Technology Explained

What Operating Systems Do Wearable Devices Run On?

Kannon Yamada 17-10-2014

Wearable tech, in its many shapes and forms, changes human-machine interaction. The technology squeezes cutting-edge features — like voice activation, biometrics and gesture controls — into devices streamlined to fit the human body. But the hardware and aesthetics don’t enable wearables, it’s the operating system (OS). The OS provides every salient feature of all smart-pants, watches and gloves. It should shock readers that wearable-everything suffers from serious hardware issues.


Wearable tech hardware falls short of weak. The specs look like the guts of low-end smartphones, sprinkled with meager crumbs of RAM and storage, budget CPUs and tiny screens. The OS offers all the shiny, game-changing features. But some operating systems handle different parts of the wearables game better than others.

Right now, four primary operating systems dominate the wearables market: Android, Android Wear, Tizen, and Linux. Two upcoming wearables will soon hit your wrists: iOS for wearable devices and MediaTek’s LinkIt operating system. And then there’s a rumored wearables OS, soon to arrive from LG.

So what’s so special about each operating system and how might it affect your wrists?


Wearable Operating Systems

The most important component of wearable operating systems: The kernel. It sits between the software of your technology and the hardware. It determines how hardware solves various software tasks, power management and more.


Each kernel works with a specific range of hardware. For example, Google Wear works with the same hardware as Linux — that’s because Android Wear steals its hardware compatibility from the Linux kernel. Lots of hardware exists; some of the most common include:

  • MIPS: MIPS (Micro-processors without Interlocked Pipeline Stages) are both its own instruction-set and series of processors. Imagination Technologies purchased the rights to MIPS and has since developed it into the Warrior 64-bit processor. In systems employing Java, such as Android, MIPS processors should run most applications. Native-coded apps will likely not work with MIPS chipsets. The latest MIPS CPU appears to compete on par with ARM-derived designs. MIPS would actually make for a highly efficient wearables platform, since it includes provisioning for powerful (for mobile at least) graphics, 64-bit support and anorexic power consumption.
  • ARM Cortex M: Another RISC-based processor (what’s RISC What Is an ARM Processor? Everything You Need to Know ARM processors dominate mobile technology. What is ARM and how do these CPUs differ from Intel and AMD processors? Read More ?), the Cortex M series offers an ultra-low power chipset for low-end wearbles. Recent advances by ARM Holdings resulted in the M7 series, which offers both good performance and very low power consumption. MediaTek’s Astra platform is actually based on the Cortex M architecture.
  • ARM Cortex A: The Cortex A series tends to focus graphics and CPU power, compared to the Cortex M. As a wearables platform, Cortex A tends to be overprovisioned. Despite its obvious mismatch, manufacturers continue churning out low-battery life wearables equipped with Cortex A.
  • x86: Intel’s x86 platform, unlike the other RISC-based processors, hinges on what’s called the “x86” instruction set. After implementing a number of manufacturing and technological innovations, such as tri-gate resistors and the smallest on-the-market manufacturing process, Intel offers the sole x86-based chipset on today’s market. While not currently used in wearable devices, a number of upcoming products may include it.

Google Android Wear

android logo

Let’s start with the fastest growing OS: Android Wear. Don’t confuse Android Wear with Android. Android Wear requires pairing with an Android 4.3+ device. Installing an Android app with Wear functionality on a smartphone or tablet pushes the app onto the wearable. Without the paired Android device, Android Wear doesn’t work. Read about all the Android Wear apps.

Google places heavy restrictions on manufacturers – there’s (for the most part) a lack of custom skins and proprietary features. Google maintains tight control over devices that operate using Wear. Just ask Com 1 — the company that got Scroogled after starting an Indiegogo campaign to fund a MIPS-equipped Android Wear smartwatch. Many analysts suspect that Google dominates Wear devices by open-sourcing the OS’s code, but closing the source on Google Now — the voice recognition component of Android Wear. This strategy seems similar to Google’s Play Services. Devices without voice recognition border worthlessness.



It should surprise readers that Android Wear doesn’t provide anything that Android doesn’t. Wear allows voice activation – but so does regular Android. Wear accommodates accelerometer integration – again, Android already covers that base. Some might ask, “So why did Google build another operating system based on Android?”

Many analysts assume Google intends on exerting greater control over Wear than it does Android. Had Google green-lighted non-ARM Cortex A chipsets — such as MIPS or Cortex M – it wouldn’t appear so blatant an attempt to co-opt open source code. However, given that Google rolled out proprietary software integral to the Android operating system, along with ChromeOS, Google TV, Android TV and other close-sourced products, it appears that Google’s ultimate objective is to prevent forks – and thus competitors – to the wearables market.

moto x


Google Fit: Google Fit — in short — squeezes more of Google’s proprietary software into a supposed open-source platform. While still in a kind of beta, the software tracks, analyzes and synchronizes users’ health metrics. Apple’s HealthKit software doesn’t appear much different from Google Fit.

google fit

  • Price: $199-250, or more
  • Battery life: Bad, 1-2 days
  • Graphics quality: High, including OLED, TF-LCD and LCD screens
  • Voice recognition: Yes
  • Fitness tracking: Supported by additional software (Google Fit)
  • Supported devices: Android 4.3+
  • Designer: Google
  • Open source: Not really
  • Chipsets: ARM Cortex A and potentially x86 and MIPS (or any device supported by the Linux kernel); at present, only Cortex-A processors are used
  • Form factor: Currently limited to smartwatches.

The biggest turn-off: Android Wear offers only superficial amounts of open-source code. The most useful code within Android Wear — Google Now — remains closed source. Also, Wear’s battery life sucks rotten eggs.

The biggest turn-on: Google Now’s voice recognition feature can activate from the wrist — no touching required. And you get access to a lot of Android Wear apps.


Samsung’s Tizen

tizen logo samsung

Samsung’s Tizen operating system derives from Linux. Like Android, it contains open source code. Unlike Android, Samsung didn’t include support for Android’s mammoth app library. The Tizen library, as of 2014, includes some 1,000 applications – purpose-built for Samsung devices.

Samsung also forked the OS into Tizen IVI, which specializes in Internet-of-Things applications. Big names even joined with Samsung — Intel is among the rumored partners.

Adnan Ahmad (among others), of Berenberg Capital Management, predicted that Tizen would fail. His prediction – while gloom-filled – may not miss the target. Samsung put its upcoming Tizen-fitted Samsung X project on indefinite hold. The Tizen app store floats an anemic number of apps compared to the bottomless libraries of the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.

Tizen undergirds several of Samsung’s wearable devices: The Samsung Gear S, the Samsung Gear 2 and the Samsung Gear 2 Neo. Android Wear and Android make up the remaining devices in Samsung’s inventory.


Tizen will include a software called Samsung Architecture for Multinodal Interactions (SAMI), a biometric gathering framework, similar to Apple’s HealthKit and Google’s Fit services. Samsung also offers a host of health and fitness tracking apps for their wearables — many of which cause software bloat on mobile devices.

  • Voice recognition: Yes, with manual activation
  • Fitness tracking: Yes, with SAMI (and other Samsung apps)
  • Graphics quality: High, most use OLED screens
  • Supported devices: Select Samsung devices on Tizen and Android
  • Designer: Samsung
  • Open source: Yes
  • Chipsets: ARM Cortex-M, possibly more
  • Form factor: Smartwatch
  • Release date: Already available

The biggest turn-off: Most Samsung devices lack Tizen compatibility. Only the latest and most popular devices include support. Thus, all of those with budget or lesser-known Samsung devices are locked out of the Tizen ecosystem.

The biggest turn-on: Samsung’s use of Cortex-M CPUs and Tizen’s lower footprint will enable longer battery up-times.


linux logo

Linux-derived operating systems dominate smaller and larger wearables. The latest version of the Linux kernel (3.18) supports ARM Cortex M, Cortex A, MIPS and many more architectures. Its extreme flexibility and open-source code base make it an ideal fit for smartwatches.

While manufacturers often do not reveal how their custom operating systems were designed, they most assuredly run on the Linux kernel.

Android, Tizen, Android Wear and others use the Linux kernel. Another interesting acquisition: LG purchased WebOS from HP. Rumors abound regarding LG adapting WebOS into a wearable platform.

  • Voice recognition: No
  • Battery life: Varies heavily by device
  • Fitness tracking: Yes, depending on the device
  • Graphics quality: Any
  • Supported devices: Some offer synchronization services with Android, iOS and Windows products.
  • Designer: Any
  • Open source: Yes, but many manufacturers do not make code contributions to Linux
  • Chipsets: The Linux kernel supports virtually all chipsets.
  • Form factor: Any
  • Release date: Already available

The biggest turn-on: Devices that legally use Linux code offer greater transparency than closed-source projects. The Linux kernel also permits a much wider range of chipsets, which can enable longer battery lives.

The biggest turn-off: Lots of companies steal code from Linux and contribute nothing back.

Apple Watch OS

apple logo

Not much information exists regarding the operating system on the upcoming Apple Watch. We do know it likely runs a variant on the iOS operating system. That Apple designed a custom system-on-a-chip ARM derivative (Apple S1 SoC), means it will offer better battery life than the current run of Android Wear devices, which use unoptimized circuitry. Apple Watch OS runs on the XNU kernel, a hybrid between BSD and Mach kernels.

In its first promotional video, Apple billed its watch as a fitness tracker and notifications hybrid. If the commercial tells any truths, it appears to record health metrics while the user is in motion — something no other Android Wear device can do. The health tracker app seems to require manual activation, which falls short of the automagic fitness logging performed by the Basis B1 Health Tracker Basis B1 Health Tracker Smartwatch (2014) Review and Giveaway Want to lose weight and think clearer? You might find help from the Basis B1 Health Tracker smartwatch. Read More .

Apple’s OS distinguishes itself from the pack by offering the HealthKit framework, which is rolling out in the iOS 8 update. HealthKit should offer health-data synchronization, along with other means to optimize workouts.

apple watch navigation

  • Voice recognition: Yes
  • Price: Unknown, but my estimate would be around $350-400
  • Fitness tracking: Yes, with HealthKit software
  • Battery life: Unknown, but likely better than Android Wear
  • Graphics quality: High, with rumored OLED screen
  • Supported devices: Apple products only, likely iOS 8 and above
  • Designer: Apple
  • Open source: No
  • Chipsets: Apple S1 system-on-a-chip
  • Form factor: Wristwatch
  • Release date: Q1 of 2015

apple watch

The biggest turn-on: Design and superlative build quality.

The biggest turn-off: High price.


google logo

Android, not to be confused with Android Wear, can run on many wearable devices – provided that the device includes enough hardware to support it. So far, the most promising devices running Android include the Samsung Galaxy Gear and the Neptune Pine. Check out video of the Neptune Pine below:

Android itself isn’t designed with wearables in mind. It lacks a native means of synchronizing health-data across multiple devices. Most manufacturers employing Android modify it before using on a wearable. In fact, most Android wearable devices often provide full smartphone functionality, along with some basic fitness metrics. At present, Android wearables serve users by reducing their device “footprint” — in other words, they reduce the number of devices you carry around.

Android as a wearable OS appears similar to Android Wear, sharing much of their code with one another. The only key distinction: Android doesn’t possess the ability to push apps onto a paired smartphone. And, to my knowledge, Android doesn’t support native Bluetooth pairing with another Android device.

  • Voice recognition: Yes
  • Graphics quality: High
  • Fitness tracking: Yes, depending on the device
  • Supported devices: Android
  • Designer: Google
  • Open source: Yes
  • Chipsets: ARM Cortex A, MIPS and possibly others
  • Form factor: Most form factors
  • Release date: Already available

The biggest turn-on: Large app library.

The biggest turn-off: No non-proprietary means of syncing an Android device with another Android device.

MediaTek’s LinkIt Operating System

linkit os

In 2014, MediaTek announced LinkIt operating system – dedicated to wearables and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Unlike Android Wear, which uses smartphone chips, LinkIt OS specializes in smaller,  high-efficiency, chip-designs – called the Aster system-on-a-chip. MediaTek’s Aster SoCs offer low power consumption, along with low cost. The most interesting feature of the LinkIt Platform: Its low, 26 MHz standby mode, which enables always-on wearable devices with small energy footprints. The battery life estimates, with normal use, fall somewhere around four days.

The initial press release for LinkIt suggests that MediaTek won’t make the code available as open source.

  • Voice recognition: No (most likely)
  • Battery life: Great, estimated to be around 4-days with normal use
  • Fitness tracking: Yes, details limited
  • Price: Very low (estimated to be in the tens of dollars)
  • Graphics quality: Low
  • Supported devices: Devices using MediaTek’s Aster system-on-a-chip (SoC)
  • Designer: MediaTek
  • Open source: No
  • Chipsets: All custom system-on-a-chips designed for wearables
  • Form factor: Smart-devices, smartwatches and more
  • Release date: Q4, 2014

astra chipset

The biggest turn-on: LinkIt, by default, enables longer battery run-times and lower prices than its competitors.

The biggest turn-off: Closed source and its graphics will likely fall behind competitors.

Other Operating Systems

There exist many scratch-built and open source, operating systems. Many can (and were) adapted for wearables — we refer to most of these as embedded operating systems. These would run entirely on ARM Cortex M, MIPS and other low-power systems. The reason: Purpose-built wearables don’t require powerful internal components or a great deal of code overhead. Many wearables don’t even require a screen for displaying information. As such, companies use code bases like C, Java (among others) or assembly language in constructing them. For example, the India-only Spice Pulse Tracker uses a Java Operating System.

The majority of wearables, outside of those produced by Google, Samsung and Apple, will use embedded Linux — and not custom-written operating systems. Some examples of popular open-source operating systems:

  • Linux: I’ve already mentioned Linux, but its significance requires another mention. The most widely adapted of all operating systems, the Linux kernel is used in most mainstream wearables. Both Android, Android Wear and Tizen use the Linux kernel.
  • GNU: GNU’s kernel is the second most widely used in hardware. Unfortunately, I’m unable to find any wearable devices using it.
  • BSD: Berkeley’s BSD’s kernel also shows up in wearable devices.
  • Mach: The Mach kernel — part of which powers Apple’s wearable, desktop and mobile devices — may power other wearables.


The operating systems positioned for market dominance: Android Wear and Apple Watch OS. Tizen won’t last long, given its lack of apps; LinkIt may dominate the lowest end of products, but not in Western markets; Linux code continues to get stolen.

While Apple’s entry into the wearables market – by dint of its (rumored) superior internal components – came late, and offers near identical features to Android Wear – it stands to offer tighter, higher quality software at the cost of fewer apps, poorer voice recognition and less app creativity.

Apple’s approach tends to let the market establish itself and then, once solidified, it moves in to fill the high-end niche, which offers the largest margins. Companies using Android Wear receive a first-mover advantage, but compete with one another for cheaper products.

Image Credits: smart watches Via Shutterstock

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  1. Anonymous
    October 22, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    Sorry, but "GNU's kernel" (which would be the Hurd) is by no means the second most widely used in hardware. In fact, it has remained confined to a niche and is not widely used. By far, the kernel that is most widely used together with the GNU tools (not kernel) is Linux.

    • Kannon Yamada
      October 23, 2015 at 3:42 pm

      Thank you for the correction.

  2. Blake Martin
    January 18, 2015 at 9:50 am

    Apparently, any html thing is disallowed in a comment here. My comment above is referring to the less than symbol being missing in the "strong" tag around the word kernel.

  3. Blake Martin
    January 18, 2015 at 9:47 am

    You 're missing a '" tag around the word "kernel" at the beginning.

    • Kannon Y
      January 19, 2015 at 7:57 pm

      Thanks Blake!

      I think the comments do allow tags, but they become invisible without the close tag part.

      For example, this should allow for italics. And this allow for bold. But without the close tag, it should just disappear.

  4. Brian
    December 16, 2014 at 7:42 am

    This was a great read.
    However, you left out Tizen's best asset (aside from battery life).
    It can make and receive phone calls.
    Android Wear does not (yet) support calls from your wrist.
    Many of the watches don't even have a speaker.

  5. Daniel Escasa (@silverlokk)
    October 21, 2014 at 10:33 am

    The biggest turn-off: Lots of companies steal code from Linux and contribute nothing back.

    Not to defend this practice, but:

    1) the code is open and therefore they can't be accused of “stealing&rquo;. You make it sound as if they're copyright violators. They're not.

    2) they're not obliged to give back. In fact, a lot of projects don't contribute any code to the open source project.


    3) if they do modify the code, they are obliged to publish the code

    • Kannon Y
      October 21, 2014 at 8:52 pm

      Thanks for the great comment Daniel.

      My understanding is that many companies steal lots of open-source code (which they invariably modify) and contribute nothing back. But there's no real way to substantiate this claim, if it's closed source. I'm not sure if I've made some kind of mistake in describing the act as theft -- perhaps I have?

    • Daniel Escasa (@silverlokk)
      October 22, 2014 at 2:43 am

      Let's put it this way: 'stealing' is too strong a word. Most, if not all, open source licenses allow anyone to use the code, for almost any purpose.

      The GNU Public License (GPL), for instance: it's “viral” — no, not that kind of viral :) — in the sense that any project where you use GPL-licensed code itself “inherits” the GPL license if you publish it.

      The BSD license doesn't, which means that you can take the code and modify it, and you don't have to publish those modifications.

      The Open Source Initiative (OSI), GNU Foundation, and the Free Software Foundation (FSF) have certified, separately, various open-source licenses, although there should be some overlap.

      In any case, a common provision in those licenses is that you can use the code and incorporate it into your projects. You don't have to contribute back. If, however, you do modify the code, IMHO it's in your best interest to contribute. Reason would be too long, and this comment is already long enough as is :)

      So let's just say that companies who use open source without contributing are selfish :).

  6. Chinmay S
    October 19, 2014 at 10:34 am

    How is Android different from Android Wear? Android Wear is just a name given to smartwatches. And because it requires pairing with Android 4.3+ device, it just means that both are exactly the same thing.

    • Kannon Y
      October 20, 2014 at 6:42 pm

      Hey Chinmay, that's a great question and I should have elaborated on it in the article.

      As I understand it, Android Wear borrows much of its source code from Android -- but it differs in: the kinds of functions offered, how the operating system prioritizes certain functions. Also, it removes a lot of the overhead related to telephony.apk/phone.apk.

  7. Hildy J
    October 17, 2014 at 7:19 pm

    Shouldn't Apple's biggest turn-offs include : Apple offers no amount of open-source code. No non-proprietary means of syncing.?

    • Kannon Y
      October 18, 2014 at 12:13 am

      That's a pretty important point. It's just as important -- if not more so -- than the wearables price. Even so, proprietary OSes are pretty much commonplace.

      RE: Charging methods, most wearables only offer a non-proprietary means of charging. There's only a handful of exceptions -- like the Moto 360 and a few devices that use microUSB, instead of charging cradles.

  8. likefunbutnot
    October 17, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    A whole article about smart watches and no mention of Pebble's products?

    • Kannon Y
      October 17, 2014 at 6:40 pm

      I should have at least made mention regarding it.

      Pebble uses a variation on FreeRTOS, which is open source and written in C.

      Did you buy a Pebble? I envy the design in a lot of ways, but it seems like they could have done a lot more with the technology. Since it uses daylight readable tech and a low-drain components and an accelerometer, it could have offered a more robust means of issuing voice activation than anything within the Android Wear ecosystem.

    • Slashee the Cow
      October 17, 2014 at 11:37 pm

      I was just thinking that.