Official Review: Watchy (Hardware)

By Prans Dunn, Mar 17, 2021 (updated Mar 14, 2021) 8 10

A $50 e-ink watch that’s fully open-source both on the hardware and software front?! Is Watchy from SQFMI the next Pebble?
Prans Dunn

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Before the Apple Watch or Wear OS (then Android Wear) smartwatches, there was Pebble. With its ability to mirror phone notifications, control phone apps via Bluetooth, and support apps on the device itself, there was a lot to like about the smartwatch especially with its affordable price tag. The watch had strong community support in part thanks to its open SDK. If you’ve used one, you’d see how it served as a template for other wrist-worn devices to come after it. But unlike popular contemporary smartwatches which last for a day or two, Pebble’s e-paper LCD gave it nearly a week’s worth of use from a single charge.

However, after the company was acquired by Fitbit, which was then itself acquired by Google, I struggled to find something to replace the Pebble with comparable affordability, features, and community support. The closest I found was the Amazfit Bip but it’s mostly a fitness tracker rather than a smartwatch.

When Squarofumi (SQFMI) announced their e-ink watch Watchy, it sounded like a contender that could fill the Pebble-shaped void in the smartwatch market. Priced at only $50, being fully-open source, featuring Wi-Fi and Bluetooth LE connectivity and using an AMEPD (Active Matrix Electrophoretic Display) microcapsule e-ink display that gives it up to a week’s worth of use, Pebble comparisons are inevitable.

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However, unlike the Pebble, Watchy’s target audience (at least for now) is narrower. SQFMI says that they designed this device “with makers/hackers/tinkerers in mind”. Also, the company is careful not to use the term “smartwatch” but simply referring it to as a watch, so you might want to get your expectations in check. Having said that, it's still smarter than regular watches as it's based on the popular ESP32 microcontroller that can be programmed via the Arduino IDE. ESP32 projects from such tinkerers that SQFMI is targeting are already existing on devices other than Watchy, so some of these could be adapted to the device. This does mean there will be some coding involved if you want to get the most out of your Watchy, but SQFMI made relevant documentations available to help you get started and you can check it to see if you can work with that. I myself am not a coder and managed to load some watch faces and tinker with some to personalize them to my liking.

For additional spec details which could give you an idea regarding what’s possible with this smartwatch, you can find those information below:

  • Ultra-low-power e-paper 1.54" display with 200 x 200 resolution and wide viewing angle
  • 200mAh Battery
  • Weight: 18 g
  • Dimensions: 46 x 34 x 9 mm
  • Processor: ESP32-PICO-D4
  • Wi-Fi & Bluetooth LE connectivity
  • 3-axis accelerometer with gesture detection
  • Real-time clock for accurate time keeping with calendar and alarm functions
  • Built-in USB-to-serial adapter for programming on the go
  • Vibration motor for alerts
  • Four tactile buttons
  • Open source hardware & software
  • 3D case designs (stls) to customize your watchy (and watch straps)

As for what you get for $50; in the package are internals that you have to put together yourself, and a watch strap. Don't fret too much about the assembly though, as everything needed to assemble Watchy is in the box. No soldering is involved as the PCB is shipped fully assembled. This makes putting the rest together quite easy as it involves only sticking the battery and screen onto the board. 

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Once put together, Watchy packs quite a unique look with the PCB acting as the body. It’s incredibly lightweight at only 18 g (!); in fact, it’s so light that the strap is heavier than the body itself. This is a really great feature for a smartwatch to be so light that you barely notice you’re even watching it. And since Watchy has a step counter feature, you can keep track of your daily steps goal without having a bulky and encumbering device strapped to your wrist all day. The e-ink screen is a pleasure to look at as it delivers crisp images with an always-on display which is, of course, best viewed in bright environments.

Its light weight comes from the fact that there is no enclosure with Watchy. The first run of Watchy came with this exposed-PCB look but those who backed via CrowdSupply also get an injection-molded plastic enclosure. While having the PCB exposed definitely looks cool, it’s not waterproof and the battery is also exposed (albeit partly covered by the strap). This isn’t really optimal for a watch as it can be hazardous to use outside whether it’s due to risk of rain or simply damaging it with simple bumps.

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But with its open-source aspect, it’s possible to design a sealed waterproof or water resistant case that could also add lighting to Watchy. There are several designs that have been made, including a neat GameBoy case which looks great with the Pokémon watch face on. SQFMI even held a case design contest, so we could see an option addressing the lack of waterproof and/or water resistance.

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Watchy does not feature a touchscreen, but rather four physical buttons. There’s a menu that let you test some of its features (accelerometer, vibration), set the time/date, setup Wi-Fi, and update its firmware. While navigating from one menu screen to the next, there’s a little delay as the screen refreshes. If you’ve used an e-ink e-reader, you’ll know what to expect. The buttons are not the most comfortable to use with their sharp edges but just like the menu, you won’t use them much (for now) except to set up the time and date. Here again an enclosure would make navigating more comfortable with smoother buttons, and the CNC anodized aluminum case SQFMI is working on looks particularly sexy.

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This brings us to “what’s possible with Watchy”. As of now, being susceptible to physical and water damage, it’s essentially a 1.54" e-ink screen to display time indoors and most of the community itself has worked on watch faces to display time in one way or another. Watchy won’t support apps the same way as Pebble did  (there were even games on it!) but, as SQFMI explains, it can connect with internet APIs so you can pull some data onto the watch such as weather, news, traffic, maps and even from Spotify. The creator also notes that Watchy can connect to Bluetooth LE enabled devices.

Currently though, such examples are mostly theoretical. There’s one user who integrated Watchy with their smart-home to control lights and get some data from their weather station. Another released an “app” example which displays random artwork on the device. I’ve had the Watchy for a bit more than a month and during that time, that’s what has been made available, in addition to a handful - yet cool and original - watch faces. I am particularly fond of the ‘Sliding Text’ from Pebble and requested to have one made for Watchy and one community member was kind enough to make one. I went ahead and further modded it to add some icons to display weather, battery life and step count. The process was quite fun and helped me get the lay of the land for creating a personalized watch face. Along the way, I asked for help from the Watchy community and they proved to be very friendly and helpful. 

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That’s as far as I went with Watchy, and most users are also currently in the same boat. It’s practically an e-ink watch with highly customizable watch faces that’s likely to stay confined indoors (not that we’re any different!). But the community is still rather small with only a handful of members sharing their work, and that’s because units are still getting shipped. As more users get their hands on their own Watchy, the community is bound to grow and more “apps'' could surface. In fact, it seems like SQFMI is banking on such community support to flesh out the potential of its device. But I also hope to see more examples coming from the company behind it as well.

For now, Watchy can be considered as something akin to a dev kit. It set out to be a device targeted at makers/hackers/tinkerers but even in this state it has room for improvements such as a waterproof or water resistant case and faster charging. Yes, when I first shared the news about Watchy, I saw lots of complaints about it using a micro-USB cable and it does make for slow charging (around 2 hours for a full charge). With its e-ink screen, its 200 mAh battery provides 5-7 days if you’re only using it as a watch, but with wireless connection for retrieving data, it will last for much less. I've had mine last for less than a day like this and that’s not very impressive as my proper smartwatch lasts as long and boasts more features. Here again comes the advantage of being open source. You could add a larger battery or SQFMI could later offer a larger battery integrated in a case. Possibilities are multifold with Watchy’s open-source hardware and software but they have to materialize to actually mean something.

Currently, Watchy’s full potential has yet to be seen, and even if it’s showing promise, we have yet to see what it’s fully capable of. This potential might even not fully realize but Watchy could serve as a starting point for SQFMI to leverage its community support and build on this to make a more consumer-facing (rather than tinkerer-facing) smartwatch in the future. If there are significant changes and interesting examples down the line coming from SQFMI and the Watchy community, I'll be happy to update this review to reflect these new additions. Already, Eric Migicovsky, Pebble’s founder, adopted Watchy and said that it “feels like the same creative energy that went into OG Pebble”. It might be just a hunch but maybe SQFMI is indeed onto something here.

If you want to get your own unit of Watchy and play around with it, you can purchase on CrowdSupply here.

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Verdict
What We Liked . . . Fully open source hardware and software Fun device to tinker with Affordable Easy to assemble What We Didn't Like . . . Lack of compatible examples Exposed internals Not waterproof or water resistant Slow charging
7
out of 10
Overall
As of now, Watchy is a cool e-ink watch with a highly customizable look whose full potential has yet to be realized; and when (if?) that happens, it could boast the title of a decent smartwatch.
matpower, Benja81, tirges and 7 others like this.

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