For at least the last four years, the Swatch Group in Switzerland has been working on a “Swiss Made” smartwatch that debuts here with the Tissot T-Touch Connect Solar. Tissot has been selected as the brand to showcase the Group’s contemporary “connected watch” efforts, but in reality, the roughly 35 million Swiss Francs the Swatch Group spent on developing a connected watch platform (in Switzerland) was likely intended to benefit other group brands down the line (brands like Swatch, Hamilton, Longines, Rado, Certina, and even Omega all have logical places for connected products in the future). The T-Touch Connect Solar isn’t the Swatch Group’s first Bluetooth or even connected timepiece (some of you might recall the Tissot SPOT watch produced in collaboration with Microsoft). It does, however, represent a watch with an outside and inside (including the software) that was developed in Switzerland.
Tissot was kind enough to supply me with a pre-production version of the Tissot T-Touch Connect Solar prior to the collection’s official release in the United States market. Why is this worth mentioning? Mainly because I was not able to entirely review the connected functionality of the product (yet) and to explain that Tissot will be rolling the product out via region and not globally, to begin with. More so, in its opening marketing materials, Tissot makes a point to discuss how compatible the T-Touch Connect is with smartphones and platforms around the world. Not only that, but the idea is to offer local versions special features that aren’t available elsewhere. Tissot points out, for example, that in the United States, in collaboration with the NBA (which they sponsor), they could push exclusive basketball game information live to people’s wrists.
To better understand the journey to this point for the T-Touch Connect Solar watch — and to get to know him at his new job (I previously knew him during his long tenure as the CEO of Hamilton watches) — I spoke to Tissot CEO Mr. Sylvain Dolla about the T-Touch Connect collection. One of the easiest things to misunderstand about the T-Touch Connect Solar watch is how much effort the Swatch Group put into developing all of its systems from scratch, but also how this product internally differs from many other smartwatch products out there. In fact, Tissot doesn’t like to use the term “smartwatch,” but rather prefer “connected fine timepieces.” There is some misconception out there at this time that the T-Touch Connect Solar is just a Bluetooth version of the outgoing Tissot T-Touch Expert Solar (aBlogtoWatch review here). This is not true, but I can understand why people may have come to that conclusion. For one thing, Tissot itself said that the T-Touch Connect Solar would do everything the T-Touch Expert Solar did, and then some. This is true, but it is because Tissot built a new platform from the ground up and wanted to engineer in the existing T-Touch family features before adding new ones.
Second, Tissot designed the T-Touch Connect Solar to look very similar to the T-Touch Expert Solar. They two watches share the same 47mm-wide case, and overall case, bezel, and dial design. The case is water-resistant to 100 meters and has a lug-to-lug distance of about 60mm. They do not share any of the same components, as far as I can tell, but Tissot first wanted to make the current generation T-Touch watch look imbued with “connected” features before exploring new design directions in the future.
The T-Touch Connect Solar is a large watch on the wrist, but it wears pretty comfortably, especially on the snug rubber strap. The watch is also lighter than you’d expect given the titanium case, which is PVD-coated with a rose-gold tone. The bezel is in black ceramic (with lume-painted navigational markers) — which is important so that the antenna right underneath it can receive signals. Even with a slightly aging design, the T-Touch case (especially on the bracelet) makes an excellent base for a modern connected timepiece.
What I think is important to discuss about the T-Touch Connect platform that Swatch Group developed, is that it is really more than just about smartwatches or connected watches. A few years ago, the Swatch Group made very clear that in the future a lot of wristwatches will feel more like consumer electronics than traditional timepieces, though the group was in no rush to enter the market. Instead, the Swatch Group reasoned that if the smartwatch category was going to be “a thing,” then it would prove no problem for the Group to enter that market five or even 10 years down the line. If the Group misses out on market opportunities and the market ends, then it was not worth participating in a feeding frenzy, to begin with.
Even though Sylvain Dolla was at Hamilton during most of the time when Tissot was developing the T-Touch Connect (I was personally shown a series of prototypes over the years as Tissot was developing it), he was in the Swatch Group that spent the last several years developing the product. Therefore he had a lot to say about the overall market strengths of the product, as well as the larger efforts the Swatch Group undertook to develop and design its “connected fine timepiece” segment.
How exactly does a Swiss watchmaker like Tissot believe it is best positioned to compete in a larger smartwatch market? The belief is that by making well-made (and durable) Swiss Made products that are not intended as disposable electronics, Tissot will lure customers wanting reliable and stable choices, just as they do when going for a traditional mechanical Swiss watch. Tissot will never have the most advanced or well-priced watch on the market. But they will have a watch that their engineers feel confident will do all the same things in 10 years that they do today. The same cannot be said about many other smartwatch products.
On the same topic of “longevity,” a key goal in the T-Touch Connect Solar platform was to create an electronic device along with an operating system that performed well but that also used energy with extreme efficiency. This means about six months of battery life between charges — but that could be way less charging if you are an outdoorsy type. the T-Touch Connect Solar not only sips electricity, but it also comes with two charging options. First is a wireless charging cradle, and second is solar charging through the dial, which is also mostly a photovoltaic cell. According to Tissot, many people can probably get by with the watch only being charged via the light. With that said, given the upcoming GPS features and Bluetooth connectivity, “heavy users” will easily be able to keep their T-Touch Connect Solar battery topped off. It is very important for Tissot that consumers understand its focus was to offer a full-featured package that did not require regular charging.
Speaking of the photovoltaic cell, here is a good example of what happens when you give Swiss engineers free rein. Compare this T-Touch Connect Solar with the previous T-Touch Expert Solar watch that I linked to above. You’ll notice that the photovoltaic cell on the Expert Solar is much more prominent, almost to the point of being distracting. The Swatch Group spent a lot of effort researching a technique for making photovoltatic cells that are also nice to look at! The dial of the watch is mostly unobstructed (no dial prism/filter as companies like Citizen uses for their Eco-Drive watch) photovoltaic cell, and you’d barely notice it. Just the deep purple dial above the digital full-color LCD screen.
Swatch Group helped develop the operating system in the watch which they call “SALPS,” or “Swiss Autonomous Low Power System.” You can see how energy efficiency is even built into the name of the software. Physical electronic components such as the chipset are produced in Switzerland near Neuchatel. Switzerland happens to have a great number of micro-electronics companies such as those that work for the medical device world. This local talent helped Tissot develop brand new hand motors for the T-Touch Connect Solar, and boy, are they snappy. I’ve been a fan of the T-Touch since its debut in 1999, and it has been great to see the development of hand motors. Not only are these motors strong enough to hold “heavier” full-size hands, but they move the hands so quickly it feels almost instantaneous.
Today, the development of connected movements and the components that go into them are big business for the Swatch Group. Even an arm of ETA, their prized mechanical and quartz movement manufacturer, is in on the fun. I think the Swatch Group wants to replicate its market success with high-quality mechanical and quartz watches with smartwatches — and to do so, they need to own the entire process while keeping much of it internal to Switzerland. This gives the group a serious form of independence which means their production and development of connected watches is less affected by outside influences (a very Swiss thing to do).
According to Mr. Dollar, two years from now Tissot will release a women’s Connect watch, that will naturally come with a smaller case. For now, the new-to-Tissot CEO wants to keep attention on the T-Touch Connect Solar given that the product is only hitting markets now, and will not be available in much of the world until 2021. One can only admire the tender care that Tissot is taking with its new baby. The T-Touch Connect Solar is far more than an autonomous wristwatch, even though it is also designed to be a fully-functional autonomous wristwatch. Together with the hardware experience is the software experience, which for Tissot includes at the least, the firmware running on the watches themselves, as well as the Tissot Connect smartphone application that must also be continuously attended to (something traditional watch companies have never really had to do with most of their legacy products).
A final point Tissot makes about the T-Touch Connect Solar watch and platform is their personal stance on privacy. Tissot and the Swatch Group apparently vow never to sell sensitive data and wish to inform consumers that they are in it to develop and sell Swiss Made watches, not be a data brokerage company. I’m not sure how many consumers are currently concerned about this point, but it is true that in recent history, there have been a lot of public data leaks and privacy concerns. Enough so for Tissot and the Swatch Group to make their stance on data collection as overt as possible.
As a wristwatch and instrument, the Tissot T-Touch Connect Solar is clearly solid in its construction and responsive in its operation. I won’t lie, the new operating system takes some getting used to. While Tissot said they would continue to tweak the user experience for ergonomics, some of the ways to operate the watch are not obvious unless you study the instructions. For example, at times the watch will not enter a specific mode unless the user presses in the crown to activate that mode — even though it isn’t always clear an extra press is necessary. Another point of confusion is exactly when to use the electronic turning crown, pushers, or dial tactile areas to operate or adjust the watch. The new news is that all of this can be relatively easily fixed via software updates which can be pushed after consumers purchase the goods.
Like previous-generation T-Touch watches, the sapphire crystal is “tactile,” meaning you first activate it (here, by pressing the top pusher for a couple seconds, and then using your finger to touch certain zones on the dial. Those zones now control multiple features. For example, “Activity” is where you’ll find the step counter, but also the altimeter (which unless you know it, isn’t an obvious place to find the altimeter). The T-Touch’s longstanding altimeter, barometer, and compass features are back in the T-Touch Connect Solar, as well as the various timing and calendar features. Few of the features really have anything to do with the connection to your phone — which is more or less how Tissot intended it, since most of what the T-Touch Connect Solar is meant to do is designed not to require a phone connection.
As a smartwatch, the connection to your phone is mainly related to using upcoming (not available yet) GPS navigation features, as well as basic notifications. In essence, if there is a notification that would appear on your phone, you can view it on the small screen. Otherwise, I believe much of the “connected” features involve pushing data from the watch to the phone (such as activity information). Less connectivity to the phone means less power use, and thus the focus on autonomous capability within the watch itself – something of serious value to the Swiss watch industry.
When using the Tissot T-Touch Connect Solar watch I found the hardware and software to be quick and reliable, even when I didn’t know what I was doing. That means Tissot got all the hard parts right, even if here are ergonomic software tweaks to be made here and there. For most tasks, the software performed really quickly, and using traditional watch features such as the chronograph (under Timing) or the compass was enjoyable and precise. The watch case itself not only beeps but can vibrate too – offering a high-quality tactile experience to the aesthetic charm on your wrist.
Tissot is aiming at a younger generation with the T-Touch Connect Solar family, but that’s who most of today’s watch brands are hoping to attract with pretty much all of their products. I think it is safe to say that smartwatches are here to stay and that given the overall size of the market, there will always be some people wanting a luxury version of that item. Luxury smartwatches and other connected devices are already here ranging from Breitling’s Connected B55 watches to the Hublot Big Bang e. Tissot will enter the market with a very different type of product, and one that they can faithfully say is both Swiss Made and homegrown.
Tissot also has price on its side, with an aggressive retail cost of around $1,000 for the T-Touch Connect Solar. Given that the watch heavily emphasizes its long battery life, well-made construction, Swiss design standards, and simple to understand features, I think Tissot will do well once consumers really get to know this latest evolution of the T-Touch family. According to Sylvain Dolla, the Connect platform is the biggest investment he understands Tissot as a company has made in the last 30 years. Parent company the Swatch Group clearly believes in the future of this platform, and for now, the first products will all be from Tissot. To summarize the product philosophy one more time in the words of Tissot’s Mr. Dolla, “to us this is fine watchmaking but with the addition of connected functions which are actually useful to the consumer.” Price for the Tissot T-Touch Connect Solar starts at 995 Swiss Francs. Learn more or order at the Tissot website here.