Aside from seeing the name go from Android Wear to Wear OS, not much has changed about Android-powered smartwatches over the past couple years. But one being announced today is trying to introduce a twist: Mobvoi’s TicWatch Pro comes with a second screen that sits on top of the smartwatch’s main display. Both screens aren’t used at once; instead, the main display will switch off to save power, letting the low-power top display remain on and present the time. If you get really low on battery, Mobvoi says you can turn off most of the smart features and coast for days using the second display.
Here’s how it works: The core of the TicWatch Pro is a standard fare Wear OS smartwatch. It’s kind of chunky, and it can make NFC payments, track your steps, and monitor your heart rate. The twist is that Mobvoi has placed an FSTN LCD display on top of the OLED display that’s used to show Wear OS. This is a transparent display, like the ones you’re used to seeing on clocks, old electronics, and cheap digital watches. So when the display is off, it doesn’t get in the way of the main smartwatch interface.
Mobvoi has set the watch up so that when it isn’t actively being used — when you manually turn the display off, or when it’s sitting on your wrist untouched — the TicWatch Pro will display the time and some other information (like fitness info or your heart rate) using the low-power display. It’s not a beautiful screen, but it’s not out of the ordinary for watches, either. Then when you interact with the watch again, the top display will switch off, the bottom display will switch on, and you’ll be back running Wear OS and able to see your notifications again. Using the watch this way, Mobvoi estimates two days of battery life.
There’s one other big feature Mobvoi has enabled using this second screen: something it calls “Essential Mode.” When you activate Essential Mode, the Wear OS portion of the watch entirely shuts itself off, so that you only have the top display. While you’re in that state, the watch can still handle some smart tasks, including your step count and heart rate (some other features are supposed to be added later on). If you want to do anything that requires Wear OS — like making mobile payments or getting notifications — you’ll have to fully boot the OS up again. This takes a full minute.
It’s nice that Mobvoi is trying to find different ways to tackle smartwatches’ battery life problems. In normal use, at least, this approach doesn’t seem particularly disruptive and might even make the watch look like a more traditional digital timepiece.
But I’m not convinced that Mobvoi is really solving a problem here. At this point, most watches are fine at lasting through a single day — two is nice, but realistically you’re still going to drop this in the charger every night. And while the Essential Mode is supposed to allow for up to 30 days of usage, it’s not quick to flip back and forth between the modes, and you miss out on some of the core functions of smartwatches in using it. The second display primarily seems like a neat trick that’ll help extend battery life in daily use. Otherwise, it’s a pretty standard watch with all of Wear OS’s existing problems.
The TicWatch Pro isn’t actually the first smartwatch to experiment with a dual display setup. Casio tried this with its Smart Outdoor Watch two years ago, but it took a different approach — the display was there more as an option, so you could use it as a hiking watch one day and a smartwatch the next; you couldn’t run both at once and flip between them.
Mobvoi is an AI and voice company based in China that’s expanded into consumer electronics and has been trying to break into the US market over the past few years. It’s mostly been making smartwatches, and they’ve mostly been pretty cheap. (Most recently, it announced a pair of AirPod clones.)
This new watch is expected to be a bit more expensive, but Mobvoi says it’ll still sell for under $300. It’s supposed to launch sometime this summer, and there’s a possibility of an LTE version coming to the US as well.