Apple and Samsung smartwatches need more buttons if they want more athletes

Earlier this week, Samsung announced the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro. This is Samsung’s most durable smartwatch to date and it was clear at Unpacked that the company intended the watch to attract outdoor athletes. Apple also revealed at WWDC that watchOS 9 will have a ton of new running metrics, fueling rumors that a rugged Apple Watch may be on the way. It’s clear that both companies Garmin and Polar are trying to woo users out of the crowd – but aside from battery life and durability, there’s another obstacle that could derail these efforts. Touch Screen.

For better or worse, Apple and Samsung have relied on touchscreen navigation on their smartwatches. This is fine for casual exercise, or for the average person who isn’t going to be in all kinds of areas with extreme temperatures. It’s not going to cut it for the outdoor enthusiasts both companies are aiming for with these “pro” watches.

I’ve been regularly testing the 40mm Galaxy Watch 5, and while it’s not quite the same, the Pro is essentially a bigger, stiffer version of the Watch 5. When it comes to UI, they share similar design DNA. This worries me. In some of the runs I’ve done with the Watch 5 so far, swiping in the middle of the screen has been challenging. That’s because it’s August and as the famous Santana song goes, man, it’s a hot one. My fingers are sweaty and sometimes I need to hit pause so I can re-hydrate. To do this, I have to stop and wipe my hands so that I can swipe right and tap the pause button. Sounds simple enough, but when the humidity is so high that it feels like you’re swimming in soup, it ain’t easy.

New ongoing metrics indicate a stiffer Apple Watch is coming… but it’s unclear whether Apple will dramatically change the design.
Photo by Victoria Song/The Verge

I had the same issue while testing watchOS 9 on my Series 7. You’ll need to swipe up or scroll through the Digital Crown to see all the new ongoing metrics. Several times, I’ve had to pause to successfully swipe through multiple menus to see only one of the new figures. I expected the Digital Crown to be easy to scroll through, but it’s not.

It’s not just a summer problem. If you’re a triathlete, that’s a swimming problem, too. If you work out year-round, it’s an even bigger problem in the winter when you have to wear gloves. I’ve had a lot of “touchscreen-compatible” gloves before, but they’ve never been as reliable on my phone, let alone on my little smartwatch screen.

This is a non-issue when you use a Polar or Garmin sports watch. This is because physical buttons do not fail from moisture or gloves. Once you get used to them, you can flip through menus without looking down unless you absolutely need to. Some also use a combination of touch. And Button control – which is ideal because you can always use the most convenient method for any situation.

Garmin Forerunner 255S on a woman's wrist

The screen may not be as good as on the Garmin Forerunner 255S, but the buttons ensure that I don’t have to worry about sweaty fingers.
Photo by Victoria Song/The Verge

It’s clear that both Apple and Samsung are aware that athletes reward battery life, in-depth metrics, and durability. But it’s less clear whether the company has really thought about why so many outdoor enthusiasts and triathletes would forgo a fancy touchscreen instead of physical controls.

We still don’t know a ton about Apple’s rugged watch. The surrounding details have been kept under wraps quite tightly. But the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro is no secret anymore. It’s out in the world, and it lacks physical control over what it has, so many triathletes have become addicted. Given that, it’s somewhat surprising that Samsung abandoned the rotating bezel for the Pro. (This may be a tradeoff to ensure greater durability.) I’ll have to run more tests, and of course, there are several reasons why you might opt ​​for a more advanced flagship smartwatch over a dedicated multisport GPS watch. But these days, whenever I try to swipe on a Watch 5 or Series 7 with my sweaty digits, I often wish I was wearing my Garmin instead.

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