Earlier this week a Chinese company called iMCO launched a crowdfunding campaign for CoWatch, a new stainless steel, round-faced smartwatch. But the watch's most interesting features have nothing to do with hardware: it's the CoWatch's software and integration with Alexa that hold the most promise.
Yes, that Alexa. The big idea with CoWatch is that you can use Amazon's Alexa as a personal assistant on your smartwatch. The concept isn't new, of course — you can "Hey Siri" and "Okay Google" all day long on Apple Watch and Android Wear — but it's the first instance of Alexa that we've seen on the wrist.
First, the externals: the body of the CoWatch is made entirely of stainless steel, with the exception of the display and a ceramic ring that the company says is both for looks and to boost wireless connectivity. There's a single physical button on the side that turns the display on and off. With a long press, it also brings up the settings menu of the watch. The display is a 1.39-inch touchscreen, AMOLED display with a resolution of 400 x 400.
One thing smartwatch hounds will notice right away: unlike some other round-faced watches, the CoWatch's display doesn't have a flat tire. (They'll also take note of the Milanese band, which everyone from Apple to Huawei now offers with smartwatches; the makers of CoWatch say leather bands are also in the works.)
The first instance of Alexa on a smartwatch
The CoWatch has one gigabyte of RAM and 8GB of flash memory. Battery life is standard: it's expected to last about a day and a half with the watch fully functioning. Oh, and it offers the standard set of sensors needed for basic fitness tracking, including an accelerometer, a gyroscope, even optical heart rate sensors. IMCO says it is striving to offer a premium smartwatch at a reasonable price, and provided it sticks to current pricing, that might be the case: its preorder price is $159 on IndieGoGo, and the company plans to sell it for $279 when it ships in June.
There's no getting around it: the CoWatch is big, especially on my wrists. It's 12mm thick, and the stainless steel wings on either side of the face don't do it any favors. IMCO says it plans to make watches more geared toward women or those with delicate wrists, but I have to say I wouldn't buy the CoWatch based on aesthetics alone.
What intrigues me more is the software. The CoWatch runs on an Android-based OS called Cronologics, made by former Googlers and Android engineers who have been developing the smartwatch-specific software platform since 2014. It pairs with either iOS or Android smartphones. But with Cronologics OS, all of the computing happens either on the watch itself or in the cloud, which means the smartwatch wouldn't be totally reliant on the smartphone in order to work. "Right now we're seeing all of these phone paradigms being shrunk down to a wrist-sized screen," Cronologics co-founder Leor Stern told The Verge in an interview. "We're trying to make it much more akin to a traditional wristwatch."
Cronologics, made by former Googlers, appears to be an intuitive smartwatch OS
"More akin to a traditional wristwatch" in this case means that most of the interactions on the watch are shallow. Rather than having to navigate an entire cluster of apps on a tiny display, or swipe two to three times to get to an action, most information is accessible or displayed within one tap. It's a refreshing approach. App icons are displayed three to a screen at max, and Cronologics refers to these as containers, not complications. Speaking of apps, Cronologics says that all Android apps should run on CoWatch — but it's better if they're optimized for the Cronologics OS.
Cronologics also supports Alexa on the CoWatch, by passing audio through to Alexa's web service and getting audio responses back on the watch. It's not a totally hands-free interaction, which means you still have to navigate to the Alexa container on the watch and tap it, but then you can use voice control. In an hour-long demo of the CoWatch I was able to ask it for basic information like the weather in San Francisco, or who is Jeff Bezos. I could add things to my Amazon shopping list, and I even asked Alexa on the watch, "Who is Walt Mossberg?"
But it's still a very raw version of CoWatch, which means that it only worked half of the time in the demo. The other half of the time, Alexa either didn't recognize the audio query or took a long time to process the info. Also, the microphone and speaker are close to the underside of the watch, which made the audio responses sound muffled. Both CoWatch and Cronologics said the audio quality was still a work in progress.
Normally we approach crowdfunded hardware with a fair amount of skepticism, given just how hard it is to make hardware. But CoWatch, which has been in the works for a year, and Cronologic OS have shown me just enough to think they might be on to something.
Photos by Vjeran Pavic