Smartwatch 3.0: Five biggest challenges to overcome and keep the dream alive

Apple, Samsung, Google and the rest, here's what needs fixing first
Smartwatch 3.0: Biggest challenges

The next few weeks are set to have huge implications for the future of smartwatches. By the end of the September, we will have likely seen the Apple Watch 2, the Gear S3 and maybe even a Xiaomi smartwatch enter the fold.

Pebble's new smartwatches, including the Time 2, will land before Christmas; while Google's biggest Android Wear update could usher in new Wear watches and will have a huge bearing on whether Google is heading in the right direction too.

Essential reading: The best smartwatches in the world right now

We know that smartwatches on the whole still have some convincing to do and a lot of pressure will be resting on the shoulders of Apple, Samsung and Google to secure their future. They are not perfect, but the more we've lived with our smartwatches the more we've been able to see what works and what really needs fixing.

Here's hoping that smartwatch makers can see where the real priorities lie and ensure that our dumb watches turned smart are here for the long haul.

Keep interactions discreet

This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges from both a design and software perspective. We're talking here about the ability to access core features with minimal effort and limited space. Nobody wants to be fiddling about with a watch longer than they have to. It should be as effortless as simply looking down at the screen to check the time.

Smarter smartwatch interactions are happening, whether's that's Samsung's rotating bezel on the Gear S2 or the Tickle Strip on the TicWatch 2. Companies with a proven track record for making intuitive devices have got it wrong. A watch poses very different challenges to a smartphone and we know that. It's time to think a little less about throwing in hundreds of features and focus on refining how the most important ones work. The ones that we'll want to use regularly during the day and night.

Make notifications a priority, not apps

No smartwatch manufacturer can claim to have created the killer smartwatch app. Apple Watch, Android Wear, Pebble – it just hasn't happened. We've spoken in the past about changing our opinion on the importance of apps on smartwatches and our stance hasn't really changed since then. The most positive experiences we've had with smartwatches in recent months have been around handling notifications.

We all use the likes of WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, and it's the job of the smartwatch to deliver those pings of information in a way that stops you from wanting to reach into your pocket. It's amazing how many make a mess of it. Companies shouldn't lose sight that until smartwatches are truly untethered and can stand alone, they are still smartphone companions. Delivering notifications that give you the information and the ability to act on in it in a uncluttered fashion should always remain a priority.

Do fitness tracking right

We know that not everyone cares about their smartwatches doubling as sports watches, but there's a whole lot of people out there (including a few in the Wareable team) that do like to keep fit. If there's the opportunity to monitor performance wearing one watch instead of switching between two, then that's a good thing in our book. The problem with the majority of the sports-focused smartwatch features we've seen so far is that they have been largely underwhelming or felt like they were still in a work progress.

Brands have a big opportunity to get it right this time. GPS should come as standard and it's been heavily speculated that the Apple Watch 2 will be packing it. Yes we know, it's a battery life killer, but we've seen it on Sony and Motorola smartwatches, while Garmin's managed to pull it off on its smartwatch/sports watch hybrids without hampering their ability to go the distance. So it can be done. The jury is still firmly out on optical heart-rate tech and it seems ambitious to think monitoring bpm during high intensity training is going to get any more reliable in the very near future.

Where we think things can get better is in the software department. That's on the native app side and in the ability to play nicer with third-party apps. There could be a lot more done to make tracking and analysis smoother and more streamlined. No company has really nailed this yet, so there's definitely plenty of room for improvement.

Make it look good

Square or circle, not everyone cares that much. What we care about is that when someone catches a glimpse of it, they don't still say, "Err, what the hell is that?" Believe us, this does happen. Watches are supposed to be shown off and that shouldn't change when they become more connected.

The chief suspects are heading in the right direction. Apple is partnering up with designer names like Hérmes and Coach for Apple Watch straps, Samsung is rumoured to be working closely with jewellery and watchmaker de Grisogono for the Gear S3, while Android Wear continues to be embraced by iconic watch brands. But it goes beyond adding a diamond here and there or making a nice strap.

What we're really looking for here is to make it feel more like a watch and less like a piece of tech. Companies like Fossil seem to be on the right lines, but they are making some of the same mistakes that traditional tech companies are making (stop the black tyres!). This also includes the software. It's an extension of the overall wow factor and it's surprising to see how many have forgotten that.

About that battery life...

It feels like we are going to be banging the 'better battery life' drum for some time before we get to satisfactory levels of smartwatch stamina. We've become accustomed to smartphones making it through a day, maybe eking their way through two, and that's pretty much where we are with smartwatches. It still feels like we are being shortchanged on the whole, especially when traditional watches can keep going for years. Aside from a few exceptions, including Pebble's current smartwatch mob and the far from perfect Vector smartwatch, it seems we are stuck around that one-to-two day mark.

But for those with crisp yet power sapping LCD or OLED screens, the challenge is all the more difficult. Qualcomm's new Snapdragon Wear 2100 processor aims to consume 25% less power than the chips packed into current generation Android Wear watches, but until we see one, we don't really know how much that's going to improve battery life. What we're asking for is the kind of improvements that show things are going in the right direction and that we won't have to rely on having that charging cable nearby at all times.

Do you think there are bigger challenges for smartwatches? Let us know in the comments section below.

Shop for recommended smartwatches on Amazon

Samsung Gear S2
Samsung Gear S2
Pebble Time Round
Pebble Time Round
Sony SmartWatch 3
Sony SmartWatch 3
Huawei Watch
Huawei Watch

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  • Gadgety says:

    "We've spoken in the past about changing our opinion on the importance of apps on smartwatches and our stance hasn't really changed."

    I'm glad you're not running the Android Wear software then. 

    Watchmaker for tailored look and functionality of the watch face, Google Keep for entry and recall of various notes and lists, Sports Gear Tracker for continuous pulse measurement during a work out, Interval Timer for well, interval timing,  Lightr to keep the screen lit more than 5 seconds, etc etc. All apps. Without these apps I mentioned I wouldn't have had even a fraction of the usage the watch provides now. 

    So if you had your way, just because you've had your "most positive experiences around handling notifications" then that's the #1 thing everyone wants, and it should be made the #1 priority? Apps are definitely a reason to get a smartwatch. Versatility and tailorability is key. Priorities will vary among users. 

    "...felt like they were still in a work progress." What else could it be? The whole field is a work in progress, in its infancy. 

  • Pw1 says:

    For me the biggest problem is thickness until smartwatches are a mm or 2mm thinner they won't be wrist friendly.  

    What would make me buy a smartwatches tomorrow is an analogue watch with a transparent touch screen on top, the best of both worlds, so no ultra bright screen just to check the time. 

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