I realise this is a rarefied problem, the epitome of small potatoes in a world full of Big Existential Crises. But as the world burns and chaos reigns supreme, I am choosing to “maintain” my sanity by hyper-focusing on one, medium-sized hill to die on: We need to get rid of proprietary smartwatch chargers.
Every dang smartwatch has its own unique charger or cradle that’s specific to the company that made them. You can’t repurpose a Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 charger to use with the Apple Watch or say, a Fossil smartwatch. This is terrible for me (and many other gadget reviewers) as I now have several boxes of smartwatch chargers that somehow all look the same, but are extremely specific to exactly one device.
You might be tempted to think, “Well, that’s a you problem,” and to an extent, that’s true. I’ll concede the average person doesn’t have 20 smartwatches and a horrible mess of tangled charging cables stashed in a drawer. However, it’s also a bad deal for consumers. Say you lose the single charger that comes with your smartwatch. Or maybe, you want an extra charger to fit into a dock that doesn’t come with its own cable or cradle so you can carry the original one in your bag. Depending on which smartwatch or fitness tracker you bought, you now have to either pay a premium to that company for a replacement charger — or buy a cheaper dupe off Amazon. What you do end up with is a series of Amazon listings such as “Replacement charger for Fitbit Flex 2 Smart Watch NOT FIT Fitbit Flex.”
Plenty of third-party charging cables work like a charm, but a good number don’t. If you peep Amazon reviews, it’s not hard to find folks who have either bought the wrong charger because of a misleading photo or description, or the right charger that simply doesn’t work once unboxed.
Depending on which device maker you buy from, you may not be able to save older wearable chargers when you upgrade. Some, like Apple and Fossil, have made it so you can, but this isn’t universally true. That means even if you’re loyal to one brand, you’re not guaranteed the ability to re-use chargers when you upgrade from one device to another. That means even more dupes get made for folks who don’t want to upgrade, while other consumers throw old chargers into landfills because they can’t be repurposed for a new tracker. This is incredibly wasteful.
This isn’t a problem with most consumer electronics! By and large, smartphones support the same charging standards. These days, most Android phones charge via USB-C, while nearly every Apple device — except MacBooks and the Apple Watch — charges via the lightning cable. Hell, Apple conceded to using USB-C with iPad Pros in 2018, and the iPad Air has since embraced it, too. Even microUSB is becoming less common. Most appliances also adhere to the same standards, and it’s not as if we have an abundance of wall socket types within a single country. (Plus, there are adaptors if you travel a lot! Many hotels now have USB-A sockets too!) Universal standards: You truly love to see it. But if this is the norm for the vast majority of electronics, why the hell are wearables doomed to proprietary charger hell?
“The answer is that the form factor of wearables is very small,” says Gadi Amit, a designer and founder of NewDealDesign, the agency that Fitbit used on several of its products for a decade. (Fitbit has since moved to an internal design team.) “Every standard connector that is out there, whether it’s USB-C or something like that, is very large compared to a wearable. Even if we’re dealing with wireless charging, the size of the coil is actually somewhat wide. And for some wearables, it’s actually too wide.”
This is especially the case with non-smartwatch wearables, like smart rings. The components in this form factor are so small that it necessitates proprietary cradles or charging stands. While a USB-C connector might look small, internally the component is actually quite large when it comes to devices that are meant to conform to the human body. Fitting USB-C directly onto a ring, for example, is actually next to impossible.
Another issue, Amit said, is that most smartwatches and fitness trackers are designed with a display up top and the sensor array on the bottom, next to the skin.
“That leaves very few places for charging — usually on the perimeter, the bottom perimeter or really, the sides,” Amit said.
On top of that, not every wearables maker will opt to use the same sensors or components in their devices. That adds another layer of complexity. The combination of specific sensors and the in-house algorithms that power a smartwatch or tracker is often that particular company’s “secret sauce.” According to Amit, that’s one reason why it’s unlikely that, as an industry, wearables makers will come to a standardization agreement that would make a universal charger more likely.
OK, but what about within one company’s brand of devices? Why can’t all Fitbits stick with the same charger the way that most Fossil brand smartwatches do? Why is it that you can’t use the Fitbit Versa’s charger with the Versa 2? Why can’t you use the Versa 2’s charger with the Versa 3?
“It’s just too complicated to align those plans with the timing of products coming to market, and the available electronics for each generation,” Amit said.
Meaning, the more you change a wearable, the less likely you are to use a charger designed to support older tech. So while everyone gripes that the Apple Watch hasn’t really changed its design since it launched, perhaps one benefit is that Apple hasn’t had to force people into using new proprietary chargers each time they upgrade to a new watch.
One bright spot is that wearables are still a fairly nascent tech category. This space is still evolving, and as it matures, Amit said there’s a chance that a unified charging standard could emerge. However, it’s possible that legislation would force the issue — similar to how the EU is trying to mandate a charging standard for gadgets. For wearables, Amit said that charging standard will likely be a wireless solution with a magnetic component, similar to Apple’s MagSafe. (In fact, many smartwatch chargers already implement some sort of magnet so that the pins align correctly.) This would be less intrusive to the design of a wearable’s internal components.
Unfortunately, at least for now, I will probably have to put up with my box of hideous smartwatch chargers. But in the interest of reducing e-waste and giving consumers more choice, we really need wearables makers to start thinking of ways to leave the proprietary chargers behind.