Cezary Wojcik
Keyboard Wizard
How smart is smart enough for a smartwatch?

September 14, 2014

Most people, especially those in the "tech crowd," tend not to wear watches. A phone seems to be a sufficient time-telling device. Most of the articles that I've read about the Apple Watch seem to be written from that perspective. To me, the decision as to whether to wear a smartwatch or nothing seems fairly simple if those are the only two choices. I wear an analog watch already, however, so my decision instead will be an arguably more difficult one - whether I want to give up my analog watch for an Apple Watch or keep my current watch. It's an issue that I'm currently debating, so I decided to write out my thoughts to help piece various arguments together.

My Current Watch

my current watch

Pictured above is my current watch. I love it. The amount of time it takes to reach into my pocket and tap some button so that I can see the time is far too much when I can simply look at my wrist. I've been trying to pay attention to how much (and for what) I use my watch since the Apple Watch announcement. My watch can tell me what time it is, what day of the month it is, and what day of the week it is. Right away. I never (well, almost) need to worry about battery levels. The hands on the clock glow in the dark, so I can make out the time if I need to at night as well. It's so incredibly convenient.

My watch also has a stopwatch feature. All I need to do is press one button on my watch to start timing something. No unlocking a device and no having to find the suitable app - I don't even have to look at the watch until I want to know how much time has passed since I started the timer. I've started timing things just because it's so quick and easy. I've grown used to it.

That's not to say that I don't have some gripes about my analog watch experience. For one, if a month doesn't have 31 days, then I will need to manually reset the day counter. It's something that takes less than a minute around once per every two months, but I still find it somewhat annoying. My watch doesn't automatically adjust for time zones - I have to adjust that manually as well. And Daylight Savings Time. In my 4 years of using this watch, I've even had to get a new battery once.

As you can probably tell, my annoyances with my watch are relatively minor.

Discrete Time

One of the nice things about a watch is that it is very discreet. Suppose that I'm in an extremely boring meeting, and the clock in the conference room is behind me. I want to see what time it is, because the meeting is extremely boring, but I also don't want to make it obvious that I'm checking what time it is to the other people in the meeting. Looking at the clock on the wall behind me is obviously out of the question. Taking my phone out of my pocket is also an extremely obvious and noticeable action.

But what if I had a thing on my hand that just happened to have the time on it? What if I had already angled my hand so that I wouldn't even have to move to see it? That would obviously be the best solution to the problem of checking the time discretely.

Due to battery life concerns, a smartwatch obviously can't have its screen on constantly. The solution that the majority of smartwatch producers (including Apple) have come up with is that the screen turns on when it detects that you move your hand to check the time. That's a decent compromise, but in the situation above, a smartwatch's screen would not have been on if my hand were sitting still. I would have to shake my hand or move it in some other way that would give away the fact that I'm checking the time.

In short, it's far more obvious when someone is checking the time on a smartwatch as opposed to an analog (or normal digital) watch, and that isn't ideal.

Smartwatch Requirements

Would a smartwatch be an upgrade from my existing analog watch? That is, would my experience overall be better? I want, for instance, to still be able to start a timer with a single press. It seemed as though some of the watch faces on the Apple Watch could do that, but unfortunately, that also limits which watch faces I would want to use.

Over the past few days, I have tried to think "What if this were a smartwatch?" every time I've looked at my watch. "Could I do this thing that I'm doing with a smartwatch?" For the most part, the answer is yes. Just yesterday, however, I caught myself pressing my watch against my ear to listen to the faint ticks of seconds that were passing by. It's oddly relaxing. How much would I miss that if I had a smartwatch?

I've been trying to come up with a list of requirements for a smartwatch that would be immediate dealbreakers if not satisfied. Here are a few obvious ones:

  • It needs to tell the time just as well as an analog watch (whatever that means)
  • It needs to work with my iPhone and, at the very least, have support for managing Spotify (though a public API is ideal)
  • It needs to at least last me through a long day (battery)
  • It needs to be comfortable, and it shouldn't irritate my wrist (the device shouldn't give off heat)
  • It needs not to require additional tethering charges from the network to function with my phone
  • It needs to be very durable and scratch-resistant
  • It needs to be reliable (whatever that means)

I couldn't really think of anything else that made sense on its own. There are too many whatifs and maybes. How annoying would having to charge another thing every night really be? I already take off my watch before bed and put it somewhere. Would this be that different? How well does the wrist movement detection work - how often will I want to see the time but be unable to without shaking my wrist? How well will the watch fit into shirt cuffs? How well will dictation work if I'm trying to send messages in multiple languages? Would I even want to send messages from my wrist? These questions can't really be answered without actually trying and using a smartwatch.

Smartwatch Benefits

Apple Watch

I've been talking a good bit about how a smartwatch would stack up against my analog watch in regular watch duties, but it's important to point out that a smartwatch is named thusly because it does far more than just tell time. Though even for telling time, the smartwatch is somewhat better. No need for manual readjustment - the time and date will sync automatically.

A smartwatch could tell you a quick weather forecast at a glance - information you might not have otherwise checked. It would also be great to see emails and messages these without having to take my phone out of my pocket. Using my wrist as a viewport for my iPhone also sounds incredibly useful. I like the idea of being able to control my Apple TV with my wrist. Having a map on my wrist sounds great. Apple's TAPTIC engine also gets a big thumbs up (mimics tapping your wrist as a form of feedback for the device). The health monitoring sounds neat as well.

Much as it was with the iPad, however, I won't really know how I'll use the device until I do use it.

Mechanical-Smartwatch Hybrid

There's something very pleasing about a mechanical, analog watch. There's an almost magical aspect to a mechanical watch that's lost when everything goes digital. There's also a nice battery life benefit.

I think that the best solution to the "smart watch problem" is a hybrid between a smart watch and an analog watch. Imagine a regular analog watch. It usually has a piece of glass on top that covers the watch face. What if that piece of glass were a transparent screen? You would only need to use the screen for something that wasn't telling the time, which would cut down on screen usage (and thus battery consumption) very significantly. The watch can still remain a watch, and the smartwatch features are an optional addition.

Kairos watch

There is actually a smartwatch that is attempting to do this, the Kairos watch (pictured above). You can find a nice video about it here. I was hoping that the Apple watch would be something more along these lines. The battery life is 5-7 days, which is significantly more than the rumored 1 day battery life for the Apple Watch. The Kairos watch project is running into a slew of technical issues, however, and the design is not quite to my liking, but it's a step in the right direction. I think that this kind of hybrid design offers the best of both worlds.


Unless reviews are abysmal, I imagine that what I'll probably end up doing is getting the cheapest model of the Apple Watch to try it out. I want to play around with WatchKit a bit as well, so in the worst case scenario, I'd at leave have a testing device and I'll be able to fall back on my analog watch. I think that the largest deterrent from using an Apple Watch as opposed to an analog watch, however, is the battery life. A watch should be a constant and reliable source of time - you shouldn't ever have to even worry about whether the battery will last through the day.