What Apple See as Its Secret Weapon in the Smartwatch Wars

Processors may be getting faster, but battery tech has lagged behind.

February 3, 2014, 3:16 PM
PHOTO: The Apple logo is illuminated in the entrance to the Fifth Avenue Apple store, in New York, Nov. 20, 2013.
The Apple logo is illuminated in the entrance to the Fifth Avenue Apple store, in New York, Nov. 20, 2013.
Mark Lennihan/AP Photo

Feb. 3, 2014— -- Samsung made big news when it released its smartwatch, the Galaxy Gear, in late 2013. However, much of that news focused on the watch's flaws, especially its short battery life.

It appears Apple is trying to avoid Samsung's missteps when it releases its own smartwatch, expected later this year, paying particularly close attention to the battery.

The New York Times reports that Apple has hired engineers that specialize in battery design from companies such as Tesla and Toyota. The computer company has also experimented with different methods of powering the smartwatch, from a wireless charging station that uses magnetic fields to a layer of solar cells embedded in the watch face in order to generate electricity.

Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, said that if any company wants a successful smartwatch, they need to meet customers' expectations of a good battery life. "It's not an optional element," he told ABC News. "The expectation is that it has to last at least a week, or something similar to an e-reader's battery life."

Unlike the processor innards of smartphones and tablets that have gotten faster and more energy efficient, the batteries that power those devices have remained stagnant for the most part. Bart Bartlett, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan, said that the difficulty stems from incorporating the hard and brittle materials that give a battery power into a flexible design. "If I want [solar cells] in a watch, there's not a lot of space to pack the battery materials in," he said.

Apple did not initially respond to ABC News' request for comment.

In addition to figuring out how to make a battery smaller, Bartlett said that there are safety concerns that need to be met. "You need to see how much heat the batter puts out or what happens if the battery casing breaks," he said. "There's a test where we take a nail gun and fire it at the battery. It's a little like a crash test."

But the success of a smartwatch, whether it belongs to Apple, Samsung or any other tech giant, won't depend on battery life alone.

"Putting something on your body is the most personal that computing can get, so the tech industry needs to align with the fashion industry to be really successful," said Moorhead. "The smartwatch market also won't take off until the devices hit $99 [or less]."

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