As Samsung's Galaxy Gear commercial illustrates, the desire for a truly smart wrist-worn device is as old as the electronics industry itself. We've lusted after smart watches for so long that we've melded the two words into one utopian noun: a smartwatch. 2013 has been an undeniably good year for smartwatch enthusiasts. From the successful Kickstarter project that gave birth to the Pebble to Samsung and Sony's most sincere efforts to commercialize the category, the buyer's choice has never been wider. And that trend's only set to continue, with Nokia, Google, Apple, and Microsoft all actively eyeing the wearable device category.
Even as we keep advancing toward the end goal, however, much progress remains to be made. Prices are still too high for most consumers, functionality and battery life are too limited, and designs are a little bit too large and macho to be appealing to a truly wide audience. As Ian Drew, now executive VP at ARM and formerly a senior manager at Intel, told The Verge recently, smartwatches are still in the pre-iPod era of their development. That’s not to say that the tech industry is just waiting for Apple to show the way, but the definitive, trend-setting device that everyone tries to either beat or emulate simply hasn’t materialized yet. While we wait for someone, anyone, to deliver the ultimate smartwatch, what can the best devices available today tell us about perfecting the smart wrist-accessory?
In Android we trust
The most widely available smartwatch this holiday season will be of the "Android companion" variety. Though keen to be branded as smart and productive in their own right, these devices rely heavily on a connected Android smartphone to provide them with information and alerts. Ever since the first LiveView in 2010, Sony has been describing its wrist devices as a second screen for your phone. Think of all the myriad things you check on your phone, from social media updates to text messages to weather forecasts, and imagine them instead being channeled to the much more accessible and glanceable screen on your wrist. What's more, the Bluetooth connection between your phone and your watch also lets you control media playback and the camera on your phone, turning the smartwatch into a literal remote control.
There is a downside to this symbiotic relationship, however. Your smartwatch is actually relying on a separate device for its smarts. Even Sony’s latest, the SmartWatch 2, while more refined in design and longer-lasting than its predecessors, still needs that invisible tether to your phone. It might save you from unsheathing your Android for every email you get, but it won’t let you leave the phone at home.
A smartwatch will save you time, but it won't let you leave the phone at home
Even more dependant on its smartphone guardian is Samsung’s Galaxy Gear. Some of this watch’s most basic settings are only accessible via the Gear Manager app, which is available on just two compatible devices at the time of writing: the Galaxy Note 3 and the Note 10.1 2014 Edition. If that’s not enough to make you question the wisdom of acquiring one, the Gear’s limited battery life, haphazard third-party app support, and bulky size will surely do it.
What’s dispiriting about these two devices is that they actually represent the pinnacle of what big-budget companies can achieve in the pursuit of a smartwatch for the mainstream. Pricing on both the Gear and the SmartWatch 2 is unjustifiably high, given that they serve primarily as rudimentary notification collectors, and they still carry some profound functionality limitations. The most glaring example of this hits you every time you have to activate the Gear’s screen in order to tell the time.
Many independent efforts at building such an Android-friendly watch have sprouted up over recent years, with most meeting an ignominious demise. The preference for Android appears to be stimulated by the Google platform’s prevalence and Apple’s general reluctance to let third-party developers dig too deeply into iOS. This trend hasn’t escaped Google’s attention, who bought WIMM Labs in August this year, with the likely goal of producing more of its own wearable devices.
Sony SmartWatch 2
- Extends the sophisticated Xperia design language to your wrist
- Interchangeable, standard-sized straps
- Switch off the Bluetooth connection and you’re left with just an electronic watch
- Price is high for the limited feature set
Samsung Galaxy Gear
- Built-in camera and microphones were just made for spy roleplaying
- You can carry out phone calls on your wrist, provided the phone’s nearby
- Notifications don’t tell you the content of Gmail or Twitter messages
- Battery life is more befitting a smartphone than a watch
- Built-in headphone jack and 4GB of storage make it a standalone media player
- Works with iPhones and BlackBerrys as well as Android phones
- Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram can all be tracked on the watch
- 5 hours of "generic use" is enough, right?
- Lacks the financial muscle that Sony and Samsung can put behind their products
- E-paper display gives it the same battery life advantage that e-readers have over tablets
- Can almost be mistaken for a regular watch
- Display is low-res and only really suitable for text
- No touchscreen or battery life indicator
- Measures esoterica like sleeping patterns and flights of stairs climbed
- Lasts for over a week on a charge
- You have to hit a button to see the time
- Software issues need ironing out
Nike+ FuelBand SE
- Simple and understated design
- Effortless wireless syncing
- Limited information that can be displayed on screen
- No Android support
Keeping it real simple
So if the strategy of building mini Android smartphones for your wrist is not yet mature, what’s the best alternative solution? A great many Kickstarter projects have tried and failed to answer that question, but one has succeeded: the Pebble.
The Pebble owes its success to a very simple idea: take everything useful that other smartwatches do, do it as cheaply as possible, and discard all the rest. That means no color screen, no fancy cameras, microphones, or aluminum construction; just the pure, frugal expression of a notification station on your wrist. If being a second screen to your phone is the best advantage that smartwatches currently enjoy over their conventional counterparts, they might as well perform that task as efficiently as possible. The Pebble is cheaper, lighter, and longer-lasting than any of the foregoing devices, and it comes with the built-in satisfaction that you’re supporting a small startup company. Being compatible with iPhones as well as Android devices did no harm to its chances of success, either.
The Pebble wins because of, not despite, its simplicity
More importantly, what the Pebble represents is the fundamental hardware limitation that all the best-laid smartphone plans come up against. You want to have a versatile, do-it-all smartphone replacement on your wrist, but there’s no feasible solution to achieve that goal. The moment you put in a 3G radio, you sacrifice a great deal of battery life and internal space, while a color screen and a reasonably fast processor consign you to a daily charging regimen. Basically, you end up with the Galaxy Gear. Or the LG GD910 watchphone. So, until we see new breakthroughs in battery technology, display energy efficiency, or as ARM’s Ian Drew puts it, "chips that don’t consume power," anything more ambitious than a Pebble just doesn’t seem worth pursuing.
The dark horse in this race for preeminence on your wrist is a product category that’s actually been around for a while. Wearable fitness trackers have been rapidly evolving over the past couple of years and their final destination doesn’t seem terribly different from that of a useful smartwatch. You get something that keeps the time and does a few other useful things besides — it’s just that with these devices you get a lot more smartphone independence and a lot less of the din of your social media stream. Some might consider both those things to be advantageous.
Needless to say, you won’t be checking your Twitter feed on a fitness-focused wristband. What you will be doing, however, is developing a steady addiction to accomplishing exercise-based goals. Whereas others on this list might pay only lip service to health tracking, Fitbit and Nike have entire software suites dedicated to the cause. They offer communities of fellow users to interact with and measure yourself against, plus — that ultimate gateway drug — achievement badges. The Force is the first wristband from Fitbit that will tell you the time as well as quantifying your efforts to live the good life, qualifying it for consideration as a smartwatch.
No smartphone required
The strength of both Fitbit and Nike’s proposition is the ecosystem they’ve each built up around their hardware. Fundamentally, they’re offering you something you can’t get from your phone or just a random web search — they’re giving meaning and context to the metrics of your routine, maybe even boring, activities. This gamification may be interpreted as a cheap ploy, but the many happy users of Fitbits and FuelBands show that it’s providing real value to regular humans’ lives.
As if to underscore the vitality of this market segment, Adidas has just announced its own take on the smart fitness watch in the shape of the miCoach Smart Run. Coming next month, this $399 run tracker includes GPS, heart rate monitoring, a media player, a pedometer, and a color touchscreen. Like Adidas’ competitors, it works to plug you into the company’s web-based miCoach training platform, eschewing smartphone syncing altogether.
A recipe for success must surely start with Apple's core strength: its software ecosystem. The reason the iPod nano became a randomly popular thing to strap to your wrist back in 2010 wasn’t because it made for a great watch — it really didn’t — but it did sync up to the iTunes-verse, which was enough to attract many people to the idea. Harnessing the user trust it has built up over the years, Apple can easily expand its iCloud suite to include fitness tracking a la Nike and Fitbit — and rumors of its top-secret team of biometrics and fitness experts, including some from the FuelBand team, suggest that’s exactly where the company is headed.
"To convince people that they have to wear something, it has to be incredible."
Beyond that, retaining some smartphone independence will be valuable, but the real attraction for everyone will be the promise of this being the perfect iPhone accessory. For that to happen, Apple will need to carefully balance functionality against the demands of battery life and accessible pricing. It’s probably because of that task’s high degree of difficulty that we haven’t seen the iWatch emerge yet. As Tim Cook puts it, "to convince people that they have to wear something, it has to be incredible."