We crack open the Snapchat Spectacles for a look at the tech that makes these specs smarter than your average shades.
Few accessories are more important for the summer than a stylish pair of sunglasses. But the Snapchat Spectacles ($130) do a lot more than just protect your eyes. The Spectacles have an embedded camera that lets you record 10-second videos of all of your summertime fun and share them via the Snapchat app on your iPhone or Android device.
How did Snapchat turn an average pair of specs into a social media must-have? To find out, I broke out my tools and cracked them open.
SEE: Snapchat Spectacles: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)
Cracking open the Snapchat Spectacles
The Spectacles' internal hardware is stored in two compartments mounted on either side of the frame, above and behind the lenses. On the left, are the record button, indicator lights and charging connector. On the right, are the camera and microphone.
Before doing any actual cracking, I removed the temples, which I was shocked to learn is the official name for the arms on a pair of glasses that run alongside your head and over your ears.
Using a heat gun, a variety of plastic tools and a universal opener (better known as my thumbnail), I next removed the glued-on plastic covers that protect the Spectacles' high-tech innards.
The battery, charging circuitry, LED indicator lights and record button contact are located in the left compartment. On the right, are the camera, microphone, and the integrated circuits that make these sunglasses smarter than your average shades. A thin ribbon cable runs through the frame and across the bridge (that part that runs over your nose), connecting the two sides.
Luckily most of the internal components are held in places with screws, which were easily removed with a Torx T1 or T3 bit.
First to come out was the battery, to which a small circuit board is attached. This board contains power management ICs and the LED indicator light that lets the wearer know when the camera is recording. I took out the circular, front-facing LED lights next, with a little help from our heat gun to loosen the adhesive that holds them to the frame.
Turning my attention the other side of the glasses, I detached the thin cable that runs through the frame, removed several screws that hold the internal components in place, and then lifted out two tiny boards boards that are sandwiched together. The most prominent chip on these boards is the Nordic Semiconductor nRF51822 that provides wireless connectivity.
The main circuit board, camera, and microphone, in the right compartment are all connected to a metal bracket. After lifting everything out as a single piece, I was able to separate the board from the rest of the components. The main circuit board contains the Ambarella A12 camera system-on-chip (SoC), with embedded ARM Cortex A9 CPU, and a Kingston 04EPOP04-EL3BM627 memory chip.
The entire teardown took about 45 minutes, at least 20 of which I spent carefully heating and removing the various the glued-on components.
What the teardown tells us
More delicate than an average pair of specs: Thanks to a limited amount of adhesive and the fact that the internal screws are standard sizes and easily accessible, my teardown was fairly simple. And I was pleasantly surprised at how well-constructed the Spectacles were. They should go back together and work perfectly. That said, they were clearly not designed to be taken apart and repaired by the average owner or even your local eyeglasses shop. If you drop them in the pool and water damages the internal circuits you might not be able to get them fixed. So, treat them better than you would your average pair of plastic shades.
Lower-power components + no screen = long battery life: The Spectacles' 0.52Wh battery might seem puny compared to other prominent wearables like the Apple Watch Series 2 (1.03Wh battery), Moto 360 (1.1Wh battery) or Google Glass Explorer Edition (2.1Wh battery). But thanks to not having a screen and its low-power circuits, the Spectacles can shoot a lot of videos on a single charge, especially when using the external battery built into the case. One thing that runs down the battery quickly is transferring the HD versions of your clips to your phone via Wi-Fi.
Tech similar to police body cameras: Ambarella, the company that makes the video processor inside the Spectacles, also makes video chips for wearable cameras (including those from GoPro), car dashcams, aerial drones, and VR cameras. In fact, a version of the A12 SoC is used in police body cameras. Given that the Spectacles are basically just a wearable camera crammed into an oddly stylish pair of sunglasses, it isn't surprising Snapchat used hardware from a chip manufacturer with experience in this area.
Wearable tech done the right way
So what did we learn from cracking open the Spectacles? Two things.
First, it's getting ridiculously easy to put cameras in everyday objects. On the upside, this means I'll soon be able to watch the tomato soup cook in my microwave from the comfort of my couch. On the down side, it means it will be even easier for my so-called friends to snap embarrassing footage of me shanking my tee shot on the golf course.
Second, the Spectacles are an example of good wearable tech. They're well-built, simple to use, work as expected and most importantly, focus on a single task. As Lexy Savvides wrote in her CNET review, the Spectacles "do one thing -- record video for Snapchat -- but they do that one thing really well." I hope other wearable manufacturers take note, and follow suit.