The problem with smartwatches

The problem with smartwatches

Summary: A teardown of Samsung's new Galaxy Gear 2 smartwatch highlights some of the problems facing hardware makers entering this space.

TOPICS: Mobility, Hardware

First came the MP3 player, then the smartphone, and then the tablet. Now it seems that it is the turn of the smartwatch to be the 'next big thing' to hit the tech circuit. But there are problems associated with taking a device and scaling it down to fit on the wrist, and a teardown of the new Samsung Galaxy Gear 2 by the team at iFixit highlights some of the obstacles facing smartwatch makers.

Galaxy Gear 2
(Source: iFixit)

At a time when smartphone makers are bringing out devices with displays that border on being tablets, it might seem odd for the same hardware makers to be bringing out devices with screens small enough to be worn on the wrist.

And size is to me the first gotchya when it comes to smartwatches.

Over the years I've owned and worn some pretty big wristwatches – and at 8.5-inches in circumference, my wrists are at the upper end of the spectrum – but smartwatches like the Galaxy Gear 2 are not just big, they are huge. So huge it's going to stand out. So huge it's not going to fit under a shirt cuff easily. So huge it screams "I'm wearing a huge thing on my wrist."

And the size isn't just down to the screen. There's the battery and all sorts of other gizmos that all need to be crammed inside the shell. Unlike smartphones, where the industry seems to have started small and worked up, smartwatches are already at their upper limit in terms of size, especially when it comes to the screen.

Smartwatches may get thinner, lighter, and daintier over time, but they're not going to get much smaller (unless we, the users are fitted with bionic eyes to read the display). And conversely, they're also not going to get much bigger either because the amount of real estate on the wrist is limited.

Another problem is the lack of features. Right now I weep when I look at the smartwatches on offer because of the lack of innovation I'm seeing. They're essentially little more than tiny secondary screens for smartphones, and while it might be cool to have a James Bondesque camera in a watch, and it might save us a few minutes over our entire lifetime checking a watch to see who is calling us rather than pulling the phone out, beyond that their usability tanks badly. I'm not going to want to do much reading on such a small screen, and the input system is never going to be able to handle anything demanding (even voice control will have severe limitations as people will feel odd talking to their watch, at least until the day this sort of behavior becomes mainstream).

So what's their purpose? Other than offering companies something new to sell, I don’t think that this question has been answered satisfactorily yet.

Then there's battery life.

Batteries have become smaller and denser over the years, which, along with more efficient components, helps to squeeze more life from each recharge. But while a 2 to 3 day smartwatch battery life sounds good on paper, in reality that translates into a recharge every day if you're doing it while you sleep because it would be risky to go into a second day without having a full battery. And at 300 odd charge cycles a year, this is going to be hard on the battery, dramatically shortening its life.

So, buy a smartwatch today, and you'll probably be looking to buy another in a year or so.

Question is, will users feel they've had enough value out of it to do that?

Another problem is robustness. Hardware makers can't even come up with smartphone designs that look good after a few months of usage, and smartphones spend a lot of their time protected in pouches, cases, pockets and purses. Smartwatches are going to be out there in front the whole time, taking bumps and scrapes constantly. Without pouches and cases and screen protectors, what are they going to look like in a year?

Unless makers use robust materials like sapphire glass, smartwatches are going to look pretty rough in short order. That screen is especially vulnerable to damage, and this will be a problem for a device that users are expected to wear daily (daily wear is important if the device it to become a vital part of the user's day as occasional wear won't cut it). Personally, I don't think we'll see a robust smartwatch until a maker like Casio enters the fray, and the fact that they're not – or at least haven't partnered with an established OEM yet – suggests they're playing a wait and see game.

Smartwatches have a number of hurdles to jump before they have a chance of long-term mainstream success, and they need to answer the 'so what?' factor, and this is doubly so if smartwatches are going to make it into enterprise circles. Right now, a big, goofy-looking watch that's reminiscent of something that might have appeared on Inspector Gadget or Joe 90 has about as much enterprise value as spy glasses or a pen with a built-in digital watch. At present they certainly don't seem to have what it will take for them to survive the first upgrade cycle.

Some factors – such as robustness, innovation, and a broad feature set – are within the control of the hardware makers while others – such as the ergonomic limitations that a wrist-mounted device has to operate within – are not. The key to success – or at the very least, on-going success – will be to take a niche device such as a fitness watch and turn that into something that people not only will want to wear daily, but that they can't live without. Smartphones are at that stage, and so are tablets. I think smartwatches are currently at that stage that tablets were a decade ago – too bulky, too heavy, too dumb, and too expensive.

See also:

Topics: Mobility, Hardware

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  • Kudos

    I have been asking this question for awhile, what does the watch offer that i don't currently get from my phone. Glad to see one of the writers on here point the problematic issues out.
    • asking the right questions

      What does a smart watch offer that I don't get from my phone.
      My smart watch [pebble] gives me selected phone information just on my wrist without pulling out my phone. Handy for me and that is all I want my smart watch to do.
      • Don't knock it till you try it ;-)

        I got my Gear (ver1) for Christmas...I love it. It doesn't offer me anything more than my phone (that's not it purpose)...if you use that logic, then blue-tooth headset should be dead..since they don't "offer me anything but convenience"...and that's what my watch offers me...I can take a call without having to pull out my phone...calendar alerts get my attention when my phone is in my pocket (sometimes I don't hear my phone...but I differently feel/hear my watch... I also used the camera to take video while zip lining on vacation...didn't want to pull my phone and take a chance on dropping it into the rain forest...I'm just saying.
    • Typical responses below.

      As in, "I love new tech...I have money to blow on it...whatever the tech does is going to be what I want".

      As in; a smartwatch gives me selected phone information on my wrist and that's good enough for me!

      Ok. That's allowed. But now that we know how low some people are ready to go in the "bang for your buck" category for new tech, lets talk about the 90%+ of the world that needs more than a much smaller, significantly limited second version of what they already own to strap to their wrist for their hard earned dollars.

      And in response to that, I can tell you as a fact that you start asking regular Joe's and Janes about a device like this and how much it cost and what it looks like, you get an "I'll pass" pretty much every time.

      AKH hit this nail squarely on the head.

      More simply; what does this device do that makes it worth the money to most people.

      The answer is for most people, it dosnt do anything that makes it worth the money. Some people, sure. Some people will go out and buy a new toaster for $600 if you glued an iPhone to the side of it.

      Huge portions of the world simply cant afford that kind of nonsense, nor the nonsense of a gigantic Dick Tracy watch that's not cheap and all it does is replicate some of the minor duties of the smartphone you already own, and that it makes you look like a geek with more money than brains.

      It should come with an advisory that its best worn with your Captain Kirk or Mr. Spook outfit.

      That is, if you have lost your Dick Tracy trench coat and hat which I can only assume comes with each one of these silly relics.
  • Unfashionable

    The reason people don't wear watches these days (well under a certain age anyway) is that the function of the wrist watch was replaced by feature phones.
    Unless a smart watch can bring some unique functionality then its got the same problem as old wristwatches.
    Then only thing I can think of currently that differentiates a smart watch is the health tracking aspect and Nokia is building this into it's new phones...
  • Agree, and one more thing....

    I thought they were cool when I first discovered these watches. The Italian I'm Watch ( have som nice looking devices, but they have taken more of a "watch as a jewlery" approach with their gold and titanium pieces.

    Now, I think smart watches are so dull, and especially when you see the type of people wearing them. They are so NOT innovators.

    AND, to my point, why would anybody want a smart watch, when Google Glass (and others to arrive) do everything the watch can do and soo much more?
  • Convenience

    Personally, I really like my Sony smartwatch (version 1), because it meets my needs.
    1. Around the office, I don't have to carry my phone around.
    2. I'm always missing calls and texts because I don't hear/feel my phone going off
    3. When driving and I get a text, I just turn my wrist to read the message
    4. When I've misplaced my phone, I use the watch to find it.
    Most other smart watches are very bulky and the Sony is a smaller size.
    If you want a smart watch to be your phone, then you will be disappointed. If you want your smart watch to compliment your phone and reduce your reliance on getting it out to use it, then it's going to be a better fit.
    • When driving and you get a text, you actually read the message?

      Please dear God, I hope he doesn't travel the same roads I do.
      • What's the difference...

        Look down your typical road and you see signs everywhere. The number of road signs has increased 3x since I first started to drive. That does not even include bill boards and advertisements.

        I think a glance at a wrist device should not be that distracting whether you're looking at a text header or the time.
        Rann Xeroxx
      • Sat nav

        You'd spend more time looking at your satnav or rear vision mirror than your smart watch. Are you suggesting you look at nothing but the road when you drive?.
    • I find this so...well...just plain odd

      "Personally, I really like my Sony smartwatch (version 1), because it meets my needs"

      I would understand this if there was ever one "NEED" mentioned that amounted to more then an "unusual convenience".

      And I see this exact kind of response every time someone says "what does anyone really want, or better yet NEED a smartwatch for??"

      I can accept that when there is some kind of pressing need for some people that something might sensibly work for them when its a dead loss for almost everyone else, but I never see truly compelling NEEDS spoken of.

      Look at this from agaythorpe :

      1. Around the office, I don't have to carry my phone around.
      2. I'm always missing calls and texts because I don't hear/feel my phone going off

      Ha! These are not needs! Not even close!

      #1- Is carrying your phone so problematic that you cant carry it somehow?? Seriously? Is this really a need? Perhaps you work naked or something? This is not a need, not for most humans, by far. Its at best a convenience, but given your point #2 it sounds like an indulgence even more than a convenience.

      #2-Ive got a better solution. Carry your phone around. That way you will be more likely to actually be able to answer your phone. Here is an even better quandary. When you see the smartwatch advising that you got a call you missed, you return to your phone at some point, don't you see on your phone notices that people have called you and you missed it anyway? This is nuts. Now if your going to tell me that you need to know ASAP if you have missed a call, I suggest you had best stop indulging yourself by not carrying your phone and that you should keep it with you and answer a call or two if its that important. Unless again of course, you work naked...with a smartwatch on.

      3. When driving and I get a text, I just turn my wrist to read the message
      4. When I've misplaced my phone, I use the watch to find it.

      #3 is basically an admission of insanely dangerous behavior. Reading texts on a smartphone is hazardous enough when driving. Reading them off an even smaller smartwatch when driving is kind of like a "TRUE MODERN DAY TEST TO WIN THE DARWIN AWARD". If you don't know what the Darwin awards are, look it up. If your really engaging in seeing just how small of printing you can read while driving you should be embarrassed to admit that.

      #4..when Ive misplaced my phone I use the watch to find it? Ha! Well. Carry your phone with you. You will stop misplacing it so often that you end up NEEDING a smartwatch to find it all the time. And what if you misplace your smartwatch?? Ha! Do you use the phone to find the watch? Ha! Better yet, don't by the watch, you wont loose it or need to find it. If you misplace your phone just use any phone to ring it up. If its in ear shot your good to go.

      If at the end of the day you somehow REALLY NEED these kinds of things...1 to 4, well whatever. Unfortunate you I guess. But seriously, Ive never met a soul who would NEED any of those things.

      Or is it you just love tech and have money to throw away on it?
      • Happy to read opposing views

        hmmm, maybe you need to stop and re-read the first word in my post: "Personally". This means that my post is about me, no one else. I am not advocating my views for anyone else and I am not commenting on the validity of anyone else's views.
        I appreciate that you would have a different view than me- Good on you. That's what can make these forums interesting to read and be a part of.
        If I wanted to actually have a go at someone else's views because they are different to mine (like you seem to have done), then maybe choose a forum that promotes that approach.
        Happy to hear opposing views.
  • Smartfads

    All of the smartwatch hype makes me want to go old school and buy a stainless steel band, sapphire glass Swiss-made watch for about $130, still far less expensive. The less I'm a slave to the phone, the better, since it's got to be there during work. The day smartwatches take hold will be when they have a week-long battery charge life and they can completely replace the cell phones. However, the point about screen size getting bigger, not smaller again works against this as well.
    D.J. 43
  • The problem with smartwatches?

    They aren't that smart.
  • Just because

    You can shrink tech down to fit on a watch doesn't mean u should. Anyone around during the calculator watch craze? The iconic image from that era is The Police album cover with Sting and his calc watch. But even a hip rocker couldn't save the calc watch from the dustbin of forgettable fads.

    However don't underestimate industry's greed and the efforts they will go to to get you to part with ur cash for the latest smartwatch. Just be sure that given enough time the smartwatch will suffer the same fate as the calculator watch.
  • Answer your wrist

    Cell Phone Watches offer a convenience when you're not really keen on lugging around a giant cell phone. For out door activities especially, answering your wrist might be enough to get your text messages and voice calls. The ever increasing selection of cell phone watches ( says there might be something in this after all.