Batteries are the bane of our smartwatch lives. There are the Apple Watches and Android Wears of the smartwatch world, where you get a lot of smart features - music, LTE, notifications, apps - but you'll have to charge every night. At the other end of the spectrum are the hybrid smartwatches, which last weeks - sometimes months - but don't do as much.
In either case, the problem is the same. You have to remember to charge your wearable. You have to keep that dang cord handy in case your wearable is about to die, and you better remember to pack it in your hand luggage if you ever go on any kind of trip, less you want a useless piece of metal and plastic on your wrist.
The Matrix PowerWatch has a potential solution. It runs on thermoelectrics, which is a fancy way of saying that it can turn your body heat into electricity to power the watch. Can it solve our big wearable battery problem? I spent two weeks with the PowerWatch to find out.
Out of sight, out of mind
In the year of our lord, 2017, we have more mobile gadgets than ever. You obviously need to remember to keep your phone charged up and ready to go, but there's also your laptop for more serious work. If you're a big reader, your Kindle better have some juice. Then there are tablets, and Bluetooth headphones, and action cameras to keep your mind on.
That means you have a lot of devices to keep a track of. Using the PowerWatch feels like none of those. As soon as you slip it on, you'll see the main screen display your skin temperature and case temperature. The further apart these two are, the more you charge the watch.
If you twist the dial, you'll see "Realtime Power" displayed, which shows how much power you're generating for the PowerWatch. The more heat you provide, the more bars will show up. The less heat you provide, the less the bars show up.
While it's nice to be able to see how much power you're generating in real time, and what your skin temperature is, for the most part the PowerWatch's power generation is out of sight and out of mind. I never had to worry about whether I was going to get enough juice to make it through the day, and I never looked down at my wrist and found that the watch was completely dead.
Wearing the PowerWatch is kind of like wearing an analog watch in that you have the confidence that your watch will be working when you need it to be working. It's also one less worry at the end of the day.
This is especially true when traveling. Nowadays, the first thing you do when you get to a hotel or AirBnB is scout for power outlets to drain with your myriad of gadgets. On a recent trip to London for our very own Wareable Tech Awards, I had one port for three devices, but usng the PowerWatch meant I had one less thing to worry about. An obvious point to make, but as someone who's worn a smartwatch for the past two years, this was a key moment for me.
Walking around London a lot also helped heat me up, thus powering the watch and giving it juice. It helps that the outside temperature was fairly cold, too, giving the thermoelectric heart of the PowerWatch a faster charge.
Like most great technologies, the PowerWatch's self-charging battery technology just faded into the background. After wearing the PowerWatch for a bit in London, I swapped to the Gear Fit2 Pro, and I instantly felt that battery anxiety again. You see, I had forgotten to charge the Fit2 Pro, so when I put it on it was on battery life support. I charged it for a little bit, and had to brave the day with 32% of life. I had to quickly come to terms with the fact there was a good chance it would be useless by the time I got back to my room.
The only time the PowerWatch enters your mind is when you wear it. The default nylon strap is very thick and heavy, and while the case looks like something Garmin designed, the strap does not. It's not the most comfortable thing you'd wear. However, we were also given the black version of the PowerWatch with a black Milanese Loop, and it is infinitely more comfortable. In fact, it looks quite dashing compared to the silver version.
Wearing a smartwatch that doesn't die from a lack of battery is one of those unique gifts. It's almost magical. However, in the case of the PowerWatch, all that time yields surprisingly little to actually do.
So much for so little
At some points, it feels unfair to compare the PowerWatch to a smartwatch that lasts a day, and that's mostly because the PowerWatch doesn't do a whole lot. There aren't any notifications, for instance, or apps, or music streaming, or meditation, or even a color screen. There is a larger - yes larger - version launching in January that will support notifications.
That means, for now, there are less things that can suck up precious juice. In that way, it actually feels a little more like a digital hybrid than a smartwatch with great battery technology.
So what can you do? You can track your sleep, runs, activity and calories. Your activity and calories are automatically tracked as you move around. You can see the distance you walked or ran as well as the steps and calorie burned. These are all available on the Daily Activity screen, and they're also synced to the companion app.
The calories bit is interesting, because it uses your body heat to contribute to its algorithm, which Matrix says should be more accurate than other methods for calculating calorie burn. During a day in which I moved about 5 miles, the PowerWatch told me I burned around 1,000 calories. On an Apple Watch, it said I did about 843 calories.
Then there's the sleep tracking, which is fairly basic. You only get the time that you slept compared to your target. In fact, most of the metrics here are pretty basic. If you're looking for something like VO2 Max, you're looking in the wrong place. Using Run Mode will add in your pace and how long you were running for, however, but it's still fairly basic.
Using the PowerWatch also leaves something to be desired. There are three buttons. There's Mode, then the dial, then Set. Your instinct is to use the dial to scroll through the different menus on the PowerWatch, but you'll have to use the Mode button to do that. Once you find your option, you just have to wait as the watch automatically enters the mode. Then, you click Set to activate whatever that mode or feature is. Sometimes, you can use the dial to scroll through options, like between Realtime Power and body temperature, or between sleep time and distance traveled in Daily Activity.
Should you use it?
For most people, the PowerWatch just doesn't offer enough to actually do. If you're looking to replace your Apple Watch or Fitbit with it, there are plenty of features you're going to miss out on in exchange for wonderful battery life. That just isn't a plunge most people will be ready to take.
However, the technology in the PowerWatch makes me wish for a world in which every wearable device is powered by thermoelectrics - and it might be coming. If anything, it's a showcase of an impressive technology that could one day power other smartwatches.
If you only want basic metrics and activity, or you only really care about how many calories you burn in a day and don't care how you get there, the PowerWatch is a lot more appealing.
You may have to opt for a new band, but the PowerWatch is very good at fading into the background. This is a watch with some light fitness powers that you won't have to worry about. Additionally, it actually makes for a pretty wonderful talking point. You tell someone you're wearing a watch that's powered by your body temperature and they'll probably have a few questions. And no, not once did it run out of power.