dated Snapdragon Wear 2100 chip, then, that stops the current generation of Wear OS devices from being truly competitive with the best smartwatches on the market.

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The Q Explorist is nowhere near as sluggish as the Ticwatch Pro when it comes to navigating the core menus and apps. On the contrary, it’s perfectly usable on the most part. However, it’s still not a patch on the Apple Watch Series 4 or Galaxy Watch, which run Watch OS and Tizen OS, respectively.

In particular, when I tried using power-hungry apps such as Google Play Music everything ground to a halt and became practically unusable. This app might be the exception rather than the rule, but it’s difficult to endorse a device that’s sluggish when new.

More concerning still, though, is the watch’s battery life. Fossil claims it will last “all day”, but on one day when I tested it intensively, the watch’s battery ran from full capacity to empty in a matter of six hours. Sure, that might not be how you’d use a smartwatch on an average day (it might stretch to a full working day with more conservative use), but it’s still not great that the Q Explorist becomes a decorative ornament if you forget to charge it one night.

We’ve seen closer to a day and a half’s battery life from other Wear OS devices with similar displays, so I’ll be seeing what I can to do eke out more standby time from the Q Explorist over the coming weeks, such as disabling the display’s “always-on” mode. With the likes of Mobvoi experimenting with dual-layer displays, maybe this is something Fossil should explore too?

Fossil Q Explorist review: Verdict

Fossil has made huge progress with the fourth-gen Q Explorist. It has all of the aesthetic appeal you’d expect of a brand that specialises in fashion accessories, and crucially, it includes all the features a prospective smartwatch owner should demand in 2018.

There’s just one problem: performance.

With the Q Explorist’s chipset now more than two years old, it’s hardly a surprise that it can’t compete with the latest devices from Apple and Samsung. However, with Qualcomm’s fabled Snapdragon Wear 3100 now on the horizon, the best advice might be to hold out for the next generation of devices powered by the faster chipset. If there's a fifth version of the Q Explorist, there’s a great chance it’ll be a souped-up version of this otherwise great smartwatch.

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