Are round smartwatches terribly impractical? Why the rectangular Apple Watch makes way more sense

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Round vs square smartwatches
When it comes to smartwatches and their design in particular, there are two diverging and contradicting paths that can be taken: one is the more traditional, circular design that's essentially most people's first association for a regular "watch", while the other train of thought encompasses all other possible watch designs, including rectangular and square ones.

Just a brief look at the smartwatch scene today shows that most smartwatches rely on the round form factor, whereas Apple is the sole major smartwatch maker to “stubbornly” set itself apart with its rectangular Apple Watch timepieces. Ironically, the Apple Watch is actually the most popular smartwatch in the world, so Apple is obviously doing something right.

What could that be? While most people’s first association with a watch is a more desirable and fashionable choice, mostly stemming from tradition, the classic form factor might not be the best suited one for smartwatches in particular.

Here goes a probably controversial opinion that rectangular smartwatches akin to the Apple Watch are much better suited for their intended purposes in comparison with the more traditional round smartwatches that we’ve grown accustomed to over time. There’s a key reason why Apple relies on the rectangular form factor and hasn’t come up with a classy dress smartwatch, and it has a lot to do with efficiency and the way we consume content on our wrists.

But before we take a look forward, we need to take a step back and explore why watches are the way they are.

Classical watch design: A brief history

Or why round stuck around

From the very get-go, pocket watches and wrist watches were conceived with a round form factor. While modern watches are round in order to pay homage to the traditional circular design, the very first compact timepieces were circular for a set of very mundane and practical reasons.

It was efficiency and practicality that made the first watches round, as all the dials, knobs and elements inside were also round, so it made sense for the watchmakers of olden times to use the most rational form factor.

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What many consider to be the very first wristwatch, the Breguet No. 2639, was created by Abraham-Louis Breguet for Caroline Murat, the Queen of Naples, in 1812, was certainly a round one. Despite that it’s irreversibly lost to history, this timepiece can anecdotally be perceived as the "smartwatch" of the early 19th century, as it even had a thermometer on board (and the thermometers on the latest Samsung smartwatches are still non-functional as of late October 2022).

Less than a hundred years ago, in 1926, Rolex came out with the legendary Rolex Oyster, widely regarded as the first fully-tight, hermetically-sealed wristwatch that's both waterproof and dustproof. Yet, evidence exists about waterproof pocket watches from all the way back to 1851, when a W Pettit waterproof watch was displayed at the Great Exhibition in London. But we digress. Can you guess what form factor both the Oyster and the W Pettit watches had? Don't let your imagination run too wild, both were classic round smartwatches, but there's another reason for that, and it has everything to do with pressure.

See, the circular shape of the glass allows watches to be made water-resistant as it can be screwed tight onto the case. Another important consequence of using round glass is that the latter has just a single arc with no corners, which spreads any potential pressure all along the edge, making it more stress-resistant. If you introduce a, say, square-shaped glass, it will have four corners that are potential weak points. This is one of the reasons most deep-diving vessels and submarines still have windows with circular corners. The same applies to jets and other aircraft as well.

Interestingly, even though the concept of a circular wristwatch predates rectangular timepieces, some of the first popular watches were actually rectangular-shaped.

In fact, one of the very first modern wrist watches that didn't employ a traditional round form factor was created in 1904 by famed jeweler Louis Cartier (yes, the Cartier) for Alberto Santos-Dumont, a pioneer of sustained flight and aeronautics, who complained that it's difficult to check his pocket watch in flight. See, it was cumbersome to fiddle around in his pockets while carefully maneuvering an unreliable flying apparatus; there were no autopilot systems back then. 

Cartier's answer was a rectangular watch with leather straps and exposed screws that snuggly fit on the wearer's wrist. More than a hundred years later, the Santos de Cartier is still a legendary line of wristwatches that pairs its timeless design with a super-premium build (and an exclusive price tag to match, of course). 

Smartwatch design needs to prioritize function over form…

… and rectangular is the way to go!

So, we established that traditional watches were round for a slew of reasons. Shouldn't we apply the same rules to smartwatches? Absolutely!

Putting form over function is the polar opposite of what classic watchmakers initially went for, so it would be a mistake to blindly follow into their footsteps just for the sake of tradition and habit. Smartwatches should absolutely adopt the most efficient form factor for their main intended purpose, which is not only to tell the time, but also allow the user to interact with notifications, use full-blown apps, and so much more.


And what's one thing that's universally true of almost any smart platform or operating system in use today? Almost all intended and optimized for rectangular or rectangular displays (even though corners aren't necessarily 90-degree ones), and that's what humans in the modern era are most familiar with. Smartwatches, as extensions of our phones, have to conveniently display similar types of content, like messages, notifications, and various snippets of info, presenting the maximum amount of information at a glance due to the limited screen space.

Although some smartwatch manufacturers (like Samsung) are doing a relatively good job at trying to make their interfaces play nice with the round displays of their devices, it's still impossible to beat the efficiency of a predominantly rectangular display, such as the one on an Apple Watch. The reason is simple—a rectangular screen will display content intended for rectangular displays way more efficiently than a round one, with less unused blank space.

Not saying the Apple Watch does things the best, there are many aspects of the interface that could certainly be improved.

A brief example, if you may.

Both screenshots above are taken from two rather similar modern smartwatches, a 44mm Apple Watch Series 7 and a 44mm Galaxy Watch 5. Despite doing its best to make do with the interface of its smartwatch, at the end of the day the constraints of the circular screen on its wearable ultimately show way less data than the mostly rectangular-shaped display of the Apple Watch, which gives you a much better idea what upcoming events you have in your calendar, and how long these would take.

And here's another example that ironically proves the opposite: you can design a good circular UI on a rectangular smartwatch and show more data than a round watch with an interface that's not designed in an optimal way.

The stock Weather Apple Watch app in the first screenshot uses a circular interface and ironically shows way more data in a single screen than the stock weather app of the Galaxy Watch, which requires two and even three total screens to showcase the upcoming weather (the Apple Watch goes eleven hours ahead, while the Galaxy Watch shows you 8 hours ahead across two separate screens).

Finally, there's usually some content cut-off with round smartwatches. Yes, an unpleasant matter, but a real one. As you swipe up and down, only the content in the middle of the screen will be perfectly legible and clear, while elements at the top and bottom will be cut off from the screen, requiring more interactions with the wearable. In comparison, no such problem exists with rectangular watches like the Apple Watch—if it’s on the display, it’s perfectly legible at all times. Here’s another example; notice how the Apple Watch shows you your sleep stages, while the round Google Pixel Watch gives you insight about your “eep session”. Sure, a swipe down will reveal the full extent of the text, but why bother when things can be so much easier—and more intuitive.

While it’s universally true that “beauty lies in the eye of the beholder”, thus what’s good for me might not be as good for you, or vice versa, it’s hard to argue with the fact that most interfaces we interact on a daily basis are better suited for rectangular displays, smartwatches included.

There’s zero reason for modern smartwatches to be round: none of the hardware inside requires this form factor in particular, there are no round dials, knobs, and what have you. The only reason why round smartwatches took off was hardware manufacturers’ desire to come up with a familiar and friendly design to bridge the gap between the old and new.

I’ve used both round and rectangular smartwatches, and even though I have no issues wearing a Galaxy Watch 5, for example, using the Apple Watch certainly feels like a way more complete and pleasing experience, with the interface layout and overall form factor playing no small part in this overall satisfaction of mine.

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