Ask Hackaday: What’s The Perfect Hacker Smart Watch?

Since Dick Tracy all the way back in ’46, smart watches have captured the public imagination. After several false starts, the technology has gone through a renaissance in the last 10 years or so. For the average consumer, there’s been a proliferation of hardware in the marketplace, with scores of different models to choose from. For the hackers, however, pickings are a little more slim. So what is the best smart watch for the tinkerers among us?

A New Offering

These fears were allayed somewhat after a photo of an actual prototype was revealed.

Recently, Pine64 announced development of their PineTime smartwatch. Eagle-eyed spectators quickly identified that early photos seemed to be of an existing product from AliExpress, though Pine64 have said that their device simply takes advantage of an existing chassis and body to cut down on production costs.

Internally, the device is reported to feature either an nRF52832 or nRF52840 system-on-chip, containing a 64MHz ARM Cortex-M4F CPU core. This should provide plenty of grunt, and there’s Bluetooth 5.0 Low Energy for connectivity purposes. Display resolution is 240×240, likely using an OLED screen.

It’s being touted as an open source project, capable of running various real-time operating systems. There’s been talk of implementing everything from FreeRTOS to Mbed, with the development community likely to shape the future of the platform.

Using a Photoshopped image of an AliExpress watch raised eyebrows on Twitter.

There’s a lot of optimism here and of course it’s hard to say if they can deliver on the features or stick to a suspiciously low price of $25 USD being floated this early in the process. That’s a fairly compelling price for a ready-to-go smartwatch platform capable of running homebrew code. Do you remember seeing the Chronos watch from TI hit the market at $49 ten years ago? That one never gained widespread tracking, but tomorrow’s a new day. Interested parties should make themselves familiar with the Pine Time specification sheet and start contemplating the possibilities.

Pour One Out For Pebble

Once upon a time, the hacker’s favourite was easily Pebble. As a relatively open platform, anyone could develop for the device with a minimum of fuss. Apps like AutoPebble helped thousands more get the most out of the device, especially when used in combination with Android favorites like Tasker. Pebbles got to work in areas as diverse as sailing and home automation, while the userbase was free to customise their own watch faces to their heart content.

Pebble smartwatches were loved for their simplicity and great usability. Unfortunately, the financial side just didn’t work out.

Unfortunately, it all went wrong. After a difficult few years, Pebble was bought out by Fitbit. This put an end to Pebble servers, as well as hardware production, with the ecosystem slowly dying off in the wake of the merger. Their innovative smartstrap hardware expansion system also failed to strike it big. A dedicated group remains, by the name of Rebble, that continues to hack on the platform in the absence of official company support. Through their work, it’s possible to keep using your Pebble despite the original servers shutting down in 2017. However, with no further units being manufactured, it seems unlikely for Pebble to flourish in the future.

There Are Other Options

We’ve seen other hacks for various smartwatches over the years, too. Way back in 2013, Sony put out a package of tools enabling developers to create their own firmware for its smartwatch at the time. We’ve also seen individuals take on the challenge, whether it was [Krzysiek] taking on the WeLoop Tommy or [Aaron] tinkering with the wide variety of NRF-based fitness bands available from AliExpress.

AsteroidOS is an open-source project targeting WearOS watches, in a similar way CyanogenMod did with Android phones.

Other projects consist of larger communities coming together with a common goal. AsteroidOS aims to create an open-source software ecosystem for Wear OS-based smartwatches. OpenWatch aims to do much the same thing. These projects promise to unlock the features of top-of-the-range commercial smartwatches for eager hackers to play with. However, much development lies ahead before full support is reached for most hardware.

These efforts can net great results, but often the limited resources of lone hackers aren’t enough to keep up with the release schedules of new hardware. Combine that with the ever-looming threat of restrictive firmware updates from some manufacturers, and hours of hard work can easily be for naught.

What’s Missing?

While this interface gives us a headache, it’s a testament to the amount of functionality in the latest Apple Watch.

Early smartwatches of the modern era were little more than Bluetooth-connected displays, relying on the tethered smartphone to provide processing power and access to peripherals. Fast forward to today, and devices like the series 5 Apple Watch have plenty of processing power, along with full-blown cellular modems onboard and gigabytes of storage. This enables them to operate entirely independently. With heart rate monitors, step trackers, and all manner of other gadgets, there’s not a whole lot you can’t get in a wrist-mounted computer these days.

Normally, hackers are the first to set about bringing new functionality to the fore. The smartwatch formfactor poses some difficulties, though. Many watches come with cases that are near-impossible to open without damage, and even those that do get in are unlikely to find space for additional hardware. Regardless, there will always be those that try.

With so much packed into modern devices, it’s difficult to make a case for hacking further functionality into a device on a hardware level. Nine times out of ten, it would make more sense to simply upgrade to a more well equipped model, rather than void a warranty and risk damaging an expensive watch. It’s not to say its impossible, just that the bar is set rather high.

So What Is The Best Hacker Watch?

Given the difficulties of hacking smartwatch hardware, it’s likely that most tinkerers are more interested in the software side of things. With that in mind, what do you think is the best hacker watch? Is it a platform that’s open from the start, like the PineTime, or does Pebble’s diehard developer community still give it the lead? Perhaps your tastes are for ultimate performance, in which case only the cutting-edge Wear OS devices will do. Whatever your thoughts, be sure to share them in the comments below!

63 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: What’s The Perfect Hacker Smart Watch?

  1. “Do you remember seeing the Chronos watch from TI hit the market at $49 ten years ago? That one never gained widespread tracking, ”

    Probably because TI pulled it from the market, just as word was getting out about it.
    I was on a waiting list that evaporated.
    TI doesn’t flag my interest anymore.

    1. Be still… I love my MSP430 Chronos, though I don’t think it’s one of the ones that has the cc1111/cc1011 in it (which would also be cool).

      I never bothered to actually code anything for it because i thought it conventional segmented lcd display (no pretty pictures). however, i had it apart yesterday to look at changing the battery, and it looked like it could have been a regular lcd or oled or (something that could be addressed by pixel). could be wrong though.

      i had no issues buying mine, though i ordered a non-standard frequency model. the 433 mhz model ran out during their 2 week special offer. i have no idea what model i have because i lost the usb xmit/recv unit.

      eZ430-CHRONOS-868 – Europe and India
      eZ430-CHRONOS-915 – N. and S. America
      eZ430-CHRONOS-433 – Acceptable Worldwide (NOT AVAILABLE)

      but, as much as i was hoping to prove you wrong, i cannot – https://e2e.ti.com/support/wireless-connectivity/sub-1-ghz/f/156/t/812254?tisearch=e2e-sitesearch&keymatch=eZ430-CHRONOS

      no more chronos, no more chronos support, or sales.

      pity, it would have been fun to have a watch that could open my garage door.

    2. I think I still have a few of them (868 and 433 mhz), laying around somewhere. Was a quite nice watch, and did some VERY SMALL tests with coding for it, however it was quite limited what sort of uses I could figure out for it.

      Also as other mention, the segmented display is really a bummer (was nice for the power consumption though)

  2. In my eye the SMA-Q2 smartwatch is the perfect one.

    Is directly flashable with Arduino, espruino or Micropython without openening, got an nrf52832 chip and an always on display for about 40$

    Also the D6 tracker is nice with its 5$ price point and also flashable directly via an Android app i made.

    Made some videos about the D6 but its all se same for the SMA-Q2 search for D6 on Hackaday

  3. They can get any cheap nrf52 based smartwatch and just order it from manufacturer with their custom firmware.No custom HW design needed, there are hundreds of cheap models. I guess that is exactly what they will do.

  4. I don’t think a watch is a good form factor for a hacker’s device. Wristwatches were always more of an accessory/jewelry than a practical thing. They only became popular after they started to be used in the army, and that only because they became “cool”.

    1. A wrist watch is a very convenient time keeper compared to a pocket watch (or phone). Being always visible, though I pretty much never wear one. For me I could see it being useful and interesting element of a lot of sensible projects for that same reason – your wrist is just a glance away. I do think if you are going to be hacking a device like this for anything more than just a display from some other device odds are good you will prototype with it for convenience then roll your own to fit stuff in the small space neater though. Not like a pitop for example which has lots of existing internal volume you can add your own stuff too.

      Now for a fun but daft idea – Using them as a Semaphore Keyboard. Need two of them to know about both arms position though..

      1. Well, I have always loved the Motorola WT4090 and series (Now Zebra)
        https://www.zebra.com/us/en/products/mobile-computers/wearable-computers/wt41n0-series

        A custom motherboard in here would have more than enough space for a ublox modem, gps, battery, and pretty much every mobile sensor on the market at the moment…
        Maybe with something like the beaglebone on a chip to run linux and a UI…
        Or even android?

        Only thing that would make it ‘better’ would be a better front panel. Full touchscreen rather than a keyboard and split it to have a dynamic keypad or hotkeys on the sides of the active area on the screen.

    2. Wristwatches were a woman’s fashion accessory because they were fragile and prone to breaking. They were first used in the army on a mass scale during WWI because they could be used by soldiers hands free. The military “coolness” aspect probably contributed to the popularity of wristwatches, but so did the fact that it is quicker and easier to look at your wrist in staid of pulling a watch or cellphone out of your pocket to check the time. Most of what the military did was make it acceptable for men to wear.

      https://www.govbergwatches.com/blog/history-of-horology/

  5. I want a watch that will last around a week without charging, will give me my text messages without stopping to get my phone out while I’m riding my bike, is waterproof, and easily readable in direct sunlight.

    Basically, the pebble was the only watch that I ever saw to get it right. I got an old-stock pebble time and am running it on rebble, but whenever that dies, the hacking will probably have to be on the hardware side, to make a decent usable watch.

    IMO “smart watches” have taken a total wrong turn. If I want tons of processing power and a huge oled touch screen so I can use it to post pictures of my brunch on instagram (If I haven’t run out of battery before I finish breakfast), I’ll just duck tape my phone to my wrist.

    1. “I want a watch that will last around a week without charging, will give me my text messages without stopping to get my phone out while I’m riding my bike, is waterproof, and easily readable in direct sunlight.”

      Yes!

      ” I’ll just duck tape my phone to my wrist.”

      Ouch!
      (Thought of removing the tape from my hairy arm)

          1. Possibly, though it’ll depend how much info I can see on the screen. Their screenshots of the text notifications don’t look promising. “Hey Austin, wa…”

            Hardware-wise, it looks to be in the right ballpark, and the price isn’t too far out there.

            It’ll mostly be a question of the interface, and if it can give me the notifications I need in a useful manner. or if it’s a bunch of excess button pressing to get past all the fitness junk I don’t care about.

      1. Yeah. That does look good, though looking around I see lots of reviews saying it didn’t survive getting wet.
        I frequently have my pebble under water, or on my wrist in heavy rain for extended times while I’m riding my bike.

        I wonder if they’re just lemons, or if it’s more “splash proof” than actually usable to take it for a swim.

        Has yours been underwater much?

    2. I absolutely agree. The pebble series (I had an original, a steel, and a Time) was the last time I thought a piece of technology was pretty much perfect, and I’m terribly afraid it’s going to be the last ever.

      Smartwatches have taken a wrong turn indeed. For me it’s all that fitness and sleep tracking crap that has to be the focus.

      My Pebble Time died a few months ago, and I still miss it every day.

    3. You almost described the Amazfit Bip, although not quite since it’s specs are a little better than your wishlist. The battery life is closer to 20-40 days, and the display is not only extremely readable in daylight, but is on at all times (and the backlight can be triggered when ambient light is too dim to see it)

  6. I really enjoy my Amazfit BIP Lite. I use it with Gadgetbridge. I definitely want a watch with global positioning and heart rate. I was disappointed to find that the BIP has little in the way of hacking going on. It lasts forever when the GPS is not in use. Nearly perfect for me! Another gripe is that the AGPS doesn’t work unless you use the official MiFit application. I can get satellite fix in a decent amount of time; I just have to remember to “warm it up” before going running.

    1. I’m curious about that watch. Is it possible to load some apps on it, and control music playback? The most frequent things I did with my Pebble Time (which died recently) were to check my notifications as they came in, display TOTP codes and control my music (especially useful in winter to skip track without taking my gloves off).

      1. Apparently the Notify & Fitness app on Android allows audio control, but I’m on iOS and can’t test it. The device doesn’t support native Bluetooth music control protocols, so the creators of the AmazTools app on iOS say it can’t control music.

  7. Can we start with “what do you do with a smart watch?” It’s convenient that its on my wrist but the interface is so limited. The two main uses of smart phones (communication and entertainment) abysmal on a smart watch. Voice input still isn’t accurate or reliable enough yet to control a complex device – once that tech is bulletproof it’ll be more effective on head mounted displays than wrist mounted displays.

    The best use cases I’ve seen are athletic training and cooking. In those two cases the convenience can outweigh the limitations. Comment if you have other ideas but I’m not feeling it.

    1. The main use I have for it is being able to look at it to quickly see if the email/text/phonecall is something I need to respond to immediately, or if it’s a spammer, telemarketer, or something that can wait a few minutes until I’m free, or if it’s something that requires immediate attention.

      If I’m riding somewhere on my bike, and the phone rings, I hate having to pull over and get my phone out to find out if it’s something important or if it can wait until the next stoplight, or until I get where I’m going.

      Also, it’s kind of handy being able to tell the time without getting my phone out. I would argue that that’s also a “main use” of my watch, even if it’s not the most important one.

      I’m actually not interested in the athletic training aspects of it. I have a bike computer with a good gps, power meter, and considerably more reliable heart-rate monitoring than any of the watches have, and IMO that’s usually the case.
      If you just want an unreliable step counter to tell you that you’ve walked 1000 steps (or at least swung your hands around a lot), then a fitness band will work for you, but I think you would want a HRM with a strap, at least, if you were actually using it for fitness training.

    2. My main use case are
      – display notifications (and dismiss them on both if possible), voice reply optional
      – control media playback of the last app used (particularly useful in einter when listening to music, or to play/pause something casted on the TV from my wrist)
      – display TOTP codes, quite useful with 2FA being prevalent nowadays (always have your backip codes)
      – trigger web hooks, I used an app called HTTP Push on Pebble to trigger webhooks on IFTTT from a list of actions I configured)
      – show time
      – show the weather
      – show my schedule

      Anything else is sugarcoating, the above are must-have for me

    3. My main use for my Pebble is to let me know what time it is (and the date).
      Secondary to that is showing me my messages and notifications, so that I don’t have to dig my phone out of my pocket.
      Apart from that, I use it occasionally to set alarms, and sometimes to control the music player on my phone. It’s got a step tracker and heart rate monitor, but I don’t have a use for them.

    4. Apart from notifications from connected phone (including call notification vibration when I am called in noisy supermarket to buy one more thing – super useful) I also like to use it as generic reminder during day and as a morning alarm clock. The vibration is almost silent and wakes me without disturbing others. I had reminders in phone before but often leave phone on desk and missed them (e.g. pick up kid from school at specific time).

      As for hacking target, I just like to customize it, every swartwatch/fitness tracker I used had some annoying or missing feature.

  8. > though Pine64 have said that their device simply takes advantage of an existing chassis and body to cut down on production costs.

    While for the pinebook, this made perfect sense, as molds that big are expensive. However, for a watch size device, molds aren’t that expensive. 20k would get you there easy.

  9. A (Seiko) automatic wristwatch.

    It is:
    1.) EMP-proof
    2.) Doesn’t interfere with your sensitive electronics
    3.) Works in space
    4.) Needs no charging
    … and knows when to beep at you – never.

    Oh, and it can tell the time.

  10. I pour one for the metawatch hybrid.
    Flawed in many ways but still the best idea for a SmartWatch in my eyes.
    Meanwhile a Casio Casio 5110 is back on my wrist because all software except pebble sucked so far.

  11. I’m rocking with my pebble time but tried to installed the SDK recently but the install fails due to some file/files/sever been NLA.
    If anyone can point me in the right direction my pebble will greatly appreciate it.

  12. The amazfit bip seems to be a good candidate.

    I’ve started hacking by modifying the binary blob to translate strings from Chinese and modifying the resources… Then other guy helped me with fonts, Russians from 4pda have successfully changed the hardware revision .

    Here started a thread with the reversed hardware specifications
    https://github.com/amazfitbip/documentation/blob/master/README.md
    And on the same page links to a guy space with barebone firmware and the idea to port rebbleos

  13. If I buy a commerical smart anything I want a copy of the software running on the server available open source so the company cannot pull the ususal cloud trick of disbling the hardware because you are only “renting” it.
    The today of cloud is getting your hardware bricked on the whim of a company and dont want a part of that thanks.

    See what Adobe is pulling (forced to) with Venezuela.

    I’ve limited my exposure to company enforced obsolecence of perfectly working hardware/software but it stil hits me 5 or so times a year when support is withdrawn. Not just end of life, but actively erradicating all existance of the product from webservers so you cannot even self help.

  14. > does Pebble’s diehard developer community still give it the lead?

    This!! Pebble still has a tremendous lead – nothing else really comes close from a developer perspective, and unfortunately the PineTime is unlikely to appeal to Pebble enthusiasts due to the choice of touch screen over buttons and lack of always-on display. No other platform has anything like the devoted fan base Pebble does – people just don’t get excited about hacking on ; we’ve got over 100,000 RWS users at this point, and [developers can now submit apps to the appstore again](http://rebble.io/2019/09/30/appy-new-year.html) so things are very much still happening in the world of Pebble. Thanks for the mention, btw we really appreciate it! :)

    1. The main thing that I’m worried about is how long the hardware’s going to last.
      I upgraded from an original pebble to a time around a year ago after its screen connections started to fail (it was one of the originals with no screws).
      When this one dies, I doubt there’ll be much NOS floating around that’s still got batteries in good condition, etc.

      It would be really great if someone would produce a compatible watch meets the same real-world usage specs (good battery life, sunlight readable, waterproof).

      In that regard, some of the garmin watches look about the best, but they clearly have a “fitness” focus, and I’m not interested in having all that extra junk on my watch, likely at the expense of interface usability. Nor am I really interested in running (and relying) on a bunch of closed source apps that could be dropped whenever they decide it’s time to sell me a newer watch (or the company gets purchased, and support dropped)

  15. Still rocking a small fleet of Pebbles here, connected with Rebble. The Rebble community is still alive and well, and innovation continues.

    Not long ago, the Pebble App disappeared from both the Google Play store (Google policy changes) and the Apple App Store (problem on Fitbit’s end). While android users can simply sideload the app, this presented a crisis situation for iPhone users. The community began talking with Fitbit to see if it could be resolved on that end, while simultaneously looking at ways to sideload the app via jailbreak/Cydia impactor and possibly developing a new app by reverse-engineering the old one. Thankfully, Fitbit was able to get the iPhone app relisted. This freed up resources for more innovation.

    Rebble recently got timeline support working, which was one of the few old features that was yet to be seen. We also are seeing the beginning of new apps appearing in the Rebble store for the first time since the shutdown: a RSS Reader and a timeline token generator. (Both great tools for developers!) This has been aided, in part, by the return of publicly accessible Cloudpebble instances and the brand-new port of the development tools into Xcode.

    TLDR: Pebble is loved by, and sustained by, some incredible hacking talent!

  16. pine64 devices are dope! I am jazzed up with the prospect of shelling out $20.00 (!) for one of these open platforms. If not for DooM, then maybe wolfenstein, but probably multiplayer doom. When I was 10 I was certain this would be a cool idea. Prove me wrong!

  17. Personally I don’t like watches as my arm gets mostly covered.. I do though consider the awesome nature of rings that are smart.. One example here https://innovatostore.com/products/8mm-black-color-sport-and-smart-ring-for-woman-and-man-that-measures-body-temperature?variant=17921450147905&utm_medium=cpc&utm_source=google&utm_campaign=Google%20Shopping&gclid=CjwKCAjwlovtBRBrEiwAG3XJ-xCzk784G76NbMoISh-ErhwORpx-ahErMoCE716H4gwVfUVZwgCVdRoCxWoQAvD_BwE

    Sorry the url is so bad crafted but with oled shades for a kind of hololens I pondered an electromagnetic induction tray next to your bed where 3 or 4 lithium ion battery rings can be placed to charge or the new solid electralite lithium ion not the liquid state tech that was discovered the last few years.. With 5 of these solid not liquid lithium ion batteries that screw into a ring then the ring comes into question of how smart past telling the time? Take a Toshiba notebook of old and the furry nipple on the ring has hololens style slight more control in an hollucinating icons work of oled sunglasses? The push in nipple couples with iris tracking in the sunglasses themselves of hololens tech just for simple iris track and button on ring push… Screw in lith ion batteries though means very simple unscrew and screw back batteries though I am researching tech enabled clothing where your coat has fabric heat strips and an electromagnetic induction coat hanger so 5 years really will be looking a lot in true awesome tech wearable technology.

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