What's next for smartwatches: Health, design, features and more

We know what your next smartwatch is gonna be like
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As fitness trackers wobble, smart jewellery dies and VR and AR are still figuring things out, there's no doubt that the smartwatch has emerged as the wearable tech the world actually wants.

So what's next? Join us as we take a look at what's coming up in smartwatch design and innovation in the near future - we're talking the next six to eighteen months and beyond.

Essential reading: The future of fitness trackers

Where better to start than what we know about the future of the smartwatch that adorns the most wrists - the Apple Watch. Then after that, we'll move on to what to expect from Wear OS, Fitbit, Fossil, Samsung and Garmin smartwatches.

The future of the Apple Watch

Apple wasn't the first company to make a smartwatch, far from it, but with its design prowess, technical talent and those sales, it's clear that it will continue to be very influential. So that's why we've split this one out on its own to break down what's coming.

Read this: The best smartwatches you can buy right now

We'll find out what's in store for the most popular smartwatch on people's wrists sooner rather than later - an Apple Watch Series 4 is widely expected to be announced in September, in keeping with the usual Cupertino calendar.

What's next for smartwatches: Health, design, features and more

New design, new display

The addition of an LTE model was quite a big leap last year so what can Apple Watch fans look forward in the next 12 months? Well, we're expecting a new design, in the form of larger, microLED displays squeezed into similar sized watch bodies - not necessarily a belated switch to a round watch form factor. One interesting point about microLED? It requires roughly half the power of an equivalent OLED screen.

Serious health monitoring

Sources have also suggested that we can expect to see more serious health monitoring, even to the extent that the Series 4 may launch with a medical-grade ECG heart monitor built into the device. Health is a big concern for Apple and its nearest rivals in Silicon Valley so over the next three to five to ten years, expect the Watch to become more and more of a biometric GP on your wrist.

And though we haven't seen it yet, Apple's 2017 acquisition of sleep tracking company Beddit suggests built-in sleep tracking is on the horizon - if not in the next watch then at some point in the future.

What's next for smartwatches: Health, design, features and more

Smart bands, gestures and new sensors

As well as those near term predictions, we can also look to Apple Watch patents to give us a sense of what's coming up in the future - this at least gives us a sense of what Apple is researching and developing.

Among the most likely are patents around sensors that can tell when you're driving to limit notifications, patents on photodiodes which can measure light patterns allowing wearers to use hand gestures, FaceID on the Watch, touch sensitive and otherwise smart watch bands and a patent for a round Apple Watch (one can dream).

The (near) future of smartwatches

Better battery life

What's next for smartwatches: Health, design, features and more

This is a concern across the board and so it should be. We've already mentioned the microLED display likely to turn up on the next Apple Watch. Plus, Qualcomm is unveiling its new smartwatch platform on 10 September - earlier this year Pankaj Kedia, Qualcomm's senior director of wearables told us the new chips will provide better battery life and improved support for fitness. (Qualcomm has, in the past, also hyped the prospect of smartwatches getting smaller).

Google, too, has work to do on the battery life front with Wear OS smartwatches. In March Dennis Troper, head of product for Wear OS, told us that the teams are working to optimise battery life by looking at and investing in three things: "the display level, the network routing or network traffic level, and then at the CPU level."


What's next for smartwatches: Health, design, features and more

Fitbit's Versa smartwatch is a hit and its female health tracking feature is a great example of how smartwatches are perfectly placed to become indisposable health focused companions. Right now it's fairly useful for manually tracking periods, symptoms and moods etc and getting alerts around what stage of your menstrual cycle you're in.

But Fitbit isn't shy about its ambitions here - tying all this data together with sleep data and stress levels and even building an anonymous database on womens' menstrual cycles.

Elsewhere, Fitbit just launched a Dexcom app for people with diabetes to see their glucose levels on their smartwatch (measured by a Dexcom device) so expect a lot more health app collaborations where that came from. Both the Ionic and the Versa smartwatches also include a light SpO2 sensor, a pulse oximeter, which measure blood oxygen levels. This could be useful for tackling disorders like sleep apnea but right now it's not being used for anything - expect health tech fanfare when it is.

Fitbit has a headstart when it comes to health features on mainstream smartwatches then but the Garmin Fenix 5S already features a pulse oximeter for measuring how well your body is acclimatising to high altitudes.

Just because Garmin's focusing on sports right now doesn't mean we won't see more health uses in future - in fact it just teamed up with Cardiogram to add serious heart health tracking, focusing on atrial fibrillation, sleep apnea, hypertension and diabetes, to all Garmin sports watches with a heart rate monitor. It's already live on the Apple Watch and Wear OS.

...And safety

What's next for smartwatches: Health, design, features and more

When we think about which features turn a smartwatch into a 24/7, indispensable device, the likes of wrist based payments, LTE and built-in GPS come to mind. One we think is missing is safety - we're still seeing a lot of very interesting standalone personal safety wearables. Some connect to the user's phone, others don't. We're also seeing that kids' smartwatches that can track their location aren't going anywhere.

Apple already has its SOS feature for emergency calls but we suspect that in the near future, we'll start to see more announcements around personal safety features. This could be something hybrid smartwatches (without screens), in particular are able to add in a meaningful way. It's still something lots of potential buyers are interested in and no-one's really cracked this one yet.

Fashion watches spec up

What's next for smartwatches: Health, design, features and more

We're already starting to see this trend in action but more and more we'll see so-called 'fashion' or 'everyday' smartwatches (code for they don't do much more than alerts and lifestyle activity tracking) really speccing up. That's because now we're a few years into the smartwatch project, it's easier to fit extra sensors into a wearable form factor.

We've already seen Fossil, Emporio Armani and Michael Kors smartwatches add dealbreaker features like Google Pay, heart rate tracking and built-in GPS - expect more from the likes of Diesel, Skagen, Marc Jacobs and more. Basically, soon you won't have to choose between something pretty and something genuinely useful.

Sports watches cover the bases

What's next for smartwatches: Health, design, features and more

While designer, fashion watches get sportier, the mirror of that is that we fully expect to see more sports watches add everyday features to make them more all-rounders. Garmin has been adding features like music player support, NFC payments and better onscreen notifications and that will continue.

Perhaps the Garmin Forerunner 935 (our top triathlon pick) is next in line for an upgrade? We could even see something from Garmin at the upcoming IFA 2018 expo in Berlin.

How we test


Sophie was Wareable's associate editor. She joined the team from Stuff magazine where she was an in-house reviewer. For three and a half years, she tested every smartphone, tablet, and robot vacuum that mattered. 

A fan of thoughtful design, innovative apps, and that Spike Jonze film, she is currently wondering how many fitness tracker reviews it will take to get her fit. Current bet: 19.

Sophie has also written for a host of sites, including Metro, the Evening Standard, the Times, the Telegraph, Little White Lies, the Press Association and the Debrief.

She now works for Wired.

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