Intel and Tag Heuer Go Modular with $1,600 Smartwatch

When does a smartwatch go beyond a utilitarian wearable to become a high-end luxury timepiece eye-candy? Intel and Tag Heuer believe they have the answer with the Tag Heuer Connected Modular 45 watch.

The watch will go set you back a mere $1,600 when it goes on sale March 15.

Unlike the previous Intel-Tag Heuer watch collaboration that debuted in 2015, the Connected Modular 45 is conceived as an integrated ecosystem that features a broad collection of elements designed to let wearers customize their own unique looks.

At its core is an interchangeable connected watch module that lets you buy and swap out straps and buckles. It comes in 11 different designs with either brush titanium or Black PVD faces. These two color schemes are paired with complementary bezels, lugs, and straps, though these can also be bought independently.

Beyond those options are 45 additional designs that you can order from a boutique or online for a total of 56 different designs. Straps come in rubber, leather, titanium, and ceramic. There are also four lug and two buckle options. All this adds up to more than 500 style options, including 30 dial styles.

MORE: The Apple Watch 2 Has a Killer Feature No One is Talking About

If you want to customize your watch face further, you can turn to the Tag Heuer Studio, an interactive watch face configurator featuring a collection of dials, metals, luminescence, and color highlights to visually mix and match, so you can go nuts creating up to 4,000 different styles either directly on the phone or via the smartphone app.

There are two mechanical modules available for swapping out: The Calibre 5, a classic three hand, and the Heuer 02T Tourbillon Chronograph.

Packed with Features

The watch is based on the Intel Atom Z34XX processor, running on the Android Wear 2.0 platform. It features a 1.39-inch AMOLED touchscreen display, 2.5 sapphire cover glass in a titanium case, and 4GB of memory. A charge lasts more than a day, and the watch is water resistance to 5ATM.

The original Connected series had a gyroscope, accelerometer, tilt detection sensor, microphone, and vibrations/haptics engine sensors. This new series offers much more. The all-metal watch now supports Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and Near Field Communications, so you can track workouts and navigate a route without a smartphone.

The all-metal watch has built in security, according to Jerry Bautista, Intel’s vice president and general manager. “In the payment process, there’s a small window — a proximity sensor — in the back of the watch,” Bautista said.

When you put the watch on, you must authenticate yourself to be able to use Google payments. “And if you take the watch off, then it is no longer authenticated, and we can tell you took it off because of the proximity sensor. So if someone was to find your watch, they can’t go crazy at Best Buy buying stuff. They would have to re-authenticate themselves and that’s how we control and keep the watch secure.”

Tag Heuer wanted to adhere to the traditional Swiss watch-making capabilities and approaches. That meant a fully metal device, but the watch maker had to find ways to get the signals out of the device, according to Bautista. “There’s a layer beneath the bezel that’s plastic, in which all the antennas are clustered. So with this watch, we have 70 percent better Wi-Fi performance than in the first watch. We learned a lot about how to handle antennas better.”

Instead of using glue and screws, the Connected Modular 45 watch has “precision tolerances around cones where the crystal top, the bezel, and the other components are nested," Bautista said. "Cylinders with gaskets in between and literally pressed together” to create a robust structure.

“It is literally how Swiss mechanical watches are built and it is very different than traditional consumer electronics,” he added.

Large and Lego-like

I got to try my hand at outfitting a few of these watches. It's quite clear that changing out watch components for the first time is not something you want to undertake right before a stressful business meeting.

Manipulating this timepiece is reminiscent of Lego, but quite a bit more challenging. This brand new modular configuration lets you completely rearrange component parts, but some transformations were easier than others. For example, I found the ceramic strap to be tough to handle, with the flexible bracelet often slipping awkwardly from my hands as I tried connecting it to the lugs. To adjust the size of the ceramic link band, you’ll need a screwdriver with a teensy head. Or you can just take it to a Tag Heuer expert and have it properly sized.

But even for the leather or sportier rubber wrist straps, you need to engage muscle memory to attach the strap to the lugs and the lugs to the watch. The pieces are precision engineered and fit together seamlessly, but it is not an intuitive process at first glance. It took a few tries to get everything fitting together. The interchangeable lugs must be positioned just so in order to snap into place, and they were a bit sharp if awkwardly handled. With both the leather and rubber strap, two buttons on either side unlock the buckle so that it expands to let you put on or take off the watch.

Once you succeed in getting the watch affixed to your wrist, it’s a matter or personal taste as to whether it’s a good fit. The Connected Modular 45 is large, and mostly suitable for men simply because of the size. People with small, thin wrists will not find this watch especially comfortable. I also found the leather band a bit stiff and inflexible, but perhaps it softens with time, as leather generally does. Tag Heuer plans a smaller women’s version of the watch later in the year, but gave no timetable for release.

Android Wear 2.0 Inside

The watch display, with a new companion Android Wear 2.0 app, will use machine learning to understand your daily activities to assist in keeping you on schedule. This new experience adapts to your schedule, knows your calendar and location, and will issue notifications at appropriate times, even if you are early or late.

In addition to the tap-to-pay near field communications tech, which enables contactless payments from your wrist, the Tag Heuer Connected Companion app for Android helps users take full advantage of the watch’s features. You can even talk to your watch via Google Voice, since it sports a small microphone in addition to the touchscreen.

Photo Credit: Jackie Dove

Jackie Dove

Jackie is an obsessive, insomniac tech writer and editor in northern California. A wildlife advocate, cat fan, and photo app fanatic, her specialties include cross-platform hardware and software, art, design, photography, video, and a wide range of creative and productivity apps and systems. Formerly senior editor at Macworld and creativity editor at The Next Web, Jackie now writes for a variety of consumer tech publications.