Price of round displays will make or break Moto 360's mainstream success

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Android Wear wowed the wearables world Tuesday, but Motorola’s implementation of the Google smartwatch OS might be almost as impressive. In a mobile world defined by rectangular displays, the Moto 360 is defined by a breathtaking circular screen that exudes gadget-cool. But many questions still remain: How will consumers react to the unique interface challenges of a circular display? And will a high cost of manufacturing saddle the Moto 360 with a prohibitively high price tag? Let’s dig in…

Rounding up

The Moto 360 isn’t the first device with a circular display: Motorola’s Aura feature phone also went circular with its display, but the Aura was billed as a premium device that came in at a staggering $2000. At least part of that added cost came from getting the display into a circular form factor.

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The Moto 360 looks sharp, but there are some challenges to making a device with a circular form factor.

Both LG and Toshiba have made circular displays in the past, but the Moto 360 demands more from the display than a unique shape. The display must also support full touch functionality and have a high pixel density to account for the device’s curves. Even getting to the right shape could drive up the Moto 360’s production costs, as many manufacturers may not have the technology to cut LCD panels into circles, which may result in added equipment costs for Motorola.

To succeed in the wearables market, Motorola would need a watch priced at $300 or less if it’s going to push a lot of units. Is this price point realistic based on the design features Motorola is hoping to put in the final product? According to Paul Gray, director of TV electronics and Europe TV research for NPD’s DisplaySearch, the final display cost will “depend hugely on how industrialized the manufacturer is and how well [the order] fits with existing product flows.” But Gray told TechHive that the circular form factor likely wouldn’t add significant costs compared to the small OLED displays used in today’s smartwatches.

So what does Gray think the final price will be for the Moto 360? He's thinking $500 or more. That's based on Motorola’s ads that show components Grays says “are whispering quality, craftsmanship and value.”

Motorola has kept the Moto 360’s pricing close to its chest. And that’s going to continue until we’re close to device’s summer 2014 launch. When asked for comment on pricing, Motorola PR was coy about giving a direct answer, but confirmed to us that the Moto 360 will be available “at a very competitive price.” That suggests we may see pricing in line with Samsung’s Galaxy Gear at $300, though Motorola would have a tough time driving the cost below that level.

Making the case for a round smartwatch

Assuming that wearable devices with round displays can be just as cost-effective as squared ones, the round smartwatch could emerge as the ideal form factor for wrist-worn wearables. As someone who has worn both squared and circular watches, I found that round devices are both more comfortable to wear and look better than squared ones. Motorola went out of its way to make this point in its Google Hangout Wednesday, noting that squared devices tend to poke into your wrist bones and create an uncomfortable experience.

Of course, the round form factor faces its own set of challenges. By their nature, circular displays cut off the corners of content and multimedia since most content is formatted for square or rectangular displays. To mitigate this, the OS powering the device must account for the limitations of the form factor, creating an experience that fits the circular display. The Aura’s OS didn’t do this, and several reviewers noted that navigating the Aura UI was an unpleasant experience and a waste of the Aura’s gorgeous display.

In an early look at Android Wear OS, Google appears to be getting it right by pushing content that makes sense to digest on the smaller smartwatch displays in a way that is visually appealing regardless of a device’s shape. In fact, Motorola claims that you actually get more viewable surface area with the 360, since the display is both taller and wider than traditional squared screens.

android wear interface

Using the Android Wear emulator, we found that a curved display (left) squeezes in a bit more information that what you’d see on a square screen.

Yes, rounded displays will still cut off the edges of contact pictures, for example, but Google Plus users will already be accustomed to that, and it doesn’t really detract from the overall experience. In our time with the Android Wear emulator, we confirmed that the curved displays provided a bit more information than the squared ones, which, when coupled with the added comfort and more polished look of such devices, makes a compelling case for the round form factor.

Circle gets the square?

Should the manufacturing process actually yield cost-effective Android wearables as Motorola and DisplaySearch contend, the Moto 360 may well usher in a new era of rounded wrist-worn devices. The UI experience is certainly preferable, at least in emulator form. And the added comfort and elegance of a circular time piece suggest that this form factor could win out in the end.

This story, "Price of round displays will make or break Moto 360's mainstream success" was originally published by TechHive.

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