If you want the real deal, by which we mean a smartwatch with true Swiss-made credentials, there is only one choice: the new Tag Heuer Connected Modular 45. It’s the second smartwatch from Tag Heuer, following the Carrera Connected last year, and once again Intel has been heavily involved with the device’s creation. But the partnership goes much deeper than simply stuffing one of Intel’s chips inside a Tag Heuer designed body. The two companies collaborated so closely, the end result combines Intel’s technical know-how and Tag Heuer’s passion for watches in a way that truly makes it stand apart from the rest.
It’s easy to pass Android Wear watches off as the same experience in a slightly different body, but don’t make that mistake with the Connected Modular 45. Intel’s Jerry Bautista, vice president of New Technology, sat down with Digital Trends at the Baselworld 2017 trade show to give us a peek at the watch in detail, share how the relationship between the two companies worked, and the lengths both went to in order to produce it.
Swiss build, Intel tech
The Connected Modular 45 is an evolution of the Carrera Connected. For example, to ensure a round screen was used on the first model — a Tag Heuer requirement — Intel had to build the electronics that were hidden by the flat-tire screen design into the section with the “Swiss Made” inscription on the body. Tag Heuer was opposed at first, but grew to like the look, and has turned it into a design feature on the Connected Modular 45 by mirroring it at the opposite end of the body.
While a plastic rear panel on the Carrera Connected allowed the antennas to work, the new model’s body is made entirely of titanium. The watch still has Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, plus the addition of GPS and NFC; but titanium doesn’t play well with antennas, so how do they talk to the world? Look closely at the side of the screen and you’ll see two sections sandwiched together. The lower piece contains all the antennas. It was a huge technical challenge to make this work, but it not only improves the design, but also the efficiency: There’s a 70 percent improvement in Wi-Fi performance because of it. Wondering where the ambient light sensor is? The watch collects light data through the watch face, and channels it down into Intel’s sensor, which adjusts the display accordingly. A clever alternative to an ugly sensor.
The end result combines Intel’s technical know-how and Tag Heuer’s passion.
Tag Heuer wanted to have the same depth to the digital screen that it does on its analog watches. To do this, a 2.5mm thick piece of sapphire crystal is placed over the top of the screen, sinking the display down into the body. This was where Intel began to use its skill. Tag Heuer also wanted to build the connected watch in the same way as its traditional watches, using gaskets clamped together to hold everything in place, rather than glue and screws used in electronics. Hand-built Swiss components like the glass and the body are never the same twice, something Intel needed to change if it was to meet the requirements. So it introduced laser measurements to the process, reducing waste, and making it possible to build the Connected Modular 45 in an identical way to every other Tag Heuer watch.
Wearing the Connected Modular 45
Now we’ve explained why this is a true Swiss smartwatch, let’s talk about what it’s like to wear. We’ll get the size out of the way first. It’s big. The horns extend way over my wrist, and the flat underside of the watch accentuates the overall size, making it quite unsuitable for small wrists. Once it’s on, though, it’s not uncomfortable, and it’ll fit under a loose shirt cuff.
The titanium body keeps it light, and the sapphire crystal over the display looks superb, creating that beautiful 3D look Tag Heuer wanted with the familiar sapphire sheen to catch the eye. The build quality, as you’d expect, is superb. It’s solid as a rock, and obviously made to last. Metal, leather, and rubber straps are all options, and we really liked the blue rubber version with the blue bezel around the screen.
The design has been refined from the Carrera Connected, and more colors have been added to the range. There’s also now the chance to strip down many of the components to build a custom version, which is where the modular aspect comes in. It’s easy to do — just unclip the horns from the body, using buttons similar to those used to secure the Apple Watch’s strap in place, pull them away from the strap, and that’s it. Tag Heuer will sell you a mechanical Connected Modular 45 body, that uses the same horns and strap, for when you don’t want to wear the digital version. The super rich can even buy a version with a fancy tourbillon movement, which costs $17,000. In total, there are more than 500 possible combinations to personalize the watch using the modular components.
Software and future updates
Tag Heuer and Intel worked closely with Google to use Android Wear 2.0 on the Connected Modular 45, right down to striking an agreement so the Tag Heuer brand name and logo shows up when you turn the watch on. Intel uses an Atom processor inside the watch, and the software experience is smooth and slick. There are many different official Tag Heuer watch faces included.
Tag Heuer and Intel are working on a very special app that will arrive on the Connected Modular 45 in early summer. It’s a time management app made specially for smartwatches, that despite living on a watch, ironically shifts away from relying on time to set and manage our schedules. Bautista gave us an example of how it will work. Say you want to remember to pick up milk on the way home from work, and set a reminder for 6pm. When the alarm sounds, you’re caught up in a meeting and dismiss it. Normally, that would be the end of it, and the milk would inevitably be forgotten.
Not so with the new app and the watch. It will understand you’re caught up at work and delay the alarm. It’ll also know when you’re travelling home, and where a grocery store is, then alert you when you’re close by. Because the alert will arrive on your watch, it’s easier to spot even when you’re driving. Naturally it requires location access, but the benefits here are substantial.
There’s little doubt the Connected Modular 45 is aimed at a niche audience, but that’s not stopping demand outstripping supply. It’s not the abomination some watchmakers would like to believe it is either. It’s proof watchmakers and technology firms really can collaborate successfully, and produce a timepiece that’s true to the industry and the brand’s own ideals, while appealing to the tech fan with strong features and excellent software. It’s what scares and holds back many traditional watch firms from introducing a smartwatch.
If and when other watches arrive from big-name Swiss firms, they’re going to need partnerships as strong and effective as Tag Heuer’s, Google’s, and Intel’s, if the final product is going to meet the standard set here. Luxury smartwatches are uncharted territory, but when they’re done right, they work. The one thing we want from the next model is a better name. We’d have taken the Carrera Connected 2 over the Connected Modular 45.
While we appreciate the Connected Modular 45 as a groundbreaking piece of wearable technology, it’s not the perfect device. It’s still too big and too thick, the design won’t appeal to everyone, and the $1,600 price is a lot of money to pay out for a smartwatch. However, most premium analog Swiss watches also cost a lot of money, and as we’ve learned, the Tag Heuer Connected Modular 45 deserves to stand alongside them as a true representation of the breed.
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