The Apple Watch May Have One Major Weak Point

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an Apple special event (Apple Watch)

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As more details emerge on the battery that the Apple Watch will feature, it seems increasingly likely that Apple has chosen to compromise battery life to build a smartwatch packed with features and functionality. Quartz’s Steve LeVine notes that Apple is counting on consumers to regard the Apple Watch as something more than a timepiece — as an extension of the iPhone — but according to experts that he interviewed, consumers may need to charge the Apple smartwatch as often as their iPhone. Experts LeVine interviewed project that the Apple Watch will struggle to last a “normal” 16-hour day on a single charge, in a projection in-line with industry expectations that the battery won’t last more than a day. They think that the Apple Watch is likely to include software that regulates the device’s activity in order to conserve the battery, and that could mean that users won’t be able to use all of the device’s functionality at once, or leave the display on. So while all of Apple Watch’s functions — its ability to send and receive messages, answer phone calls, read emails, or use the walkie-talkie or heartbeat functions — will appeal to consumers considering a purchase of Apple’s first smartwatch, it’s likely that the device’s battery won’t be robust enough to enable them to use each of those functions as frequently as they imagine. Apple has conspicuously avoided giving a definitive number of days (or hours) that the battery will last, or addressing how the device will handle the demands of the operating system and its various functions and apps. The experts interviewed by LeVine agreed that the Apple Watch will likely use the same battery material — cobalt oxide — which is used in most laptops, smartphones, and other devices that use lithium-ion batteries. While cobalt oxide is a powerful electrode material, packing more electrons into a small space than its alternatives, the Apple Watch leaves little room for the battery — much less space proportionately than the iPhone. LeVine explains that the most recent lithium-ion cobalt oxide batteries operate at higher voltages than earlier batteries, and Venkat Srinivasan of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab predicts that the Apple Watch will likely use a cobalt oxide battery that operates at 4.35 volts and delivers about 165 milliampere hours per gram. Srinivasan notes that those specifications represent a 22 percent improvement over the performance of the best lithium-ion cobalt-oxide batteries. Shortly after the Apple Watch was unveiled, a former Apple designer told The New York Times that having to recharge the smartwatch daily represents “a hardware-side compromise.” The designer said that “it’s very hard to make big things small,” and explained that the Apple Watch “feels more like it was designed by committee” where the industrial design team gained the upper hand over the team of hardware designers. That kind of push and pull has traditionally resulted in a win by the hardware designers, who would generally prevent devices from being loaded down with more apps and functions than the hardware can practically support. While the hardware and software that Apple has showcased for the first version of its smartwatch are each separately well-designed, usage may show that there’s a mismatch between what the Apple Watch could do if it had more power and what it can practically handle in a day. Re/code’s John Paczkowski reported that Apple isn’t happy with the watch’s battery life, and expects users to need to charge the device daily. Apple spokeswoman Nat Kerris told Re/code that, “We anticipate that people will charge nightly which is why we designed an innovative charging solution that combines our MagSafe technology and inductive charging.” When Brian X. Chen of The New York Times asked Apple chief executive about why consumers will have to wait until after the holidays to buy the watch, Cook implied that the company is still finishing the device — which might or might not result in Apple Watches that ship with battery life longer than a day. If consumers really view the Apple Watch as an extension of the iPhone, they might be more apt to find it acceptable to charge the device every night, as they do with the iPhone. Many of the top smartwatches on research engine FindTheBest feature significantly longer battery life than what the Apple Watch is expected to boast, with a 7-day battery reported for the top-rated Pebble Steel and Pebble Pebble, 6-day battery for the MetaWatch Frame, and 4-day battery for the Sony SmartWatch 2. In March, Canalys analyst Chris Jones told Business Insider that many current smartwatches are built with processors and components that are designed for smartphones and not optimized for wearables. Jones projected at the time that smartwatches would become slimmer and more attractive as internal components are specifically built for smaller devices. He also reported that smartwatches would become more appealing to a broader base of consumers when they offer more functionality — which is exactly what the Apple Watch is able to do. To build a smartwatch that appeals to the masses, Apple has chosen to create a superior device, with functionality beyond the limited fitness focus of many wearables that came before, even at the expense of optimum battery life. While Jones’s final comment to Business Insider — “we’re nowhere near seeing the best of what can be developed out there” — were made months before the launch of the Apple Watch, they should still hold some weight, even for tech enthusiasts who can’t wait to try out the Apple Watch. More from Tech Cheat Sheet: