Levelling Charges

The battery life question is a fascinating smartwatch dynamic

With lots of devices in our day-to-day lives, we have pretty clear expectations about battery life. Take the smartphone; the idea of charging your phone at the end of every day is normalized — people roughly expect a solid day’s battery life and are pleased if they can eke out two. With devices like laptops or tablets, longer battery is always better, but no one expects to get more than a day or two of heavy use without reaching for a charger.

One gadget that departs radically from this is the smartwatch. Ask someone how long they expect the battery to last on their wrist-worn device and the answer could vary between a day and a month — or maybe longer. It’s a fascinating dynamic in the wearables space, and a conversation that keeps cropping up.

Why are there such outliers? Well, on one end of the spectrum, watches with the most features pack a tremendous amount of capability in a compact design, making it very hard to extend battery life beyond even one day. For example, the Apple Watch Series 7 offers 18 hours of use from a single charge, making daily charging a necessity. Its closest rival, the Samsung Galaxy Watch4, promises two or three days — but with the always-on screen enabled it also requires daily charging.

Both devices offer stunning AMOLED screens, powerful operating systems, access to an array of apps, impressive smartphone integration, the ability to store music and play it through Bluetooth headphones, payments and much more. This undoubtedly places a heavy burden on the internal components; as such, regular charging is the trade-off a user pays.

On the other end of the spectrum, we see devices tailor-made for a niche group in the form of endurance athletes. Smartwatches from companies like Coros and Garmin can offer weeks of life from a single charge, thanks to their pared-back proprietary operating systems and limited features compared with Apple or Samsung devices. Certain Garmin watches add the ability to top up the battery with solar power; the company claims its Enduro watch can last a staggering 65 days with solar top-ups.

Of course, there’s a vast array of devices in the middle — most smartwatches available now offer about a week’s battery life as standard. This seems to be responding to customer demand — after all, our most recent smartwatch survey found that battery life is far and away the most requested device improvement (for clients, see User Survey: Smartwatches, 2021; for more information on this product, contact us).

Many people will rightfully point out that the Apple Watch remains — by some distance — the most popular smartwatch on the market despite its limited lifespan. It appears customers are willing to put battery concerns to one side to get the watch that best matches their phone, ultimately learning the behaviour of charging their watch daily. Clearly, people think this is a trade-off worth making, and as long as the Apple Watch continues to sell like hot cakes, there’s not too much pressure on the firm to change the device.

But in practice, this compromise has its downfalls. An anecdote that sums this up nicely comes from CCS Insight’s recent MWC delegation. My watch of choice for the week was the Garmin Epix, a new premium sports watch offering lifestyle features like payments and music playback, as well as an AMOLED screen. Two colleagues wore Apple Watches and another used the Samsung Galaxy Watch4.

I charged up my watch before leaving London for Barcelona and didn’t need to replenish it once before I got home, despite wearing it round the clock. In contrast, the other devices needed daily top-ups — easier said than done when dashing around a trade show and balancing long days with early starts. At times this meant devices running out of juice before a day was done, while my Garmin impressively ploughed through several days without breaking sweat.

How much does this matter? Well, that’s a question users must answer for themselves. I personally prefer to avoid battery anxiety and am happier knowing I can go away for a weekend without needing a charger. Others are OK to keep topping up their watch. For many, getting the best experience is the priority; if they want access to a vibrant app store, then battery is a trade-off. It’s an intriguing dynamic, especially as Google seeks to roll out its powerful new Wear OS platform more widely.

With that said, it’s just one example of the variety in the wearables market. Striking a balance between battery and function is a major debate — one that doesn’t look likely to lose charge any time soon.