Teardown: Moto 360’s shape forces design compromises

May 27, 2015 // By Brian Dipert, EDN
In all the recent hype about Apple's Watch line, it can be easy to forget that the company is fairly late to the smart watch party. One of the best-known alternatives is Pebble, a Kickstarter darling that is gearing up to begin shipping its second generation of conventional and Steel products. Other products running company-specific O/Ss include those from LG (the LTE variant of the Watch Urbane), Samsung (the Tizen-based Galaxy Gear line), and Sony (early iterations of the SmartWatch series).

Then there's Android Wear, a wearable-tuned variant of Google's Android operating system, found in multiple manufacturers' products ... including LG's G Watch series and the non-LTE version of LG's Watch Urbane, the Samsung Galaxy Gear Live, and Sony's latest SmartWatch generation. As you can see, some companies are hedging their bets. The Android Wear supplier ecosystem also includes plenty of other familiar company names, among them Motorola, formerly a division of Google and now owned by Lenovo.

Although Motorola was publicised as a launch partner when Google unveiled Android Wear in March 2014, the Moto 360 smart watch didn't begin shipping until September of that same year (LG's first-generation G Watch and Samsung's Gear Live had entered production in June, coincident with the Google I/O developer conference). The Moto 360, as its name implies, is unique among Android Wear-based smart watches for its circular face (at least as I write these words ... rumours suggest that it'll soon be joined by products from others). This particular form factor decision is cosmetically preferable, at least to me, but it also compelled some design compromises.

My motivation in tackling this particular teardown is to showcase these tradeoffs as well as, more generally, to highlight what's inside the Moto 360's sleek case. Given that the product's been available since early last autumn, I suspected it had already been dissected elsewhere, and Google informed me that indeed it had ... specifically by my long-time friends at iFixit. My perusal of their teardown report's travails and other details, along with a subsequent conversation with company CEO Kyle Wiens, was informative on a number of fronts.

First off, I quickly realised that without the necessary specialised tools, there was a near-100% certainty that disassembly attempts would render my smart watch no longer usable. Even with the appropriate gear in hand, the iFixit gang had snapped the rear cover of their product sample in two. To wit, I frankly feared that my fumbling might even mar the hardware so badly that subsequent teardown analysis would be significantly hampered or completely precluded. And of course, the Moto 360's functional demise would preclude ongoing hands-on coverage.

Wiens instead offered to share any and all photos from his company's Moto 360 project with me, echoing multiple past partnerships between iFixit and EDN Magazine (me, specifically). I gratefully and enthusiastically accepted. Although the Moto 360 hardware is unchanged from last September, the firmware's gone through one update so far. Tangibly longer battery life was a notable outcome of the upgrade, along with other enhancements. A pending (as I write these words) additional update will reportedly make additional improvements:

  • The ability to keep the watch and paired tablet or smartphone connected even if they're not in Bluetooth proximity, as long as they're both connected to the "cloud." In the smart watch case, this cloud connectivity is accomplished by activating (with unknown battery life impacts) the Moto 360's Wi-Fi subsystem; the watch and paired mobile device don't even need to be on the same LAN subnet.

  • Touchscreen user interface improvements that, among other things, speed access to applications installed on the watch.

  • The ability to more robustly control (beyond today's hit-and-miss LCD backlight activation) the watch's UI (including scrolling through notifications) via wrist rotations, etc. in conjunction with the Moto 360's built-in gyro and accelerometer.

Rumour also has it that the Moto 360 and other Android Wear smart watches will sooner-or-later be compatible with not only Android-based smartphones and tablets but also Apple iOS-based mobile devices. Time will tell whether or not this particular potential enhancement ends up happening. Regardless, it's clear that Motorola and Google's software enhancement exercises, which also include Android apps (and regular updates to same), are effective in keeping the ageing hardware working effectively. About that hardware ... let's have a look, shall we?