Brought to life by a Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $US1 million last year, the Neptune Pine is the most literal interpretation of the word "smartwatch". It's a huge, phone-like Android device that you strap to your wrist in order to feel smart. The $US350 Neptune Pine does almost everything you would expect your phone to do -- it just does it all badly. I just spent a few weeks trying the Neptune Pine, so you don't have to.
People who are interested in the Neptune Pine's "experiment in mobile computing" will undoubtedly be attracted to its specs. By the numbers alone, the Pine makes other smartwatches look like feeble toys: Up to 32GB of built-in storage, a dual-core 1.2 GHz Snapdragon S4 processor, 512 MB of RAM, front- and rear- facing cameras, GPS, a microSD slot, a 3G SIM slot, Bluetooth, a built-in microphone, a headphone jack, and a full version of Android Jelly Bean 4.2.2. While other smartwatches can boast some of the Neptune Pine's features, the Pine is by far the most feature-loaded gadget you can wear.
I wasn't drawn to the Pine because it purports to be powerful, though, but instead because it's absurd. It's undeniable that the Pine is an unsightly, massive hunk of gadget.
Its 2.4-inch capacitive display is considerably larger than the roughly 1.5- to 1.65-inch displays that Samsung, Motorola, LG, and Apple all seem to have decided make the most sense. But the whole device is even bigger than than its screen size would indicate. The Pine sports three touch buttons across the bottom edge of the device, just like an Android phone or tablet. At 14mm thick, it's roughly the thickness of two smartphones. Maybe it would be OK in a pocket or purse, but on your wrist it looks like a grisly tumour.
The Neptune Pine's appearance is all the more absurd because it feels like industrial design has been completely sacrificed in favour of jamming as much as possible into the device. (You have to wonder if the Pine's creators even considered design at all.) While most other manufacturers have taken pains to make their watches slim and lightweight so that they resemble a conventional watch, the Neptune Pine looks like a clumsy interpretation of a diver's watch; like a tool that only a professional would wear because no rational human with regard for how they look to the outside world would consider it.
Despite the Pine's unwieldy appearance, I was determined to give the thing a shot. Surely, 2,839 Kickstarter backers couldn't be all the way wrong. Surely, there might be some utility to this thing. Clearly, they saw something I couldn't see past my aesthetic pride. So I bravely shrugged off vain considerations about appearance, and slid into one of the first Neptune Pine units in the world.
To my surprise, I didn't immediately hate wearing 3.4 ounces of clunky glass and plastic on my wrist. The weight swinging at my side was initially empowering, like I was a rich guy swaying my way down the street with a flashy Rolex. At my desk, the watch's huge footprint didn't get in my way as much as I was expecting. I can comfortably type all day wearing the Pine. Sure, my wrist got a little sweaty from the thick rubber strap, but it was hardly a major discomfort.
Using the watch was actually fun at first too. The Pine doesn't exclusively live on your wrist; you can pop it out of the clip on the strap by pushing down on a little latch on the strap. Holding what amounts to a little phone the size of a beeper in your hand filled me with joy, a bit like holding a tiny puppy.And Android, scaled to the small screen, wasn't as clumsy as I was expecting. You've got to type slowly and carefully on the tiny QWERTY keyboard, but even entering a password was relatively easy. It's crazy how dextrous you can be even on such a tiny screen. On my train rides home, I popped the Pine out and knocked out level after level of Angry Birds like an old pro.
Even if it did have its entertaining moments, I never felt like I needed the Pine. You could argue that these days a smartphone -- or at the very least a mobile phone -- is a necessity, but a smart wristable certainly isn't. But I never felt like the Neptune Pine was even adding a layer of life-altering convenience to my life, either. At best, it's an amusing toy, and for some very connected nerds out there, it might, just maybe, reach the utility of a tool.
Big Watch, Huge Bummer
I expected to hate the Neptune Pine, and initially I didn't. But as the days rolled on, its shortcomings began to show themselves more and more. I found myself subconsciously taking the watch off at my desk. Before going out to dinner one night, I decided to strap on my Swatch instead, and the Pine languished for days afterwards on my nightstand.
It wasn't the aesthetics of the Pine that made me slowly start to hate it. In fact, people almost seemed to see past the wrist-mounted block. Sure, it caught people's eyes on the Subway, but unlike the smaller smartwatches I've used ("Whoa! Are you getting text messages on your watch?"), people would just stare at the Neptune Pine without saying a word. They stared and ignored me like I was an overgrown screaming kid wearing a Mickey Mouse hat. I guess the Pine looks so much like a budget knock-off that nobody really cared to know what I was wearing. Why would they, if they wouldn't want it for themselves?
Ultimately, I stopped wearing the Pine because everything that wasn't a novelty didn't work well. Basic interaction with the Pine doesn't stand up to even the lightest scrutiny. The 320 x 240 is relatively low resolution for something this size, and its colours are dull. Despite being capacitive, I found the screen often requires some pressure to actually register touches. The device releases from its wrist mount in theory, but the release latch frequently gets jammed, and you have to remove the strap so that you can use both thumbs and push with all your might.
And the deeper you go, the more disappointing the interaction. The Pine that Neptune loaned me came pre-loaded with handful of apps, which is extremely important because it doesn't ship with the Google Play store. If you want to use something on the Pine, you're going to have to sideload it. (I was told Neptune hopes to launch its own store down the line, which sounds like a miserable idea.)
A lot of things you'd want to do on the wristable don't work. Though Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja are fun, the screen's small size makes browsing the internet or your Instagram feed basically impossible. A whole Instagram photo doesn't even fit on the screen, and neither does enough of a web page to be fluidly readable. But at least Instagram and the internet would load. Other apps failed to work at all. The Pine came loaded with Skype, but though I could get Skype calls to ring on the the watch, I never successfully picked one up.
Speaking of making phone calls, the Neptune Pine offers the infamous Dick Tracy watch experience where you can make a call by speaking into your wrist. But I found that the built-in speaker wasn't loud enough that I could make a call on a busy New York street. Comic book dreams dashed.
Finally, the Neptune Pine has two cameras and both are terrible. They look like the photos my flip phone took years ago. If I had to choose between a flip phone and the Pine it would be a tough call.
What Is A Smartwatch For?
Despite being excitedly discussed in tech circles for years, smartwatches still feel like they're in their infancy. So it's understandable that so many people jumped on a Kickstarter for the Neptune Pine. It's different and it seems from a distance to be everything you could want. It's your phone on your wrist! Sure, its not little and cute like all the others, but it does everything.
But at a certain point, you need to ask yourself what a smartwatch should actually do, and after using the Pine, I'm more convinced than ever that less is more.
Pictures: Nick Stango