What Makes a Smartwatch Tick?

CCS Insight compares two leading smartwatch designs

We cover many categories of technology at CCS Insight, and design is arguably more important to wearables than anything else. The clue is in the name — a device competing for the prime position on a wearer’s wrist is a fashion statement as well as a piece of technology, at least in the instance of smartwatches and fitness trackers. For that reason, debates over which wearables look the best, or are the slimmest and lightest, are regular occurrences in the industry.

But the question of design goes well beyond surface level. With every decision about look and feel comes a whole host of challenges related to engineering. This is a topic that we recently explored in a piece of research comparing the designs of the Apple Watch SE and the Samsung Galaxy Watch3, including an in-depth investigation and cost comparison analysis of the two devices.

On the surface, there are some stark differences between the two devices. The Apple Watch SE keeps the square frame that has defined the Apple Watch since day one, and divisive though it may be, it’s proven hugely successful given Apple’s dominance in the wearables market. In contrast, Samsung’s flagship smartwatches typically have a circular face, prioritizing a more traditional design, in addition to features such as a rotating circular bezel to control the device.

However, the implications of this square-versus-round decision goes far beyond what people think of the exterior. For example, Apple’s design decisions maximize the size of its Watch display, making it easier to bring smartphone functionality to the wrist. This also optimizes space for the components inside the device, making it easier to accommodate the necessary innards, such as battery, core electronics and bio sensors. As a result, this provides space for a more powerful haptic motor — or as Apple calls it, a Taptic Engine — which is a familiar part of the Apple user experience.

To compare, Samsung’s Galaxy Watch3 design is based on a round display. Although to many people this seems more traditional, and therefore preferable as a smartwatch aesthetic, it immediately creates some challenges. For example, internal electronic components aren’t normally designed for round devices, meaning their arrangement inside the watch is a complex jigsaw puzzle, as the image below shows.

Comparison of system-in-package in Apple Watch SE and main printed circuit board in Samsung Galaxy Watch3
Comparison of system-in-package in Apple Watch SE and main printed circuit board in Samsung Galaxy Watch3. Note: grid = 5 mm

Source: CCS Insight Teardown Analysis

The rounded design also creates further questions about user control and interface, as Samsung spent time building its Tizen operating system, which is designed for a circular watch and uses a rotating bezel as an important part of the user interface. This design is popular with many customers — including me — because of its tactile feedback, which helps the watch to stand apart in a crowded market. However, this adds a layer of cost into the device that could put customers off.

Although this is only an overview, comparing these two watches provides a reminder that device design and function are really two sides of the same coin. Decisions made about the shape and size of a device ultimately affect the components that can fit inside, its capabilities and the customer experience. The square design of the Apple Watch SE makes the most of the limited space and can support a haptic experience familiar to customers, whereas the Samsung Galaxy Watch3 prioritizes a traditional aesthetic, arguably sacrificing efficiency in the process of achieving a classic design. It’s a fascinating look into the design dynamic in the wearables market.

CCS Insight’s teardown and cost benchmarking service provides expert analysis on how devices are built and assembled. A more detailed examination comparing the Apple Watch SE and the Samsung Galaxy Watch3 is now available on CCS Insight Connect for our clients. If you’d like to receive a free copy of our full report click here.