I believe in wearable technology. From Google Glass to smartwatches, the idea that you can have access to useful and essential information right when you need it — without digging a smartphone out of your pocket — is compelling. Once you have that convenience, you don’t want to go back.
That’s why it’s so jarring when that ability disappears after you’ve grown used to it. Ever since Google I/O in late June I’ve been wearing an Android Wear smartwatch, the Samsung Gear Live, fairly regularly. But too often I’ve picked up the watch from my desk or nightstand only to be greeted with a dead screen where my faux-sophisticated digital watchface is supposed to be.
It’s technically my own fault. This happens whenever I take off the watch and forget to put it back in its charging cradle. Android Wear smartwatches are designed to provide “all-day” battery life; the device expects — in fact, depends upon — me to remember to recharge it every single night, or else it reverts to what I like to call bracelet mode.
This is why Android Wear stumbles so badly right out of the gate. Although it feels logical to expect users to simply mirror their nightly smartphone recharge habit with another gadget, as I’ve discovered, that’s a wrongheaded assumption.
While a smartphone is easy to keep in a pocket in almost all situations, I often find the watch inconvenient to wear while playing with my kids (who are still young enough to be picked up) or, say, cooking. In those cases, off it goes to the coffee table, kitchen counter or nightstand — usually for the night.
That habit is deadly to an “all day” smartwatch because of its secondary role. For my smartphone, I will almost always remember to charge it because it’s my primary window into my digital life; if I forget to juice it up, I’ll be cut off from what’s now a fundamental part of the way I (and millions of others) live.
For a smartwatch, though, things are different. While its notifications are convenient, they’re not always essential. I really only “need” the notifications when I’m working and tend to mute them at home. Add to that the expectation created by decades of wristwatches that a watch can be put down for days, weeks and even months and still just work (“Take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’,” etc.), and you practically guarantee that all but the most anally retentive will occasionally forget to charge their smartwatch.
Android Wear does give you warnings when the battery is running low, but given the poor battery life you probably won’t see them in the case of a forgotten overnight charge. If you’re at, say, 30% when you go to bed, the 20% alarm won’t trigger until a little later, and by morning the watch will probably be completely dead — especially if you have the watch face permanently displaying the time.
It certainly doesn’t help that most smartwatches require a cradle to charge, which usually means there’s no way to quickly recharge it with any cable you have conveniently lying around the office.
Pebble Chief Evangelist Myriam Joire recently said battery life was the biggest challenge facing wearables, and she’s dead right. Wisely Pebble built its smartwatch to run for several days at a time, which I now regard as table stakes for any device in the market.
There are more than a few positives about Android Wear — the gesture-based UI is quite good and setup is nice and simple — but the poor battery life is such an issue that the platform should never have been released in its current form. I have high hopes that future models (including the beautiful Moto 360) will last longer, but the first two products hint that that’s probably unlikely. After all, if it were possible to create a lightweight smartwatch with four- or five-day battery life using Android Wear, why didn’t Samsung and LG do that in the first place?