back to article Low-power chips are secret sauce behind long-life wearables

The most eye-catching debuts at CES 2019 are more analogue than digital, and dumber rather than smarter. Withings has launched its first new products in almost three years, having survived a period of ownership by Nokia. Two Withings Move watches minimise the "smart" but provide continuous fitness tracking, and boast a battery …

  1. steelpillow Silver badge
    Coat

    Lower end

    I know, you could create an entry-level model which features the amazingly innovative analogue hands but just tells the time and nothing else. Oh, wait...

    Casio once brought out an LCD model with digital hands. The segments were arranged like the petals of a flower, with each one crafted in the shape of part of a hand, none of your pixel-array rubbish here. A beautiful blend of bleeding-edge lithography and art. Oh, I think - I hope - I have just described the January 2020 launch model.

    1. TRT Silver badge

      Re: Lower end

      I had one of those! I found it most amusing that they simulated an analogue device using digital technology. In the end I replaced it with a dual display watch - proper analogue hands with an LCD display behind it.

      1. Steve Kerr

        Re: Lower end

        The height of technology with a very luddite function - Sony FES Watch

        I have the version 1 of these, can change the pattern on watch strap and face but in essence, it's a an analogue watch, the version 2 allows patterns to be uploaded to the watch and gives the ability to have a numeric display.

        A conversation with a friend went thus...

        Me: Got a new watch

        Friend: what else does it do?

        Me: Tell the time

        Friend: what else does it do?

        Me: Change the pattern on the strap and watch face:

        Friend: What apps can it run?

        Me: It's a watch, it tells the time

        Friend: What else can it do?

        Me: It's a watch, it tells the time

        Friend: No, what other functions does it have?

        Me: Er....It's a watch, it tells the time.

        Friend: Can you sync it with your phone?

        Me: Er.....It's a watch, it tells the time.

        Lost the will soon after, couldn't understand the concept of a hi-tech watch that just told the time.

        1. BillG Silver badge
          Headmaster

          Fixed It For Ya

          "MyKronoz takes advantage of Fujitsu's Ambiq embedded micro controllers, which allow the manufacturer to dispense with expensive, power-guzzling SoCs. The Apollo2, for example, draws less than 10 μA/MHz."

          o Ambiq is not owned by Fujitsu, Ambiq an independent Texas company. Fujitsu Electronics is an electronics distributor that resells Ambiq MCUs.

          o "Microcontroller" is one word

          o SoCs are not "power-guzzling" unless this is 1995

      2. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Lower end

      Am I unique in always wanting watches with digital displays rather than analog hands?

      20+ years of commuting catching trains that lock the doors 30 seconds before the "scheduled" departure time has left me needing to know the time more precisely than analog hands permit.

      1. tfb Silver badge

        Re: Lower end

        I believe that some modern watches have things known as 'second hands' which will tell you the time to a hitherto-undreamed-of accuracy of under a second. I've never seen one myself: I'm happy with my portable hourglass.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Lower end

          "Second hands" ......

          So whilst jogging for the train and deciding if I need to sprint to catch the 6:23 you want me to look at the watch face pick out the 2 relevant hands, interpolate their positions between the numbers one of which needs to be multiplied by 5 then work out the time? I prefer to glance at my watch for a small fraction of a second and if its after 6:21:07 (and not a second before) sprint ..... at a speed dependant on the exact time.

          1. LDS Silver badge

            Re: Lower end

            I have to watch the position of two hands instead of having to read four numbers. Do you really need to multiply? I just know the bigger hand has sixty positions, and that's what I "read". Hands are also readable at angles where digital numbers couldn't.

        2. Big John Silver badge

          Re: Lower end

          > "I'm happy with my portable hourglass."

          Hourglasses will never be truly portable and practical until they find a way to miniaturize the sand grains. Alternatively they might introduce some sort of clockwork mechanism that allows only one grain at a time thru the neck.

          Oh wait...

          1. LDS Silver badge

            Re: Lower end

            The real problem is the suspension mechanism you need to keep them vertical and avoid bumps will accelerate/decelerate them, plus the clockwork to turn them automatically when the upper part is empty... oh wait...

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Lower end

        You don't want a watch with a digital display.

        You want a watch with a digital display that is accurate.

        And you want to start leaving a bit earlier.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Lower end

          And I do have a watch with a very very accurate digital display. It synchronizes with the radio time signal every night so is never more than 500ms out.

          Leaving earlier would be nice. So would not having a boss on the other side of the Atlantic who decides to phone me after she has had her lunch.

    3. ganymede io device

      Re: Lower end

      Casio AA-85 or A-201 with module 103.

      It had an app for testing your sanity.

      http://bluethunderhelicopter.com/the-casio-aa-85/

      As Douglas Adams put it

      ""... so the problem remained; lots of people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.”

      1. Adrian 4 Silver badge

        Re: Lower end

        You missed the earlier quote :

        ".. whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea."

        1. DropBear Silver badge

          Re: Lower end

          I always held the strictly personal opinion that the intended meaning of that well-known quote was "people so primitive they barely just reached the 'digital watches: achievement unlocked' phase", but somehow got perverted into apparently meaning "analogue watches are so much nicer than digital ones and these stupid people completely fail to appreciate that" in wide-scale popular usage.

    4. Christian Berger Silver badge

      You're missing the main feature

      I mean of course you could make a watch that displays the time, but where's your revenue stream? Instead the vital feature is data collection. I mean how can you make money if not by selling private data of your product?

  2. tiggity Silver badge

    Is the next step

    The battery watch equivalent of the old style self winding (automatic) watches? If manufacturers are really creating low power use devices then maybe just using wearer movement to power the watch would start to be feasible.

    1. steelpillow Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: Is the next step

      It was done a long time ago. The problem back then was that the tech was inadequate. With mechanical generation via an off-balance weight, batteries were unsuitable for the random bursts of recharge, while supercapacitors ran down too quickly at night. Solar cells were inefficient and did not have enough output to do more than prolong battery life. Maybe today we could do better.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Is the next step

      It's been done for many years.

      I remember years ago that I was going to buy one as a Christmas present for my dad, but I was at least a year too late, as the regular watch manufacturers were promoting it, so I couldn't find one at a reasonable price any more.

      1. Adrian 4 Silver badge

        Re: Is the next step

        I have a Seiko Kinetic (which was my dad's, so it's a few years old now). It does exactly that and was designed to use a supercapacitor. They updated the design to use a NiMH cell when the supercapacitors were found to have a shorter life than rechargables, but since then it's been running happily, even if left unworn for several days.

    3. OrneryRedGuy

      Re: Is the next step

      Casio makes a line of solar powered watches with both a digital readout and analog hands that sync with each other. Sufficient charge time is not a problem; both my kids have them and every time I've checked the battery level is reported as 'hi'.

      1. Is It Me

        Re: Is the next step

        And there are the Citizen EcoDrive watches, solar based and can keep going with just a few hours of artificial light.

    4. farrier

      Re: Is the next step

      Something like this?

      https://www.powerwatch.com/

      Powered by your bodies heat apparently, does time, steps, sleep tracking etc

  3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "The latter, however, includes an ECG (electrocardiogram) sensor the user can activate in the case of atrial fibrillation (irregular heart rate)."

    Why? So the user can watch themselves die?

    1. BanburyBill

      Because if you have AF (which is totally non-fatal), the docs are interested in what the ECG looks like whenever anything changes. I have occasional paroxysmal AF, and am just off to Google this kit...

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Don't confuse Atrial Fibrillation (quivering of the top of the heart, which is problematic but manageable, ask someone with Sick Sinus Syndrome) with Ventricular Fibrillation (quivering of the bottom of the heart, which is a Code Blue life-threatening emergency).

  4. JDX Gold badge

    Engineering query

    So we all know in the analogue world you can get self-winding watches which harvest energy from the user moving around. And just yesterday I saw an old Tomorrow's World clip from 1981 about a thermocouple-powered watch.

    How many Wh can you generate using such technologies in a watch? And how many Wh does a more conventional smart-watch use? Never mind how you store the energy in your battery, I just wonder how far apart these numbers are that we could ever conceivably see a self-'winding' smart watch? A fitbit that relied on the owner to exercise to keep it charged...

    1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: Engineering query

      Pretty certain that automatics could collect enough energy for an SoC. But the additional gubbins you'd need (transformer, rectifier) would add to the bulk which perhaps the limiting factor. I suspect that at some point all our devices will come with some kind of harvesting built in.

    2. Cuddles Silver badge

      Re: Engineering query

      "How many Wh can you generate using such technologies in a watch? And how many Wh does a more conventional smart-watch use? Never mind how you store the energy in your battery, I just wonder how far apart these numbers are that we could ever conceivably see a self-'winding' smart watch? A fitbit that relied on the owner to exercise to keep it charged"

      You can order one powered by your body heat right now - https://www.powerwatch.com/collections/products

      I have no idea how good they actually are, but apparently we've reached the point where it's a commercially viable idea (as long as you don't live somewhere hot). I expect the mechanical self-winding idea would be rather more difficult to implement. The traditional type relied pretty much literally on self-winding, using your motion to put energy into the mechanical system that was already there to make the watch work. A digital watch with no such mechanical system would have to add the whole thing from scratch. It might still be possible from a power needs point of view, but I suspect it would have to be quite bulky.

  5. Charlie Clark Silver badge

    Where does all the data go?

    I must admit that I quite like the design of the Withings stuff but having read the data privacy statement I decided against them. Why do they always want to shove this stuff to a server? For virtually every possible use it should be sufficient to store and process the data locally on a phone or PC.

    1. Kez

      Re: Where does all the data go?

      I have also been puzzled by this. Having been interested in fitness wearables for some time, I've yet to invest in one, for the simple reason that I can't find anything halfway decent that doesn't also depend on cloudy nonsense. It's bad enough that these companies can potentially sell your health data to drug companies, health insurers, or lose it to malicious hackers, let alone making you *pay* for the privilege.

      1. DropBear Silver badge

        Re: Where does all the data go?

        Without proposing or endorsing any particular piece of kit, you might want to take a look at GadgetBridge and whatever it may or may not support, for blissfully cloud- and snooping-free fitness. Although it most likely won't come close to all the bells and whistles manufacturer's original apps tend to throw at you along with the kitchen sink.

  6. Cuddles Silver badge

    The elusive mass market

    The trouble with the mass market for smart/fitness/watches is that it's elusive in the same sense as bigfoot - the problem is not simply that no-one can find it, but that there's no evidence it actually exists in the first place. There's certainly a relatively small market for real Garmin-style sports trackers. And there seems to be at least some market for stripped-down phones that can be strapped to your wrist. But in terms of people wanting a watch that isn't great at being a watch, isn't smart enough to do useful things, and is just barely competent at counting steps? It's a gimmick that people occasionally decide it's worth chucking 20 quid at. People who actually care about fitness either get a useful tool or, all too commonly, simply don't worry about needing a fancy watch in order to go running. People who don't care about fitness... don't care about fitness, and a £100 watch that occasionally tells them they've been walking or whatever isn't going to change that.

    There simply isn't a mass market place for "relatively expensive but not actually very useful watch cum step counter". It either needs to be more useful or less expensive, and both of those markets are already covered and doing about as well as they're ever likely to. In the absence of some killer new feature, continuing to throw the same crap out and expecting it to fare any differently isn't exactly sensible. Especially when their "long life" wearables are still only boasting 30 days use as a basic watch or 3 days of actually doing anything, which somehow manages to be worse than an actual GPS watch.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: The elusive mass market

      Ever thought this is what it's all about: the search for that "killer feature" that makes more people start caring about fitness, creating that market that they can just snap up and corner? I admit, it sounds like a Hard Problem when even doctors can't seem to get people to care, but there's always that little nugget: if you want someone to care about something, make it fun.

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