What screen type is best for a smartwatch?


Smartwatches are becoming more popular, and despite its flaws, I quite like my Sony Smartwatch. It, its recently announced successor, the i’m watch, Motorola Motoactv, as well as rumored Apple, Samsung, and Google watches all use color screens, while the Pebble and Metawatch have gone for monochrome, sunlight-readable displays. This time of year, I often ask myself which choice is the best.

My Sony watch is practically unreadable outdoors, as most color screens. Companies can promise enhanced sunlight readability in color screens all they want, but at the end of the day, nothing beats something like the Pebble’s epaper display. There’s a reason why ebook readers with eink displays have a purpose, and while a phone with a display like that would have too many downsides to be of much use right now, things are different with a watch.

I guess it all comes down to what you use your watch for. The LCD screen on my Sony watch is perfectly readable in any situation where LCD screens are normally readable (duh), and I dare say that a color screen has a lot of advantages when readability isn’t an issue. Just minor things like using color logos for incoming notifications of different kinds is a massive help for quickly seeing what just came in, and then you have things like music playback where album art really works better with colors.

On the other hand, you’re likely not watching videos and whatnot on your watch. While there are watches out there that run full Android and as such can both play back video, run games, have a photo library, and so on, most smartwatches are meant as secondary displays, and mostly for displaying quick information. Notifications, messages, emails, basic playback controls, sports related things (timers, trackers), and so on don’t really need colors to work.

Then the question becomes where you use your watch. If you find yourself outdoors a lot, sunlight readability is obviously more important. If your buy a watch for its sports tracking abilities, chances are that a watch with good sunlight readability will be best for you. If you spend most of your day in an office and need the watch for notifications and such, an LCD watch will work just fine.

The display will also likely decide how the watch is controlled. There’s nothing stopping anyone from making a sunlight readable monochrome touchscreen watch, but so far, those watches have used buttons, which touch screens have only been found in color screen watches. It’s easier to navigate a more intricate UI with a touch screen, and it also opens up for more advanced functionality. I can use standard Android widgets on my Sony Smartwatch and use touch to control them, while something like the Pebble is relatively speaking quite hindered by the buttons- though it depends on what you use it for.

There are also two more things to consider: battery life and always-on functionality. Any watch with a color screen will naturally drain the battery quicker, so if you don’t like charging your watch, you need to keep that in mind. The second thing to consider is that color screens use a lot of power when on, and as such, can’t stay on all the time. The Pebble’s epaper display on the other hand will always display a watch face, and you can use it for things like a bicycle computer without having to constantly wake up the screen to see what’s going on.

For me, switching to a new smartwatch will eventually come down to software. I’d prefer a color touch screen watch over one that’s easier to read in sunlight, but only because those watches have more software potential. I want the ability to at least use standard Android widgets, and wouldn’t say no to a watch that runs full Android, and I don’t see it as very likely that either of those will happen on an epaper watch. Other than the software aspect though, there’s nothing that would make me choose a color watch, so no matter what you do it will end up being a compromise.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.

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