I was reminded, as I watched a live stream of Tag Heuer’s shouty boss build hype for his company’s second Android Wear watch, just how difficult it is to make a good smartwatch. As users, we expect all the thinness, lightness, and versatility that we’re used to from smartphones, but married to the always-on time display and two-day battery life of a mechanical watch. And we’re only willing to pay impulse-purchase prices.
It’s a recipe for nightmare compromises, and the more attempts I see at solving the challenge, the more I come to appreciate the original pioneers like Samsung’s flawed but trailblazing Galaxy Gear and Apple’s original Watch. As things stand today, two years after its release, the Apple Watch still presents the best balance between looks, size, function, battery life, and price.
One of the things that initially rankled me about the Apple Watch was that, with its display laying dormant most of the time, it wasn’t constantly showing the time and thus wasn’t really a watch in my eyes. But that’s the compromise Apple chose to accept, preserving the battery in exchange for a small delay in showing the time when I turn my wrist to look at the watch. Most of its Android rivals are now moving to an "ambient mode" that keeps two faintly drawn watch hands on the screen at all times, but it’s not as good or as pretty as having a real watch face. And it’s not friendly to the battery.
Tag Heuer seems to have magicked up the ideal device in the Connected Modular 45 watch, which has ambient mode, a reasonably thin case, and a decent 30-hour battery life — but it costs $1,600. So the Tag Heuer compromise is, unsurprisingly, price.
Apple simply designed its way around the shortcomings of smartwatches better than everyone else. The company seems to have been conscious of the fact that, like a parked car, the watch will sit inactive most of the time, and so it needed to have an appearance that was appealing even without surfacing a time. Ideally, an appearance that made it look like a cohesive thing that didn’t have a screen at all. That’s part of why the Apple Watch looks the way it does: it’s a sculpted black monolith, whose darkness spills over the edges and either blends into a black metal frame or contrasts nicely with a lighter color. Returning to the car analogy, it reminds me of a fine auto with tinted windows, which is not a bad association to have. The Apple Watch is self-evidently a piece of technology, but its soft, pebbly shape is friendly and universal.
Compare that with the new Tag Heuer watch, the recently launched Huawei Watch 2, or the earlier LG G Watch R, each of them exhibiting a big honking bezel with minute markings around the side. It’s logical to take design cues from existing watches, but by now we should all be fully aware of how different smartwatches are from traditional ones. The classic watch design is basically a frame, a focusing device intended to center your attention onto the watch’s dial — and when it has extra adornments, like minute markings, it’s to augment that dial’s display. But these are digital watches with a myriad of possible things they can display. What good are those minute markers when I'm hailing a taxi or completing an Android Pay transaction? Do they help or hinder the look of the watch if I happen to prefer a digital readout of the time?
The approach of putting a physical frame designed for an unchanging, permanent display onto an endlessly variable, oftentimes dormant digital one is simply wrongheaded, in my judgment. And it’s these seemingly small design decisions that ultimately hamper Android Wear competitors to the Apple Watch. When Motorola was still into making watches, it built the gorgeous Moto 360, but gave it atrocious battery life and only a so-so screen with an infamous "flat tire" sliver at the bottom. Asus’ original ZenWatch might have come closest to matching the Apple Watch’s cohesive look, but it lacked Apple’s degree of refinement and polish.
My favorite smartwatch to date is Samsung’s Gear S2, which has an ambient display, good battery life, a fair price, and a bezel that’s actually functional rather than merely decorative. But I don’t rate it as highly in design terms, because, well, Samsung didn’t exactly overextend itself in photocopying the generic outline of a watch. The Apple Watch, on the other hand, looks like a piece of techno jewelry; and because it doesn't try to disguise itself as a regular watch, I no longer feel offended about seeing it without a time on its face.
Unfortunately, the trend now seems to be toward feature and connectivity bloat, as exhibited by Samsung’s much less magical Gear S3, Huawei’s universally disappointing Watch 2, and LG’s tragicomic enormity known as the Watch Sport. They all have cellular options, yes, but they achieve that by adding intolerable bulk and weight. Design considerations are still being paid lip service, but it seems like it’s an easier pitch to sell people on features rather than good looks and ergonomics. Tag Heuer might argue it’s found the right balance, however at more than $1,000, it has a steeper hill to climb in proving its value to customers who’d usually expect to be buying a timepiece that lasts for generations, not mere months.
So, for the immediate future at least, the Apple Watch looks like the best designed smartwatch that any of us can get. For many of us, its greatest limitation is that it’s locked inside Apple’s walled garden, remaining a toy only iOS users can have. But that’s by design.