Wednesday , August 23 2017

What do we want from a smartwatch, after a couple of years with them?

Smartwatches have been around in their current guise (grouped loosely) for four or so years now, and many of us will remember the original Pebble somewhat fondly. However, development in the smartwatch space hasn’t gone exponentially upwards since then; if anything, it’s stagnated a little, with many believing that tech journos are conspiring to kill off the category altogether.

The killer features of smartwatches have been notifications on the wrist and fitness tracking, and really everything else (and we do mean everything) has been superfluous, and mostly poorly received. Consider the crap features that various OEMs have built into smartwatches:

  • Integrated camera
  • IR remote
  • Dick Tracy-style built in phones
  • Music players
  • Keyboards

There’s more, but these are the ones that come to mind, and in each case, we find ourselves wondering… why? While there has been demand for more and more features in mobiles, and there’s been success for those who’ve integrated them, the same has not been the case for smartwatches, where often it’s the case that more is too much. Do we need smartwatches with integrated, awful keyboards, terrible cameras, and the ability to make phone calls? I’d suggest we don’t, and the market seems to agree.

How do we know? Flagging sales suggest that the rapid iteration of mobiles doesn’t translate well to smartwatches, and major brands are significantly slowing their efforts in wearables, with some (like Motorola) pulling out almost entirely, while brands that are keeping it simple continue to find success.

Fitbit has figured this out, and they’re doing very well out of it; they’ve made a range of fitness trackers that are both accurate, functional and some of them even look good: the signature Fitbit look has become like the white Apple headphones, where you want to be seen wearing something distinctive to show that you have the best. Fitbit has made the jump in wearables from brand name to generic; regardless of the fitness tracker you’re wearing, it’s inevitable people will ask if you’ve got a Fitbit.

On the other hand, those who try to jam in too much are finding less and less appeal. Samsung and LG have crammed everything but the kitchen sink into their more recent smartwatches, including LTE, speakerphones and more, leading us to wonder “what else?” It doesn’t help that Android Wear’s inclusion of the kitchen sink is being led by Google itself, with their push for speakers (we can see a place for speakers) and LTE (less so).

While LG’s smartwatches haven’t been big sellers in Australia, Samsung’s Gear S2/S3 range have done alright, but even in my review, I noted that they tried to do way too much, and that 95% of the features no one will ever use.

The Real Test

The real test of a smartwatch is whether you can usefully do something in just a few seconds. Glancing at a notification is super handy, but interacting with it quickly detracts from the user experience; Android Wear’s quick reply functionality is great, allowing you to reply to messages with emoji, a dictated response, or a dinky on-screen keyboard, but even then, most people will not be using this — they’ll triage the message, decide whether to whip their phone out and interact with it that way.

Anything more than this — initiating a message, reading the news, playing a game — is too much, and most often, users will simply pull their phone out instead. How do I know this? Everyone I’ve seen with a smartwatch does it — they’ll glance at their watch, not even touch it, and pull out their phone instead, presumably to read a message or email on a larger, easier to use screen, and handle it as necessary. I almost never reply to messages from my watch, unless it’s a simple “OK”, or “OMW” type message.

I’d suggest this is the kind of line that most people draw, and it’s why Fitbit have done so well — they track your fitness, sync it to a class-leading service (and it’s open to 3rd parties, too), and show you notifications so you can decide whether to get your phone out.

What we would really like

So, in 2017, what we want from smartwatches is this:

  • Get notifications right, 100% right. Make them beautiful, easy to read, functional, and informative.
  • Get fitness tracking right: if your claim to fame is fitness tracking, make your HR monitors accurate, and get everything else pretty spot on.
  • Leave out the crap: we don’t want speakerphones, we don’t want keyboards, we don’t want app stores crowded with useless tools.

We want a watch that tells the time, shows us our schedule at a glance, shows us notifications, tracks our steps and our heart rates, preferably is waterproof, and looks good. It doesn’t need to be a dress watch, but it needs to look reasonable with a collar and sleeves and with a polo or a t-shirt on the weekend. We want a battery that lasts a weekend without a charger without sacrificing functionality, wireless charging so there’s no fiddly cables to fumble with in the dark, and something comfortable to wear all day (and night) if needed.

If we had one extra wish, it’d be inclusion of a tap-and-pay solution, and Android Pay seems to be the most widely supported at the moment. That would absolutely seal the deal for me; not even having to grab my phone out (much less my wallet) to pay for things. Integrate my Opal card too, and I’d be in seventh heaven.

Do we care if it doesn’t run Android Wear or Samsung’s Tizen? Not at all; in fact, it might be better if it doesn’t.

Are we likely to see a more minimalist smartwatch that gets these features right? Probably not. Samsung’s Gear platform is headed in the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink direction, and while Android Wear has always been a bit more minimal than that, Android Wear 2.0 certainly doesn’t look too promising, eschewing minimalism for MOAR FEATURES.

What do you want in a smartwatch in 2017?

 

 

Chris Rowland   Editor and Publisher

Chris publishes one of Australia's most popular technology websites, Ausdroid. His interests include mobile (of course), as well as connected technology and how it can make all our lives easier.

When not writing for Ausdroid, Chris is busy working away at his career within the NSW Department of Justice.

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15 Comments on "What do we want from a smartwatch, after a couple of years with them?"

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Grah
Valued Guest
Grah
After 3 years with a Pebble / Pebble Time, I can say that my ideal watch would have been called a Pebble Time Steel 2 SE, and would sell for under $300: Time – colour e-paper screen (always on), Steel case – not that the plastic hasn’t lasted, SE = no PPG Heart Rate monitor. I got multiple Garmin Edge units with proper chest straps already. And all the usual Pebble features: ~10 day battery life, genuine waterproofing to a couple of metres, buttons instead of touchscreen – so you can still control the watch when it is wet or… Read more »
Jack Bunney
Valued Guest
Jack Bunney

Just switched from my 1st gen pebble which I loved but it died on me :-(. I had to get a replacement asap as I hated not having notifications on my wrist.Now using the Sony smart watch 3 which I like but I do miss having the buttons that pebble had. You could easily turn up/down volume action something without looking. Touch screen means you have to concentrate a bit more to action something. I hope the new watches embrace buttons and battery life. Don’t need high res screen, colour e paper is good enough for me.

Nick Tsiotinos
Valued Guest
Nick Tsiotinos

I think Pebble finally got it right with the Pebble 2.

And then they went bust….

Hopefully Fitbit will take this on board and do something similar.

Member

Ever since the introduction of Doze mode, my Android Wear watches have become inconsistent in their notifications. I’d like this solved.

Also, vice actions that match the phone would be nice.

Another annoyance is when you issue a voice action only to find out after a minute of churning that the connection has been lost.

Straker
Valued Guest
Straker
Agreed. I fall into the small category of people who actually have used smartwatches for a while now and do so because they actually find them useful. To be successful, the majority of consumers are going to have to connect with them emotionally so they think they want one. This unfortunately is the way marketing works. Things these days are, for the most part, not sold in large volumes because people legitimately feel a product is useful; if you dig down deeper, they bough the product because they feel they need it and thus it fulfills an emotional need. This… Read more »
Member
Luke Vesty
I think about smartwatches a lot. I don’t want one though, not yet. At the moment I think they’re a hot mess. While there’s a lot to like, smartwatch makers need to get a few fundamentals absolutely rock solid before layering new features on top. I just want to outline a few of my thoughts about why I think smartwatches aren’t cutting it, what needs to be done to change this, and why the future of the device depends on broad appeal. The Apple Watch, even as the most successful of all smartwatches, isn’t selling at a rate Apple would… Read more »
Member

Apple watches don’t sell because they’re an absolutely rediculous price. The cost of another good smartphone.

Member
Luke Vesty

On the contrary, part of the reason the Apple Watch sells is because it’s priced at the high end of the market. This creates an illusion that it’s superior or “premium”. Apple retail strategy 101.

Member

My Gear S3 is my first smartwatch. I do agree with a lot of what you say. But being able to make and receive calls has proved to be incredibly useful on a good number of occasions (more so than I had imagined), whether I’ve been carrying something, had my hands full, or been unable to reach to my pocket. To me, this has proved to be one of the biggest advantages of the smartwatch. The main one for me, being notifications.

craigo
Valued Guest

A simple display that doesn’t chew the battery, and remains on. Waterproof with either a touch screen that works when wet, or buttons.

Carbs
Valued Guest
Carbs

Water resistance, proper water resistance similar to the Pebble’s so we are talking 50M or so and being able to use them in salt water at the beach, sure there is one or two that have that, but seems a pretty rare thing.

craigo
Valued Guest

Nixon Misson is 200M water resistant. However, reading the screen in the water is not an easy task with all the glare, and the touch screen doesn’t work most of the time when wet.

Member

agree Apple watch now supports swimming tracking and is waterproof for this it also can store some music locally and you can get some waterproof bluetooth headphones all this needs to be in the new Android watch.

Member

I most definitely agree with everything in the article. My two bobs worth – always on time display and battery life measured in days. It needs to be a watch first and foremost. I have a cheap Chinese No.1 D5+ but I await the new Withings Steel HR.

Member
Now that you have mentioned the crap “IR remote” idea I want one almost as much as I want a longer battery life. I want more RAM and faster CPU. Since I had no control over what ended up on the watch it got a lot of crap installed. I want more and better customisation watch faces (and notifications). I like Samsung’s rotating bezel. I’ve never wanted minimalistic, I want customisation, if someone wants a minimalistic look they should be able to configure that (and maybe there should be a preset for that). I don’t care about “app stores crowded… Read more »
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