The Apple Watch Could Use a Redesign

The Apple Watch Could Use a Redesign
Quick, tell me which one is which. Yes, they're all different models. I swapped straps so don't try looking in past photos on this site to guess. (Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo)
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In terms of design, not much has changed with the Apple Watch. Since it was introduced in 2015, each subsequent watch has pretty much adhered to the same look. That might change starting next year. Apple prophet Ming-Chi Kuo noted in a report today that next year, we ought to expect both “innovative health management functions” and “improved form factor design” for the Series 7.

This is potentially huge! While you’d definitely expect expanded health features given the recent trend in wearables over the past few years, I’d been pretty much convinced Apple would never, ever change what the Apple Watch would look like.

If you lined up the Series 0 all the way up to the Series 6 and the Watch SE, most people would have a hard time telling them apart. There are a few visual cues. The Series 3, for example, introduced the red dot on the digital crown to note that it had cellular connectivity. The Series 4 changed that to a more subtle red outline, which has carried over to subsequent models, as well as a better screen. The Series 4 also changed sizes from 38mm to 40mm (and from 42mm to 44mm), but if you can tell that at a glance, you must have superhuman vision. The Series 5 came with an always-on screen, and the Series 6 introduced some new colorways. If you flipped them upside down, you could probably suss the difference between older and newer Apple Watches based on the sensor array. Newer models also have a side button that protrudes less. But seriously, this is me scraping the barrel. They’re all square! They have the same button layouts! For the most part, the truly significant changes with each Apple Watch have been internal.

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There are benefits to keeping the design the same. At this point, a square smartwatch display with rounded edges is iconic, and there is absolutely no shortage of copy-cats. Plus, one thing Apple has consistently said year and after year is that the vast majority of Apple Watch sales are to new users — meaning most haven’t had the time to be super tired of this design yet. Keeping things uniform also lets Apple control the supply chain, and for users who are upgrading, it means they can keep the same peripherals and accessories. From an app standpoint, it’s also easier for developers. If Apple were to veer away from the square display, developers would have to redesign their apps to comply with the new shape.

These are two different Apple Watches from different years.  (Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo) These are two different Apple Watches from different years. (Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo)

But…Apple should consider doing a redesign anyway. The Apple Watch SE is slimmer than most smartwatches at 10.4mm. That’s great! But it’s also a constraint when it comes to adding a beefier battery, something that would enable richer sleep tracking. While watchOS 7 introduced native sleep tracking for the first time, it’s incredibly basic when compared to metrics offered by competitors like Fitbit. Comparatively, the Fitbit Sense is 12.4mm thick and allows for an estimated 6+ days of battery. That extra 2mm isn’t noticeable — take it from someone who has worn both devices simultaneously.

Also, while it might be a pain for developers, providing a circular screen option would be great. Not only is it a more classic, stylish look, anecdotally I’ve heard plenty of readers, colleagues, and friends complain that the square display just isn’t their cup of tea. Partly because the square display somehow makes every strap overly thick and fugly, but also when you compare the Apple Watch to the Samsung Galaxy Watch 3, the latter is just a gorgeous watch that offers many of the same features.

These are also two different Apple Watch models.  (Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo) These are also two different Apple Watch models. (Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo)

I’ll admit the final reason why Apple ought to consider a redesign is selfish. As I mentioned earlier, I am freaking tired of every single wearables maker out there (aside from Samsung) just making Apple Watch clones. From a design standpoint, it’s led the category to be so fucking boring to look at. I am tired of mustering from the dark corners of my mind phrases that are synonymous with “It looks like an Apple Watch.” Christ, if Apple were to do something, anything new, the bandwagon would ostensibly follow. That would at least buy us a few product cycles of things finally looking a bit different. Just as Apple getting FDA-clearance for the Series 4’s ECG feature sparked several other companies to do the same, Apple figuring out some new hardware design for wearables could inspire some much-needed innovation in the smartwatch category.

It’s a little puzzling that Apple hasn’t considered a redesign of some sort. After all, the design from one iPhone to the next dramatically changes. Ultimately, we’ll have to wait and see what the “improved form factor design” Kuo described actually means. For all my postulating, that could also mean something as iterative as getting rid of the physical side button in favour of an inductive one. If that ends up being the case, I might tear my hair out.