Deep inside the smart Swiss watches that challenge Apple Watch with analog panache

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I also learned more about Fullpower’s alarm hardware. I had assumed it used a haptic motor to buzz owners when it’s time to wake up, but Fullpower says that would have led to excessive battery drain. So instead they went with a piezo speaker. The one installed inside current prototype watches is rather weak, and probably wouldn’t wake up heavy sleepers. But they also demoed a revised speaker that doubles volume. Now, this one is loud.

swiss smartwatch alpina emboss back Jon Phillips

The embossing on the back of this Alpina tells a story that the far-east smartwatch manufacturers just can’t match.

The company was much more cagey when it came to discussing its module technology. I wasn’t allowed to see PCBs in the raw, and when I asked Kahn how his company achieves more than two years of battery life on a Bluetooth-laden watch, he told me I would need an advanced mathematics degree to understand Fullpower’s secrets, and even then he’d need two hours to explain all the power-saving techniques.

But at least I got a tidbit of technical intrigue from VP of Technology Arthur Kinsolving, who explained the Fullpower module also powers the watch’s moving hands. “It’s a drop-in module that has everything. There are four motors controlling the hands. It’s old-school Swiss technology. We get the data sheet for these motors, and it looks like it’s been handed down through generations.”

The death of activity-tracking wristbands?

When the first MMT watches arrive in June, they’ll land in a curious position between full-bore activity-tracking wristbands and full-bore luxury wristwatches. Ironically, I had been wearing a Jawbone UP24 wristband precisely because it paired nicely, from an aesthetic standpoint, with my TAG Heuer Formula 1. But now the latest-generation Jawbone UPs have taken a step backward in the style department—sorry, I’m not a fan of the new look—and they no longer use Fullpower’s algorithms.

The upshot: If I were willing to ditch the TAG Heuer, I could buy an MMT watch and kill two use cases with a single band.

swiss smartwatch alpina case Jon Phillips

Smart Swiss watches: Loaded with gravitas, and intended to last more than one lifetime.

But activity-tracking and sumptuous analog watch faces only check off two boxes on my wearables checklist. If the Swiss watch companies added notifications, then all my requirements would be met. Citizen has already tried to deliver notifications to an analog dial via its Eco-Drive Proximity watch, but by all accounts it’s a clumsy effort. Perhaps MMT can somehow solve the puzzle.

For instance: The Swiss could add a second complication with 12 markers, each one denoting a personal contact. When the hand of the notification’s dial sweeps to the first marker, you know your sweetheart has sent a text. Press the crown button once to reply that you’re busy, but will text back soon. A second button press might send a heart-shaped emoji—rendered with elegant Swiss flair.

This is all just whimsical what-if-ing, and I’m not even in love with my own idea. But Kahn promises these are just first-generation watches, and more features will come down the road. That’s the whole point of modules that can be replaced as easily as watch batteries.

Now we just wait to see whether consumers are ready to replace their activity-tracking wristbands—and Android Wear watches and Apple Watches—with smart Swiss timepieces. Without a certain degree of consumer momentum, it’s unlikely this particular take on the smartwatch will be perpetually iterated with ever-evolving modules, as Kahn confidently asserts.

Nonetheless, which watch would you still be wearing two, three or even five years from now—the first-gen Apple Watch, one of today’s Android Wear watches, or one of these Swiss activity-tracking watches? With timeless beauty and at least the ability to be upgraded, these timepieces clearly have the most staying power.

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