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Wearable Tech

Where smartwatches are going wrong

Commentary: Fitness trackers and smartwatches went off the rails in 2016. Here are some reasons why.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Fitbit's latest earnings reports weren't good at all. Pebble sold itself at a firesale price (to Fitbit) and cancelled its future watches. Microsoft, Motorola and Intel appear to have halted (or at least suspended) their wearable product lines. The Samsung Gear S3 slid into the holidays with a whimper, not a bang. And while Apple claims it just had its best weekly sales of the Apple Watch ever, that comes after some deep holiday discounts -- and lackluster sales for the first three quarters of the year.

In light of all that, it's hardly a surprise that sales of smartwatches and wearables are in a pretty significant downturn, according to a recent report by analyst firm IDC.

What's going on?

I've worn nearly all of the big new fitness trackers and smartwatches of the past two years. And that's why I'm not surprised that the market is cooling. The reason is simple: they're not doing anything new.

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Even with Apple's newest watches, don't expect battery life beyond two days.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Since early 2015, wrist gadgets feel like they've hit a standstill. Even the Apple Watch, to some degree. While some are better than others, none of them have risen to the must-have level of the hottest phones.

It's not necessarily all bad news. CNET's holiday shopping survey said millennials were more likely to get smartwatches than tablets or TVs, at least. And, many smartwatches and fitness trackers I've tried in 2016 have gotten at least a little bit better than before, as well as more affordable.

But here's where things have gone off the rails, and need to be readjusted for 2017 and onwards.

Battery life has hit a wall

Hybrid watches that cram fitness tracking into regular watches can push a year of battery, but with sacrifices. But for most other trackers and watches, the range is anywhere from a day to several weeks.

Pebble's watches always fared the best, lasting up to a week compared to one or two-day watches from Google, Apple and Samsung. The Samsung Gear S3 added more battery to its larger design, but in wearing it I didn't see a ton of improvement.

Most gadgets need regular charging at annoying and hard-to-predict intervals. Others that have replaceable batteries need to be unscrewed or detached, and it's surprisingly easy to forget. Some companies think they have solutions to improve battery life: the Matrix PowerWatch is said to use temperature gradients to charge, but we have yet to verify that lofty claim.

Wearables aren't coaching any better, or helping give better life advice

Remember when the Jawbone Up promised to help coach your life better? Or the Basis Peak? Or the Microsoft Band? Maybe you don't. I do. There have been many claims of "machine learning," algorithms that learn habits and help make suggestions, and data trends served up to assist.

Right now, nothing really does anything like what was promised. Fitbit can suggest a bedtime, and convince you to achieve fitness goals... but smart coaching hasn't happened yet. The Apple Watch barely coaches at all. Samsung's Gear watches and bands send motivating messages, but no real analysis.

Maybe these bands are hesitant to make suggestions on things that could impact health. Maybe heart-rate-based coaching hasn't evolved because wrist-worn optical heart rate sensors are inherently inaccurate, at least in a medical sense. Both the Apple Watch and Fitbit Charge 2 tried for breathing-based mindfulness apps this year, but neither does a ton for everyday wellness (at least, not for me). A few gadgets, like Intel's Oakley coaching sunglasses, are aiming to help... but progress has slowed down a lot.

Wearables aren't sensing anything new beyond heart rate

Throwing heart rate sensing on a wristband was the last major innovation in sensor tech on smartwatches and fitness bands, and that happened back in 2014. Watches and bands can't sense blood pressure, or blood sugar, or temperature, or intoxication levels or any other magic things. Maybe with plugins and other accessories, perhaps... but the dream of watches as magic sensor-bands has slowed to a crawl.

Maybe the reason why Garmin, one of the few 2016 companies seeing a rise in shipments, has succeeded is because its running watches are far more targeted at specific users, or aim at shoring up functions like water resistance and GPS.

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Fancier watches, like TAG's, don't mean improved functions.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Fashion over function, to a fault

We're so used to seeing fancy smartwatches now that it's not a surprise: it's boredom. Michael Kors has a smartwatch. TAG Heuer has a smartwatch. When does this all end? Apple, thankfully, stopped making its $10,000 gold watch. But its ceramic model still tops $1,000. Manufacturers have aced the hardware design of watches. The Samsung Gear S3 looks like a great, normal sports watch. The Asus Zenwatch 3 looks like a fancy watch. Fitbit took the fashion path and made lots of leather bands and golden bangles. Everything has bling.

I'd take a better-working band over a fancy one any day... but function is hard to come by, and harder to ace.

They're still dependent on phones, and can't live on their own

There are some smartwatches, like the Gear S3, that can be their own phones. Sounds interesting, until you try one and realize that, at best, it can do a tiny fraction of what a phone does. Apps feel fragmented, too pared-down. It's hard to get information, or make things happen. They are, at best, devices to get quick reminders. (Battery life, meanwhile, is punishing.)

That could change, if they were more fully featured hubs. Consider the Amazon Echo. Why does it feel so useful? Because, it can do just enough to be its own magic device. And aside from adding the occasional skill from the companion phone app, it doesn't require anything else. Smartwatches could be that way too, but they need to either have better voice-connected responsiveness or work seamlessly with things around us beyond phones.

How would that work? Well, I have no good answers there. But phones managed it, eventually (remember when you had to tether an iPhone to your computer to activate it?). Maybe watches will need another handful of years to make that concept truly work.

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You can use the Samsung Gear S3 as a stand-alone phone, but I wouldn't recommend it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Wireless networks haven't advanced to help these gadgets, especially in the home

Suddenly, I've wandered out of phone range, and my watch or tracker buzzes. If I'm at home, on Wi-Fi, I might stay connected. Maybe not. Bluetooth 5 will double the range and improve speed on wireless connections, but it's unclear how that will help when everyone already has Wi-Fi at home.

If you want to dream in a different direction, consider Wi-Gig. This high-bandwidth, short-range tech is being considered a killer tool to turn VR headsets wireless, or beam information across single rooms. The Neptune Duo was a bizarre watch-phone hybrid exploring how high-speed connections could bridge phone and watch in the future. That was vaporware, but maybe someone could come up with a better idea.

Smartwatches aren't the magic wrist-superpower things we dreamed of

Google Glass once seemed like it was a magic world-scanning lens. It wasn't. Smartwatches can, at first, seem like comic book magic on a wrist, suddenly connecting the world to our arms. That's still only part-true right now. I can see a lot on my watch, and feel connected, and track workouts, and scan my messages, and it's useful. But it's not magical. Not yet. They can't even do video calls. Watches need to do something more impressive than get messages and track fitness. People are amazed by the Amazon Echo. People are amazed by VR. People aren't amazed by smartwatches. Could they be? What would it take?

If the industry can't get there, all the fashion designers in the world won't help.