My contention today is that the key watch companies’ approach to sports watch faces needs improvement, not even the mighty Apple has got this right yet.
What Makes a Perfect Smartwatch Face?
We’re talking about 24×7 watchfaces here rather than the screens you display during sports usage. Don’t page away too quickly though as watch faces most definitely can have sporty components, for example, to let you open sports functionality or view sports physiology data.
Let’s start by taking a look at the differing approaches of Garmin and Apple and see if they can be improved.
The Garmin watchface you choose can sometimes be a fully customised thing of wonder from a 3rd party.
Broadly speaking, what you see in a 3rd party Garmin watch face has been crafted by one developer. My favourite for some time has been CRYSTAL, shown above, and in this link, you can see that the developer lets you customise many elements of Crystal’s screen. For example, at the top of my Crystal Watch face, I have chosen HR, battery and notifications but I could quite easily instead have chosen altitude, pressure and temperature.
The reality for me is that I think most Garmin watchfaces are relatively ugly and this is one of only a handful that I think are pretty enough to wear.
I’ve just realised that I’m not especially bothered about the data that my chosen watch face shows. Why so?
Well, I wear my sports watch for sports. So when I want to start a workout I know the Garmin is one button press away from letting me choose from my list of favourite sports profiles.
Sometimes I will be interested in ‘status’ pieces of info and Garmin lets me get to those relatively easily as well. With the buttons on the left side of the watch, I can scroll through a list of active widget glances which show me summary information about ‘me’, about ‘environmental factors’ and about ‘other things’. Thus I can scroll through widget glances to see a compass, respiration, my last workout, my next planned workout, my FTP and much more. If any of those widget glances strikes me as interesting I can drill through into more detail.
Widget glances were a relatively recent introduction by Garmin and, on the whole, I think they are great. It’s the rest of the labyrinthine interface that lets Garmin down in my opinion.
- Easy access to both pre-configured info like sports profile shortcuts and physiology data summaries/details
- Good flexibility for 3rd party developers to create & customise new watchfaces
- Hardware screen quality typically has poor resolution and poor colour depth
- Often poor aesthetics on 3rd party watchfaces
- Changing a watch face takes at least 3 button presses
- Finding and installing a wholly new watchface is going to take some time.
- Adding the piece of information I want to any given watchface is typically restricted by the developer and can be tricky to configure.
Apple Watchfaces are things of beauty. They are all made by Apple to a high technical & aesthetic standard, with the beauty further enhanced by great hardware. Apple let you choose between 20 and 40 watchface types, depending on how you want to classify them, with many being further open to customisation by colour and style to give thousands of combinations. Yet more customisation is possible where the watchfaces support the addition of data-rich components called complications. Once you add in complications there are literally millions of unique possibilities to personalise what you have on your wrist.
The data in these complications can be a shortcut to start an app or data from the app itself. Thus, for example, a complication could be a shortcut to start STRYD or it could display my current rTSB/rSB (running Stress Balance) from the STRYD app. Complications are typically small and circular for the main part of the face, weirdly triangular for the corners and rectangular complications also exist that can support charts or a novel displays like a rectangular compass.
New owners of Apple Watches thus initially feel constrained by only being able to use Apple Watchfaces but it soon becomes apparent that these ‘templates’ possess a decent degree of customisation.
However, to get your chosen watch face ‘just so’ is a labour of love and can take many minutes especially if you start searching for that perfect complication – which invariably doesn’t exist or requires you to download a different app just to get the complication.
Until Watch OS 7 (2020) it was not possible to share watchfaces but now you can, thus online watchface-sharing sites like Facer are becoming more popular or you can simply attach your watchface and SMS it to a friend for them to install and, yes, the ‘special’ Nike Watch faces really do only work on Apple Watch Nike variants (I tried).
I curated a collection of watchfaces and switching between them on the watch is relatively easy with a press and a few swipes. I might have a watch face for ‘work’, socialising’, training status and other things too. I have way too many apps installed on the watch to easily find my frequently used one, so I tend to change between watchfaces as if they are a launch screen eg my sports screen has several of my favourite sports apps as shortcuts and then I might later change back to a training status watchface for taking HRV readings and seeing the results. Thus your collection of watchfaces becomes a top-level menu that potentially morphs throughout the day as you swap faces according to the need of the moment. I’m certainly not alone in doing that!
In a way, these reasonably flexible watchfaces are a workaround for other flaws in the Apple interface. Really what I want is fewer watch faces plus the ability to have a whole screen full of my often-used complications, shortcuts and favourites. Matt@birchtree has this video which is kinda where I’m coming from on this. Really all Matt and I want from Apple Watch 7 (Watch OS8) is something like Garmin’s one-button access to a list of widgets (complications) – Matt suggests this is added to the control centre as a swipe-up…fair enough. I’d use that. Apple has almost certainly considered this…and won’t do it!
- Performance and beauty is controlled by Apple
- Generally works well for most uses
- Watchfaces can take too long to create especially when adding special complications which you know must exist but don’t know how to find them
- A large watchface collection is not easily curated and managed
- Apple prides itself on the user experience, switching from one watchface to another takes longer than you think – compare that to Garmin’s button interface which feels more cumbersome but which is usually quicker than Apple.
- 3rd party smartphone app developers do not always create watch apps and if they do, they don’t always create the complication you want. Why should a complication rely on a watch app being installed when it could pull info from the phone app?
- The Apple experience feels constrained by Apple. Kinda anti-creative, although creativity is allowed within the bounds they set. #ControllingParents
- Watchfaces become a part of the high-level menu system to access watch features. I’m not entirely sure that Apple initially intended it to be this way.
- Apple Watch app developers don’t yet seem to have realised that they can use curated watchfaces to distribute a prompt to download their app via an embedded complication in the curated watchface.
On the topic of watchfaces, there are some interesting things afoot with Google’s Wear OS. Only this week it was announced that higher-end Fossil Wear OS watches will now come with thousands of FACER watch faces pre-loaded. Google understands the importance of personalisation.
However, I still think Google is still missing a trick here.
Wear OS has the concept of ‘Tiles’. A tile is like a temporary watchface-cum-widget that you VERY easily swipe into view when you want to consume a certain piece of information. This works well however it’s limited to a maximum of 5 tiles and restrictions on how they can be customised to show what you want, rendering them much less useful than they could otherwise be. These Google tiles work better than the watchfaces from Apple and Garmin yet Google seems to be trying as hard as it can to stop people fully exploiting them! Strange.
Sports watch companies like Wahoo (Rival), Polar Vantage V2 and Suunto perhaps underestimate the importance of the customizability experience for their more mass-market customers. These companies are unlikely to ever devote significant resources to creating watch faces as it doesn’t directly pay the rent. So without an open watchface API there will always be a restricted supply of own-brand watchfaces. Don’t get me wrong Polar et al absolutely do understand the need for customisation, just look at the selection of bands that Polar sells. They know people will pay for customisation it’s just probably easier & more profitable with limited internal resources to sell extra bands than to develop free watchfaces.
Customisable and pretty watchfaces are absolutely vital for the success of a smartwatch. For those smartwatches that also want to address the sporty segments of their market, they had better also incorporate sport-related data into the watchfaces…and that means WAY more than steps or calories.
For out-and-out sports watches I would say the watchface is much less important, perhaps even to the extent where it can and is overlooked. But as sports and smarts increasingly overlap a pretty and flexible watchface just becomes one more reason to buy a smartwatch. Death by a thousand cuts.