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Buckle up for some iterative smartwatches this year

Buckle up for some iterative smartwatches this year


It’s not surprising that most of what we’re hearing about this year’s flagship smartwatch lineups don’t feel quite as exciting as last year.

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Apple Watch Ultra with compass watchface on a person’s wrist
I don’t see much of a point in a second-gen Apple Watch Ultra if there isn’t a noticeably better experience.
Photograph by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The next Apple Watch Ultra may come in a darker titanium color. Supposedly. The rumor comes courtesy of Bloomberg reporter Mark Gurman’s Power On newsletter — but even Gurman himself doesn’t seem entirely sure about it. Besides that, the second-gen Ultra might be a little lighter and feature a faster processor.

I hate to say it, but if that’s all we can expect to change, perhaps Apple shouldn’t release a second-gen Ultra later this year.

I say this as someone who’s been using the Ultra consistently since it launched. The watchOS 10 beta runs just swell. My Ultra’s battery has yet to crap the bed. I have maybe one minuscule nick on the titanium body, and I’ve gotten used to the weight and size on my petite wrist. Barring new health sensors, significantly longer battery life (I’m talking four or five days), some kind of new rugged sport feature, a second Action Button, new display tech, or a dramatic performance boost (50 percent or more), I’m not sure what the point of a second-gen Ultra would be.

Person holding Apple Watch Ultra showing watchOS 10 widget stack
The Ultra runs watchOS 10 just fine, so I’m not sure the new rumored processor will make the experience that much better.
Photo by Victoria Song / The Verge

Don’t get me wrong. Adding a darker titanium version would make a ton of folks very happy. Aside from size and price, the most common complaint I’ve heard about the Ultra is the fact that it only comes in a single color. But introducing a new color doesn’t mean you have to launch a whole new generation of device. It’s not a crime to update existing products more sparingly.

Samsung seems to have taken this approach for its Galaxy Watches. It elected not to update the Galaxy Watch 4 Classic last year and instead introduced the more rugged Galaxy Watch 5 Pro. This year, it’s decided not to release a new Pro, but it does have a new Galaxy Watch 6 Classic. It’s unclear if we’ll get a Galaxy Watch 7 Pro, but after some thought, this every-other-year cycle would make a lot of sense across the board.

Case in point, Samsung told me in a briefing that it frankly didn’t feel there was much to update beyond software for the Pro. The new Exynos W930 chip in the Galaxy Watch 6 lineup isn’t that different from the Pro’s W920, and ostensibly, the Pro should get a Wear OS 4 update whenever it’s available. Given all that, it’s likely the Pro will run One UI 5 Watch without issue. Plus, its huge 590mAh battery is still the largest in the lineup. If there are no major hardware design changes and your biggest updates are software-based... do you really need a new Pro model?

44mm Galaxy Watch 6 next to the 47mm Galaxy Watch 6 Classic in someone’s hands.
On the surface, not much has changed with the Samsung Galaxy Watch 6 series, either.
Photo by Owen Grove / The Verge

Conversely, the Galaxy Watch 6 Classic isn’t a huge update, but the small changes are significant enough that you can feel the difference from its predecessor. The rotating bezel is 15 percent thinner, making the display noticeably larger. There’s also a good jump in battery size. This time around, the smaller 43mm Classic watch is going from a 247mAh to a 300mAh battery, while the larger 47mm model is increasing from a 361mAh to a 425mAh battery. I’m still testing battery life on these watches, but so far, I appreciate and notice the Classic’s updates more than I do the base model Watch 6.

I’m not saying that every update has to be a revolutionary one. Meaningful changes aren’t always the splashiest. It’s the small updates that barely change anything and don’t fix outstanding issues that leave me scratching my head.

I felt this keenly while reviewing the Garmin Fenix 7S Pro. With the exception of the hands-free flashlight, it felt like almost nothing had changed from the Fenix 7S Sapphire Solar Edition I reviewed last year. I knew there was an updated sensor array and a new display, but all the problems I had with the standard Fenix 7 were still there. I had a very similar experience going from the Apple Watch Series 7 to Series 8. At least with the Series 3 through Series 7, you could point to one marquee update each year. (Even so, the processor hasn’t really changed in the Apple Watch since the Series 6.) The worst offender was Fitbit and its Versa smartwatches. The differences between the Versa, Versa Lite, Versa 2, and Versa 3 are so negligible that my brain has purged them from my memory. (I remember the Versa 4 only because Google nerfed it so hard that it led to a noticeable downgrade.)

We’re at an interesting crossroads where wearable health tech ambitions are somewhat beyond the scope of current technology

We’re at an interesting crossroads where wearable health tech ambitions are somewhat beyond the scope of current technology. For example, it would be revolutionary if smartwatches could reliably and noninvasively measure your blood glucose. Multiple companies are reportedly working toward that. However, you won’t see it for ages because it’s such a complex problem, both from a technical and regulatory standpoint. The same could be said of blood pressure and several other “next-level” health features. And piddling battery life is another perennial complaint with smartwatches. Unfortunately, the only real solution companies have had in recent years is to make larger smartwatches that house bigger batteries.

This is a big reason why you should buckle in for some tedious, incremental updates in the near future, especially since smartwatch makers all seemed to make their big push forward last year. Apple is going to have a hard time recapturing the pizzazz of releasing three new smartwatches in a year — even if it does come out with a new Ultra. Samsung’s smartwatch updates this year are also more subdued. If anything, the rumored Pixel Watch 2 is where we might see the most exciting updates, but that’s largely because Google has a lot more room to grow in this space than Apple or Samsung.

I doubt you can stop smartwatch makers from updating the main flagship every year, even if those updates are nigh indistinguishable from the year before. But if we’re talking about “special” versions, I don’t think people would mind waiting for more substantial updates. It would at least give everyone something to get excited about.