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Apple and Samsung need better smartwatch controls to win over athletes

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Earlier this week, Samsung announced the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro. It is Samsung’s most durable smartwatch ever and Unpacked made it clear that the company wants to appeal to outdoor athletes with the watch. Apple also revealed at WWDC that watchOS 9 will feature a ton of new running stats, adding fuel to rumors that a ruggedized Apple Watch may be on the way. It’s clear that both companies want to lure users out of the Garmin and Polar audience — but beyond battery life and durability, there’s another hurdle that could derail these efforts. Touch screens.

For better or worse, Apple and Samsung have relied on touchscreen navigation on their smartwatches. That’s fine for casual exercise, or for the average person who doesn’t traverse all types of terrain with extreme temperatures. It won’t be enough for the outdoor enthusiast that both companies are aiming for with these “Pro” watches.

I tested the regular 40mm Galaxy Watch 5, and while it’s not exactly the same, the Pro is essentially a bigger, stronger version of the Watch 5. When it comes to user interface, they share the same design DNA. That worries me. During the few runs I’ve done with the Watch 5 so far, swiping through the screens halfway through the screens has been a challenge. That’s because it’s August and as the famous Santana song goes, man, it’s hot. I have sweaty fingers and sometimes I have to press pause so I can rehydrate. To do that, I have to stop and wipe my hands so I can swipe right and tap the pause button. Sounds simple enough, but it’s not easy when the humidity is so thick it feels like you’re swimming in soup.

New running stats indicate a rugged Apple Watch is on the way… but it’s unclear if Apple will drastically change the design.
Photo by Victoria Song / The Verge

I had the same issue when testing watchOS 9 on my Series 7. You have to swipe up or scroll through the digital crown to see all the new running stats. Many times I had to stop to successfully swipe through multiple menus to see one of the new stats. I had hoped that scrolling through the digital crown would be easier, but it isn’t.

This isn’t just a summer problem either. If you’re a triathlete, it’s also a swimming problem. If you train all year round, wearing gloves is an even bigger problem in the winter. I’ve owned many “touchscreen-compatible” gloves, but they’ve never been reliable on my phone, let alone my smaller smartwatch screen.

This is not a problem if you use a Polar or Garmin sports watch. That’s because physical buttons aren’t thwarted by moisture or gloves. Once you get used to it, you can scroll through menus without having to look down until you really need to. Some even use a combination of touch and button controls – which is ideal because you can always use the most convenient method for a given situation.

Garmin Forerunner 255S on a woman's wrist

The screen may not be as pretty on the Garmin Forerunner 255S, but the buttons mean I don’t have to worry about sweaty fingers.
Photo by Victoria Song / The Verge

Obviously, Apple and Samsung are both aware that athletes value battery life, in-depth stats and durability. But it’s less clear whether either company has really thought about why so many outdoor enthusiasts and triathletes would rather give up a fancy touchscreen over physical controls.

We still don’t know much about Apple’s rugged watch. The details around it have been preserved fairly tightly. But the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro is no longer a secret. It’s in the world, and whatever it has, it lacks the physical controls that so many triathletes have become accustomed to. Given that it’s somewhat baffling that Samsung avoided the rotating bezel for the Pro. (That may have been a trade-off to ensure greater durability.) I need to run more testing, and of course there are several reasons why you might opt ​​for a more advanced flagship smartwatch over a dedicated multisport GPS watch. . But these days, when I try to swipe my sweaty digits on the Watch 5 or Series 7, I often wish I had worn my Garmin instead.

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