Dear Lifehacker, I keep seeing new “smartwatches” show up on gadget sites, but they all look different. What is a smartwatch, and should I consider buying one? Sincerely, Watching Watches
Just as a smartphone did with the telephone, a smartwatch provides live access to certain kinds of information and intelligent features in an attempt to add more convenience to your life. While most smartphones take a similar app-based approach, they’re all a little different. However, you’ll find that most provide you with notifications and all of them tell you the time. To try to answer this question through experience, I tested out a few popular smartwatches currently on the market. First, we’ll take a look at your primary options right now and what they can do, then discuss why you may or may not want a smartwatch now or in the future.
Should You Get a Smartwatch?
Like with all bleeding-edge technology, smartwatches currently exist for early adopters. But even the minimally tech-savvy can use them and benefit. Through my experience, I found people who want the following will enjoy a smartwatch now:
- You want notifications, but you don’t want to spend lot of time on your phone. Smartwatches sit on your wrist and tell you what’s up. You can peek to see if you just received an important message. Over everything else, this offers the greatest advantage, because you can stay informed while out and about without rudely interrupting activities. You won’t look bored in meetings, you won’t look disinterested on a date, and you won’t distract other viewers in a cinema with your excessively bright smartphone screen. A smartwatch allows you to stay connected and informed without constantly interrupting your life.
- You want a timepiece that actually does something without paying much more for it. Watches don’t seem as relevant anymore, because they just tell the time -- something a mobile phone can do without occupying space on your wrist. While some prefer to check the time more easily and/or prefer the aesthetic of a wristwatch (to nothing at all), you get a lot more out of a smartwatch, and you don’t necessarily pay more. That may seem like a strange statement when you look at the price tags on the smartwatches in this post, but you’ll pay about the same amount (if not more, in some cases) if you purchase a nice timepiece for its aesthetic value. If you want a cheaper watch, this obviously doesn’t apply. You can buy inexpensive timepieces that look nice, but many premium options fall into the exact same price range.
- You want a watch you can upgrade and customise. While not all smartwatches offer ways to add new features, most pair with smartphone apps and have user/developer communities that improve functionality on a regular basis. Pebble, for example, was designed around developers, and people create cool, new stuff for it every day. While most apps still need some work before you can install them on your watch, browsing through the developer community will show you everything from live weather updates to playable versions of Space Invaders. You can’t do everything with your smartwatch now, but you will have the opportunity to do a lot more later without buying new hardware.
Despite these benefits, you may not want to jump on board just yet. Over the next couple of years, wearable technology will evolve significantly. Big players, such as Google and Apple, may step into the ring. Sony may create a product that actually works (or someone else will fix it for them). Take the plunge if a smartwatch seems like something you’d enjoy and benefit from. Otherwise, give it some time. The future will (quickly) bring new ideas and choices as well as far more experiences from early adopters, so you can better decide whether you want intelligence on your wrist or not. If you want in, read on to learn about some of the best options available right now.
Your Smartwatch Options
To get a good idea of the different offerings, I tested a Pebble, Martian Victory and MetaWatch FRAME. I wasn’t able to test the Sony SmartWatch, but our sister site Gizmodo didn't like it. (That said, Sony just opened up its platform to allow for custom firmware so their offering may prove useful someday.) Each model offers a different approach to providing you with the time, notifications, special features and other useful information, and some work better than others.
The Pebble smartwatch ($US150) offers a simple look and an easy-to-read e-ink screen with a backlight you can activate by wagging your wrist. It comes with a few different watch faces, but you can download others. You can also download apps to provide additional functionality, but that requires a less-than-straightforward process.
Nevertheless, you only need one smartphone app and a quick Bluetooth pairing before you can start sending notifications from your phone to your watch. Decide what you want to see and what you want to ignore, and you can stay abreast of various happenings with a quick glance at your wrist. When a notification comes in, the Pebble vibrates and displays the initial text. With a few somewhat stiff button presses, you can scroll through more of the message for additional information. When a call comes in, you’ll see it on your watch, and you can choose to ignore it without reaching for your phone. Outside of notifications, the Pebble can set alarms, control your phone’s music apps, and track your biking and running. Android users can also download a number of helpful apps to enhance their experience further.
The Martian Victory ($US299) looks like a standard watch, albeit a bit bulky, and it hides a little LED window at the bottom to provide you with notifications. A smartphone app, available for Android and iOS, pushes almost any notification over to your watch. The Martian also allows you to set quiet hours so notifications don’t come through while you sleep. That said, calendar notifications ignore these settings (because it expects you to set alarms with your calendar).
Martian smartwatches differ from their competition in one specific way: you can talk to them. They sync up with your smartphone like a Bluetooth speaker and utilise voice command services. Android users can connect with Google Now, and iPhone users can connect with Siri. You can answer and place calls directly from the watch. While this may seem impractical or make you feel like Dick Tracy, once you realise you don’t have to talk directly into the watch to communicate, you may find it useful. I answered many calls in the car and had a perfectly normal conversation even with both hands on the wheel. The Victory has a fancier metal watch face with an oddly paired silicone band. If you prefer something a little more traditional, however, Martian offers a variety of models, and some come leather bands.
The MetaWatch FRAME ($US200) focuses primarily on notifying you of all kinds of information. The main screen gives you the time plus a number of other widgets you can customise to your liking. That includes unread email messages, calendar events, stock updates, weather and more (somehow you can actually fit all of this information on a single screen). You can also visit other screens for more and have notifications pushed directly to your MetaWatch via a smartphone app. The official MetaWatch app doesn’t worked quite as well as you might hope, unfortunately. Many Android reviewers complain it doesn’t function at all, but I found it just keeps sending certain notifications repeatedly, and ignores others altogether. Fortunately, Android users can grab third party options (like MetaWatch Community Edition or Noah Edition) that work a whole lot better. For whatever reason, the official iPhone app comes with fewer issues and works better for more people.
Regardless of software issues, the MetaWatch requires quite a bit of work to set up. On top of that, the screen of the FRAME model reflects so much light that you can’t even read the screen in certain conditions (including indoors). The cheaper STRATA ($US120) model may or may not solve this problem.
Which smartwatch is the best for you? It will depend on your preferences. Overall, I found the MetaWatch frustrating to use and hard to see. If you really like the idea of talking to your watch, or you want a very comprehensive set of mostly static features, a Martian model is the obvious choice. I felt that the Pebble offered the most comfort, the right features, a pleasant and simple look, and just worked most reliably. While it needs a do-not-disturb feature and a unified app installation process, that should come with time. Pebble just started shipping recently, so we should see improvements over the next year. All tested smartwatches managed the same amount of battery life (5-7 days) while only minimally draining the connected smartphone battery with Bluetooth activity. Each came with a proprietary charging cable of some kind, so expect an added cost if you want more than one.
What you choose will depend on what you need. The initial offerings function well and don’t suffer from many serious drawbacks, so you shouldn’t find yourself frustrated by the usual early adopter bugs (in most cases). That said, you don’t have heaps of smartwatches to choose from at the moment. If no option looks close enough to perfect for you, give it a year or two, and you’ll have a much wider selection.
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