What Can I Do With A Smartwatch And Should I Get One?

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.

First and foremost, you’ll find that most smartwatches 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.

Originally published on Lifehacker


Comments

    "our sister site Gizmodo didn’t like it".

    Interesting metaphysical issues raised. Can one be sisters with oneself? Enquiring minds want to know.

      "Originally published on Lifehacker"

        Yeah, that was obvious. Why not do the small edit though so the sentence makes sense?

    If the Pebble could answer calls in the same way a Bluetooth headset can, i would buy one in a heartbeat. It would look pretty cool to talk into your wrist like some secret agent.

      No it wouldn't. You'd look ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as people who walk around the street talking into Bluetooth headsets.

        I think i'm going to have to work on my sarcasm...

      Best thing about that wouldn't the calls IMHO, it'd be the voice control. You could mutter a quick question to your wrist, your phone would do a voice search and display the results on your watch (or speak them to you). Or you could dictate a quick text or email to your watch, or ask for directions etc etc.

      Also, as a Pebble owner - it doesn't have an "e-ink screen". It's nothing like a kindle. It has a transflective LCD (still very easy to read in sunlight), which Pebble describes as "e-paper" (which I think is misleading).

      (edit: spelling)

      Last edited 24/06/13 2:23 pm

    I'd like the Pebble to be able to update the time from a bluetooth connected phone. Not hugely interested in acting as a front end to a messaging system.
    The it will be cheaper than the Seiko Astron with the GPS.

    It seems like an expensive way to avoid having to take your phone out of your pocket every now and then, which seems to be the only thing it does for you.

      There are a lot of activities during which that simple task can be annoying. There are also times when you might not want to take your phone out of your pocket.
      It's a luxury convenience accessory sure but it does have some uses.

        Not seein' it. The only times I can think of that it might be inconvenient to take my phone out is when my hands are full, at which time it is likely that I wouldn't be able to read my watch, either.

      My wife wears hers in noisy environments like shopping malls. Since she often keeps her phone in her purse, she can't hear it or feel it vibrate - but she always feels the Pebble vibrate on her wrist. Finally I can contact her again.

        Or she could save $150 and just carry the phone in her hand or a pocket. I'm sure no-one is putting a gun to her head and forcing her to keep it in her handbag.

          you obviously do not have a girlfriend

      this is pretty narrow, even for you. just because you can't think of any novel uses doesn't mean there aren't any.
      1. you could be taking a shower and be able to see see who that text/call is from that you're missing. so many times i've had dinner plans change on me during the shower and because the call/text came while i was away from the phone and i missed the notification, i may not see it until some time later.
      2. swimming in the pool with phone in a music dock, and change the music without interrupting your fun or having to dry off. along the same lines would be switching up the intensity of the music if you're doing laps for training. even just being able to change the music at a party without needing to move mid-convo/mid-meal.
      3. keep phone in backpack while vigorously exercising instead of in pocket where it could get sweat soaked/jolted around/etc. probably will get better gps reception being slightly away from body if using something like runkeeper, and you get instant access to the app's info from your wrist instead of needing to fiddle with (and maybe drop) your phone mid stride

      im sure once i the smartwatches i have preordered arrive i'll find even more novel uses for them.

    I got my Pebble last week.
    Haven't had much time to play with it, but being able to very quickly check a message or a notification without having to pull my phone out of my pocket is pretty handy. Especially with notifications you usually dismiss like new updates or whatever. If you have a busy day, or in a meeting or while driving it can be a lot easier (and sometimes less rude).
    The screen is also much easier to read in direct sunlight.
    It's handy for sports, you can put sport display apps on it and use it as a bike computer. It's also waterproof so you can swim with it, and I guess as long as you stay in BT range you can get sms's and call notifications while swimming.
    The vibrate is a lot more noticeable than my phone one, so I never miss a message.

    One of the most handy things is the ability to control music apps with the watch. So you can skip songs while driving, jogging, rising a bike or when your phone is docked. It's very basic functionality (for now) but I find it quite useful.

    @darylchershire I'm pretty sure it does update the time from the phone. I haven't tested that yet though.

    There is plenty of room for improvement but it's an awesome start.

    Last edited 24/06/13 4:12 pm

      How is it for viewing messages/emails? It seems like it'd only be able to display a few words at a time, which implies a lot of scrolling.

        It's limited. I think maybe about 200 characters. You can scroll the message but it won't display a whole email.
        Works fine for SMS. There are probably apps that display things differently. Like i said, I haven't fiddled around with it yet.
        It won't display HTML emails, but will still tell you who it's from etc.

      You listen to music while rising (sic) a bike, are you insane? Or do you simply not want to hear the truck that kills you coming? I'd also suggest that changing albums from my phone screen, in it's dock on my dashboard, is a lot easier/safer than taking one hand off the wheel to fiddle with the other wrist.

        Well it's technically illegal to touch your phone... so yeah there's that.
        And you don't have to look at it to skip a song. It's no different from taking your hand off the wheel to press a button on the radio (if you don't have steering wheel controls).
        Also my bike paths don't have trucks on them and I don't have my music so loud I can't hear anything else.

          No, it is not illegal at all. As long as it is in a fixed cradle I can answer calls and change/adjust music without breaking the law. I never skip songs, why would I have anything on my phone that I didn't want to listen to? But it is very different because you need both arms - one hand to touch the other wrist, which would not be a convenient position if you are holding the steering wheel correctly.

            1. the only hand you need to move is the non-watch hand - the watch hand can stay safely on the steering wheel. and thus the operation is equally one-handed as a smartphone in a cradle
            2. as the watch hand doesn't need to move from the steering wheel, it will be in a position which is likely closer to or already within your line of vision towards the road in front of you. as there are few car cradles designed to be used within this area, it would invariably be safer to visually check your watch at the steering wheel than your smartphone anywhere else.
            3. go away motormouth.

    My reasons for wanting a "smart" watch:

    Keyless entry to front door of house.
    Notifications - Email/SMS/Facebook/Phone Calls etc.
    Time - Almost forgot about that feature.
    MP3 Player - Great for gym

    Things i'd like to see integrated in the future:
    All in one car & house key (with obvious backup options).
    Watch with NFC as a credit card.
    Smart Watch + Google Glass = Awesome?

    Fortunately i'm married and don't have to worry about looking "cool", and if you're reading Gizmodo I have bad news for you, you're not cool, so don't bother trying to look cool.

    Embrace the inner geek and buy a geeky watch... sorry "SMART" watch.

    Can't we do something different and call it a "Brilliant" or "Above Average", please, anything but "Smart".

      Keyless entry to front door of house. - already got it (never lock up)
      Notifications - Email/SMS/Facebook/Phone Calls etc. - already got it (phone)
      Time - Almost forgot about that feature - already got it (actual watch and phone)
      MP3 Player - Great for gym - waste of money (gym)
      heart rate monitor - already got it (multiple pulse points)

        already got it (never lock up) - Does your insurance company know?
        waste of money (gym) - Only if you don't go...

        I would find good use for one. The looks area needs a bit of work.

        Perhaps a analogue looking screen whilst inactive, digital when activated. Seems easy enough... oh and not plastic.

          What sort of gullible idiot has insurance? And as for gyms, they are for those who are unable to motivate themselves. You only need a gym if you want to be a bodybuilder, for general fitness there is the great outdoors and many kind councils have fitness stations in parks that are very handy and completely free.

    I like many of the functions, like controlling music apps, could also be great at the gym with a BPM band.

    I am concerned about using these while driving. I will be an interesting challenge for the legislators to work out where a smart watch sits in terms of is it a watch or a phone?

    I don't see it being any less safe for changing a song in your car or for checking the time. Would be a bit concerned about people checking notifications. I think it will be really tempting to glance at the latest facebook update or an SMS.

    I would like an android watch, but it would need to have developed apps for it. For example, I would like to use a wifi app to control music on my pc (foobar), one exists already for iOS (MonkeyMote) and android (foobarcontroller), it would be neat to skip tracks, raise/lower volume on music around the home via wrist watch rather than reaching for phone or tablet. But none of these apps would be usable UI wise from a wrist watch display, dedicated apps for smartwatch optimisation would need to exist.
    Till people can think outside the box of why a smartwatch would be useful I won't buy till its fully established. I'm sorry, notifications ain't nearly enough... It needs to run independently of a smartphone.
    I think its a valid market and I'm really surprised it hasn't been followed through properly yet. Every 6 months we see phones become more and more ridiculously powerful whilst the smartwatch market is limited and looking 10yrs behind where it really could be.

    Some features look pretty cool. Some just look like a gadget for the sake of having a gadget. Not that there's anything wrong with that ;-)
    Have a look at this one too http://www.kreyos.com/

    For anyone that has a jailbroken iPhone and a Pebble, check out 'PebbleActivtor' - http://www.idownloadblog.com/2013/06/14/pebbleactivator/ . Allows you to assign thousands of available 'Activator' commands, to any of to the Pebble's hardware buttons.

    Does the Martian really work like a Dick Tracey watch? My sixty-five-year-old mother has been saying how much she wants a Dick Tracey watch for at least twenty years.

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