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Nov 222016
 
Smart watches no longer need to look nerdy, as these two Samsung Gear S3 models show.

Smart watches no longer need to look nerdy, as these two Samsung Gear S3 models show.

There are sure to be some smart watch bargains included in this week’s extended ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Cyber Monday’ specials.  Should you be thinking about buying one?

Smart watches, to be blunt, have for a long time been a solution in search of a problem.  They represented a counter-intuitive U-turn in terms of electronics and how they are used.  The trend has been for more features to be integrated into multi-functional devices, allowing people to replace multiple separate devices with only one or two multi-purpose units.

You’ll remember the days when we all had separate Palm Pilots, separate phones, separate cameras, and separate camcorders, separate laptops or Notebooks (remember them?) and possibly a separate eBook reader too, and, of course, an iPod or other MP3 player too.  Some of us even had a separate CD player and/or a separate DVD player.

Now a single device – a smartphone – has replaced nearly all these nine different devices, and most of the time does an acceptably good job at all their different tasks.  People are also increasingly leaving their watches in the drawer and using their phone to tell the time, to set alarms and timers, and as a stopwatch.

But several years ago, manufacturers started responding to the increasing degrees of miniaturization that were possible by offering up ‘smart watches’ as an additional sort of gadget they hoped people would buy.  The smart watches, to start with, had poor displays, even worse battery life, didn’t do anything that a smart phone couldn’t already do, and – oh yes – were useless unless within close range of your phone which provided most of the computing power, memory and all the access the smart watch needed.  They replaced nothing, combined/integrated nothing, and instead represented as a gratuitous additional device we were expected to welcome into our lives.

Unsurprisingly, very few people bought smart watches.  Which brings us to what many thought and even more hoped would be a transformational development- Apple’s announcement in September 2014 that it would release a smart watch, and the actual release which occurred in early 2015.  After having singlehandedly created and/or revolutionized the markets for MP3 players, phones and tablets, hopes were high that Apple would do the same for watches.

By most measures, Apple’s Watch release was a disappointment, and no-one could claim that Apple has created a new market for this type of product, unlike their earlier launches.  Sure, it has outsold other smart watch models, but with the very small number of smart watches being sold in total, that isn’t saying much.  Indeed, overall sales volumes sharply dropped in the second quarter of 2016, although the industry hopefully says that numbers will increase next year.

With sales volumes under pressure, and new models coming out regularly, it seems that smart watches are ideally suited to be Black Friday bargains.  But should you buy one?

The Evolution and Limitations of Smart Watches

dtracybSmart watches have long been an aspirational goal for ultra-gadget minded users and the companies that cater for them.  The concept of course dates back to Dick Tracy and similar futuristic cartoons and science fiction works – the idea of having a communicator/computer on one’s wrist has an abstract appeal.  But this abstract idea collides with reality, making the concept seldom practical or feasible to implement.

For example, as a communicator (ie used as a phone) how does one simultaneously talk into and listen to the device?  Does one hold it to one’s ear or to one’s mouth?  And, as further example, as a way of displaying information, how does one reconcile the conflict between a necessarily small watch-sized screen and being able to clearly display information in a font size large enough to be easily read?

Another compromise is the constraint on the battery capacity that can be squeezed into such a device.  Typically the compromises required reduce the omnipresent ‘convenience’ that the device should otherwise offer.  Strategies to limit the battery drain often involve having the display dimmed or off as much as possible, and using only very low powered Bluetooth communications to ‘piggy back’ the watch onto and then relay it through the more power-hungry transmitter in a nearby cell phone.

But if a watch can only be used in conjunction with a cell phone, is it really adding any convenience, or is it merely another gadget, together with another set of interface procedures to learn?  And who in their right mind would want to try and type or execute any sort of multi-step series of commands on a tiny watch face instead of on a larger phone screen?  Isn’t the steady trend to larger and larger phone screens telling us that people want bigger screens, not smaller screens?

Apple’s smart watch launch showed that not even Apple could creatively resolve these conflicts or come up with any ‘must have’ applications or reasons to buy a smart watch.  At the time of their launch, about the most exciting/innovative thing they had was an app that allows you to make someone else’s watch buzz in time with you tapping on your matching watch!  Morse code, anyone?  While very proud of this at the time, they’ve mercifully gone more silent about it subsequently.

In the more than two years since then, while there have been no revolutionary breakthroughs in smart watches, there has been a series of minor incremental improvements, but leaving the huge big challenges unresolved.  Features have improved and extended, and pricing has drifted down in price (although not for Apple’s Watch, only for the other products out there, causing the Apple product to be even more of a price outlier than it was to start with).

Should you now be considering a smart watch – either for yourself, or perhaps as a gift for someone else, this Christmas season?  Should you allow yourself to be tempted by any bargain priced deals?

With smart watches now being sometimes available for not much more than $100, they are moving from expensive to affordable, and with a growth in features and applications, they are starting to become more tempting for us to consider.  At $100 or so, even if you only use them as a fully featured regular watch, you might enjoy the ability to change the face image/design from time to time, and hopefully to have an easier way of programming your watch than with a regular watch (my regular watch has a complicated 25 page manual and I’ve given up on hoping to ever learn how to do much at all with it, and even knowing how to correct the time.  That’s another benefit of a smart watch – hopefully it will auto-synch its time from your phone or some other source, sparing you the need to occasionally adjust the time forwards or back a few minutes.

Please continue reading for more information about what to look for and expect in a smart watch and how to choose a suitable one, should you decide to do so.

Fitness Tracker or Smart Watch?

Perhaps the application that is closest to valuable on a smart watch is as a fitness/health tracker.  A smart watch can monitor heart rate, and can also probably detect steps taken, distance traveled, height gained/lost, and speed, making it useful when doing workouts, jogging, cycling, or whatever.  Tell the device a bit about yourself and it can also work out things like calories burned – information that allows you to feel slightly less guilty when indulging yourself in a sugary drink after your workout session!

On the other hand, there are plenty of fitness tracking devices already that don’t aspire to all the other things that smart watches attempt to do.  The Fitbit range of products are generally regarded as excellent, and are lighter (more of an issue when you’re running or otherwise exercising) and have longer battery life than a smart watch.  Basic Fitbit units are also much less expensive, with pricing starting around about the $100 mark.

If fitness tracking is a primary purpose for you, then you might be better advised to consider a specialized device such as a Fitbit.

Battery Life and Charging

This remains one of biggest limitations of smart watches.  Manufacturers have tried to spin it in terms of ‘you only need about 18 hours of battery life, because it is easy and convenient to simply charge the watch every night while you are sleeping’.  There’s some truth in that, and many of us have become conditioned to reflexively charge our phones every night.

But our phones can usually manage several days between charges, depending on how we use them, and if we need to urgently top them up, that is usually easy because the phone uses a standard Micro-USB charging cable and power supply (or a non-standard Apple cable).  And our regular watches can go years between battery replacements.

Most smart watches are much more demanding.  Not only do they need daily recharging, but emergency charging on the go is seldom easy, either.  Usually they don’t use any type of standard connector/charging cable.  Instead, they have special charging docks or connectors or ‘wireless’ charging cradles, and whereas it is easy and inexpensive to have chargers in our cars, offices, and homes for our phones, and practical to ask a friend if we can borrow their charger for our phone, it is much more inconvenient and costly to duplicate all this for our watches, and much less likely that a friend would have a compatible watch and charger.  Even worse, it can be difficult buying spare charging stations so as to have one at work, one at home, one in the car (and maybe one in the other car!) and one to travel with.

It also means that when you’re traveling long distance, you run the risk of your watch dying before you can recharge it.  It is all too easy to go 30 or more hours from when you start a journey to when you finally arrive at the ultimate destination, and if your watch only runs 18 hours, that is way too short.

The alternative is to leave your watch off and only turn it on when you ‘need’ it, but if you do that, haven’t you totally destroyed any pretext of a smart watch being convenient?

Fortunately, some watches are now starting to offer two day or longer battery life.  We’d suggest that you should be very sensitive to battery life when evaluating smart watches, and seek a two day life as minimum.

Screen Size

The Moto 360 has a controversial 'dead area' at the bottom of its screen that detracts from its overall appeal.

The Moto 360 has a controversial ‘dead area’ at the bottom of its screen that detracts from its overall appeal.

This forces a vexed compromise.  The last decade has steadily seen phone screen size increasing, and modern smart phones have screens four times the size of early smart phones (and eight times the resolution!).  But a smart watch requires us to happily revert back to a screen size that is utterly tiny in dimension.

On the one hand, there’s a clear benefit and definite need for a watch screen to be as large as possible.  But on the other hand, just exactly how big (and potentially heavy) do you want something on your wrist to be?  Therein lies the impossible compromise we must make – between a comfortable convenient watch, and a useful screen.

Two related issues are the style of screen – is it circular or rectangular – and its resolution.

There has been a clear preference for circular screens, because they ‘look nicer’ and more traditional than rectangular screens.  But a circular screen is less functional and wastes some of the space on the screen, adding further to the inadequacy of the screen and its ability to display much data on it at any given time.  A circular display is great to show a traditional clock face with arms sweeping in circles, but it is not so good to show text or other information.

As for resolution, the more pixels you can have crammed onto the screen, no matter what its size, the clearer the image will be and the better it will display tiny sizes of text.

It is hard to suggest a specific size as an ideal compromise, because it depends on personal preferences, the size of your wrist, and so on.  But as for screen resolution, that is easier.  You should insist on at least 300×300 pixel resolution, with better watches now reaching up to 400×400 pixel resolution.

Note that the quoted sizes of watches are not usually a measure of the active display area on the screen.  For example, a 2nd gen Moto 360 with a quoted 42mm diameter actually only has a 35mm diameter of display area.  There is quite a variation in ‘bezel’ thickness, the same as with phones or tablets.  While it is helpful to know the total overall dimension of the watch (see the next point), from a screen point of view, it is important to also understand the specific display area of the screen itself.

Watch Size and Weight

It is a common comment for reviewers to talk (negatively) about the size and weight of a smart watch – they complain the watch is too big/bulky/heavy.

That’s not a comment you’ll hear so much from me, because my regular Citizen Eco-Drive Skyhawk watch is about 1.75″/45mm in diameter, 0.59″/15mm in thickness and weighs about 3.8oz/108gm – relatively heavy, even though it is made from titanium.  (The reason I like this watch is because it is primarily solar powered.  I’ve had it for over a decade and have never needed to replace the backup battery.)

Just to put that size/weight into perspective, I also have in my drawer a very nice dual dial watch from Emirates.  This is about 1.38″/35mm in diameter, 0.31″/8mm thick, and weighs about 1.1oz/31gm.  It is very much smaller/lighter.

For sure, there are plenty of watches, particularly for ladies, that can be much smaller again than this watch, and some men’s watches that are considerably bigger/heavier than my Citizen, but these two sets of dimensions give you a feeling for what ‘reasonably small’ and ‘reasonably big’ translate to in regular watches.  Watches that fall between these two sets of sizes can be expected to be reasonably moderate in size/weight.

You might also find it helpful to measure your own watch so as to get a feeling for what is ‘normal’ and customary for you to help you evaluate smart watch sizes and their implications.

Some smart watches are offered in two sizes.  Simplistically, the small size is for women, the larger size for men, but there’s no rule that says this must be so.  Because a watch is as much a statement of style as it is a simple functional item, people’s preferences vary widely.  Furthermore, a smart watch has a very different set of use-cases than does a regular watch.  In its simplest form, a regular watch has one scale around the outside, and all it needs to do is, in an analog display form, is have two or three hands to show the hours, minutes and perhaps a measure of seconds to indicate the current time.  That can be conveyed in a very small amount of dial face.

A smart watch, on the other hand, needs to show not just an analog indication of time around its outside circumference, but also wishes to show all manner of other data, sometimes simultaneously on the same screen, sometimes on a series of different screens that you can switch between.  With digital data, text and numbers, the bigger the display, the easier it is to read, and you absolutely do not want to need to be putting glasses on or off (or, even worse, switching from one pair to a different pair) every time you simply want to glance subtly at the time, or – more annoyingly – when your smart watch has made some sort of beep and you want to read the message that has appeared in micro-type on the screen.

Connectivity

Most watches connect to the ‘outside world’ through a compatible phone and usually also share some of the phone’s resources (for example, the watch might use the phone’s GPS feature, and be able to play music or display pictures stored on the phone.  This connection is usually via a Bluetooth connection, because it is the most battery-efficient way of being wirelessly connected.  The Bluetooth connection is short range and much shorter range than a Wi-Fi connection – your phone needs to be close to you – probably within 10, perhaps 20 feet (a typical Bluetooth specification allows for a 30 ft maximum).

Some watches are starting to appear with Wi-Fi connections, and some are now starting to offer direct connection to a wireless service provider (but if that is the case, you’re also up for the monthly costs of adding another line of service to your wireless account).  This is simultaneously good and bad.  It is good to have extra flexibility and less dependence on a phone, but these additional types of wireless connection unavoidably drain the battery more quickly.

Local vs Shared Features

Watches have varying degrees of on-phone features.  Some will allow you to store music and pictures, others share the storage space on your phone.  Some have cameras, others don’t.  Some have their own GPS receiver, others don’t.

If your watch needs to be close to your phone, is there any value or sense in duplicating features on your watch that you already have on your phone?  Some manufacturers say ‘Well, if you have it on the watch, you don’t need to always have your phone with you’.  That is true, but if you were forced to choose between having a phone or a watch with you, which would you choose?

It will be a long time before watches can totally and completely replace a phone, and we see this as having few shades of grey – either your watch replaces your phone or it doesn’t.  To partially/sometimes replace a phone – what does that actually mean?  What is the value/use for that?

Connecting to Your Phone and Watch OS

Apple's watches are very well made and finished, but are also very expensive and only work with iPhones.

Apple’s watches are well made and finished, but are also expensive and only work with iPhones.

Apple’s smart watches will only connect to iOS type phones – ie, Apple’s iPhones.  If you don’t have an iPhone, you’re pretty much out of luck – Apple hope this will force you to buy an iPhone, too.  But, realistically, if you already have an Android phone, the more sensible response is to then buy an Android compatible watch to go with it.

Most watches use a type of Android OS called ‘Android Wear’.  This is in the process of being upgraded from version 1 to version 2, with a few watches already offering new Android Wear 2.0.  It is expected the new OS will become more broadly available in 2017; but it is not known how many of the current models of watch will then be capable of being upgraded to the new OS.

The new version of Android Wear seems to have quite a few new features, including an onscreen keyboard, a display dimming mode for longer battery life, and greater ability for standalone apps to operate without needing to be connected to a phone.  It is clearly a building block on the path to better functionality in the future, and so if you want a watch that may have more capabilities added to it in the future, you’d want to assure yourself as best you can that whatever watch you buy today either already has Android Wear 2.0 on it, or will be capable of being upgraded when the full release comes out in 2017.

Android Wear watches can also connect to iPhones, so you’re not locked into only Android phones if you buy an Android watch.

There are also some other minor operating systems for smart watches as well.  The best known of these is Tizen, which is used to power most of the Samsung smart watch products.  Tizen type watches can connect to both iPhones and Android phones.

Our concern with Tizen type watches is two-fold.  First, there’s no guarantee that Samsung will continue with Tizen in the future.  It is probable they will, but there is less guarantee of ongoing development and support for Tizen than there is for Android Wear.

Second, our sense is that there are – and probably always will be – considerably fewer apps for Tizen watches than for Apple and Android based watches.  It is very frustrating to excitedly get a new smart watch, only to then find that the app you most wanted to use on the watch isn’t available with the OS type the watch uses.

Clearly, the most open ended future is to choose a watch with Android Wear 2.0.

Other Features and Issues

If you truly want a smart watch to replicate the same ‘go anywhere/do anything’ abilities of most regular watches, you’ll probably want something that is waterproof.  This is often described by citing a code that starts IP and then has two digits.

The letters IP stand for ‘ingress protection’ or ‘international protection’.

The first digit relates to the degree of dust/dirt resistance the device has.  The larger the digit, the better.  The number 5 means reasonable protection from dust/dirt in most conditions, the number 6 means the device completely blocks any dust from entering.

The second digit relates to water resistance and again, the larger the digit the better.    The number 6 allows for a three minute immersion one metre deep in water, or for ‘powerful water jets’ to spray against the unit.  The number 7 means the unit can withstand up to 30 minutes and sort of one metre deep in water with ‘no harmful effects’ (this is obviously not the same as being water proof), and the number 8 becomes a bit vague, referring to compliance with standards set by the manufacturer.  See the definitions/explanations here and here.

So treat all such claims with a grain of salt, but more or less, the larger the number the better.

A new feature starting to appear in some watches is support for NFC – the ability to just wave your watch over a suitably equipped reader, so instead of having to insert or swipe a credit card, you just use your watch instead as a way to pay for products.

This is an appealing idea, but is not yet widely supported in watches.  It is also being deployed in phones too, so while a nice thing to have, it is far from a compelling reason to rush out and buy a smart watch.

Watches often have other sensors in them that can add to their capabilities, but just like NFC, the chances are the same sensors may be in your phone, too.  Clearly a heart rate monitor is not so likely to be in your phone, but a GPS chip, an accelerometer, a barometer/altimeter, and a gyroscope are as likely to be in your phone too.

One thing you should never expect in either a phone or a watch is a thermometer.  We’ve love to see this added, and once had a regular watch with a built in thermometer, but the reality is that such devices would not and could not be accurate.  The heat from their internal electronics would distort their readings, as would heat from your body, depending on where and how you were wearing/carrying a watch or phone.

Some watches are now adding tiny cameras.  We’ve one thing to say about that – why?  If you already have front and back cameras in your phone, and both of probably considerably better quality, why add another camera to your watch?

Some watches have no speaker – they might have a buzzer so as to be able to make an alert sound, but no speaker.  Some are now managing to fit a teeny tiny speaker into the watch as well, but, again, why?  Even a full sized phone or tablet speaker is close to useless for playing music through.  But if it does allow for musical ring tones rather than coded buzzes, that is perhaps a slight benefit (assuming that for some unfathomable reason your phone’s ringer/speaker wasn’t also playing the same tune too).

Controls – the more buttons on the side of the watch, or the more other ways of controlling your watch, the better (to a certain point).  You don’t want to get stuck in the hellish confusion of many Bluetooth headsets and never remembering ‘do I push this once quickly, once slowly, or twice quickly, or however else’ to try and convey your wishes to the headset.  We like the rotating bezel feature on the Samsung Gear S2 and S3 watches as a nice easy way for people with big fingers to control their watch.

Because many people view their watches, and particularly their smart watches, as a fashion accessory, you might want to find out whether the watch will accept a range of industry standard bands, or if it has some type of special fasteners to limit you only to bands made by the watch manufacturer.  Or maybe you see a watch/band style you like and are confident you’ll never want to change it and never need to replace it.

Some Specific Models

The classic appearing TAG Heuer Connect smart watch, priced up from $2200.

The classic styled TAG Heuer Connect smart watch looks almost the same as an analog watch, and is priced up from about $2200.

Note that smart watch pricing varies enormously, because you can often choose from different sizes, different finishes, and different bands.  So the pricing we quote below is indicative and more or less for ‘entry level’ styles, rather than exact.  If you want the diamond encrusted solid gold models, you’ll need to pay considerably more!

Because we see smart watches as having a short life span, due to the speed at which new models are coming out, and because there’s a very real chance that after trying one for a few weeks, you’ll put it in a drawer and forget about it, we suggest your first smart watch should be a moderately priced one rather than a high end model.  There are plenty of reasonable choices for $200 or less.

Sony have an interesting and well priced Smartwatch 3 (although note that the Smartwatch 4 is already overdue to appear and replace the model 3).  Depending on style options, it can be found for as little as $125 on Amazon, and has just about anything and everything that watches costing two or three times as much offer, plus a few extra features that not many other watches can match (GPS, Wi-Fi, 2+ day battery life).  If you like the design and style of this watch, then it could be a great choice of starter smart watch.

The Asus ZenWatch 2 is a great value watch ($120) and is another good contender as a starter watch, and its recently released successor, the ZenWatch 3, seems to be tangibly better, with pricing around $230.

The Huawei watch seems to have everything going for it, but at a price starting at $250, it isn’t exactly a throwaway product that you can buy, wear for a week, then put in your top drawer and forget about.  On the other hand, when it was first released, prices started at $400.

The Moto 360 Gen 2 is another good smart watch alternative, but seems overpriced at a price point around or above $300, particularly if you have to pay extra to buy a wireless charger for it.  We’ve always struggled to accept its ‘flat tire’ deadspot at the bottom of the screen – see picture further up the article.  But perhaps a first generation Moto 360, with a price now below $200 and likely around $175, is a good ‘starter’ smart watch.

The Samsung Gear S2 and S3 are lovely watches (two models of the S3 are shown at the top of the article).  The S2 can be found from about $250, the S3 from about $300.  I like the concept of the rotating bezel as an input device, but don’t like that Samsung is using an ‘orphan’ operating system (Tizen) rather than mainstream Android – a choice which will handicap the watch and the range of applications likely to be developed for it.

As we’ve seen with smart phones, there is only room for, at the most, two operating systems, and if a giant such as Microsoft, all the more so after buying Nokia too, can’t successfully create market space for a third phone operating system, what chance is there in the 250-times smaller smart watch marketplace for three operating systems?

As for the original and second series of Apple watch, you’re starting from a $370 price point for the newer second generation watch, and likely spending appreciably more than that, and you are then more or less stuck with an Apple phone to partner the watch with.  Not recommended.

However, we expect some bargains on original Apple watches this Black Friday/Christmas season.

If you want to go ‘all in’ then you could choose a premium finish on an Apple watch, or you could treat yourself to a TAG Heuer Connected smart watch, costing from about $2200 and up.

Looking Ahead to 2017

Inevitably, there are some tempting new watches anticipated in 2017, including possibly two Google branded units – a high end and more moderate unit.

It is expected there will be a new version of the Huawei watch (already an excellent unit in its current form), and probably a Moto 360 Gen 3.  If the gen 3 version of the Moto 360 resolves the ‘dead space’ at the bottom of the dial, this would be a great improvement.

We’d be astonished not to see at least one new Samsung watch, which will probably again suffer from using the Tizen rather than Android OS.

A new TAG Heuer model may appear, which underscores the ill-advised nature of buying high-end smartwatches with very short model lives, and we’d not be surprised to see at least one more moderately high-end Swiss watch company awkwardly enter the smartwatch market, too.  Tissot, a middle-of-the-market Swiss company, is also rumored to be on the verge of releasing a smartwatch, probably for slightly over $1000.

As for Apple, who only knows.  Their general tendency for annual updates to their product ranges did not apply to the Watch, which had to wait 18 months for a very much needed update, and if that 18 month cycle continues, it might be early 2018 before a Watch 3 arrives.

Summary

Our sense is that smart watches are continuing to evolve.  In particular, longer battery life is something to hope for.  Brighter screens with higher resolution, lighter/thinner bodies, additional functions/features such as GPS and direct wireless connections, and assorted other sensors too, are all examples of improvements that are evolving.  More memory and faster processors and easier charging solutions are other areas where more improvement would be beneficial.

Simultaneously, new apps and software are allowing the watches to be used in new ways, and are in turn calling for new or enhanced capabilities.

Because of the significant changes, we think it would be ill advised to ‘invest’ in a smart watch without realizing/accepting that within a year or two, it will be technologically obsolete and in need of replacement.

So our suggestion, if you really want to get into the smart watch field, is to buy a moderate/mid level one now; something you understand will only be used for a year or two before you then choose to upgrade/replace it.  In that context, we suggest around the $200 price point, and if you come across a normally $200+ smart watch for a lower cost this Black Friday, maybe indeed treat yourself.

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  One Response to “Is it Time to Consider a Smart Watch?”

  1. […] So the largely needless frustrations of the Echo and its voice only interface still hover closely in the background.  Using it reminds me a bit of the brave early adopters a couple of years ago who forced themselves to pretend that their smart watch is truly useful and a net productivity boost.  I feel most smart watches remain gimmicky drains on productivity, and of little value because they don’t replace or combine other functions, they just add one more gadget to the list of ‘stuff’ you already have.  (See my recent article on smart watches.) […]

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