Smartwatches aren’t exciting anymore. It’s good

smart watches can monitor workouts, tell you when it’s time for bed, unlock doors and make phone calls. The fact that a tiny device sitting on your wrist can do all of these things should feel exciting, right? Not correct.

In short: Smartwatches are boring. And that’s not a criticism; it’s actually the opposite. Now that smartwatches have been around for almost a decade, companies like Apple, Samsung, and Google understand their role in our lives much better. This mood is also reflected in the sales figures. According to Counterpoint Research, global smartwatch shipments grew 13% year over year in the second quarter of 2022. According to a Pew Research survey conducted in June 2019, about one in five Americans now uses a fitness tracker or smartwatch.

Today’s smartwatches are more conscious and useful than their predecessors from about six years ago. But such progression also means yearly upgrades don’t make as much sense as they used to. I experienced this firsthand when I switched from the Apple watch series 7 to the series 8. Aside from the Series 8’s ability to collect temperature data from my wrist overnight (which I haven’t found helpful yet), there’s little that separates Apple’s latest smartwatch from last year’s model. And it’s not just Apple; Same goes for Samsung and Google too.

New smartwatches in 2022 are refinements, not revolutions

The Apple Watch Series 8

Scott Stein/CNET

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

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

Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 5, which launched in August, has a bigger battery, a harder sapphire crystal display, and a new skin temperature sensor that doesn’t do much just yet. But those are the big differences that set it apart from the Galaxy Watch 4. Samsung also introduced the Galaxy Watch 5 Prowhich has an even larger 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 more like slightly more advanced versions of the Galaxy Watch 4 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 reaffirms the Galaxy Watch’s place as a well-rounded Android smartwatch that offers a balance of health tracking, exercise monitoring, and smartphone-centric features.

Fitbit Sense 2 smart watch

The Fitbit Sense 2

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

The case is the same for that Apple Watch Series 8. The new temperature sensor is the Series 8’s biggest upgrade, although for now its purpose feels limited. Since both have temperature sensors, the Series 8 and Apple Watch Ultra can provide retrospective ovulation estimates that could be useful for family planning or general wellness tracking. But the Apple Watch’s nightly wrist temperature reading doesn’t seem to add much else at the moment. It doesn’t appear to be woven into other health insights, and it’s largely up to the wearer to understand the temperature graph displayed in Apple’s Health app.

The most handy addition to Apple’s new line of smartwatches might be its ability to detect car accidents through improved sensors and algorithms. But even the car crash detection, along with the temperature sensor, solidifies the Apple Watch’s value as a health and safety device – underscoring the direction Apple has been taking in recent years.

That pixel clock and Apple Watch Ultra the two can be exceptions. They feel really exciting because they’re new territory for Google and Apple. Yet even these watches bring nothing entirely new to the smartwatch landscape in general. Instead, they fill in gaps that previously existed in Google and Apple’s lineups. The Pixel Watch, for example, is Google’s first true consumer smartwatch and the best Android alternative to the Apple Watch. The Apple Watch Ultra, with its rugged design, dual frequency Geographic Positioning System and built-in siren, aims to be a high-end fitness watch that could compete with Garmin and Casio.

How smartwatches have evolved

Samsung Galaxy Gear smart watch

The Samsung Galaxy Gear was one of the earliest iterations of the modern smartwatch. Obviously they have come a long way.

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

The yearly upgrades felt more substantial as early smartwatches had fundamental flaws. Features that are now considered standard on many watches, like built-in GPS, optional cellular connectivity, and heart-rate monitor, weren’t always a given. For example, 2017’s Apple Watch Series 3 was the first Apple Watch to offer cellular connectivity, so it really felt like it could detach you from your phone. The original version of Samsung’s Gear S2 smartwatch, released 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 Smart Watch and LG G Watch

The Samsung Gear Live and LG G Watch

It also took Google and Apple years to refine their software for smartwatches. This applies in particular to Google, which only last year revised its smartwatch operating system together with Samsung after years of stagnation. The first Apple Watch also didn’t load apps as quickly as they should. If you look at CNET reviews of early smartwatches from Samsung, Apple, LG, and Motorola, you’ll see that software is a common criticism.

Additionally, smartwatch designs back then were bulkier and less attractive. (Galaxy Gear and Fitbit Surge, I’m looking at you!) Believe it or not, these older smartwatches were priced similarly to the much-improved models available today, making them difficult to buy back then.

What do we do now?

Apple Watch Ultra and Series 8

Apple Watch Ultra (left) vs. 41mm Series 8 (right)

Lexy Savvides/CNET

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

The Apple Watch Series 8 temperature sensor is an obvious example of a new sensor that needs more functionality to reach its full potential. As I’ve written in the past, I’m hoping Apple will incorporate these temperature insights into other types of metrics, much like device maker Oura did with its Readiness Score. Or what if Apple Watch could sync with HomeKit devices to help you understand if your room temperature is affecting your sleep? There are many possible avenues Apple could take to make its temperature measurement technology feel like a bigger part of the Apple Watch experience.

There are many other ways smartwatches could be improved. For example, the setup experience is still largely tied to your phone. Changing that could make smartwatches feel even more valuable as independent devices after other recent improvements like the ability to access app stores right from your wrist. And of course the battery life could be better too.

As generational upgrades begin to feel more mundane, software is beginning to fill the gap. We’re already seeing that on the Apple Watch today, with new features like the ability to track sleep stages and new workout stats for runners through the WatchOS 9 software update that rolled out in September. Google is taking a similar approach with the Pixel Watch and Fitbit’s latest smartwatches. Fitbit’s detailed sleep analysis feature just rolled out 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 as important as the hardware upgrades we’ve seen over the last year, if not more so. But that doesn’t mean that smartwatches are becoming boring in the classic sense. Rather, it is a sign of progress.

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