It’s been a busy year for the smartwatch. In just the past few months, we’ve seen numerous smartwatches from Pebble, LG, Motorola, Samsung, and countless companies you’ve probably never heard of. And Apple’s expected to announce a smartwatch of its own in just a week’s time. The ones we've seen so far vary in capabilities, but one constant remains: they are more gadget than watch. I’ve long said that smartwatches look and function too much like “computers on your wrist,” and it’s an apt description for the vast majority of the smartwatches that you can buy today.
Meta Watch, a company born from former Fossil engineers and one of the pioneers of the modern smartwatch movement, claims to buck this trend. Its new Meta M1, which begins shipping today and starts at $249, trades the futuristic gadget fantasy for another, older kind of gadget: the chronograph style watch. It’s still a smartwatch in that it connects to my smartphone via Bluetooth, buzzes my wrist with notifications, and shows me my upcoming calendar appointments. But it’s not the gadget that other smartwatches aspire to be. I can’t bark orders at it with my voice and I can’t turn my smart lights on and off with it. Forget about ordering a pizza with the M1 — it can’t even count my steps as I walk.
Meta Watch’s watch industry pedigree shines through loud and clear with the M1: this is a watchmaker’s smartwatch, not a wrist-worn electronic Swiss Army knife made by the same company that produces your smartphone. That can either be a good or a bad thing; I’ve spent the last two weeks wearing the M1 to find out.
The biggest difference between the M1 and other smartwatches is, well, it doesn’t really look like a smartwatch. Its design recalls a busy analog chronograph, with more buttons and details in one small area than should really be there. It’s certainly polarizing, most people either love it or hate it, but it’s not unlike many traditional chronographs in that respect. Think modern Tag Heuer, not vintage Dieter Rams Braun. For what it’s worth, the design has grown on me, and I think it looks a lot better when worn on a wrist than when sitting on a desk.
The M1’s premium materials are really what set it apart from the rest of the smartwatch field: even the base model has an all-metal body with a substantial weight that feels much nicer than plastic smartwatches like LG’s G Watch or Samsung’s Gear line. The $249 model has a natural rubber band (scented with vanilla, so it "doesn’t smell like a used tire") available in an assortment of colors. If you’re willing to spend a little more, you can get leather or steel band options (there are eight different configurations in total). My gold-and-blue review unit has a thick, stiff leather band that takes a day or so of wear to break in, but it’s clearly of a much higher-quality leather than you get on a cheap wristwatch.
Premium materials set the M1 apart
The M1 unique armature system is supposed to make the rectangular watch conform better to your wrist and was designed by Frank Nuovo, formerly of Vertu. The watch’s buttons are integrated into the hinges of the armatures and control the various functions of the watch (there’s no touchscreen on the M1’s black-and-white digital display). There’s a charging port on the bottom and the Micro USB charging connector smartly snaps to the back of the watch with a magnet. It’s a comfortable watch to wear, and if you’re used to wearing an analog watch, you likely won’t notice its weight.
The display is a black-and-white rectangular screen, similar in size and resolution to the Pebble’s display. It’s easy to read outdoors and is always on, so I didn’t have to shake my wrist or press a button to quickly check the time. It’s noticeably pixelated, and doesn’t compare to the high resolution displays on today’s smartphones, but it’s easily read with just a glance.
Despite using a similar display as the Pebble, the M1 uses a different backlight, and it is terrible. Unlike the Pebble’s even, backlit glow whenever you jiggle your wrist, the M1’s backlight requires a button press to turn on. The light itself is pathetically weak, similar to what digital watches offered two decades ago before Timex changed the game with Indiglo. For all intents and purposes, it doesn’t work, failing to illuminate the screen and making the watch all but impossible to read in the dark.
Aside from the backlight issues, the hardware experience of the M1 is exactly what Meta Watch is going for. It doesn’t look or feel like a smartwatch, and though I got a couple of odd glances when wearing the blue-and-gold model, nobody stopped me to ask about the computer on my wrist. I could see wearing it with a suit or dressier attire; it's more formal than the straight casual look of the LG G Watch or any Samsung smartwatch.
If you’re considering the M1, the first thing you have to acknowledge is that you’re not buying into the same ecosystem you’d get from Google or Pebble (or, presumably, Apple). Meta Watch doesn’t have an app store and doesn’t plan on launching one any time soon. There isn’t a community of developers building new apps, watch faces, and functions for the M1. That said, if you’re looking for a nice watch, and the M1’s design appeals to you, its smart functions do add a dose of utility to what is otherwise a basic timepiece.
There are eight digital and analog-style watch faces on the M1. The faces are rather traditional — you won’t find an LCARS imitator or a face with your favorite brand or sports team. My preferred analog style face doesn’t include a date indicator, so I do wish Meta offered slightly more control over the faces.
Certain parts of the M1’s software feel incomplete: the music-control screen doesn’t show artist and song information for most music apps on iOS, the timer function doesn’t include a stopwatch, and there is no built-in alarm of any sort. It also has a tendency to reset itself to the default watch face whenever it disconnects from my phone. Further, the font size is too small to read comfortably, which makes it a bit of a chore to read notifications.
The M1 doesn't offer the same apps or ecosystem as Google or Pebble
Fortunately, there is a notification center, which groups all of the incoming alerts sent to your wrist. You can’t actually do anything with the alerts: you have to go back to your phone for that, but it’s convenient to page through them to get an idea of what you recently missed. I like Meta’s approach to notifications, but I do wish there was a way to immediately delete or archive unwanted emails or simultaneously clear notifications from my watch and my phone.
Meta’s companion app, available for iOS 7 and Android 4.3 or newer devices, lets you rearrange the six home screens on the M1 (time, weather, calendar, music, notifications, and timer) and monitor the remaining battery life on the watch. The companion app also gives you control over what notifications will hit your wrist, down to specific apps. For example, you can have something light up your phone’s display, but not buzz your wrist, a nice improvement over the all-or-nothing alerts that Pebble offers on iOS. The same feature is available on Meta’s Android app, and it behaves similarly to the Android Wear app’s notification controls.
Meta Watch says that it has other features planned for the M1, including custom feeds for sports scores and other news information that can be pushed to your wrist or instantly available when you look at your watch.
Since the M1 doesn’t have a color display and isn’t always listening for a voice command, Meta Watch boasts that its battery can last up to a week between charges, longer than the Pebble. My experience with the M1 lines up with Meta’s predictions: I was able to go a full five days between charges, even with the watch connected to my phone and receiving alerts the entire time. Meta Watch tells me that future firmware updates will improve the M1’s battery life even more.
With the M1, Meta Watch’s goal is not to appeal to most people. Rather, the company is going after the traditional watch buyer, the person already wearing one on their wrist and are willing to spend a few hundred dollars on a nice watch that also might have some smarts. Meta is aiming for the Tissot buyer, not the G Watch wearer.
For the most part, the M1 succeeds in that relatively unambitious goal. It has much nicer materials than any other smartwatch I’ve ever used, has a distinctive, if polarizing, design, and is available in a number of different configurations depending on taste and budget. Its smartwatch functions are genuinely useful, and the long battery life means I don’t have to worry about charging it daily.
The M1’s design is not for everyone: it’s unique enough that some people will like it, while many others may hate it. But that’s fine. That’s how the watch industry has always worked: there are thousands of designs from hundreds of different makers, each appealing to a different type of person. The M1 is a watch made by watch people for watch people, and if you’re not a fan of its style or aren’t interested in it as a piece of jewelry, you should look at the litany of other smartwatch options flooding the market.
For me, I could easily see the M1 replacing my day-to-day watch (just not the blue and gold model, I’ll take silver and black or the brown and black model), which is a huge step forward for smartwatches in general. It’s not a do-all gadget with a laundry list of functions: it does a few things and does them relatively well. That’s probably not enough for those seriously thinking about Android Wear watches or eagerly looking forward to what Apple has up its sleeve. But for the rest of the watch wearing world, the M1 is a good watch with a few smart tricks to boot. And that’s all it needs to be.
Photography by Sean O'Kane