Smartwatches need to get better

Android Wear 2.0 was bound to be a disappointment. There was just too much hanging on the second generation of the wearable operating system. After all, a significant chunk of declining smartwatch shipments was laid at the feet of the OS’s ongoing delay and, as last year drew to a close, studies like this report from IDC pointed to a dismal end to the year for a space so many were once so bullish about.

When it finally arrived earlier this month, the Wear update felt more iterative than revolutionary. But the issue isn’t the OS itself. Google’s update, while lacking in any truly breakout features, at least brought the operating system up to speed with the rest of the industry. The industry’s crisis was brought on by a glut of devices offering a lot of life-changing promises and delivering little in return.

Take LG’s two new devices, both sporting the latest bells and whistles, designed to usher in a new area of Android Wear. I stopped wearing mine a day after the review. In part, the LG Watch Sport was gigantic, as seems to be the trend with the latest generation of watches — a reminder of how unnecessary the product feels.

I swapped the LG for the hybrid smartwatch I was wearing before and haven’t looked back since. It’s a better fit, for starters — in that it fits like an honest-to-goodness watch. The battery life is solid — about 20 to 25 days, depending. A noted step up from the eight to 13 hours I was getting on the LG.

All of that, and the device gives me pretty much everything I need in a connected wearable. It tracks my steps and my heart rate when I’m working out and it buzzes and flashes a small amount of text when I receive a notification. Oh, and it tells the time, all the time, all for well below the price of your average smartwatch.

Granted, it doesn’t do everything a more advanced smartwatch does. I can’t use it to play Spotify playlists or update my Facebook status. And it’s crap for trying to call an Uber — the closest it comes is hurling it into oncoming traffic when there’s an open taxi nearby. But the ability to perform some of those tasks (with the inherent limitations that come with less than an inch of screen real estate) has yet to eclipse the upside of a hybrid.

We’ve been promised a killer app since the birth of smartwatches, but as someone who’s tried just about all of them, I’ve yet to find the one that will put me over the top.

For early adopters, the promise of future features was enough to get on the smartwatch train. Now that the devices are available in abundance, it’s time to deliver on that promise, before the space becomes a casualty of its own early hype. The category has not yet established the ubiquity or necessity of the smartphone, and, as such, it’s going to take a lot more than iterative updates to ensure its future survival as a major electronics category. Certainly the mere novelty of owning a wrist-worn computer seems to be fading fairly rapidly.

With the new Android Wear in the wild, Mobile World Congress just over the horizon and Fitbit promising us something brand new after its purchase of a troubled Pebble, we’re sure to see a number of new devices in the coming months after a decidedly lackluster CES for smartwatches.

In the meantime, it’s hard to blame companies like Motorola for taking a wait and see approach. The Lenovo-owned company made one of the best devices for the first iteration of Android Wear, but still couldn’t find a path forward.

Perhaps it’s the difficulty to distinguish oneself in the category — operating systems aside, Samsung’s Gear devices and the Apple Watch largely offer the same feature set. But unlike smartphones, the market simply doesn’t appear robust enough to support so many players.

It’s time to remember or rethink precisely what problems smartwatches set out to address in the first place, rather than getting caught up in the spec hardware raise that’s defined the smartphone category for the last several years. I hope the next generation proves me wrong. I hope the next year sees watches that are comfortable, have great battery life and help the devices grow into something more than just a smaller secondary screen.

Meantime, there’s just too much trade-off. It’s too much gadget with too little pay-off. Until someone manages to deliver on that promise, I’ll be sticking with my hybrid.