The trouble with smartwatches is that no one really knows what they’re for yet. Undercooked as app platforms, underperforming as fitness trackers, and underwhelming as fashion items, it’s unclear to most people why they’d want to strap a little computer to their wrist.
As a company that’s very used to getting people to strap little computers to their wrist, however, it’s perhaps not surprising that Casio has taken a different approach with its first smartwatch. The $500 Smart Outdoor Watch twists Android Wear into a new shape like no other product before it. Although it’s far from perfect, the result is the rare modern smartwatch with actual focus.
That focus is hiking, with a slew of sensors and features designed to help you scale mountains. It’s safe to say I’m not really a hiker, but I did want to test the Smart Outdoor Watch as fully as I could, so I strapped it to my wrist one recent weekend and set off to the summit of Mount Takao — a popular and reasonably non-threatening mountain just outside Tokyo.
To understand the Smart Outdoor Watch at all, you have to understand the category it sits in — and I don’t mean smartwatches as a whole. This device falls into the category of "ABC" watches, known as such for the integrated altimeter, barometer, and compass that help outdoor enthusiasts navigate mountains and stay safe in potentially adverse conditions. These watches are tough, easy to use, and reliable in the outdoors — three things that smartwatches usually are not.
Casio makes a lot of watches in this category, most selling for hundreds of dollars, and the Smart Outdoor Watch is designed to bring their benefits to the smartwatch world by marrying smartphone capabilities like notifications and GPS to all of the rugged ABC features. (Okay, so some of these watches have GPS inside them already. Casio is kind of leaning on the phone with that one.)
It’s a tank of a thing. Its colossal build is sure to stand out on anyone’s wrists; this is not a watch to wear to the boardroom or the club. But I found it pretty comfortable throughout the week I spent with it, and would have often forgotten I was wearing it were it not for my review unit’s bright orange body. And while I didn’t fall down any precipices or capsize any canoes, I had no problem swimming with the watch or using it at the gym — its steel and plastic body is tested to US military standards and feels about as rugged as it could be without being too impractical. The biggest complaint I have about its design is the fiddly magnetic charging cable, which feels like it’ll fall out if you look at it the wrong way.
The Smart Outdoor Watch’s most interesting technical feature is its dual-layer display. The regular LCD is a little dull next to the OLED screens that are common on Android Wear watches today, and unfortunately does have the "flat tire" at the bottom. (If anything, the tire should have been flatter to fit Casio’s G-Shock style — at least it would have looked deliberate.) But there’s a trick behind this panel; the watch can switch to a monochrome segmented LCD display that saves power, is easily readable in bright sunlight, and generally makes it look like a regular hiking watch. You can’t use any Android features in this mode, of course, but the hiking tools still work.
So, about those tools, as Casio officially calls them. They include a compass, a barometer to detect air pressure, an altimeter to calculate your height, activity graphs, sunrise and sunset times, and tide charts. The basic information from all of these is viewable in the monochrome mode, but chances are you’ll be using the color screens more often.
Casio has designed several watch faces that can be customized with widgets for each tool, while there’s a dedicated Tool button that essentially quick-launches an app and lets you switch between dedicated views for each tool with repeated presses. This is useful if you need to check something while wearing gloves or in another situation where a touchscreen would be too fiddly.
The rare Android device with useful custom software
You can, of course, use any other Android Wear watch face, but the way Casio has woven sensor data into its own faces means you’re unlikely to find anything more useful. In fact, the Smart Outdoor Watch is the rare Android device where I found the manufacturer customizations to be more useful than the underlying stock software. This is particularly unusual for Android Wear, where every watch to date has featured virtually identical software beyond the faces. But Casio’s clever mix of watch faces, preloaded apps, and physical buttons makes the Smart Outdoor Watch a far simpler and more functional device to use; notifications aside, you may never need to see a stock Android Wear screen during normal hiking use.
You won’t need to use the regular Android Wear app on your phone too often after initial setup, either. Casio has developed an Android-only app called Moment Setter that handles all of the Smart Outdoor Watch’s unique functionality, letting you customize the faces and buttons. The app’s name comes from the ability to set "moments," or notifications that alert you when you reach defined conditions on your hike — once you’ve reached a certain height, when the air pressure drops beyond a precise point, or when it gets a given time away from sunset. Other preloaded apps on the watch include Runkeeper, GPS assistant Viewranger, and a utility that lets you use your wrist as a viewfinder for Casio’s Exilim FR100 action camera.
All of these hiking-focused features worked as advertised, and it was fun to find my way around an unfamiliar mountain with this extra information close to hand. I wouldn’t say that any of it was essential, but the point is that Casio is playing in a well-defined category here that many hikers do find use for. And, of course, you get the slight but not insignificant benefit of Android Wear's regular features as well.
The biggest reason I can think of not to go for this over a regular ABC watch is, predictably, battery life. But even then, I found it good for a smartwatch — it easily lasted two days of fairly heavy use, and would have dramatically better endurance if I relied on the monochrome screen mode. It might not be the best choice for long camping trips, but you’re going to need to charge your phone before you have to charge this watch.
I think the Smart Outdoor Watch is pretty good as a hiking watch. But it’s the Smart Outdoor Watch, not the the Smart Hiking Watch, and I do feel like it’s missing some features that would make it a useful product for more outdoor activities. It has a rudimentary app to help you track trekking, cycling, and fishing sessions, for instance, but this is basic distance over time stuff; there’s nothing aimed at runners, which you’d think would be a more mainstream use case. Even taking the built-in Runkeeper and Viewranger apps into account, the watch lacks a heart rate sensor and GPS capability of its own, which should have been possible for a device that costs this much. And a thermometer would have been a good addition, too, if only because there’s no way to display the temperature on any of Casio’s watch faces and jumping to the stock Android weather app is pretty jarring.
Still, the fact that the Smart Outdoor Watch isn’t a mainstream product works to its benefit — with its laser focus on a certain type of person, I know exactly who I’d recommend it to. That’s more than I can say for a more conventional and versatile device like the Apple Watch, which I personally wear most days without using more than a tiny fraction of its functionality.
Casio deserves a lot of credit for reshaping Android Wear into an original and unique new product, something I wasn’t sure was possible. It overcomes many of the drawbacks of smartwatches while making total sense as a product in its category; if you’re in the market for a hiking watch that also works as a smartwatch, and you use an Android phone, I think you’ll be very happy with what Casio’s produced. If you’re not looking specifically for a hiking smartwatch? Maybe wait and see if Casio ever makes a G-Shock smartwatch, because this one really isn’t the sort of thing you’ll want to wear every day.
But none of that should take away from what Casio’s done here, though — its first effort at a smartwatch is the most innovative and convincing Android Wear device I’m yet to see.