As a location-based game, Pokémon Go is perfect for when you’re on your commute, walking to a store, or just out and about. However, there’s one big hassle to the experience: the need to have the app open and on your screen to track distance, ding nearby PokéStops, and try to catch Pokémon. That makes it difficult to play when you are, for example, holding the hand of a small child, carrying bags, or just simply trying to watch where you’re walking.
The Pokémon Go Plus, released in September, helps with a lot of that. It’s a tiny wearable device, worn around the wrist or clipped onto clothes, that buzzes and lights up any time you’re near a Pokémon or PokéStop, and can automatically snag items or try to catch the creature with a press of a button. It’ll also track all of your distance when active, which makes it easier to hatch eggs and rack up kilometers for your buddy Pokémon.
However, it’s a glossy red-and-white plastic trinket, and not everybody wants to be seen wearing the thing, nor do they want to buy a $35 device that serves no other purpose than to augment a free mobile game. Also, the Plus band has been very difficult to find, although the shortage situation seems to be improving of late. Add all of that up, and it’s no surprise that people anxiously awaited an Apple Watch app counterpart instead.
It finally launched right around Christmas, letting Apple Watch owners get some wearable perks without wearing a dedicated, toy-like device. However, it functions differently than the Pokémon Go Plus and has its own benefits and drawbacks—and that’s when it actually works, which hasn’t been a certainty so far. Trying to figure out which way to go? Here is how Pokémon Go’s wearable experiences compare.
How it works
Pokémon Go’s Apple Watch experience functions as a companion app to the iPhone version, so if you have that on your phone, you’ll also have the wearable version on your wrist. If you don’t see it on your Watch’s apps screen, make sure it is enabled from within the Watch app on the iPhone.
When you fire up Pokémon Go on the Apple Watch, it’ll give you a screen that shows your player level and avatar image, as well as the distance remaining to hatch your next egg and a big Start button. Press that and you’ll start tracking. Pokémon Go’s Watch app treats each session as a workout that can be tracked by Apple Health, plus all of that data goes towards your daily Activity circles as well.
The Watch app shows you the amount of distance tracked so far in kilometers, the time elapsed, and approximate number of calories burned, as well as an icon showing how many Pokémon eggs are incubating and another displaying how close you are to earning another buddy candy. Meanwhile, nearby Pokémon are shown at the bottom of the screen.
When you approach a Pokémon or PokéStop in the world, you’ll sometimes get a notification—and while you can spin the PokéStop image to claim items, you can’t actually catch a Pokémon from the Watch. That’s frustrating, especially when it shouldn’t be difficult to make a scaled-down version of the Poké Ball-tossing maneuver. Instead, you’ll have to pull out your phone to actually complete that core task.
The biggest benefit of having Pokémon Go on your Apple Watch is logging distance, and there is one unexpected perk here: because the Watch app tracks distance based on counted steps rather than GPS movements, you can log km on a treadmill. That’s right: it’s Pokémon Go from the comfort of your own home, or the gym. And it’s also helpful when walking around an indoor location like a museum or large store, where GPS tracking might run into issues.
But it’s inconsistent
Not only is the functionality a bit limited, there’s a bigger issue right now: Apple Watch support is a mess for a lot of players. It just doesn’t seem like the Watch functionality was ready for prime time.
Using the Apple Watch with Pokémon Go has been 90-percent frustration so far on my end, and the comments I’ve seen on social media and in forums suggest that it isn’t an isolated occurrence. The Apple Watch app has a tendency to not display your current profile status when you load it up, but the bigger problems come during actual usage. I’ve had the Watch app shut down in the middle of many sessions without a notification, and it doesn’t appear to have an auto-shutoff timer like the Plus band, which powers off after an hour of use.
The most irritating issue has come with the workout data not transferring back into Pokémon Go, or there being massive inconsistencies between what’s shown and what I get credit for in the game. I’ve had multiple treadmill runs work fine for the first km or so and then stop tracking altogether, or credit only a fraction of the distance listed by the Watch app. In other outdoor walks, the distance listed on the Watch app is far more than is actually applied to my eggs. And at times, the app hasn’t seemed to update when I’ve moved around, as notifications rarely appear or stop coming altogether.
I’ve run through a litany of troubleshooting steps, updating both devices, removing the app from the Watch and then adding it again, and tracking separately via LTE and Wi-Fi (the latter when at home), and I haven’t found a consistent source for the issues. Likewise, I haven’t found consistency at all when using the Watch with Pokémon Go: I’ve had a couple of good experiences with it, and several bad ones. It just seems to be bug-riddled as of this writing, about a month after the Watch app was released.
It’s also worth noting that the Apple Watch app will drain the device’s battery pretty intensely. I logged about three hours of usage while walking around a zoo, and used up 70 percent of the Watch’s battery during that span—so you’d be lucky to push too far past four hours with a full charge. That could potentially be improved with updates, but right now it means that using the Watch app will greatly decrease your chances of having the device last a full day.
How they compare
No doubt, there are benefits to using the Apple Watch for Pokémon Go instead of the Plus band, and the biggest may be the most obvious of all: appearance. The Plus band looks like a toy bracelet and may clash with, say, your professional work attire—and some people who love playing the game may not be willing to commit to showing that admiration to the world by wearing the Plus. It’s totally understandable.
With the Apple Watch, how it looks is really up to you, depending on the model you choose and strap you augment it with. And if you already wear the Watch, then the Pokémon Go app can fit within your existing routine. Just fire up the app, hit Start, and track some distance when you leave the office for lunch, or walk to the train. Then you don’t have to buy a separate, $35 device for wearable Pokémon Go perks. Of course, the Apple Watch is several times more expensive, but you’re not buying it just for Pokémon Go… right? (Don’t. Seriously.)
When it comes to actual game interactions, however, the Apple Watch app falls short of what the Pokémon Plus band can do. The Plus band automates so much of the process of playing, letting you track distance, catch Pokémon, and trigger nearby PokéStops without ever touching your phone or looking at a screen. It can be a bit obnoxious with its vibrating notifications, as I found out last fall, but ultimately it does an impressive job of grinding out experience, gaining items, and expanding your Pokémon selection with minimal active work on your end.
The Watch app should be able to provide a lot of that same functionality, given the extra processing power and touch display, but it pretty much sticks to tracking distance. Getting notifications about nearby Pidgeys and Rattatas just isn’t all that exciting, so unless I happen to stumble upon a rare monster in my ‘hood—very unlikely until Gen 2 monsters are released into the wild—I’m probably not going to pull out my phone. And right now, the Watch app isn’t worth the hassle, as the inevitable frustration and disappointment over crashes and missed distance undercuts any positive progress made.
Hopefully Niantic gets the Watch issues sorted soon, because for a large chunk of Apple Watch-owning, less-hardcore Pokémon Go fans, it’s probably the only way they’ll experience wearable interactions with the game. But for the serious players still out there on the hunt to fill their Pokédex, hatch new monsters, and level up enough to dominate local gyms, the Pokémon Go Plus is still the more useful companion of the two.
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Andrew Hayward is a Chicago-based games, apps, and gadgets writer whose work has been featured in more than 70 publications. He's also a work-at-home dad to an unruly four-year-old.