So Long, Step Count: My Brief and Sad Smartwatch Hiatus

The rash started out as a small cluster of bumps, angry little irritants arriving out of nowhere. Was it poison oak? Hadn’t I touched some gnarly stuff during a recent hike? It never spread beyond my wrist, and over time, the itchy patch went away. Then I put a smartwatch back on my wrist, and the rash reared its red, scaly head again.

Thus began my smartwatch hiatus, after years of wearing some type of Bluetooth-connected thing on my left wrist. I still don’t know what caused the inflammation, and it would be irresponsible to guess. At the time, I had been alternating between a Garmin watch, an Apple Watch, and some bracelets.

I’ve been somewhat addicted to tracking my activity, information that’s interesting to absolutely nobody except me. Entire events—runs, hikes, swims, attempts to surf, walks downtown—don’t feel as valid if they aren’t recorded on my wrist. Or, as my colleague Adrienne So once said, “If a tree falls without a pedometer, did it really happen?”

At the same time, the value of an activity tracker isn’t always proportionate to the burden of one. They all have these damn proprietary chargers, and you have to charge them all the time, and for what? So they can count steps? The more I thought about it, the more I needed a break from wearing a wrist Tamagotchi. Be gone, smartwatch, I thought.

Then I started to really miss it.

My relationship with wearables started in 2011. Back then, the Fitbit Ultra and Jawbone Up were all the rage, pedometers for the modern age thanks to the availability of motion-tracking sensors and Bluetooth chips. An editor assigned me a story about Jawbone, and I became obsessed with this new class of products.

Could these elastomer wrist dongles eventually do more than track steps and offer shoddy estimations of your sleep? Would people be compelled to wear them for longer than a few months before ditching them? Were these wearables even telling us the truth? (For a brief period in 2013, I made a spreadsheet to compare step counts from four different activity trackers, suspecting they all would spit out different numbers during the same one-mile walk. They did.)

When Apple’s long-rumored smartwatch launched in 2015, I flew to New York to retrieve a review unit, then immediately flew back to San Francisco with the not-yet-released product. During the flight I felt like the future was pulsing on my wrist. Sure, the watch hadn’t fit under the barcode scanner at the airport, even though it was supposed to now serve as my boarding pass. And maybe that future flashing on my wrist was just the same green cluster of optical sensors that were in other wrist wearables. But the Apple Watch felt different. It was validation from the world’s most valuable company that wearable technology was a thing.

At first, the Apple Watch didn’t do much to move the needle technologically. It was slow, its battery barely lasted longer than a day, and faltered as a platform for third-party apps. Other smartwatches had (and still have) their own drawbacks. Samsung’s watches run on limited Tizen software. LG’s Watch Sport was comically ill-fitting on my wrist when I tried it. And plenty of smartwatches have found their place firmly in the world of licensed fashion brands: Did you know you could buy a Android Wear-based, Michael Kors-branded rose gold smartwatch named “Bradshaw”? (I couldn’t help but wonder: Was the watch named after the TV character who couldn’t help but wonder?)

But then smartwatches got better. When Apple waterproofed the Apple Watch, it didn’t just seal up ports to keep the water out; it came up with a solution that involves a tiny vibrating component ejecting water from the smartwatch’s speaker. This still blows my mind, not only because I was able to wear my smartwatch in the pool but because it was so delightfully over-engineered. Samsung introduced smartwatches with rotating bezels, so you can either twist the edge of the watch to navigate it, or tap the touchscreen. Rotating bezels aren’t just satisfying to use; they’re a bridge between the old watch world, in which we twist and turn and crank things, and the new watch world, where we so effortlessly swipe.

Crucially, the software improved, too. Apple Watches invite you to “close the rings,” one of the most clever and addictive forms of personal gamification I’ve seen on a wearable. The newest Apple Watch has an ECG app now. Garmin’s smartwatch maps are so advanced that you can access topographic maps on your wrist. You can even stream music from a smartwatch these days. In a few years, smartwatches have gone from dorky wrist computers with middling features to actually useful devices.

It’s been a week and a half since I stopped wearing any kind of smartwatch on my wrist. This marks the first time in years I’ve packed a travel bag without a proprietary smartwatch charger in it, or walked and run and cycled without tracking my activity. I don’t know what my resting heart rate is right now. I’m telling myself this is OK.

Last week, a group of people asked why I like wearing a smartwatch. I started to say that it was for three reasons: fitness tracking, text message notifications, and… what was the third? I forgot the third reason, and I don’t think there is one.

Maybe I really don’t need a smartwatch. Neither do you. Some people might say they need their phones, and that’s understandable. But a smartwatch—even one that purports to give you unique insights into the inner workings of your heart? Not so much.

Still, I want mine back. Sometimes our relationships with our things don’t always make sense. We like some things because even if they require more care and attention than they ever return, you once received that important text message on your wrist at a moment when you really couldn’t look at your phone. We like them because sometime companies over-engineer a feature on a product, and you at least respect the effort. We like them because they’re attached to us, and as a result, we become attached to them.

Is it bizarre that a friend of mine used to adjust the time zone on his Apple Watch so he could gain three more hours in the day and “close the rings” at night? Maybe, but a Facebook addiction would likely make him feel much worse about himself than taking 80 more steps. Is it egocentric that I enjoy looking back at the Garmin maps of places I’ve been and hiked and ran, or that I want to see if my resting heart rate is lower than it was the day before? Sure, but maybe it’s better to creep on your own private info than it is to complete an activity just so you can share it on social.

My rash is almost gone, and I’ve already decided I’m going back to wearing a smartwatch. Maybe in the new year. Maybe my Garmin watch, since its battery lasts so long. Maybe I’ll swap in a different band, just in case.



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Paul Rosen