The race is on for the best smartwatch, and the major manufacturers are all competing to convince us that we need this wrist mounted computer.
In the world of smartwatches you have two schools of thought. There are the watch first, smart second, watches like the Pebble, that offers long battery life but has limited functions when it comes to smartphone style tasks. Then you have the opposite, the Apple Watches and Android Wear devices that offer apps, voice search, full color displays yet only a day or so of battery life. This second group is the focus of the major smartphone competition, pushing for better displays and apps to lock you into a platform.
But as the video for the BLOCKS watch points out, all these watches do roughly the same things. They all offer at least some activity tracking, show you notifications, and for some reason everyone needs to call an UBER from their wrist. BLOCKS offers to provide users with a modular experience that they can shape to their liking.
The base unit (called the BLOCKS Core) houses the display, battery and sensors. This gives every BLOCKS watch a set of standard features that reads very much like other smartwatches. The core allows for notifications, activity tracking, wifi/bluetooth connectivity and voice interaction.
What comes next are the modules and this is how the BLOCKS hopes to stand out from the pack. The band is actually composed of 3-4 blocks (get it?) that each offers a different set of features. For backers and early adopters there are 5 modules that are available, Extra Battery, Heart Rate, GPS, NFC and a combination thermometer, altimeter and barometer they call “Adventure”.
Let me start by saying I love this concept. As a lifelong tinkerer, modular designs speak to my desire to modify and take ownership of how my products operate. However from that same tinkering background I can see some issues that concern me. Lets talk good first shall we?
The modules are hot swappable, meaning you can mix and match without needing to power off the device. This is absolutely essential for a product that encourages frequent modifications. Extra battery? Sign me up, that is the number one complaint about smartwatches in this category and this puts the battery life in the hands of the user. NFC, GPS and Adventure are all great as modules because they aren’t necessary for everyone’s ideal experience.
Of the initial modules my biggest concern is the Heart Rate monitor. I currently wear a fitness tracker, the Fitbit Charge HR, which offers a heart rate monitor. In researching it I have found that wrist mounted heart rate monitors are already at a disadvantage compared to chest strap models. As such, in order for a wrist based heart rate monitor to be effective it needs to be positioned exactly right. This is not a good fit for a module, it will have suboptimal positioning on a suboptimal location for heart rate tracking. If BLOCKS was serious about offering heart rate tracking as part of its fitness package it should have been built into the core unit.
As far as future modules go, there are many listed on the Kickstarter page, some more exciting to me than others. But then again, that is the point of BLOCKS, to provide a smartwatch that I can make my own. Sign me up for some extra batteries, GPS, a flashlight and you can keep your fingerprint scanners and programmable buttons.
The design of BLOCKS is nice, albeit a little thick. It is a clean round face, available in 3 colors. It will work with iOS and Android, and runs a modified version of the Android OS, not to be confused with Android Wear. Meaning that any 3rd party support will be potentially limited and require a specific app build for the BLOCKS. If we have learned anything from smartphones and tablets it is that a connected device lives and dies by its app support so we will have to wait and see how the BLOCKS will fare. In the meantime, I’ll call my UBER from my phone like a caveman.