Wearable technology has been “a thing” for some time now, and companies all over the world have tried their hand at creating some sort of wearable tracker or smartwatch. Last year was one of the biggest years in terms of consumer products for the new world of wearables, trackers got lighter and more fully-featured while watches, like the Huawei Watch, became real lookers. Now, it’s as easy as pie to get your hands on a fitness tracker that can give you at least some semi-accurate data about your activities and if you want a smartwatch that can help bring order to the chaos of notifications, there are a lot of options out there. These range in price from as low as $50 to as much as $1,500 in the case of the TAG Heuer connected, but no matter how much they cost or who makes them wearables from everyone have suffered the same plight for years; poor battery life. It doesn’t appear to be getting any better, either, so will 2016 be yet another year of constantly charging things?
The wearables market is in for a subtle, yet significant shift this year, if figures and research from analysts the world over is to be believed. As people expect and want more out of their fitness trackers, people are thinking twice before spending the money on a smartwatch. After all, a fitness tracker with a display can show notifications, but a fancy-looking smartwatch isn’t all that suited to the gym. Options like Sony’s SmartWatch 3 and Motorola’s Moto 360 Sport are exceptions of course, but a lot of users – especially those under 25 – simply don’t see the point in a wrist watch anymore. Especially if they can get a lot of that functionality and more fitness-focused features in one fitness tracker. This is perhaps down to the fact that the majority of high-end smartwatches from the past year barely lasted beyond a single day of use on a charge, whereas a lot of fitness trackers will last anywhere from 3 – 5 days on a single charge. As consumers look to these more versatile type of trackers, the small batteries inside of them will be taxed harder and they won’t last as long as people expect and wearables could be looked upon as useless gadgets by even more people than they are now.
I’m the type of person that wears a wearable on both wrists, I have an Android Wear smartwatch on my left and a Microsoft Band on my right. I do this not because I’m crazy, but because I don’t want to wear my watch while lifting weights or playing Basketball, for fear of smashing the display, and so that I get much more accurate data about my steps and heart-rate from my right wrist. To me, a smartwatch is a watch, and I always wear a watch, but not everyone wants to do this, and a lot of my friends do think I’m crazy. The watch I have to charge every. Single. Night. The Microsoft Band? Depending on how often I use the GPS or track a workout constantly, two to three times a week. Does it have to be this way?
Not a single Android Wear watch has decent battery life, and I’ve owned a number of them, beginning with the original G Watch, and while I’ve excepted charging the thing every night, much like my smartphone, I can see why this is a sticking point for some customers. Depending on what type of charger a smartwatch has can be a big deal, for instance the Fossil Q Founder is not a great smartwatch, but the charger? One of the best along with the Moto 360’s. My G Watch R has a finicky, stupid charger, and the Huawei Watch’s is only marginally better. It’s ridiculous that we even get excited about the chargers on these things, but as the battery life is so poor, the charger has quickly become a selling point.
Battery life in these devices is not going to get much better this year, sadly. This is down to a number of reasons, depending on what type of device it is. In the case of standard, lightweight fitness trackers it’s much a problem with the technology. The Fitbit Flex (pictured blown up, above) has a single cell Lithium Polymer battery that is tiny. During my tour of ARM’s Cambridge Campus last year (the company behind much of the design of the processors found in these wearables) I was genuinely shocked at how small the battery was inside the Flex. I knew it would be tiny, but I didn’t know it would be that small. Take my Microsoft Band (the original one) which has two 100 mAh batteries (according to Microsoft) which gives it much more capacity and yet it’s rated for two days’ worth of battery life. There are higher-density batteries that have a much slower rate of discharge that could be used in these devices, but they’re difficult to get down to these sizes and well, they’re expensive.
Due to the high costs of these more advanced batteries, makers of wearable technology simply ignore the battery, and turn to software or the processors. Fitbit’s CEO James Park told the Verge that “the biggest advancements always come from the processor makers” citing that each year they get more efficient. Mobile processors have come a long, long way in the last five years. Intel can now fit an x86 processor capable of running Windows 10 to a competent level inside of a tablet barely thicker than a pencil without a fan. ARM recently detailed the new Mali-470 GPU, the part of a System-on-Chip like a Snapdragon that handles graphics. This new GPU was specifically designed for wearables and blends high-level 2D graphics for interfaces with efficiency for longer-lasting smartwatches and fitness trackers. Sadly however, this new GPU won’t be available for manufacturers to sample for products until later this year, meaning any new products to feature the Mali-470 won’t launch until 2017. Meanwhile, MediaTek’s MT2523 chip, announced during CES 2016, should hit devices later this year. The new chip from the Chinese name is said to be 41% than similar processors and should be much more efficient and should lead to much better battery life.
While these new processors slowly make their way to the market, devices like the Huawei Watch are using a Snapdragon 400, an SoC package designed for smartphones. Even if the rumors of it running at just one core and under clocked at 800 mHz are true, it’s still not designed for such a small package and is far from efficient for the use case. So, what are manufacturers to do throughout 2016 while waiting for battery costs of newer design to come down and fresh processors to come down the pipe? The answer is sadly to make do or make tough decisions.
My Microsoft Band features a built-in GPS element, which maps my daily walks and lets see me how I’m improving, it also tracks my heart rate constantly while on the court. Both of these elements are important to what I use it for, but they’re also two of the biggest drains of battery life. GPS is a particular battery-killer with such small fuel cells to sip from, and Fitbit made the decision to leave it out of their new Fitbit Blaze specifically to lengthen the battery life. Choosing what features a wearable does and doesn’t have seems to one of the ways that manufacturers can change how long these devices last between charges. Even so, it appears 2016 is to be more of the same routine; charging things once every day or two. Simply put, the processors with all the advancements a wearable needs aren’t coming down the pipe fast enough, and fancy battery technology is too costly to use right now. We’ve only just got underway in 2016, so perhaps there’s a lot more to come in terms of battery life, but don’t expect to see devices go past that sadly-impressive five days’ of battery life.