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The smartest watches are still mechanical

The smartest watches are still mechanical

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watches at ces
Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge

There was a little moment during this month’s Consumer Electronics Show where I discovered that I was surrounded by colleagues wearing regular, old school mechanical watches. Dan Seifert, Mark Linsangan, and I each had on a watch that knew only the time and date. It wasn’t a coordinated thing, and it wasn’t some hipster rejection of modernity — we all just felt the same need for a reliable way to keep time and nothing more.

This wouldn’t be odd if we were grade-school teachers, but the three of us are supposed to be at the forefront of technology, the vanguard that strides into the future ahead of everyone else and then passes (hopefully) informed judgment on how awesome it will be. We had thousands of dollars of photographic equipment in our backpacks and 16 devices connecting us to the internet, but on our wrists were watches we’d chosen for their looks rather than their functionality. Were we recklessly neglecting our sacred duty of future exploration by disregarding smartwatches?

I don’t think so. Like many other things at CES, there’s a big gap between the watches and functions presented on stage and the ones attendees actually used. Every year I’d come to CES with a full range of chargers, battery packs, cables, and USB sticks, and there’d be some polished Intel suit up on stage telling me that my life is about to become totally wireless any minute now. I’m used to that disconnect between present reality and future promise, and I’ve been writing about technology long enough to know that some of those tantalizing promises do come true. OLED TVs seemed forever glued to trade show floors until they finally made the transition into real retail products, and now they’re on a familiar trajectory of becoming better, cheaper, and more numerous with each generation.

It just takes time.

The future fate of smartwatches is an open question

But when it comes to smartwatches, the OLED TV analogy is their rose-tinted, best-case scenario. They could still turn out to be more akin to 3D TVs, which instead of vastly improving an aspect of our lives, made it more laborious and irritating. Their limited battery life makes me anxious that I have yet another thing to charge on a near-daily basis, and their clumsy input methods make me more likely to whip out my phone to do anything meaningful.

Another thing working against smartwatches: other than the smartphone, nothing that the electronics industry has labeled as "smart" has really lived up to our hopes and expectations. The smart TV? Not really. The smart home or fridge or vacuum cleaner? Maybe with Alexa on board. They’re all at various stages of development (which can look an awful lot like meandering stagnation from a distance) and none has crossed the threshold of truly improving people’s lives.

And so we keep coming to CES wearing the most basic watches we can find. Because having a device dedicated to doing a single thing really well is still more valuable than having one that’s mediocre at a dozen things. It’s our mission at The Verge to live in the future — insofar as gadgets and other electronics can make that possible — but in the case of watches, the near future isn’t really that much better than the present, which in turn isn’t a huge upgrade on the past. Mechanical watches continue to thrive and survive through the electronic age for a reason. Hell, more than one reason. They’re true objects of craftsmanship, storing and releasing energy through ingenious mechanisms. It’s one part romance and nostalgia, and another part just the hardcore reliability of a timekeeping device that can be used for generations without ever having to worry about charging adapters, OS updates, or any number of other obsolescence threats.

Making things is hard, making them smart is even harder

Don’t get me wrong, though. I don’t think smartwatches are a bad idea. Their smaller size and more secure fit allow them to do things that smartphones can’t — like tracking swimming laps and surfacing hands-free notifications — and one day soon it’s likely that a company will find such a thing to entice me into giving smartwatches another try. I also don’t think they’re all that ugly anymore, having started off looking like bricks for your wrist: I’d happily wear an Apple Watch with a soft red leather strap, if only the thing’s battery life weren’t so feeble. Technology advances like Bluetooth 5, Alexa voice control, and many others on the horizon will gradually nudge smartwatches toward fulfilling their grand promises from a couple of years ago.

For now, though, most of us are better off sticking with the watch technology our grandparents knew and cherished. It still works just fine, and it looks damn good, too.