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Hands on: Blocks Smartwatch

This modular smartwatch morphs to suit your every need

Blocks’ always upgradeable, modular smartwatch morphs into any device you need.

It’s almost impossible to imagine a world where a single device, made by a single company, would be suitable for everyone, regardless of their needs, hobbies, profession, or budget. However, that’s what the team at Blocks is trying to achieve with its exciting modular smartwatch, a wearable that has the potential to be all things to all people.

Yes, we can go out and buy a smartwatch today, but it’ll have a fixed set of abilities and limitations. We’re used to purchasing a product and understanding it has a particular feature set and nothing more, but modular devices like Blocks’ watch could change the way we view products forever. The idea behind modular devices is that users can upgrade and even change them over time.

You could buy the watch to get notifications and make contactless payments, and then get an entirely new set of modules to change it into an astonishingly comprehensive health tracker a month later.

Related: Apple Watch review (Updated for OS 2.0)

It doesn’t stop there. Say you work in a particular field where it’s important to have an electronic tag reader on you at all times. Maybe your company gives you a specially made reader module to plug into your Blocks smartwatch, and that’s it — You’re ready for work. If you’re very lucky, maybe your company issued you the Blocks smartwatch in the first place, for that exact reason.

Huge interest pushes development

This is all just the beginning, and it’s easy to see how and why modular technology has captured people’s imagination. Check the Blocks’ Kickstarter campaign page, where there are more than 6,000 comments, many of which ask about possible functions and features, and how they could be implemented. The Kickstarter campaign opened to hundreds of purchases within minutes, blitzed its goal in hours, and is running at more than $1.5 million at the time of writing. The desire for customizable, personalized hardware is obvious.

Co-founders Serge Vasylechko and Alireza Tahmasebzadeh told me that while they listen and even explore some of the requests, they end up having to say no to the vast majority of them. Why? Because this is almost entirely unchartered territory. There are only a few other examples of modular hardware out there, and no accepted ways of doing things. Blocks is not only breaking new ground, it’s also inventing new ways of doing things as it goes.

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Take the way it’s connecting the modular parts together. The team — which even now only consists of 15 people — has worked to whittle down a list of 50 different connection methods to one, final, and very neat system. A flexible PCB, similar to those that are used inside mobile devices already, connects up with a set of pins on the linked module or body, creating a solid, reliable, waterproof connection.

If everything goes well, the Blocks watch could be the only gadget you need to buy.

The team is also coming across new problems to solve the deeper it gets into the project. It took eight months to come up with a way to link the batteries together, regardless of the amount of charge inside, so they work without a hitch. Apparently, linked batteries have a habit of discharging each other, or lessening each other’s lifespan when joined up in the way required by the Blocks watch.

A similar challenge arose when it came to isolating modules, which is an essential part of keeping the operating system from collapsing because of a damaged or corrupt module, as well as an integral security consideration. Modules attached to the Blocks watch have no direct access to the Core or other modules, and therefore, your data stays safe. Security is important if your bank comes up with a module, and you don’t want another one reading all your financial data.

Strong partnerships

The challenges keep stacking up, but Blocks is already way ahead of the game, thanks to a strong partnership with Qualcomm. Thanks to the chip maker, it was introduced to Compal, the company that will manufacture the watch, and Cronologics, the startup creating the Android-based operating system. Blocks doesn’t run basic Android Wear, because the platform isn’t able to support the complex systems and procedures needed to make a modular smartwatch work.

Block Modular Smartwatch
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

I got an early look at the software used on the Blocks smartwatch and it’s progressing nicely, although it should be emphasized this is an early version. The main menu follows the same modular pattern, with apps linked together in a chain on the screen. Swiping up reveals a list of notifications, and tapping an icon opens the corresponding app. One of the main complaints against Android Wear is being addressed in the handling of incoming notifications. Instead of a long scrollable list, they may appear as little bubbles on the home screen, all grouped together by type. You can even magnify them for more detail when a finger is moved over it. This isn’t final yet, and may be refined before launch.

Cool, clean design

The design of the watch is almost complete. The non-working prototype you see in the pictures is very close to the final version, except that a few millimeters will be shaved off either side of the modules, and the lugs will be shortened and thinned out to give the face a more rounded look. It’s clean, chunky without being ugly, and there’s a strong hint of sci-fi cool about the grey version. It looked good on the wrist, too.

Blocks is not only breaking new ground, it’s inventing new ways of doing things as it goes.

Don’t pay too much attention to the screen clarity and quality in the video, either. It’s a TFT screen, and the final version will house an OLED screen. The team is fully aware a smartwatch’s style is important, and has spent time getting the curve and comfort of the modules just right.

Modules will be held in place by little pins that click into place. A push unlocks them again. Blocks paid attention to the motion and the feel of this process, and promised it’ll be both satisfying and durable. This ease of use will continue with the online store for modules and apps. Your profile will be linked to the watch, and you’ll only see apps that are compatible with the modules you already own. Modular tech is based on a simple idea, but underneath, it’s extremely complicated. Blocks wants to make sure we don’t have to deal with all that complexity.

Blocks is on target for delivering its first modular smartwatches in May next year, but the versatility we mentioned earlier is something that will come in time, perhaps in around two years. At the moment, the Blocks smartwatch is for tech fans and early adopters. In two-years time, if everything goes according to plan, the Blocks watch could be the only gadget you need to buy, whether you’re an outdoorsy health fanatic, an always-connected freelancer, or a doctor doing the rounds with a blood glucose monitor on your wrist. Most exciting of all, the Blocks watch has the potential to adapt, so you could be all those things, at any time.

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Highs

  • Astonishing potential
  • Clean, cool design
  • Versatile modules
  • Cutting-edge tech

Lows

  • It’s still a prototype
  • Crowd-funded campaigns can run into problems