Did iPod nano wristbands give smart watches a desperately-needed kick in the rear? The jury's still out; we might not have the answer for a few years yet. For the moment, smart watches remain little more than novelties and conversation pieces, but this year has given rise to a couple new players in an industry that's been largely dormant over the last decade — even as the wristwatch business as a whole has risked obsolescence. It's a lot harder to sell a timepiece to consumers who have time-telling devices (called cellphones) in their pockets.
WIMM Labs came out of stealth mode earlier this year, introducing its so-called WIMM Platform — the core component of which is a tiny, 36 x 32 x 12.5mm cube running a tweaked build of Android with a capacitive touchscreen, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. All told, it's a lot of technology packed into a tiny space. WIMM envisions it in a variety of uses, but clearly, it's got all the makings of a powerful smart watch... as long as developers come to the table. Those devs stand to get their first crack at it starting today with the $299 WIMM One kit, but can it help put Android on every wrist?
The actual WIMM One module is ridiculously small
Though the WIMM One is strictly targeted at developers, you certainly wouldn't know it from the upscale, well thought-out box. It's actually a two-tier box: opening the top tier reveals just the the module itself, and it's the very first thing you see. It's breathtakingly small — though to be fair, it's a little less miraculous in the age of the iPad nano, which is about 4mm longer, 5mm wider, and 4mm thinner. Pulling the top tier completely off reveals elastic bands underneath holding some brief documentation in place, just enough to get you off the ground and direct you to WIMM's website for more information.
In the second tier — the bottom two-thirds of the box — you'll find the wristband, complete with a second dummy module pre-installed so you can immediately see what it'll look like fully assembled as a watch (admittedly, there was a split second where I didn't know which module to throw away). You'll also find a USB wall adapter, a Micro USB cable, and something that WIMM calls the "paddle charger," which is the accessory you use to keep the module charged. If you plan on developing for the platform, it's also what you'll use to connect the module to your computer.
From the time I opened the box to the time my wrist was in the brave Android-powered future was no more than 60 seconds — in other words, not much longer than any other watch. The module has a flush button along its right side that you press and hold to power it up the first time; it's hidden once you install it in the wristband, but you never really need to press it, so it's not a big deal. My unit came roughly half charged, ample time to check it out right out of the box without a painful wait.
After powering up, you're instructed to insert the module into the wristband, which you do by sticking it behind the band's bezel and pushing upwards. It's simply a good, tight pressure fit — there's no clasp or other lock — but there are slight ridges along either edge of the module that seem designed to keep it firmly in place once it's installed. I found that there was zero wiggle or slack in the module once I slid it into the band, though I imagine it could grow loose over time if you were constantly taking in and out. For most users, that shouldn't be a problem.
Part of WIMM's appeal is that the module isn't just designed to be turned into a watch, of course — it could be anything. The company's site depicts mockups of everything from belt holsters to keyring lanyards, and developers have access to the specs and information they need to develop compatible accessories. I can't help but wonder if the module's limited attachment points won't restrict the kinds of accessories that can be developed, since they'll have to completely surround the module's left and right edges in order to keep it in place — but if nothing else, that shouldn't be an issue for wristband designs.
Anyway, that's it: once you've snapped the module into the band, you've got a complete watch. You're ready to attach the WIMM One to your wrist.
The WIMM One's included wristband reminds me a bit of the original Kindle: it's so ugly, it actually looks great. If you read our preview of the device from back in August, the band you get in the kit is one of the samples that WIMM was showing off back then — it's wide, chunky, and matte black, all traits that give it something of an unintentionally stylish appeal. To be sure I wasn't crazy, I wore the watch in a handful of social situations — conspicuously flaunting it here and there — and didn't get a single comment or odd stare, which is an encouraging sign that you can make it blend in. In other words, it just looks like a watch, and that's mostly a good thing.
The included wristband reminds me a bit of the original Kindle: it's so ugly, it actually looks great
The band is a simple buckle type made of a soft rubber that I found considerably more pleasing to the touch than your average sports watch. One downside, though, is that it picks up dirt and grime very easily — I was constantly rubbing it with my fingers to rid it of dust and dirt I was picking up in the course of my travels. The bezel itself, the portion of the band directly surrounding the module, is a hard, matte plastic that perfectly matches the rear of the module. Exposed Torx screws at all four corners (or what appear to be Torx screws, anyway) keep the band attached. There aren't any buttons or crowns, which will be a bit of a learning curve for current watch wearers making the upgrade — day-to-day operation of the WIMM One is done entirely through the touchscreen.
As I mentioned, the actual WIMM One module is ridiculously small, and it's pretty featureless — it's just a black box with a screen that takes up nearly all of the top surface. The edges and back are of a matte black plastic that seems to be of a high quality; I didn't get the impression it would scratch easily, and even if you managed to do it, it'd tend to blend in with the material's natural texture.
The bottom of the back has a "Powered by WIMM" logo along with a set of gold pads — 14 in total — that are used for charging and wired communication. Different accessories could interface with these and expose different types of ports. The included paddle charger actually only makes contact with four of these pads, providing charging and USB connectivity when the module is dropped into the recessed area on the charger's top surface. Conveniently, a magnet holds the module in place, and it works equally well whether you're using the wristband or not (of course, certain accessories might make this particular charger design impossible to use without removing the module).
Around front, you've got a 1.4-inch capacitive touchscreen display at 160 x 160 resolution. With the backlight on, the display's certainly passable, but it's not going to win awards — the viewing angle is relatively poor and the pixels are clearly delineated to the naked eye. It reminds me of the kinds of displays we were accustomed to seeing on midrange phones from a couple years ago.
The real magic happens when the backlight turns off, though. The WIMM One's LCD is transflective, a technology largely abandoned in the mobile arena that can use ambient light to illuminate the display and make it easier to read — by contrast, traditional LCDs tend to wash out under direct lighting. In practice, that means the module can significantly reduce battery drain and still keep the display on full-time. It looks seriously great on this module and I found that it accomplished its mission — I barely ever enabled the backlight. Even in dim ambient light, I found that I could easily make out the time on some of WIMM's included watch faces — and, of course, the backlight is just a tap of the screen away if you need it.
Battery life / performance
I was able to get about two full days of use out of a charge with Wi-Fi enabled and Bluetooth disabled. The device goes into a low-power state with the radios fully disabled once the battery gets low, but up until that point, the watch was connecting to the internet and syncing on its own every few hours. For many, the notion of placing a wristwatch on charge when they go to bed every night will be a strange and foreign one, but if you can get into the habit of doing it at the same time that you place your phone on charge, it's not that big of a deal. The mental adjustment might be a little easier if there was a Micro USB port somewhere on the module itself instead of having to drop it onto the paddle charger.
"Performance" is a different metric to nail down on a device like this. The UI is generally quite smooth — it's obviously distilled to the bare minimum so as to not bog down the meager internals — but I did experience the occasional stutter. Thing is, I usually couldn't tell whether the stutters were actual software slowdowns or simply a touchscreen glitch. There were several instances where I'd have to swipe two or three times to get the module to recognize me, or — more commonly — the initial press to bring the watch out of its low-power, backlight-off state would take a few tries to register.
Needless to say, you won't see a single shred of "stock" Android here
Even though the WIMM One is billed as a developer kit, the company provides just enough software to make this a full-featured watch with a few whiz-bang goodies thrown in — you can pretty easily enjoy it right out of the box without having to find or code any additional apps. Besides a selection of watch faces, you get a world clock (which takes advantage of the color display to show a map of each location), a five-day weather forecast, a timer, a dual alarm, a stopwatch, and a calendar that can be fed with data from your Google or Exchange account. Because this is just Android, you can sideload new apps simply by connecting the module to your computer, allowing it to mount as USB storage, and dragging the .apk to the drive; the module takes care of the rest. Long term, there'll be an official WIMM app store with a submission process and over-the-air delivery, but for now, sideloading is the only way.
Needless to say, you won't see a single shred of "stock" Android here — the platform has been thoroughly rethought to take advantage of the module's limited screen real estate. All of the apps are simple, colorful, and playful in their design — the alarm app, for instance, has a wood veneer theme to match those cheap alarm clocks you might find in a hotel room. As I mentioned before, the WIMM One has no physical buttons (apart from the concealed power button), so all of your UI interaction occurs through swipes and presses of the screen, and it generally works quite well. The concept is hierarchical — the watch face is at the top level. From there, you swipe down to access the main menu (which WIMM calls the app carousel), and once you choose an app, you swipe down again to enter it. Swiping up once exits the app, doing it again exits the carousel and returns you to the watch face.
Configuring the watch is where it gets interesting. You can set some basic options like your Wi-Fi network, airplane mode, vibration, and screen brightness from the module's own settings menu, but the real action actually happens on WIMM's website. When you get the watch, you create an account on the site and associate the watch with your account using a code that you type in. At that point, you've got access to a wealth of settings — date and time formats, units of measurement, which watch faces you want installed, and settings for individual apps. For instance, I can set which cities appear in the One's world clock and weather apps, and I can set which account (if any) the calendar should be using for data. By default, the watch "phones home" every three hours via Wi-Fi and checks for settings updates, but you can also force an immediate sync from the local settings menu. Conveniently, firmware updates are also over-the-air — I didn't even notice WIMM push version 1.0.1 while I was in the course of testing it.
The final piece of the puzzle — the key to making smart watches relevant in a smartphone world — is smartphone interoperability. WIMM ships with an app in the Android Market, WIMM Companion, that assists you in getting the module paired to your phone and lets you toggle text message and call alerts to be sent to the watch. As I mentioned in my MetaWatch review, a vibrating alert paired to the phone is perhaps the single greatest feature these devices can provide, and fortunately, the WIMM One does have a vibrating motor on board. The Companion app also features direct access to your account on WIMM's site, which gives you a roundabout way of making settings changes on your watch. The fact that your settings are stored in the cloud is cool, don't get me wrong, but I couldn't help feeling like I was setting off a Rube Goldberg machine every time I wanted to change from 12-hour to 24-hour time: I was using my phone to contact a web server somewhere, which would then be contacted by my watch over Wi-Fi to sync the new configuration. This isn't your old Timex Ironman, in case you haven't yet noticed.
In practice, I found that the WIMM One shares a lot — both good and bad — with the MetaWatch. Both of these companies are trying to exploit modern connectivity and impressive levels of miniaturization to make wearable computing relevant and ubiquitous, and they're going about it in slightly different ways: MetaWatch is a dedicated wristwatch, it's cheaper, and it's a lighter-weight platform with fewer capabilities. The WIMM One, by contrast, is just a cellular radio away from being an actual smartphone.
And just as with the MetaWatch, it's clear from my brief time with the WIMM One that we're still years off from making a device like this that you can broadly recommend to end users; for now, that's still the iPod nano's game to lose. In the meantime, though, this device is a blast for tinkerers and watch nerds, and I'm excited to see what third-party developers do with it.