Smart watches are no longer exciting. That’s a good thing

Smart watches are no longer exciting.  That’s a good thing

Smart watches can monitor workouts, tell you when it’s time to go to bed, unlock doors and make phone calls. The fact that a small device that sits on your wrist can do all these things should feel exciting, right? Error.

To put it bluntly, smartwatches are boring. And that’s not a criticism; it’s actually the opposite. Now that smartwatches have been around for nearly a decade, companies like Apple, Samsung and Google have a much better understanding of their role in our lives. This sentiment is also reflected in the sales data. Global smartwatch shipments grew 13% year over year in the second quarter of 2022, according to Counterpoint Research. About one in five Americans now use a fitness tracker or smartwatch, says a Pew Research survey conducted in June 2019.

Today’s smartwatches are more intentional and useful than their predecessors of about six years ago. But such progress also means that annual upgrades are not as meaningful as they once were. I experienced this myself when I switched Apple Watch Series 7 to Series 8. Other than the Series 8’s ability to collect temperature data from my wrist overnight (which I haven’t found to be useful yet), there’s little that differentiates Apple’s latest smartwatch from last year’s model. And it’s not just Apple; the same can be said for Samsung and Google as well.

New smartwatches in 2022 are improvements, not revolutions

Apple Watch Series 8 with sleep tracking reading

The Apple Watch Series 8 can measure your sleep at a level of depth you may not need.

Scott Stein/CNET

Many new smartwatches launching in 2022 felt like incremental upgrades. While brands like Apple, Samsung and Fitbit introduced new sensors, the general direction and purpose of these devices remains the same as their predecessors.

Toe Fitbit Sense 2, for example, which is a health-focused smartwatch that includes a new body response sensor to passively scan for signs of stress throughout the day. It’s a step up from the original Feel, which can only take scans on request. But the use case behind the technology is ultimately the same: to help you understand when you might be stressed. The difference is that Fitbit found a more efficient way to achieve this goal with Sense 2.

Launched in August, Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 5 has a bigger battery, a tougher sapphire crystal display and a new skin temperature sensor that doesn’t do much yet. But there are the big differences that separate it from the Galaxy Watch 4. Samsung also introduced Galaxy Watch 5 Prowhich has an even bigger battery, titanium design and a few extra features tailored for outdoor enthusiasts, but otherwise offers a very similar experience.

Overall, the Galaxy Watch 5 and 5 Pro feel like slightly more advanced versions of the Galaxy Watch 4 rather than giant leaps forward. As my colleague Lexy Savvides wrote in her review, the Galaxy Watch 5 “doesn’t break new ground in the world of smartwatches.” Instead, it reprises the Galaxy Watch’s place as a well-rounded Android smartwatch that offers a balance of health tracking, fitness monitoring, and smartphone-oriented features.

Fitbit Sense 2 smartwatch

Fitbit Sense 2 scans for stress.

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

The case is the same for Apple Watch Series 8. The new temperature sensor is the Series 8’s biggest upgrade, although its purpose feels limited for now. Since they both have temperature sensors, the Series 8 and Apple Watch Ultra can provide retrospective ovulation estimates, which can be useful for family planning or general wellness tracking. But the Apple Watch’s overnight wrist temperature measurement appears to provide little other value at the moment. It doesn’t appear to be woven into any other health insights, and it’s largely up to the user to understand the temperature graph displayed in Apple’s Health app.

The most practical addition to Apple’s new smartwatch lineup may be their ability to detect car accidents through improved sensors and algorithms. But even car accident detection, along with the temperature sensor, cements the Apple Watch’s value as a health and safety device – underscoring the direction Apple has taken in recent years.

The Pixel Watch and Apple Watch Ultra may be the two exceptions. They feel genuinely exciting because they represent new territory for Google and Apple. Still, even these watches don’t bring anything entirely new to the smartwatch landscape in general. Instead, they fill gaps that previously existed in Google’s and Apple’s selections. The Pixel Watch, for example, is Google’s first true consumer smartwatch and the best Android alternative to the Apple Watch. Apple Watch Ultra, with its robust design, dual frequency GPS and built-in siren, is intended to be a high-end fitness watch that can compete with the likes of Garmin and Casio.

How smartwatches have evolved

Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch

The Samsung Galaxy Gear was one of the earliest iterations of the modern smartwatch. It is clear that they have come a long way.

Scott Webster/CNET

To understand why new smartwatch releases don’t feel as important as they once did, it’s important to consider how far the industry has come. The smartwatch space looked very different in the 2014-16 timeframe.

Year-on-year upgrades felt more extensive because early smartwatches had fundamental flaws. Features that are considered standard on many watches today, such as built-in GPS, optional cellular connectivity and heart rate monitors, were not always provided. The 2017-era Apple Watch Series 3, for example, was the first Apple Watch to offer cellular connectivity, making it feel like it could disconnect you from your phone. The original version of Samsung’s Gear S2 smartwatch, launched in 2015, didn’t even have a speakerphone or built-in GPS. And the 2014 LG G Watch lacked a heart rate sensor.

Samsung Gear Live smartwatch and LG G Watch

Samsung Gear Live (left) and LG G Watch are a long way from today’s smart watches.

Juan Garzon/CNET

It also took years for Google and Apple to refine their smartwatch software. This is especially true for Google, which only revamped its smartwatch operating system last year in partnership with Samsung after years of stagnation. The first Apple Watch also didn’t load apps as quickly as they should. Look back at CNET’s reviews of early smartwatches from Samsung, Apple, LG, and Motorola, and you’ll notice that software is a common criticism.

On top of that, smartwatch designs were clumsier and less attractive back then. (Galaxy Gear and Fitbit Surge, I’m looking at you!) Believe it or not, the older smartwatches were priced similarly to the vastly improved models available today, making it hard to recommend buying them back then.

Where do we go from here?

Apple Watch Ultra and Series 8

The Apple Watch Ultra (left) has many specialized sports features that the Series 8 lacks.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Many of the issues that plagued early smartwatches have been resolved, raising the question of where the industry is moving next. The companies behind these smartwatches are the only ones who can answer that question. But I’d like to see Apple, Google, Samsung, and other smartwatch makers develop more features that use the powerful new sensors in their devices.

The Apple Watch Series 8’s temperature sensor is an obvious example of a new sensor that needs more functionality to unlock its full potential. As I have written before, I hope to see Apple weave these temperature insights into other types of readings, similar to what device maker Oura has done with its “readiness score.” Or what if the Apple Watch could sync with HomeKit devices to help you understand if the room temperature is affecting your sleep? There are many possible paths Apple could take to make its temperature sensor technology feel like a bigger part of the Apple Watch experience.

There are plenty of other ways smartwatches could stand to improve. For example, the setup experience is still very much tied to your phone. Change that could make smartwatches feel even more valuable as standalone devices, following other recent improvements like the ability to access app stores directly from the wrist. And of course the battery life could be better too.

As generational upgrades start to feel more commonplace, software is starting to fill this gap. We’re already seeing it today on the Apple Watch with new features like the ability to monitor stages of sleep and new fitness stats for runners through the WatchOS 9 software update launched in September. Google is taking a similar approach with the Pixel Watch and Fitbit’s latest smartwatches. Fitbit’s in-depth sleep analysis feature just launched for the Pixel Watch, while Google is bringing its Maps and Wallet apps to the Sense 2 and Versa 4.

These software features are arguably just as important as the hardware upgrades we’ve seen over the past year, if not more so. But that doesn’t mean that smartwatches become boring in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a sign of progress.

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