The new year is now upon us, and it’s time to look forward to 2021, which is set to be another big one for wearables.
The madness of the pandemic has put more focus on wearables helping us monitor our health, fitness and keeping us better connected.
And companies like Apple, Samsung and Fitbit – as well as emerging players like Huami and Huawei – are pushing smartwatches further into their roles as health and fitness devices.
We’ve come up with 21 big predictions of what we think is going to go down in the wearable industry – and grab the headlines – over the next 12 months.
If you’ve been paying close attention, news of Google’s acquisition of Fitbit was announced at the tail end of 2019 and in 2020 the deal remained under scrutiny by regulatory bodies.
As things currently stand, the EU has approved the deal, but there’s no details on getting the all-important green light in the US.
We expect the deal to finally be approved in 2021, which will mean turning our attention to just what this means for Google’s smartwatches.
Wear OS needs a serious shot in the arm and while talk of a flagship Pixel watch was more muted in 2020, a flagship smartwatch pulling in Google and Fitbit’s expertise still feels like something that’s on the cards.
The big G may have already started making moves after it put in a large order of processors with Samsung, with the capacity to capture body movement via sensors.
Neither Google nor Fitbit have been standing still in waiting for the deal to get over the line to start these conversations of what a future Google smartwatch powered by Fitbit will look like.
The presence of Google Assistant on Fitbit’s latest smartwatches is a clear indication of that. Now should be the time to show us what a Fitbit and Google smartwatch union looks like on the hardware front too.
In 2020, Huami hit double figures for smartwatch launches. It gave us multiple versions of its budget-tastic Bip, a watch built for the outdoors named after a dinosaur, and also its GTR 2 and GTS 2 ‘fashion’ watch duo.
In 2021, we don’t expect any slow down with the Amazfit watch launches, but what we do think is that we will see those smartwatches behave more like smartwatches. With the GTR 2 and GTS 2, we got smart assistants, music players and the ability to handle calls. These features, while not perfect, were a start to offering a more rounded experience. We expect these features to get better, which would bring it more into the conversation with Fitbit’s and Google’s Wear OS watch clan.
Huami has already shown it can offer strong fitness tracking features and attractive watch designs, so 2021 will be about making the kind of improvements that will make Amazfit’s wearables a better alternative to what Fitbit, Google, Samsung and others are offering up. We think Huami is up to making that happen.
3. A new wave of LTE watches
Outside of Apple and Samsung, smartwatches with the ability to leave behind your smartphone have been slim pickings – especially with Wear OS.
In 2020, that changed with the emergence of the TicWatch Pro 3 LTE and the Oppo Watch adding 4G connectivity.
But progress made by chipset makers like Qualcomm and its Snapdragon 4100+ platform have opened the door to better support for LTE.
There should be more Wear OS watches that offer the functionality, but we could also see the feature start to creep into sports watches too.
Garmin has already demonstrated the ability to include the extra connectivity with its Vivoactive 3 watch in 2019, but 2021 may be prime time for a Fenix or Forerunner LTE watch.
We wouldn’t rule out an Amazfit watch offering something similar now that it’s making bigger waves outside of China.
Ultimately, more smartwatches that are less reliant on your phone are coming. We can feel it.
4. SpO2 2.0
In 2020 the SpO2 sensor found its way into nearly every new smartwatch, from budget models such as the Huawei Watch GT 2e to the Apple Watch Series 6.
While this gives people the ability to tap into their blood oxygen levels on demand, usefulness has been a secondary thought.
Often, the data is accompanied by disclaimers that these sensors, and the insights they generate, are for fitness and wellness purposes only.
Some budget devices won’t use the SpO2 sensor automatically, which seriously undermines its usefulness, and SpO2 has often been a buzzword to add to spec sheets because it’s a cheap and easy addition, rather than a well-implemented health feature.
What’s more, in cases where SpO2 has been added thoughtfully, the likes of Fitbit and Apple have been unable to alert users to serious health conditions such as sleep apnea. The data is there, but it’s up to users to make sense of it.
In 2021 we expect SpO2 data to be used for health monitoring purposes.The COVID pandemic has put SpO2 in the spotlight, and Fitbit has released a study that’s linked data from its blood oxygen sensor to early signs of COVID (and other respiratory) infection.
Now it’s time to get these sensors working to give users actionable and useful insights into their health and wellbeing.
5. Huawei’s first Harmony OS watch
Huawei has already confirmed that its open source operating system will feature inside smartwatches, so it seems 2021 will be the year of the Huawei Harmony OS smartwatch.
Set to build on the progress it’s made with bringing Lite OS to its most recent smartwatches since stepping away from Google’s Wear OS operating system, details have been scarce on what to expect from a Huawei smartwatch packing Harmony OS.
Alleged footage of how the device would operate was captured at Huawei’s Developer conference. It showed features like the user interface and screens for SpO2, heart rate and activity tracking.
We expect the first watch to land in 2021 and it will likely embrace the same attractive design we’ve already seen on the Watch GT 2 Pro, 2e and the newer Porsche Design model.
The big question is how high or low Huawei will go with the price. It’s offered smartwatches at both the affordable and high ends, so will it class having Harmony OS in your life a luxury? We are intrigued to find out.
6. watchOS 8 to dig deeper into sleep
It’s pretty much a given that watchOS 8 will drop in 2021, but we can be less certain of just what it’ll be packing.
In watchOS 7 the headline feature was undoubtedly the native sleep tracking app – something Apple Watch users have been asking for for sometime. You can now set up sleep schedules, check sleep consistency and focus on time spent in bed and asleep.
It’s fair to say that if you compare what Apple offers in the way of sleep tracking to the likes of Fitbit or even sports watches from companies like Garmin or Polar, it lacks detail.
We anticipate that that will change with watchOS, and we’d bet that Apple will take sleep tracking in its own direction. We’d love to see a sleep ring, or goals for sleep consistency. You don’t need loads of data points to get better sleep, you just need actionable and easy-to-understand targets. We’d wager Apple will drill down into sleep consistency to help Apple Watch users sleep better, rather than double down on data.
7. Temperature takers
Fitbit was the first smartwatch to track temperature, and we’re betting it won’t be the last in 2021.
Changes in body temperature are one of the clearest indications of a fever, illness or the start of a new menstrual phase – so we’d expect to see rival devices follow suit.
We’ve already seen Huami unveil its Amazfit GTR 2e and GTS 2e smartwatches with temperature tracking, and it shouldn’t be surprising that the likes of Apple and Samsung are looking at bringing temperature tracking into the fold too.
At a time when having the ability to monitor health is more important than ever, wearables continue to step up to play their part.
Temperature tracking looks to be the next big health sensor trend to be ushered in.
8. Battle of the budget smartwatches
Amazfit, Xiaomi, Realme, Redmi, TicWatch. There’s a real smartwatch war brewing and it’s got nothing to do with Apple or Samsung.
Cheap smartwatches have been around for some time, but what changed in 2020 is that they got good enough to recommend. Yes, you do have to make compromises in areas, but by and large these smartwatches that can cost less than £100 are proving to be decent alternatives.
The £69.99 Amazfit Bip S was named the Affordable Smartwatch of the Year in the Wareable Tech Awards.
And 2021 will be the year of the truly budget smartwatch, We will see the Bip U, Xiaomi Mi Watch Lite, Realme Watch S and Wyze Watch, all available in the first quarter – and all for less than £100.
The bigger question is what this will do to the rest of the smartwatch market. Apple already responded with a cheaper Apple Watch SE – but we’d expect to see Fitbit and Samsung in particular get sucked into this price war.
9. More Swatch hybrid smartwatches
We waited a long time for the Swatch Group’s riposte to the Apple Watch, after referring to the smartwatch a gimmick on its arrival. Its first smartwatch to run its own custom built operating system was the Tissot T-Touch Connect Solar, a hybrid smartwatch that keeps those smarts basic.
There are many brands that fall under the Swatch Group umbrella, including the likes of Omega, Hamilton and Blancpain. It’s highly likely that if Swatch is serious about joining the connected watch party, it’ll be putting its proprietary SwALPS (Swiss Autonomous Low Power System) operating system inside more watches from its brands.
Based on what the Connect Solar served up, as a first showcase for its OS, there’s still a fair bit of convincing to do that it can offer something distinctly different, unique and groundbreaking compared to what we’ve seen from smartwatches and hybrid smartwatches so far.
10. OnePlus smartwatch (finally)
2021 should be the year we finally see a smartwatch from OnePlus, which has seemingly been in the works since 2014.
But now it’s a dead cert after CEO Pete Lau confirmed a OnePlus smartwatch is happening.
So what can we expect? We know it will (most probably) run on Google’s Wear OS, and that OnePlus has worked closely with Google to improve its smartwatch operating system.
We have no indication of what we can expect from the hardware design, though OnePlus does belong to the same BBK Electronics group that also owns Oppo and Realme.
We may well see something inspired by the smartwatches we’ve seen from those fellow Chinese tech companies.
The reception for Realme and Oppo’s watches will no doubt have given OnePlus more confidence that it can launch something worth waiting for. That wait should surely be nearly over.
11. Fossil Gen 6 smartwatches
The Fossil Group usually props up the batch of Wear OS watches that launch over the year. It’s worked pretty much like clockwork, unveiling its flagship watch that then filters into brands like Michael Kors, Diesel and Emporio Armani.
Except Fossil Gen 6 didn’t drop in 2020. Instead we saw Fossil Gen 5E watches emerge as cheaper alternatives to its Gen 5 watches. It also focused on making its own improvements to software outside of Google’s. Most notably, some much welcomed health and fitness features.
So it looks like Gen 6 has been pushed to this year instead. That may have given Fossil more time to make more software improvements, hopefully making use of Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon Wear 4100+ platform to offer an improve battery performance.
All while making watches that still stand out as some of the most stylish you can find running on Google’s operating system.
12. Personal trainer sports watches
Garmin, Polar and the rest of the sports watch fraternity have become pretty adept at collecting our data, whether that’s swims, runs, rides or even indoor workouts too. The next logical move has always been to make that data more actionable.
Understandably, that’s not an easy task, but it does seem that Polar and Garmin particularly have made big strides in how they’re interpreting not just tracked exercise, but factors like sleep and monitoring your heart rate too.
We’ve already seen with Polar’s great FitSpark feature, and Garmin’s acquisition of heart analytics firm Firstbeat, that there’s been a greater effort to look at your data and tell you when you should train, how you should train and what training you should do.
This idea that your watch, be it a Polar or a Samsung Galaxy, can be your personal coach, has been something of a Holy Grail of wearables.
Expect to see more on this through 2021.
13. Fitbit kids smartwatch
Making smartwatches for the little ones could be the next big battleground for smartwatch makers, and Fitbit looks to have its sights set on launching a kids smartwatch.
While still yet to be confirmed by Fitbit, reports that it acquired Chinese smartwatch brand Doki Technologies emerged in early 2020.
The company has launched several kids smartwatches, with 4G, video calling and location tracking among the features on offer.
Fitbit has already launched two kids fitness trackers with the Fitbit Ace and Ace 2, though with moves by Apple to offer more child-friendly features on its latest smartwatches, it looks like Fitbit may be considering similar action.
Whether this will be impacted by the Google and Fitbit hold-up, it’s obviously not entirely clear, but a Fitbit kids smartwatch would make sense. It’s already proved it can make family-friendly devices, so if it can make something in the Versa mould for children it could be a smart move.
14. Samsung turns on ECG and blood pressure on more smartwatches
Samsung has been trying to level up with Apple in offering more in the way of serious health monitoring features. It introduced an ECG sensor on its Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2, which also featured on its Galaxy Watch 3.
The problem is that getting those features live takes time, as well as the regulatory approval needed for wearers to start benefitting from the data they generate.
So far, that ECG support has been cleared in Korea and the US, but we expect other countries and territories to follow in 2021 too.
That also applies to the blood pressure monitoring support, which is something of a USP for consumer smartwatches.
Samsung’s approach works by calibrating the watch with a dedicated blood pressure monitor before you can start taking more reliable readings without it through its compatible watches.
Again though, it’s only been cleared to be used in Korea. No doubt there are plenty of Samsung Galaxy Watch owners across the globe that want to use this feature too. This may be Samsung’s opportunity to finally make that happen.
15. AirPods Pro 2
Apple’s stubbier, more feature-rich truly wireless buds are over a year old and while we are still big fans, an upgrade seems to be on the cards for 2021.
According to Bloomberg, and the insiders it’s spoken to, the new Pros will ditch the stem for a design that’s similar to most truly wireless earbuds. That would mean ditching the controls packed into those stems and perhaps adding a new control system.
We can expect noise cancellation powers to still be on board, plus access to features like spatial audio for a more immersive listening experience.
So what else could we see? We think one detail that may have been overlooked with the arrival of iOS 14 was a new AirPods Pro Motion API. This API enables developers to use motion and head tracking collected by the Pro, which could be used for fitness and gaming applications.
With Apple Fitness+ now launched, there’s every chance Apple will start to factor in new AirPods Pro to enhance the workout experience.
16. Google makes AR glasses comeback
Google was the first big tech name to give consumer AR glasses a try and ultimately it didn’t work. While Glass lives on in the workplace, Google’s ambitions to give things another go have been relatively quiet.
That is until it moved to buy Canadian startup North, whose Focals augmented reality glasses were a far cry from the look of Glass.
The team from North joined Google and work to launch the second generation of Focals was shelved.
While the glasses weren’t perfect, they were one of the most promising consumer AR smartglasses so far.
With North having already proved it can get glasses out there that work, this could speed up Google’s return to a space they first tried to conquer.
With Apple, Facebook and Samsung seemingly prepping specs too, Google has the experience and the expertise to make its vision of smartglasses work better at the second attempt.
17. Fast charge comes to the rescue
Smartwatch still has a battery problem. Yes, there are watches that are capable of going for weeks, but for the likes of Apple, Samsung and most Google Wear OS-packing watches, we’re still looking at mere days of battery life.
The idea of a self-powered Apple Watch or Samsung Galaxy Watch still feels like a long way away. Until then, the solution to frequent charging is to make it faster to power it back up.
Both Fitbit and Oppo introduced fast charging support for their newest smartwatches, quickly giving you a day’s play with 10-15 minutes spent on charge.
Apple and Samsung have made huge strides with charging support for their other devices, while Google Wear OS partner Qualcomm has been flexing its fast charging skills with smartphones too.
If these more power intensive smartwatches aren’t capable of going the distance, adding fast charging technology will make sure you can top up quickly when you realise you’re running low.
18. Wear OS 3.0
Google has been making very minor updates and tweaks to its smartwatch platform, so it feels long overdue for a proper overhaul. It was 2017 when Android Wear 2.0 marked the first major update to the OS since its launch in 2014.
In the three years since, Google has been trying to pull itself more into the smartwatch conversation, with Apple and the likes of Samsung and Fitbit offering more stable software surroundings for its hardware. All while Google is merely tweaking widgets and adding weather apps.
Google’s impending acquisition may well be a major factor in why it’s not yet dropped a full blown update for Wear OS, but it simply can’t afford to wait.
As hardware partners like Mobvoi experiment with smartwatches that ditch Google’s software, and the likes of Oppo and Fossil start taking software update matters into their hands, Google will need to keep companies on board and show that Google’s smartwatch vision is one to stick with.
19. Spotify offline sync on Apple Watch
We’ve got a Spotify Apple Watch app and it’s great. It now has the ability to stream your music and podcasts over LTE and Wi-Fi, and that’s great too.
But what the Spotify Premium members and Watch owners really want is a feature that has so far evaded Apple’s smartwatch – and that’s the ability to sync playlists for offline use.
It’s a feature that’s still only available on Samsung Galaxy Watches and Garmin’s compatible watches. Spotify hasn’t been shy to reveal its struggles in the past to even make an Apple Watch app.
With the recent added streaming support, it feels like the tide is turning and it feels like a good time for that Spotify offline syncing to finally land.
20. Facebook AR glasses
2020 was touted as the big year for AR glasses – and the year that was rumored to see the arrival of Apple’s AR glasses. They never showed. In 2021, the rumor mill will go be back into overdrive that Apple will finally make its move, but we already know one big name that’s ready to launch specs and that’s Facebook.
Zuckerberg and co have already announced Facebook is going to be launching its first pair of augmented reality glasses, collaborating with luxury brand Luxottica to launch Ray-Ban branded eyewear.
Facebook hasn’t talked specifics, but has teased the kinds of things the Facebook Ray-Ban glasses will be capable of.
Think of glasses that will help you find misplaced items or navigate environments. We’re pegging this one for later in 2021, likely around Facebook’s Connect developer event.
21. Amazon’s next wearable play
Amazon entered the wearable fray in 2019 with a smart ring, smartglasses and a hearable. Its Echo Loop smart ring is being shelved, while its Echo Frame specs look set to stick around for a while longer.
Its Echo Buds continue to get improved powers including the ability to track workouts, while 2020 also gave us the Halo, a wrist-worn wearable that listens to your voice to gauge your mood.
Bezos and company have made their intentions clear. Amazon firmly wants a piece of the wearable action and voice will be at the heart of how it will try and find its way closer to your body.
So where does it go next? We think a second generation set of Echo Buds is a safe bet, and while the Halo feels like one of the most invasive wearables ever made, it’s likely it will try to showcase how its forward-thinking Labs feature could be put to even better use.