Round vs. square: Smartwatch design divide steals Google I/O spotlight

As devices running Android Wear emerge, the big debate at Google I/O was the choice between a practical square or a more natural round design.

The LG G Watch (right) next to a Caravelle-made analog watch.
The LG G Watch (right) next to a Caravelle-made analog watch. Josh Miller/CNET

The most divisive debate rippling through the smartwatch community is not about software, price point, or battery life. Rather, it centers on a simple design choice: should watch faces be round or square?

That couldn't have been more evident than when Google Senior VP Sundar Pichai wrapped up the Wednesday keynote address at the I/O developers conference, in which Android Wear -- Google's new mobile operating system for wearable technology -- took center stage. After slogging through two and a half hours of announcements, Pichai rewarded the crowd with the annual giveaway that in years past has included tablets, phones, and even a $1,300 Chromebook Pixel laptop.

This time around, every attendee got to choose between a brand new LG G Watch and a Samsung Gear Live smartwatch. They will also get the highly-anticipated Moto 360 -- but only when it comes out later this summer. When Pichai delivered that bittersweet Moto news, the crowd erupted with a collective sigh. For the first and currently only smartwatch utilizing Android Wear's circular design interface, we all have to wait just a little longer.

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Motorola's Moto 360 smartwatch is currently the only device utilizing Android Wear's circular design interface. James Martin/CNET

A large portion of the 6,000 or so Android developers, tech media professionals, and devout Google fans in attendance bemoaned having to wait for a Moto 360 even though the LG and Samsung's square-faced offerings are already there for the taking. Indeed, the line to try out the Moto 360 here at San Francisco's Moscone Center also happened to stretch across the floor. It's more than simply wanting what we can't have.

The Moto 360 hype illustrates a stark aesthetic preference in the smartwatch space: a round, elegant watch face design that speaks to the potential contrast between smartwatches and their rectangular phone companions.

Over the past few years, we've become accustomed to clunky and sometimes unpleasant looking devices in the nascent smartwatch sector, from early entrants Pebble and Samsung with its Gear line. Now, device makers like Motorola are betting their debut in the market on the idea that smartwatches should look less like phones affixed to our wrists and more like standard timepieces.

That means trade-offs. The Moto 360's display doesn't have bezels on the side, so it has the display drivers packed into the bottom fifth of the watch face, taking up space. A circular screen also alters -- and potentially limits -- the format and variety of information that can presented.

Yet for consumers, the Moto 360 represents a different, more natural variety of smartwatch that appears to be resonating. For competitors, the Moto 360 has become the one wearable, save Apple's forthcoming "iWatch," to out-hype.

"Smartwatches are big, honking ugly devices, and I have yet to see one that a woman would ever wear," former Forrester analyst Sarah Rottman Epps told CNET when rumors of a Google-powered smartwatch first surfaced last year. "Consumers want it all. They want great battery life, they want fashion, they want great software and they want it for a really good price. We haven't seen a smartwatch yet that hits on those," she concluded.

Now that Android Wear is here, the Moto 360 may be that device -- and its influence on consumers is starting to reverberate through the smartwatch space.

Take, for example, other devices that have taken the smartwatch space by storm recently. Earlier this week, Withings' unveiled its Activite timepiece is not quite a smartwatch -- it's more of watch blended with a Fitbit or Jawbone activity tracker -- but it's design is breathtaking. It looks like a Swiss-made piece of fine craftsmanship, and in fact it is Swiss made. Its battery lasts a year, despite the device connecting to your smartphone to count steps, track sleep, and automatically correct time. It's essentially a more watch-like Moto 360 that Withings is calling a new generation of timepiece.

Then there's Gábor Balogh's smartwatch concept art that made the rounds back in March after the Hungarian designer posted them on the design website Behance. Based on the Havana line of Swedish watchmaker Triwa, Balogh's design excludes a touch screen in favor of tactical navigation through traditional knobs on the side of the watch face. More importantly, it mixes a classic design and the craftsmanship and aesthetic appeal of a leather band and circular face with a simple, almost iOS-like design interface.

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While not a smartwatch per se, Withings' Activité watch packs activity tracking features into a classic Swiss-made design. CNET

Motorola was clear that those elements -- what Balogh laid out as the "traditional values and quality" of watches -- were precisely what drove the decision to break from the trend and go with a round form factor.

"Every time you do [a smartwatch], no matter how awesome you might think it is, if it's square, everyone's just kind of like 'eh...'," Motorola design head Jim Wicks told The Verge earlier this year. "And you sit there and you think about making it a little bit thinner, or a little bit bigger, a little bit heavier -- you work for all those things and you still get that kind of feeling. And then finally we realized we're not going to break through that ceiling, even with our peers, if we can't get out of the 'eh' zone."

There are still some things we don't know about the Moto 360 -- namely, its battery life (and charging mechanism, for that matter) and its price. Also, it's heavier and larger than both the LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Line, factors that could hamper its appeal when consumers actually strap one to their wrists. The latter two devices are sleek and slim, while packing in a healthy chunk of powerful tech features, some of which -- like the Gear Line's heart rate monitor -- are not available with Motorola's watch. Both LG and Samsung are essentially banking on the fact that the utility of a square screen, one that they've tried to make as aesthetically pleasing as possible, can outweigh consumers' fascination with a flashy form factor.

LG is positing its G Watch not as a classic fashion statement more in line with the jewelry aesthetic of watches, but as a more utility-based product that's meant to discretely integrate itself with your daily life. "Why stand out, when it can fit beautifully and naturally with your everyday?" the company's promotional product page reads. Despite that directive, LG isn't playing down style, as it's clear that design -- essentially, not looking ugly on your wrist -- is paramount with smartwatches. The company has numerous, exuberant watch bands available, in mint-colored polka-dots and bright yellow, for instance.

When asked about circular watch-face development, Samsung wouldn't say whether it's working on anything that would deviate that strongly from the Gear line. Though the Gear Fit, the company's fitness band with a vertically-read screen, illustrates that Samsung is willing to try substantially different form factors if it means potentially tapping into the perfect blend of functionality and style.

"We are pursuing a kind of a consistency," Ikseon Kang, a Samsung senior manager in charge of product planning for the Gear Live, told CNET. He did not rule out the possibility of Samsung widening the design form factors. "Google said to us that they have a very flexible open policy about screen size, screen form factor," Kang added.

The two companies are in open discussion, and it's not unlike Samsung to iterate fast if circular designs become a linchpin selling factor for smartwatches. The company only began developing the Gear Live, Kang noted, earlier this year, shortly before it launched its second generation Galaxy Gear smartwatch in April.

For Motorola, the decision to go round was strategic. A circular watch face was the only way to churn up interest and differentiate itself in an area of uniform Google software. "The normal thing to do is take the technology that exists and create something based on what you technically can do," Wicks said. "We took a different approach, and said, 'Okay what do we think this should be?' Then we figured out how we could achieve it."

As smartwatches go from wearable concept to consumer product, that alternative approach appears to have heated up a design divide that may shape the landscape -- away from sharp corners and boxy screens and toward edge-to-edge displays and circular faces. Because when it comes to technology not stuffed in our pockets, but brandished on our bodies, it turns out looks are mattering more than we think.

About the author

Nick Statt is a staff writer for CNET. He previously wrote for ReadWrite and was a news associate at the social magazine app Flipboard. He spends a questionable amount of his free time contemplating his relationship with video games while continuously exploring the convergence of tech, science and pop culture.

 

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