In the past year we've seen a flurry of interest in the idea of a connected watch, coming from everyone from established players like Nike and Fossil, to startups like Allerta with its Pebble Smartwatch. For the most part, everyone has been working on making devices that out-"smart" one another — in some cases even working to build SDKs and app stores for downloadable software. In the meantime, Japanese manufacturer Casio has been lurking in the background, plotting how to sell its more traditional designs in this emerging market. You see, Casio got into the smart watch game early on with its Data Bank devices in the 80s, but in recent years it hasn't been quite the innovator it once was. Even so, its G-Shock line of ruggedized plastic watches have seen a big resurgence in popularity since the mid-2000s, owing to their retro look, durability, low price, and cachet among the streetwear crowd.
Casio's reply to the modern crop of smart watches is the GB-6900; a classic four-button G-Shock body that adds Bluetooth 4.0 and just enough new functionality to hopefully attract buyers looking for a fashionable, connected accessory. As we've mentioned before, watches are jewelry first, and timepieces second. If a watch doesn't look good, you're not going to want to pay money for it, regardless of how long its feature list is. So does the addition of a handful of Bluetooth add-ons like email notifications and a Find My Phone-like search feature justify the nearly $100 price jump between the GB-6900 and a comparable G-Shock without Bluetooth? Read on and find out.
Why mess with a good thing?
The GB–6900 is a chunky, plastic, multi-function watch, and fans of Casio's G-Shock series will find a lot to like about it. In fact, it looks so similar to some of the company's other pieces that unless you're familiar with the lineup it can be hard to tell the difference. The size and weight of the GB-6900 — about 50 x 50mm (2 x 2 inches) and 64 grams (2.26 ounces) tend toward the big-and-heavy end of the G-Shock spectrum, but not overly so. It only outweighs the solar-powered G6900KG-3 by a single gram, and despite its large size it's comfortable to wear and doesn't attract too much attention. The body and strap on my unit are both made from the same high-gloss black plastic and contain deep blue accents, but the watch is also available in both red with black and yellow, and white with blue. The biggest exterior difference you’ll find between the GB–6900 and Casio's other similarly-designed pieces (like the DW6900HM or the aforementioned G6900KG-3) is the LCD. It's roughly the same size as Casio's other 6900 series watches, but it makes space for two additions: alert animations and a Bluetooth indicator to let you know at a glance if your phone and watch are currently connected. It also features the G-Shock line's name-inspiring shock resistance, a vibrating buzzer for alerts, water resistance to 20 bars of pressure, and an LED backlight.
Battery life that's measured in years instead of days
Casio is using low-power Bluetooth 4.0 in the GB-6900, which gives it incredible battery life compared with everyone else in the smart watch market. In fact, Casio quotes two years on a single CR2032 lithium coin. We only got 3-4 days of use out of Sony's SmartWatch on a single charge, and Allerta's Pebble will need to be charged at least once a week. The GB-6900 lasts more than a hundred times longer. Unfortunately, Bluetooth 4.0 still isn’t that widespread in 2012, and Casio says this lack of compatible devices is keeping the GB–6900 Japan-only, at least for now. At this point, the company is only claiming compatibility with half a dozen Medias branded devices produced jointly by itself and NEC.
I asked Casio what was keeping it from expanding the lineup to reflect the recent announcement of Bluetooth 4.0 phones in Japan, and it responded that while phones with Bluetooth 4.0 and the right profile should work in theory, it isn't adding any new devices to its compatibility list until they've been tested with the watch. Since both the iPhone 4S and new iPad have Bluetooth 4.0, I pressed to see if Casio was considering moving into iOS territory, but the company declined to comment.
Casio isn't trying to break a ton of new ground with the GB-6900's Bluetooth features. Inside, the watch is mostly the same old G-Shock, but adds half a dozen or so functions that exploit its connection to your smartphone. The big ones are email and voice call notifications, Find Me, a dropped connection notification, and automatic time adjustment.
Some of the first things you'd want to add to any Bluetooth-enabled watch are telephone and email notifications, and Casio does a good job here. The watch beeps and / or buzzes dutifully every time you get a call, email, or SMS; with the watch pressed against my wrist I never missed a notification, and I didn't experience any phantom rings, either. When you get a new call or message the LCD on the watch displays a notification animation and a name from your address book if you get a voice call or SMS, or just a phone number if you don't have a record for the sender. Since the watch is getting this contact info from the phone it's disappointing that email notifications don’t also include the sender’s name, but at least the watch will tell you what kind of message you have. SMS messages start with an "S" while emails start with "E" followed by the name of your account. You can dismiss notifications with a quick double-tap on the watch's face, or press of the split / reset button.
Perhaps the biggest standout feature on the GB-6900 is Find Me, which makes your misplaced phone ring and buzz wildly for about 15 seconds, temporarily overriding your device's volume setting. You activate it by pressing and holding the start / stop button, and because it uses Bluetooth instead of a Wi-Fi or cellular connection you can use it even when your phone can’t get signal — a definite advantage over something like Apple’s Find My Phone. Bluetooth only has a 50-foot range, which could be a problem if you live in a larger house, but I didn't have any problems locating the phone in my modestly-sized apartment.
The watch also has a dropped connection notification that lets you know when it loses its Bluetooth link with your phone, alerting you if you accidentally leave it somewhere, and letting you know when you walk outside of Find Me range. Lastly, there’s an automatic time adjustment feature that will reset your watch to match the time on your phone, which is nice if you do a lot of traveling across time zones.
Find Me and dropped connection notifications work more or less exactly as expected, connecting your watch to your phone in simple but useful ways. While it seems trivial, the reduced friction from not having to wake up your computer, go to a webpage, and enter your credentials made the feature a lot more pleasant to use than something like Find My Phone. In an incredible feat of laziness, by the end of my time with the device I found myself using Find Me rather than taking a split second to glance around my living room — a triumph of convenience over efficiency. All in all, the Bluetooth functions seemed well thought out and completely unobtrusive. Unlike the more elaborate wristtop computers we’ve been seeing lately, the GB–6900 is a humble G-Shock that just happens to be connected to your phone, and it doesn't try to be anything more.
Only a few functions, but they make all the difference
Every once in a while you need you to dig through the watch's menu maze
If you’ve ever used a multi-function digital watch, you know how frustrating it can be to steer through the hierarchy of menus with nothing but hardware buttons labeled "mode," "adjust," "split / reset," and "start / stop," and the GB–6900 is no different. Things like setting an alarm or timer are orders of magnitude more difficult than doing the same on a touchscreen. The G-Shock Android app (more below) isn't able to change the watch's settings, only send information — things like phone and email notifications. This is an instance where a more thorough redesign of Casio's watch architecture could really have paid off, saving owners from a lot of needless button pressing. Thankfully, the GB–6900’s designers at least made sure that the initial Bluetooth setup is quick and easy. In fact, you just need a single long button press to make the watch discoverable. From there, you only need to select "pair and connect" from the smartphone app to complete the connection.
The GB–6900 gives you three choices for notifications: beep, buzz, or both. The bad news is that in order to choose which one you want for calls and emails you’ll need to jump into the menu on the watch itself; a frustrating experience until you get the hang of it. In order to change your notification settings you need to memorize this sequence: press and hold "adjust" to enter setup, press the "mode" button three times to advance to alert notification setup, press the "split / reset" button to cycle through the call alert notification options, press the "adjust" button to advance again to the email alert notification options… you see where I’m going with this. The whole operation would obviously be much simpler to perform on the phone, which means there’s almost certainly some kind of hardware reason why Casio decided to go this route, but it’s still more complicated than it needs to be. In my case, I just set both call and email notifications to silent + vibrate once and left it alone, but I could see this being frustrating if you wanted to switch back and forth.
Aside from changing alerts from silent to audible, most of the time you need to change settings you'll need to go to Casio's G-Shock Android app. Its design is extremely simple — open it and you're taken to the Notifications pane with five on / off buttons that dictate which notifications you get. On the menu are telephone, email, alarm, schedule, and pedometer. Without some kind of control over whose messages result in notifications my arm would be buzzing all day, and the app lets you choose to whitelist only those people in your address book, or a list of names that you pick manually. Unfortunately there is no way to whitelist groups of contacts, which seems like an obvious oversight. Alarm and schedule notifications send an alert to your watch when there's an alert for the same on your phone, and pedometer alerts you when you've reached your target number of steps. The app also gives you control over the volume for the Find Me feature discussed above. Overall, things are intuitive and easy to find, but I'd prefer to have a little more control, particularly more complex filters for notifications, the ability to whitelist groups of contacts, and the ability to change audio settings for notifications without having to dig through the watch's menus. One final point worth noting about the app is that while it bundles a Twitter widget, that's where integration with the service stops. If you want notifications for your direct messages you'll need to rely on emails instead.
In the end, the question is this: did Casio do the right thing by sticking to its formula instead of re-inventing the wheel? I, and I suspect a lot of people, would prefer to wear something on my wrist that looks more like a G-Shock than an iPod nano, but did Casio strike the right balance?
In my opinion, yes, though the device isn't perfect. Having to dig through the watch's menus is a point of frustration, and with a touchscreen phone handy there shouldn't be any need to rely on the watch's antiquated input. And while the smartphone app is easy to use, it's missing some of the control that people with busy inboxes would want in a device like this. There's also one more huge, glaring problem: the number of devices compatible with the watch. While Bluetooth 4.0 lets the GB-6900 last for two years on a single battery, it also restricts compatibility to all but the most recent phones. And Casio isn't helping things with the pace it's adding new phones to the compatibility list. For the watch to have even a chance of success overseas it's going to need to support a broad array of devices, including Apple's iPhone.
That said, assuming you have a phone that works with it, the GB-6900 is a great device. By keeping things simple, Casio is able to provide the biggest features you would want in a connected watch and still keep things looking like a timepiece instead of a computer. Wristtops certainly have their place, and people that are looking for that kind of deep functionality are going to want to look elsewhere than the GB-6900. But if, like me, you're looking for a watch that can talk to your phone without yelling to the room, Casio's Bluetooth G-Shock definitely fits the bill.