‘Wearable computing’ is a concept that’s been around for ages – especially if you count centuries-old gizmos like the abacus ring. However, the technology is only now beginning to creep its way into the mainstream, with the versatile smartwatch leading the charge. We take a look at some of the most popular options on the market.
A smartwatch is an internet-connected gadget with a screen interface that's designed to be worn on the wrist. They come in a variety of flavours, ranging from sport-centric models for fitness enthusiasts to Dick Tracey-style beasts that have all the functionality of a smartphone. Prices are similarly diverse, with budget options available from Kogan, Millenius and assorted no-name manufacturers.
Even the simplest smartwatch will do more than just tell the time — most will let you check emails, keep tabs on social media and even play video games. The main benefit of a smartwatch is that it keeps you constantly updated without having to whip out your smartphone. In other words, quick access to live notifications is the #1 draw card.
The current crop of smartwatches would be best described as a mixed bag. The hotly-touted Samsung Galaxy Gear turned out to be a colossal disappointment that was physically painful to wear. Even the very best models aren't without their faults, which is one of the drawbacks of a new technology that's still finding its feet.
If you're still keen to become an early adopter, here are the best models currently available. We have also included links to in-depth reviews from our sister site Gizmodo.
Iterations of the 'smartwatch' concept have been spruiked by companies for years now, but the first model to really grab the buying public’s attention was the Pebble. Beginning life as a Kickstarter venture, the project managed to amass more than $10 million in funding and pre-orders before a single unit had been manufactured.
This unfortunately led to numerous shipment delays with some poor souls forced to wait over a year to receive their purchase. Thankfully, all these dwindling stock issues have now been rectified; you can pick one up direct from the manufacturer with prices starting at $150.
The Pebble comes with an e-paper display and a backlight that you can switch off by wagging your wrist to save battery. It's also compatible with various third-party sports and fitness apps such as Runkeeper. Thanks to a recent software update, the watch can also receive messages from any iOS app integrated into the Notification Center, including Calendar, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Flickr, Dropbox and Whatsapp.
The Pebble weighs in at around 38 grams with a polycarbonate shell and hard coated lens on top of the face. It comes in a range of colours, and the 22-millimetre polyurethane strap is interchangeable. On the downside, battery life could be better, with the device lasting for around seven days in-between charges.
Gizmodo verdict: "I love my Pebble, just as I knew that I would. It doesn’t revolutionise wearables, but it’s the best damn smart watch that has ever come across my desk."
With an eye-watering RRP of $US350, the Qualcomm Toq (pronounced “talk”) is more than double the price of the Pebble. Is the added premium worth it? Probably not. That said, it does boast a lot of deluxe features that you wont find on the Pebble, including a full colour 1.5-inch display and the ability to make phone calls via a connected Bluetooth headset. It's also a hell of a lot more stylish.
You can configure and customise nearly every aspect of the Toq display, from aesthetics (clock faces and themes) to functionality (stock reports, weather updates, fitness apps, etc.) By all accounts, the UI is exceptionally well designed: a quick tap on the wristband below the display will take you back to the homepage menu while tapping the wristband above the display will adjust the brightness.
As you'd expect, the inclusion of a colour screen comes at the expense of battery life — you can expect to get around three to four days of juice from a 90 minute charge. There are also fewer on-board specifications than some of the other smartwatches on the market... but then, do you really need a camera on your wrist? By stripping away the bloat, Qualcomm has managed to produce a sleek and lightweight smartwatch that should satisfy the pickiest fashionesta.
Gizmodo verdict: "The Toq really seems to get at the heart of what a smartwatch can and should be, if the all the pieces aren’t there yet."
As its name implies, the Pebble Steel is a stainless steel version of the original Pebble crafted from Marine-grade premium steel. Its main claim to fame is its stylish metal finish that would fit in comfortably with a fancy suit ensemble. It could almost be classed as 'smart-jewelry'.
Other improvements include a new RGB LED charging light that can be used by app developers for various functions, a display covered in Corning Gorilla Glass and an improved water proof rating of up to five metres.
Otherwise, the specifications are roughly identical to the first Pebble, including the same LED backlit, 144×168 e-paper display, four button interface and seven days battery life. The Pebble Steel is available now from Pebble's website for $US249. That's $100 more than the Pebble — which makes it suitable for style-conscious users only.
Gizmodo verdict: "At the moment, the Pebble Steel is the best, prettiest smartwatch for your money."
Sony SmartWatch 2
As one of the original smartwatch purveyors, Sony has enjoyed a head start on the competition — unlike most manufacturers, it is already onto its second generation. The result is the Sony SmartWatch 2; a Google-friendly device that's designed to pair with any Android phone running Android 4.0 or higher.
It shares a similar design aesthetic to Sony's Xperia range, which is to say it's stylish without being too gaudy about it. If you're not a fan of attention-grabbing watches, this is probably the best looking option on the market. As an added bonus, it's also compatible with standard 24mm watchbands which means you aren't limited to Sony's offerings.
The SmartWatch 2 has a colour 1.6-inch touchscreen with a native resolution of 220x176 pixels. The transflective LCD means that the display is always visible which removes the annoyance of switching the screen on whenever you want to check the time. Other highlights include IP57 water-proof certification, NFC and GPS integration, a familiar Android-style interface and a handful of pre-loaded apps including Runtastic.
On the downside, the UI is a little primitive and occasionally unresponsive which can make menu navigation a chore. It's also massively overpriced, with an Australian RRP of $355. The fact you need to keep your Android phone nearby also limits its functionality.
Gizmodo verdict: "The first few hours, perhaps the first couple of days you’ll probably quite enjoy it, but then, the novelty wears off pretty quickly."
Why it might be better to wait
The above smartwatches all have something to recommend them, but they also suffer from multiple kinks and teething issues due to being a brand new technology. As time marches on, smartwatches are only going get better — and cheaper. We'll also begin to see new, innovative features as various heavy-hitters enter the fray. Both Google and Apple are tipped to release smartwatches in the coming year. In other words, the space is about to get a lot more interesting.
As we have previously noted, the smartwatch market is still in its infancy, which makes them best suited to self-confessed geeks who like owning all the latest gadgets. If you prefer to wait for a technology to become successful before putting down your hard-earned cash, now is not the time to buy.
If you're desperate to own one now though, my personal recommendation would be the Pebble: it's attractive, relatively affordable and does the basics well. If any smartwatch owners have a differing opinion, please share your recommendations in the comments section below.