"We're not vapourware!" I'm at Imperial College London's Innovation Incubator, in the basement below a blast injuries lab and nuclear engineering centre, to get some hands on time with the Blocks modular smartwatch and catch up on its progress. Omer El Fakir, industrial designer of the watch, puts it nicely.
Due to start shipping at the end of September, possibly in two batches, it's been a long time coming. Development began in November 2013, though I first encountered the team in November 2014, and last summer they raised $1.6 million on Kickstarter.
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A few caveats – this is essentially the final Blocks smartwatch design, as shown off in the June demo video, but technically this is still a DVT1 (design validation test) prototype so things can and will change.
Also, we were able to try out a working core module but we weren't able to see a working connection between the core and the extra Blocks modules. When we do, we'll update this story.
Blocks smartwatch: Design and build
If you've been following Blocks and you've seen the latest images and videos then you won't be disappointed by the design and build. This isn't a wearable that puts style first. The effect of the large-ish core, with chunky bezels, combined with the modules, which are at most points 6mm thick but 7.95mm at their thickest points, is still slightly more curious gadget watch than classy timepiece.
Read this: Everything you need to know about Blocks
That said, the matte finish I saw looks better in real life than the press pics. It's a world away from the first Blocks prototypes and it's seriously impressive from an industrial design standpoint. Even at this stage, everything feels sturdy and well finished. Apart from a slight issue with the core to module connection, it's pretty much click and go. This is a practical, geeky choice that I can see being pretty rewarding to anyone who is comfortable with how it looks.
There's also a lot that will still change – the exact finish of the Blocks, the colours for the red/white module options and the buttons used to release them. It's not for this version but El Fakir also says that he'd like to see a Blocks watch made from aluminium, not stainless steel, at some point.
If you want to know the exact dimensions of the core module, I checked with the team. It's 12mm thick (the Apple Watch is 10.5mm thick, the Gear S2 11.4mm), the display is 45mm in diameter and lug to lug it's about 50mm, bigger than most due to the proprietary connectors. It's also a pretty substantial 57g, so quite heavy.
Blocks smartwatch: Screen & charging
The 1.39-inch, 400 x 400, AMOLED screen on the core Blocks module looks pretty crisp and vivid on first impressions. The team is proud of the fact there's no flat tyre at the bottom, as with Motorola and Fossil's line-up of smartwatches, and there's Gorilla Glass 4.0 to protect it too.
The display stays in a low power, near monochrome mode – so you can still see the watch face – until you press the single button on the side of the watch. That can get a bit confusing as you try to swipe across the touchscreen and nothing happens but you soon get used to it.
That should also help with battery life which is "a day plus" according to the team, based on the 300mAh battery, smaller than the original planned 400mAh unit as Qualcomm's Snapdragon Wear 2100 is so efficient.
On that point, the Micro USB charging dock isn't a sleek affair like a Samsung or Motorola dock but it just involves securing the core module in place. And you don't need to take all the modules off to dock it.
Blocks smartwatch: Cronologics OS
Apart from the extra functionality of the modules, the priority for using the watch was speed and intuitive controls. As Blocks co-founder Serge Vasylechko says: "If it's quicker to do it on your phone, there's no point."
That's why Blocks is using Cronologics OS, based on Android, for the core module (the firmware for the modules is all coded by Blocks). What I saw running on the watch was the basic OS so once I selected apps it all looked pure Android.
The main premise is that up to three containers – complications – appear on the watch face and swiping left brings up three fresh ones. You can customise them individually or as sets, for example music, by long pressing then just press once to access them. It's quick, it's simple and it's not just apps, but actions that can be assigned: weather, alarm, timer, play/pause music, day of the week etc.
Everything else is super simple too: pull down from the top of the screen for notifications, pull up for a quick settings menu – airplane mode, Wi-Fi, battery level etc.
In terms of aesthetics, Blocks is putting their own UI skin on there between now and September. They shared screens of what that might look like a while back but also pointed me to some of the images of watch faces and the like as an indication of what to expect.
The Alexa app also showed up on the list. Amazon's voice assistant – a headline feature of Cronologic's own CoWatch – isn't coming to Blocks anytime soon. This watch has a mic but no speaker so it would only work with Bluetooth headphones. Still, with glints in eyes, Vasylechko and El Fakir told us that voice assistants are the future of interacting with tech and Alexa would make the most sense.
Blocks smartwatch: Modules
The Blocks modules themselves, the main event, are super light at 10g and mostly the same size, apart from the extra 100mAh battery module which is roughly double the length. For that reason, Blocks recommends wearing that on the underside of your wrist with one module and a strap on one side.
As I said, the connection with the core module is still being finalised but between modules it was quick and painless. You could easily swap out a battery module for GPS or heart rate, say, while on the go and not worry. The core module only comes in two finishes but for the modules white and red finishes will be offered, though again, the exact hues and textures aren't yet finalised.
More excitingly, the team also showed us a tease of what's coming next including an adapter for third party straps, in other materials and a smaller strap.
It's also worth noting that each module will have a symbol to show what it is, in case it's not obvious – a mountain for the environment module that measures temperature, altitude and humidity and an infinity symbol for the programmable button. If you don't have a module slotted in and you select the relevant app, it will just say 'sensor not found' on screen.
As for what's coming? "Apart from the obvious like galvanic skin response, we're been approached to make a shock sensor for when you've done something bad, body temperature sensors, even smell sensors," says El Fakir. Blocks has also been approached by medical researchers and staff who want to use it to create low cost devices with very niche sensors.
Blocks smartwatch: What's next
We'll leave a full verdict until we've used, worn and tested the final Blocks smartwatch later this year. On a first look, we love the OS choice, that screen and the modularity – what makes it unique – works well at least in terms of connections, though like we said, we didn't get to see the modules in action.
There's no getting away from the fact that this is bigger and well, more gadgety in appearance and use than an Apple Watch or Android Wear watch, purely down to the modular strap. But something tells me that Blocks backers and buyers, past, present and future, just won't care because there's nothing available quite like this.
Blocks is now on the final stretch, the DVT2 model will be ready in two weeks and the team wants to get everything just so before shipping to make the right first impression. Even then, they're already planning to provide customer service come September and October.
There's a swanky new website taking pre-orders and details of how much the retail price will be – $280 for the core smartwatch plus $40 per module. So if you pre-order now, that's a hefty discount. With apps, modules, partnerships and customisation options coming later this year and into next year, there's plenty to look forward to.
One more thing – if you live in London, San Francisco, Singapore, Paris, Taipei or a few other cities, you'll be able to get your hands on Blocks yourself before shipping in September. The team is planning a series of global showcase events, starting in London at the end of July, where you can play around with the watch and modules. The 400 or so Blocks Ambassadors have already been invited but the pop-ups will be open to the public.
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