Did Apple Switch the Apple Watch Series 7’s Design at the Last Minute?

Apple Watch Series 7 actual vs leaked rumored renders Credit: Apple
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More than in any other recent Apple event, the rumour mill really set us up for disappointment this time around, especially in light of the major redesign that was “supposed” to be coming to the Apple Watch.

By now, you’re probably already aware that the Apple Watch Series 7 that the company actually showed off during its event this week was nothing like what we thought we would get, but it’s also fair to say that the responsibility for this lies more with the leakers than it does with Apple itself.

Or does it? In light of how massive the disconnect was between the early leaks and what actually showed up on stage, speculation has been making the rounds that maybe, just maybe, things weren’t originally supposed to go down this way.

The theory goes something like this: Apple planed a completely redesigned Apple Watch Series 7 that would have looked more like almost every source said it would, but it was forced to abandon those plans at the last minute — likely as a result of rumoured mass production problems — and go with the older tried-and-true design.

It’s a nice, comforting idea for those who were really hoping for a big redesign of the Apple Watch Series 7. Wrong, but nice.

After all, when you consider the sheer number of person-hours that go into designing an Apple product, the idea that Apple could have pivoted at the last minute makes no sense.

It’s not like Tim Cook could have called Foxconn on Monday and said, “Scrap the production on the flat-edged design and go with last year’s model.”

The reality is that the Apple Watch Series 7 had already left the station months ago in terms of the design that Apple would be going with.

While we don’t know exactly how much lead time Apple puts into its flagship wearable, the company’s executives have said that the new iPhone design starts getting locked down almost a year before it actually gets released (which is likely why we’re already seeing possible renders for next year’s “iPhone 14”).

Further, even though it appears that the Apple Watch Series 7 has most of the same internals as the Series 6, there are still some very significant design changes on the outside, and none of these feel like “Plan B” things that Apple would have pulled off at the last minute.

Chief among these is the new screen design, which has been “completely re‑engineered” to reduce the borders and increase the overall screen area. This isn’t something that happens overnight, and these displays are so specific in design that it’s also not like Apple could have just taken the panels that were intended for the mythic flat-edged Apple Watch and slapped them into the more traditional design.

The panels that we’re seeing on the new Apple Watch were specifically made for an Apple Watch with this design.

  1. The screen and glass were redesigned to improve durability, making it more resistant to cracks.
  2. Although the new screen does have a flat base, it’s supplemented by a 50% thicker front crystal to protect the screen.
  3. The touch sensor has also been integrated into the OLED display panel to create a single, unified component and help reduce the display thickness and borders.

Again, these are not things that Apple came up with overnight on a whim when their “real plans” failed. These aren’t even things Apple would have been likely to invest money in merely to be used as a backup plan.

Further, while the first rumour of mass production problems was somewhat vague, pointing partially to a new health sensor, both Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman and analyst Ming-Chi Kuo indicated it was the new display technology that was the key problem.

Due to the adoption of many new panel-related production processes for the first time, the Apple Watch 7 panel module encountered reliability issues during the risk-ramp phase before Jabil started mass production, mainly including blinking panel and touch insensitivity. This complicated production issue may be related to LGD, Jabil, or Young Poong.

Ming-Chi Kuo

While the Apple Watch Series 7 may look eerily similar to last year’s Series 6, the display really is a whole new ballgame, and with all of those changes in mind, it’s not hard to see how the “panel-related production processes” that Kuo refers to could easily have posed problems for Apple’s manufacturing partners. Keep in mind that none of the production rumours point to any other aspect of the physical design beyond the screen itself.

So, What’s Really Going On?

As much as some folks may be willing to give the leaker community a pass by suggesting that they were only wrong because Apple changed directions at the last minute, the fact is that they got it wrong.

To be fair, it is possible that Apple may have considered a more radical design change at one point in the early development stages of this year’s Apple Watch. Normally reliable supply chain analyst Ming-Chi Kuo pointed to a “significant form factor design change,” as far back as last November.

However, since he was far more circumspect when it came to saying exactly what those changes would be, it’s possible that this new design is all that he was referring to.

We think that’s unlikely, however, since while one might call this design change “significant” in terms of the screen changes, it’s definitely not a “form factor” change, so Kuo was probably talking about something more. Keep in mind that Kuo has no information from inside Apple, however, only from within the ranks of its suppliers. This means that Apple may have just been sniffing around to examine its options.

What Happened to the Flat-Edged Apple Watch Series 7?

We may never know for sure what happened, but it’s still fair to say that the flat-edged Apple Watch was never really in the cards for this year’s model. There are three other likely possibilities, however.

  1. Apple prototyped a flat-edged design months ago, but abandoned it entirely for whatever reason. This is the design that leakers saw, and ran with it.
  2. Apple is planning for this to become the new design for the Apple Watch Series 8, and sources simply jumped the gun.
  3. Apple planted this information, either as part of a “sting operation” to catch leakers, or to discretely float the idea to at least part of its fan base to see what people thought.

Although we never heard any rumours of the design that eventually did come to the Apple Watch Series 7, that’s not really all that surprising. With so many images and renders of the more exciting flat-edged design flying around, the Series 7 would have been easily flown under the radar — it would have looked just as insipid to leakers as it does now to many Apple fans.

It’s the same way that we began hearing reports of a new sixth-generation iPad mini months ago, but very little about the ninth-generation iPad until only days before the actual event. The new iPad mini is cool and exciting. The new iPad? Not so much.

Series 5 Redux

To be completely honest, we were all hoping for a flashy new design for the Apple Watch Series 7. For some of us here at iDrop News, Tuesday’s presentation changed our plans for the new Apple Watch from a “Shut up and take my money, Apple!” to more of a “meh, maybe….”

Still, looking at the past several years of Apple Watch history, it’s fair to say we were probably expecting too much.

It’s easy to forget how much Apple relies on a two-year product cycle. The company has been doing it with the iPhone for years, and while things got a bit more mixed up with the debut of the iPhone XR and the resulting move to a two-tier family, this year’s iPhone 13 makes it clear that we’re back into the years of “S” models — even if Apple isn’t calling them those anymore.

Now that Apple’s wearable has found its footing, which happened around the time of the Series 3/4, the Apple Watch seemed to be settling into the same two-year cycle — in this case a cycle of even series numbers that add new health features, and odd series numbers with more iterative improvements.

  • Apple Watch Series 2: Built-in GPS, WR50 water resistance for swim tracking, dual-core CPU.
  • Apple Watch Series 3: LTE connectivity, Altimeter.
  • Apple Watch Series 4: Larger screens, ECG and irregular heart rhythm notifications, Fall Detection, new 64-bit CPU.
  • Apple Watch Series 5: Always-on Display, Compass, tweaked S4 CPU with increased storage.
  • Apple Watch Series 6: Blood Oxygen sensor. Brighter Always-on Display. Updated Heart Rate Sensor. U1 chip, new faster S6 CPU.

While there’s no doubt that the introduction of cellular support on the Apple Watch Series 3 was a big deal, it was otherwise a fairly minor update over the prior Series 2. In fact, most Series 2 owners who weren’t looking for cellular connectivity passed on this one entirely, as the GPS-only model added nothing more than a new altimeter.

This repeated itself with the Series 5, which didn’t even include any meaningful processor improvements — the new “S5” chip was nothing more than a tweaked version of the S4 to add support for the new compass gyroscope and 32GB of RAM.

While the Series 5’s always-on display was certainly a game changer, for the vast majority of people it certainly wasn’t enough to justify an upgrade from a Series 4.

While it looks like Apple hasn’t even tweaked the processor at all this time around, the Series 7 has nothing that would really require a faster CPU. There are no new health or environmental sensors at all, and the 32GB of storage should be more than enough for what most folks keep on their wrists.

Although MacRumors has confirmed that Apple is calling this year’s chip an “S7” it’s also still clearly the same t8301 silicon as last year’s S6, just like the prior S4 and S5 chips were both t8006 chips. So it’s unclear what, if anything, has actually changed this time around.

We’ll probably never know whether Apple contemplated creating an even more improved S7 chip for this year’s Apple Watch, but with global chip shortages and Apple’s chip engineers’ hands already full with its new M-series and A-series chips, it’s a project that would have been easy to put on the back burner.

So, when we look at what Apple has done in the past, this year’s Apple Watch Series 7 really shouldn’t have been a surprise. Sure, we were all hoping for more, but what we got was actually more in line with the reality of how Apple rolls.

Will next year’s Apple Watch Series 8 feature the rumoured flat-edged design? Only Apple knows for sure at this point. Although the company’s executives spent quite a bit of time praising the current design while unveiling the Series 7 this week, that’s par for the course. Not surprisingly, Apple always hypes up what it’s announcing as the “best design ever” — even if it already has plans in the works for more significant changes.

If there’s any truth at all to what the rumour mill had been predicting, chances are that it’s coming next year, and everyone simply jumped the gun.

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