Skip to main content

Android Wear smartwatches still have a big hill to climb

With Google's new Android Wear OS, it's on. Previous smartwatches, running on their motley array of software (often software that wasn't designed to be used in that form factor) have been put on notice, and Motorola, LG, HTC, Samsung, and Asus are all entering the field.

But Android Wear could flounder like the Galaxy Gear, MetaWatch, and other celebrated smartwatches because it's difficult to get functionality into a body that people want to wear on their wrists.

Let me get one thing out of the way: I doubt the perfection of Google's demo video for Android Wear (see below). The software is clearly real and functional – but there's something about the scintillating clarity of the screen images in the demo that makes me think they have been pasted onto dummy devices in post-processing.

We've seen a bunch of smartwatches in the office here, and except for the Pebble, they all suffer from three problems: Size, style, and stamina. The three issues are connected, and they need to be unlocked together. We won't know if Android Wear has solved these problems until we see real devices on real wrists.


Most smartwatches right now have big faces on bulky bodies. Typically, that's because a touchscreen needs to be greater than a certain size to work well, and that big, colour touchscreen needs a sizeable battery so it can last more than a day.

This isn't a problem for manly men with manly wrists – but half the population tends to prefer smaller watch faces, or has tended to prefer such designs in the past. Can you get smartwatch functionality in something that doesn't look gigantic on a slimmer woman's wrist?

Samsung's Gear Fit is worth a look there, with its "bracelet" style. Android Wear's focus on voice controls could also make for a much more diverse array of watches, even with non-touchscreen faces.

Samsung's marketing head, YH Lee, who knows more about fashion than I do, once pointed out a different possibility to me: Chunky jewellery has been in style, so chunky watches may become so too. That brings us on to...


Cell phones are a lot tech and a little bit fashion. Watches are a lot fashion and a little bit tech. Smartwatch makers need to acknowledge that they're now creating fashion products, and they may be woefully unprepared to enter that marketplace. Pebble and Samsung have both got the message that standard-size, replaceable bands are a must.

This is the trickiest bit of the smartwatch equation, and the one I'm least equipped to judge. But to crack the fashion code, a tech company may have to partner with a fashion brand and let the fashion brand participate fully in the design process, and not just slap its name onto the product.


If you focus too closely on size and style, you'll end up skimping on stamina. Bright, colourful touchscreens hog battery. So for a smartwatch to last long enough so that people won't become irritated with it – that means three to five days on a charge – it needs either a bulky battery, or to keep its bright, colourful screen off for most of the time.

Samsung's original Galaxy Gear was bulky and blank-faced, and that’s partly why it failed. Qualcomm's Toq uses a very low-power screen technology, Mirasol, but it's an experimental device. The Pebble, our favourite smartwatch so far, ditches the entire touchscreen concept so it can offer decent stamina at an acceptable size, but Android Wear clearly isn't going down that path yet.

Can Android Wear do it?

Android Wear looks like a compelling software suite. I like how it leverages Google Now, how it keeps the smarts in your phone and how it focuses on notifications, so far the most compelling use for a smartwatch.

The real hurdle here is hardware, not software, though. Balancing screen quality and battery size in a smartwatch that people want to wear has been the real struggle smartwatch makers have faced. While the staged photos of the Moto 360 and G Watch look good, I'd hesitate to make a decision about them until you see an actual production unit on an actual live wrist.