Round v square faced smartwatches: We ask the experts which is best

We asked design, retail and UX boffins which is the right screen shape
Round v square smartwatches

The world collectively cooed as the Moto 360 showed how the best smartwatches could be. It had a leather strap, it measured your heartbeat and, most awe-inspiring of all, it was round.

It was a watch with an entirely round face just like all those other watches throughout history that also have round faces. Suddenly we had a smartwatch that we just might be able to wear without feeling like too much of a penis. And then Apple made a square one.

Join the debate: Round vs square watches – which do you prefer?

Apple sells much of its kit on simply being cool. There's no point in trying to analyse it – Apple has bags of X-factor through both brand and design, but surely should have gone round with the Apple Watch?

So was our collective gut reaction to the Moto 360 incorrect? Or does Apple know something more? Wareable decided to speak to smartwatch experts to finally settle the score of round vs square.

Round v Square: Design

"In my experience, round-faced watches sell better than square-faced watches. I don't know exactly why that is." So says Bradley Price; senior industrial designer in the consumer electronics industry for over 10 years and owner of driving-orientated wristwatch brand Autodromo.

"It's most likely purely psychological; people's semantic notion of what a clock or a watch should look like. When you were a little kid, learning to tell time, they put this clock in front of you and it imprints itself and it's hard to get away from that even when you're an adult. So, square watches are more unusual or a design product in the case of Apple Watch. I think Motorola probably wanted to make it more familiar. But I think they also wanted to show that they could make a round LCD screen.

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"From a practical standpoint, it's easier to do a square screen but, in the case of Apple, they will have made it square because they wanted to make it square. It brings it into a more consumer electronics-form vocabulary and away from a watch-form vocabulary. What's interesting with the Apple Watch is that they definitely made an Apple device first and foremost - a consumer electronics device. For me, it's not really a watch. It's a CE device that has watch-like characteristics.

"The Moto 360, on the other hand, is more a CE device masquerading as a watch. They wanted to make it a magical watch; at first glance an ordinary one but an unexpected delight when it's got a touchscreen and pictures and everything."

Verdict: Square is design-led and tech, round is familiar

Round v Square: User-experience

"UX-wise, I don't think it matters because the screens are just so small anyway," sums up Kate Tarling - product designer on Peek, the award-winning, smartphone-based eye examination kit for the developing world - before we've even begun.

"The way mobile phones are designed is for us to hold them in one hand. Then what really makes a difference is the proximity of buttons and controls that we're pressing and how easy they are for your thumbs to reach in one-holded used; and that doesn't matter so much with a watch because you're not having to hold it at all.

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"Instead, you've got this really tiny screen you're now designing for. So, when you're thinking about this tiny UI with buttons and controls, designers have to think about the metaphor of space by pulling things in from off the screen one way or the other. That's a neat solution from a design perspective but, for the user, none of that's intuitive. So, it means having to learn and remember where everything is.

"Making something round; if you're thinking about reading a book or some text, then you've got the problem that text will disappear off the screen more easily on a round face. But then you've got to think about how people are using a watch and it's not a replacement for your phone, so shape shouldn't be so important."

Verdict: No difference

Round v Square: Display technology

So, it's all the same as far as user-functionality goes but how about in terms of the screen itself? Does it make a difference to how easy it is to interact with? Does shape matter for how reliable a touchscreen is or, perhaps more importantly for the company involved, what are the implications on cost and mass production?

If there's one man who'll have the answer to this, it's Mark Jones, founder and chief Giant iTab. On top of a career in specialist screen supply, he now provides to order just about any size and shape of touch display that his clients require. Are some harder to make than others, then?

"When it comes to wearable technology, you have to consider both the aesthetics and ergonomics. It needs to be comfortable to wear and maybe a 16:9 display on your wrist just isn't going to look right. Once you go out of a 16:9 domain, though, it doesn't really matter if it's square or round. The cost goes up anyway by about three or four times. In fact, round is not actually any harder. Most screen manufacturers are used to making rounded corners now."

So, technically, there's no difference and it's just as expensive in either shape; but it seems that one way is just a shade pricier than the other.

"There's obviously more wastage of cutting round shapes out of squared sheets," concedes Jones, "but you'd factor that into the price of production. The more important consideration, as far as the screen goes, is that you create a digital portal that the content will go into and be automatically reconfigured to fit the shape on the device that you have. Get that right and whether it's round, square or triangular or whatever won't matter."

Verdict: No difference

Round v Square: App design

"A square face is obviously simpler, but round screens are pretty similar," says Shem Magnezi, lead Android developer at MyRoll, brushing aside our ideas that developing content for different shaped screens might be an issue for these two burgeoning app communities.

"The most important thing in your screen should be big and in the centre. That way it works for both of the faces," and it's certainly in line with UX-expert Kate Tarling's theories on things. Don't try to cram content into a small space. Accept that a smartwatch screen is tiny and keep it functional from there on in.

"Square is simpler in a sense of building your layout," continues Magnezi. "Round faces usually just look better in my opinion - background images, for example, play nicer when they're cropped in the corners."

And what of the many faces of Android Wear then? Is it harder to develop for a platform where you're never quite sure what device the user has on their wrist?

"Google did a nice job here, the layout adapts your view to the right shape and that's it. If you developed for Android phones before, where there's much more variety of screens sizes, resolution and shapes, this shouldn't be an issue here."

Verdict: No difference

Round v Square: Popularity

Last of all, it needs to be remembered that these watches, although smart, are still watches and it's well worth looking at the market trends for some advice. The wrist-worn horology business has been at full tilt for well over 100 years and any tech company intending on getting into it needs to have done its homework. According to the Ruth Faulkner, the editor or Retail Jeweller, this is what they should have figured out.

"Round watches are much more popular and probably make up 80 per cent of the watches on sale. I'd say women's watches are more often square than men's, for example the popular Cartier Tank and Longines classic watches.

"Square can look old fashioned but the Apple Watch is oblong and it looks great. I think it's a fantastic design and has a timeless elegance to it with a expensive twist."

Verdict: Square less popular but also more feminine.

Round or square: Verdict

What's surprising, for us, is how little a difference face shape of a smartwatch actually seems to make to most of the technical and practical areas one might expect. It's no harder to make apps for, production costs are equally expensive at any serious volume, a touchscreen is just as sensitive and the challenge from a usability angle is one over size and not to do with shape in any way. In fact, when it comes down to it, it's really about aesthetics and what the chosen design does for us on that all-important emotional level.

Apple's bet is to both attract a female audience while also creating something design-led to make you 'think different'. What's more, it also inherently lets you know that it's got a technical side with its shape suggestive of a consumer electronics device.

For Motorola, LG and Samsung, round is trying to be a watch first and something connected later. They want you to be able to fit in, and then show. Who's right? Well, given that wearables are really about form over function for the time being, one's gut would be to go with round. But bet against Apple at your peril.

3 Comments

  • Magicwatchface says:

    Well, I think round watch face looks better than squared one.

  • Thijsvr says:

    I like the round shape better. It just looks more natural. However I'd probably buy a square smartwatch as information like text is better visible on those type of screens. A smartwatch is function>form to me.

  • JuSchu says:

    Yes, at first you would think watches were always round, so let's make smartwatches round.
    But we should see a smartwatch more as really small tablet attached to our wrist than as a smart watch. Because just as the telephone function of a smartphone is one of its least used functions, reading the time is one of the least used functions of a smartwatch. And reading the time on a square smatwatch isn't even problem. So making smartwatches round is like desperately trying to make cars look like carriages. Just because we're used to it.
    And watches are only round because there are hands on them which turn around in a circle. The shape of the watch was designed around its function. If we would do the same with a smartwatch we would end up with a square, because the content we want to display on a smartwatch is in a square form. It was even in a square form long before computers were invented. Just look at books.
    And we don't have to read books on a smartwatch to run into the problem where the text is cut of. Even much less text is still in a square form. Just read a text message, a whole conversation, shopping list, to-do list, playlist, contact list, ... list. It doesn't even has to be text. If you have multible items of anything and want to scroll through them (scrolling, not swiping), they either can't use the full width or only the one in the center can be seen completely.
    Somewhere in the article I read: "The most important thing in your screen should be big and in the centre. That way it works for both of the faces,"
    On round smartwatches it HAS to be in the center or you can't read it. On a square smartwatch it can be in the center but it doesn't has to. Round smartwatches are basically limiting the really usable space (in many cases) to the center part.
    This whole article is a series of people trying to find excuses for round smartwatches by explainging how it still could work and how we could find new ways to work with this shape. But why should we even look for this new ways and risk running into problems we can't solve if the only advantage we get from this is having a smartwatch in the shape we're used to from old watches, which are devices with a completely different purpose?
    Please imagine a Ryan Reynolds "but why" meme at this point.

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