The problem with smartwatches

A teardown of Samsung's new Galaxy Gear 2 smartwatch highlights some of the problems facing hardware makers entering this space.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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