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FascinatingDebate - SmartWatches or Watches that are just smart

Archived Issues > Autumn 2014 Issue

FascinatingDebate with Garry, Ruth and Wayne

In this issue's great debate we have three opinions on the latest technology craze Wearables and in particular SmartWatches. We also have two reviews to back those opinions based on the technology that our writers actually wear. 

First Garry looks at his Pebble Steel SmartWatch, then Ruth give a forthright opinion on why SmartWatches are missing a beat in the female market and finally Wayne Reviews his own Casio Watch which technically isn't a smart watch but sure looks smart.

Garry's View

I've been intrigued about SmartWatches for a while. I come from a generation where wearing watches was the norm but have recently adopted the approach more common in the und 20s of not wearing a watch at all but instead using my phone to tell the time. Of course my phone does a lot more than just notify me of the time: it lets me know I have email. keepps me in touch with the news, offers up my social media and even gives me weather forecasts. I'm looking at it all the time. This has become a habit and something I'm really concious of being a bad habit in social situations. 

I began to think a few years back that my watch had been a really discrete way of checking information - a true glanceable device - albeit on that only served one major purpose of telling the time. It might have the date and perhaps could be a stopwatch but all its functions were time related. Wouldn't it be great if it could do more and tell me when email arrived, kept me in touch with the news... well you get the picture basically do everything my phone does for me without having to take my phone out of my pocket. 

There have been attempts at smarter watches before the TI Calculator Watch, Microsoft's SPOT watch and a few attempts at watches with feature-phone style interfaces but none have really hit the target.  

The first one to come close for me was the Original Pebble. A kickstarter project to bring a Watch that could also show notifications from Android and iOS devices. It was also a very cool watch with multiple watch faces including a text based one which I had not seen the like of on any other watch.  It aso ran for several days without charging. This was important as sem of the earlier attempts had struggld to last a day.  If I was goign to wear a watch I didn't want to have to worry about it running out of power in my normal day. 

The Pebble nearly ticked all my boxes:-
  • It told the time accurately and with a clear watchface (infact several) - not all early attempts had done this well. Often the smart features had been at the expense of telling the time. I remember one which always sat on the phone dialer screen rather than the clock face. If I am going to wear a watch I want it to tell the time first.
  • It could notify me of the events I previously mentioned - actually this is a bit of an almost. At the time the Pebble came out I was moving away from iPhone and on to Windows Phone for which there is no official Pebble Support. Fortunately there is some excellent third-party support out there and apps like Greg Banta's Pebble Watch Pro do a really good job of providing support on Windows Phone but they are currently not able to provide the same level of notification support as on the iPhone or Android Phone.
  • It could run for more than a day after notifying me of a low charge.
  • It is waterproof - I've had more than one SmartWatch die after a heavy downpour.
  • It is readable in daylight.
On the first of my criteria it had almost missed out. The founder of Pebble recently admitted that he hadn't initally thought of having the watchface as the prime focus but his Father had put him right on that.  I'm glad he did. The watchface choice is a strong feature.

So it almost ticked all my boxes but I wasn't totally sure on the design. It looked a bit plasticky to wear to work and I wasn't sure of the durability of the plastic screen.

I still got one to play with and I was really impressed other than the durability. I had two failures with what is know as screen tearing. This is where the display starts to break up and in some cases goes blank entirely. This is down to the Pebbles E-Paper display's connection working loose. It can sometimes be helped by dropping the watch into the freezer but that is no something you would want to do regularly. Pebble's support team are excellent once they get to you. It can take a while between first reporting an issue and getting a follow-up reply but when you do get that reply it is usually really helpful and normally involves a replacement being sent. This screen tearing issue seems less common in more recent versions of the original Pebble where screws have been added to hold the thing together rather than just relying on glue.

I did however love how easy the watch is to use. The controls are simplcity itself - four buttons.  A Back button on the left hand side of the device and then up, down and a select button on the right side.  Really easy to use even when out in the cold and using gloves. Not something you can say for those watches that use touchscreens.  The menu structure is really straghtforward and this must be the easiest watch to set an alarm on ever.

I also really liked how discrete the notifications were - a gentle buzz on the wrist coupled with the text on the sceen that can be dismissed with the click of a button.  Very cool. 

Now that screen isn't very colorful but it is really high contrast with very deep black and a white that looks more silver. This is memory LCD or (e-Paper) a two-tone display that uses a lot less power than ordinary LCD. I really like the display it is really easy to read even indirect sunlight. There is a backlight for telling the time in the dark.

My only complaint on the screen is the lack of resolution. Most of the time you don't notice it at all but if you look closely you can see jagged edges on angled lines. This is probably why some of the best designed watchfaces are mainy rectangular. 

This brings me on to another thing I really like Pebble really encourage third party developers and their app store is teaming with mostly free watchfaces and watchapps. The difference between the two is that Watchfaces are always reachable using the up and down keys to loop through them from the main screen but the buttons cannot be used for in app functionality. Watchapps on the other hand can use allt he buttons but are buried in the menu and cannot (up to the latest firmware) be launched quickly.

There are some amazing apps out there for the Pebble. Want to pay for a coffee using your wrist then there is an app to do that - you might draw some strange looks from the Barista as you hold your wrist up to his scanner. Just one example and there are tons more to check out on the store that can be accessed using the Pebble apps on iOS and Android (not on Windows Phone yet - there are other ways to get apps there)

As a developer the Pebble coding envronmnet looks very easy to follow and they provide a lot of support. 

One really nice thing though is that even if you don't have developer skills you can still create your own watch face usinga n online third-party watch face desgner. This can give great resiults and best of all is free.

When testing the Pebble I found the Notification system worked as a really good first line filter almost like triage in a  hospital emergeny room allowing me to concentrate on the true priority cases. My phone habits changed. I find I take it out of my pocket much less with the Pebble on. Despite my worries about the build quality I was very sad when i had to send it back.

My Birthday was very pleasant however as a very kind friend gave me a Pebble Steel as a present. The Pebble Steel is Pebble's attempt to go a little up market with instead of the plastic case and as the name suggests, a stylish steel case with a Gorilla glass screen. It is a watch I am happy to wear all day and everyday. It does need charging after four to five days but I know when it give me the low battery worning I do have a day or so to find a charger which has never been an issue. There are two styles one shiny stainless steel and the other a PVD coated matte back. I prefer the look of the Stainless one.

Other than the different body there is very little difference between the Steel and the orignal Pebble. The only physical difference is a small led located on the face that lights up to show charging status.  Software wise its identical to the original.

One difference though is when it comes to watch  straps. The original pebble can use any off the shelf strap of the right size and use it but the Steel has a proprietary strap connector.  I have however found some thirdparties doing replacement straps and Pebble themselvse have two; a Leather one and a very stylish steel one.

Its a really good watch. The gorilla glass aside from being tough has much better clarity then the originl pebble. The display seems charper and more defined. Everything just feels quality. 

I've seen many of the new generation of smart watches and for me although I love the more detailed colour displays the lack of outside readibility and the much poorer battery lives is an issue. As is suprisingly the use of a touch screen. I've really grown to love the fact that with the pebble I can control it without even looking at it because I know where the buttons are. This is really handy when using it to control music playback on the tube.

Pebble seem to really understand to succeed its often best to keep it simple.

Having said that they also keep enhancing the funtionality for example recently adding background fitness tracking so I no longer need another device like a Misfit Shine to track my steps - I can just use the Misfit app instead.

You may have gathered I really like the Steel. For me it just works.

Ruth's View
Smart Watches and wearable
So these are all the range and I should be rushing out to buy one.

Well I like the idea and the concept what I really don’t like is the giant macho designs that seem to be the only options. Take a look at the photo of the LG one and my wrist below.
Are you getting my problem yet?

So off to Sony where they have a giant watch so I explain by offering up my wrist that this simply is too big to be comfortable let alone not look ridiculous. So the chap helpfully suggests that they have a narrower version but the bezel is still wider than my wrist.

There are the same problems with the Galaxy Gear and the Pebble.
So Apple announce that they have a ladies watch….but is it really a ladies watch that is design aware and stunningly pretty to look at as well as tech to be proud of?

So designers go back to school. Women want a cool tech watch but they do not want to compromise their style. So who has the guts to design a smart watch that is full of tech has a battery that lasts more than 5 seconds and actually fits and looks stylish. I don’t want a man’s watch. I don’t want a sore wrist bone.

So I’m waiting for the tech company that recognises that women love tech but not poor inelegant styling,

There is one possible with a smart ring that is currently in development so take a look at the picture below and see what is coming soon. Given the macho design on the watches this may be my only hope for the time being.


Wayne's View
Smart Watches
Please note that the following contains my opinions \ views and based on my experience of life over the last 40+ years.
It is my view as of NOW, but it is NOT static.
Like any other rational human being my views can (and do) change as I discuss this more with people or get additional information that strengthens or contradicts my current understanding.
As I get more information, or listen to a view or argument that goes against my current view, I am happy to amend my view or even U-Turn.
Life is funny like that.

My History
I started wearing watches from an early age; probably when I was 8 or 9.
I distinctly remember a primary school teacher asking me if I could tell the time on my watch and to tell her when it was time for a break.
Since then I have typically purchased a new watch every couple of years that match the following characteristics:
  1. It must be able to show the time clearly and accurately  
  2. If battery powered, it must last for at least 18 months between replacements
  3. It must be well made (simple or complex layout, but well made and clearly presented)
  4. All of the above taken as a whole - Combination must 'feel' right
  5. Everything else (time zones, stopwatch, other functions should "add" to the watch)

With the watches I have bought, I have my basic requirements \ characteristics that I am looking for, but flex within those - I may sacrifice a little of the design for something that is more rugged, or I may sacrifice battery life for something that tells the time more clearly.
In essence, the watch has got to stand out as something I can see myself wearing for a couple of years at least without getting frustrated at its build quality, battery life or feel.

I went through a phase where I looked for thin then ultra-thin watches, but for the last 6 years I have moved more towards the bulky (but not oversized) designs.
They tend to be more forgiving if knocked or bumped and handle everyday activities a bit better than their thinner cousins (which rebel if they even 'see' a wrist height work surface).
I am currently wearing a Casio Edifice (which I review here) as it fits the above 4 characteristics very well and is relatively inexpensive.
The key selling point for me was the price \ quality ratio - A very nicely built watch at a price point I was already considering.
A 2 year battery life helped, and it was very easy to tell the time with the dial relatively uncluttered.
The bells and whistles of the tide height indicator and thermometer etc... were additional points that added to the overall feel.
My Plans
Ultimately I would like to purchase a Breitling Aerospace Evo (preferably without feeling guilty about spending "that amount of money" on a watch).
It has a good weight and feel, shows the time clearly and has a very simple yet very elegant look about it; Analogue hands with digital display when needed (I would probably skip the co-pilot accessory - a bit overkill)
Rolex just doesn't do it for me.
It's a name synonymous with quality and elegance but the watches don't appeal to me as much as the Breitling.
Note to editor - This does not mean I would be adverse to reviewing a Submariner or Sea Dweller however.  

As should be obvious by now I class myself as a bit of a technophile.
I have previously joined the early adopter ranks by purchasing a very early Pentium 3 processor (and suffering the precision errors that accompanied them) and also one of the first commercially available Phillips Blue-Ray disk burners (and an early ZX81, an early CPC464, an early PS1, an early webcam...).
I should therefore be jumping up and down in anticipation at buying one of the new swathe of Smart Watches that are available... ... But I am not.
Smart Watches
I currently see Smart Watch history in the following "Ages"; Note, this is my view and something I feel comfortable with - It may not match reality in every detail and may not suite your views... but this is my Op\Ed.

1st Age - Pre 2010
Innovation - These devices were "testing wearable technology" for technologies sake; An early adopters playground where the watches WERE innovative and new for the sake of being innovative and new.
There was very little around to compare them to. Note that I class the old Casio 'Calculator' watch as a prototype smart watch; It wasn't just "digital' - it performed functions not normally associated with a watch.

2nd Age - 2011 - 2012
Resurgence - New players enter the market trying to show where wearables could go and seemed to be more "watch" biased than "phone" biased in their approach and functionality.
The pebble was the most exciting for me (I nearlyjoined the kickstarter campaign - just left it too late) as it seemed to focus on the watch elements at its core.

3rd age - 2013 onwards
Bandwagon - Bigger manufacturers joining the game hoping that their name for phones (for example) would help sell the wearables.
Here I feel nothing is really innovative, just a wearable version of functions that already exist on phones - the only addition is 'convenience'.
Current Smart Watch Audience
I feel that the current Smart Watches are purchased by 2 key groups of people:
Those who don't usually wear watches; mainly the 18-24 year olds who have until now relied on mobile phones to tell the time.
Those who find watches a convenient accessory to their phone - eg - Joggers, sports people, fitness fanatics etc... where a watch is potentially less prone to damage during a work-out and easier to access than a phone; or where they can make use of the additional elements programmed in - health monitor and the like, for the same reason.

Validation of these views was presented by my 19 year old son and his friends who all said the same thing when pressed -
"Why do we need a watch when we have phones....?" My son later added "I don't want a watch like yours, but can I have a smart watch so I can wear it when I am at the gym to monitor my heart rate and calorie burn"

I feel that there is no real incentive for a watch wearing 40+ year old to make the move to smart watches yet.
If I want email, social media, videos etc... I will use my PC, my Laptop or my Phone... In that order.
I (personally) am rarely in a position where I do not have access to at least one of these.
My Key Gripes
Battery life
I dislike having to recharge my phone every day even with moderate use.
I certainly don't like the thought of charging the watch at the same rate, and I will probably forget to.
I feel awkward without a watch on my wrist and having a non-functional watch is just as bad.
I appreciate that charging times are reducing all the time, but until we hit months, or preferably years without charging I may stay smart watch free.
What could be done to improve this?
Pebble went some way towards it with an e-paper display which on average increased time to charges to 7 days or so.
As a watch is never looked at 100% of the time so this could be taken further.
My Edifice has a tilt sensor which "recognises" when I am looking at and illuminates the dial at this point.
Carrying the technology forward, why not leave the display off until its elevated or a button pressed.
This may increase the battery life somewhat.
For those who want "something" on the facia at all times, why not an image, or the date \ calendar as the background image when not "active".
Casio (amongst others) also have "kinetic" motion functionality which charges the batteries via the motion of the body.
Again, this couldbe adopted to help keep the battery charged.
Casio (again one of many manufacturers) have solar cells built in to the units to help keep the battery topped up.
These could be added to the facia... or even the strap of smart watches to capture additional energy.
Transparent solar cells are being prototyped \ developed and once commercially viable, this would be a boon everywhere; not just watches.
Here's an idea - Induction charging - I was considering how watches could be charged via induction from nearby sources.
As an IT worker who spends 60% of his time at a desk, an induction mouse mat could be useful.
Build the charging coil into the wrist strap (embedded in the leather or steel straps) and this would provide a useful top up (Editor - How do I patent this idea?... Seriously.)

I am aware that battery life should only increase as battery and other technologies improve and that we may see month long durations between recharges the norm.
Aesthetics and "feel"
As mentioned earlier, I like to feel that I am wearing a watch - Not overly heavy, but not ultra thin.
The Smart watches I have tried on so far don't feel right on the wrist (usually too light) or the straps feel too plastic-y.
I have not tried a stainless steel strap yet so that could change.
In addition, most Smart watches just aren't as aesthetically pleasing to me.
There are some exceptions - such as the Pebble Steel - that appeal more, but overall they don't show "quality" in the same way as the traditional watches I wear.

I am aware that some of the smart watches have standard size straps so they can be replaced, but more often than not I have found that interchangeable straps typically have a less quality look and feel than the watch itself, unless you buy one from the original watch manufacturer if they supply them.

The faces \ dials on the Smart Watches can be changed - Some are very nicely presented and have very smooth animations, but there is just something about the majority of these that put me off - Its almost as if the watch function, again, is secondary to all the push-notifications and maps that can be displayed.
Each of the above can (and will) be addressed as smart watches develop; but my gripe is not necessarily about these individual elements, it's the package as a whole.
I don't feel that the current combination of look, feel, heft, general aesthetic, battery life and functions of a Smart Watch can compare with more traditional watches, and while the ability to add even more functions to a smart watch is a positive, it still doesn't tip my view into the smart watch camp.
What I think will sway me is a more traditional looking watch with good battery life and smart functions available, but hidden away.
And it looks like I have found the start of this "movement".

Bridging the gap
While checking websites and other sources to make sure I have not said anything too contentious in this editorial, I stumbled across the Kairos Hybrid watch which at first glance seems to offer what I am after.
It has a traditional design, with moving \ mechanical parts powered by either a Japanese movement or a certified Swiss movement, with smart watch functionality that is invisible until called upon.
Battery life is still reported at only 5-7 days, but it seems to be a step in the right direction for me.
The case looks quite thick (16.5mm) and they are planning a metal strap to compliment it.
I cannot find if the analogue elements have a dedicated battery (to keep time) as this would be a boon - If I forget to charge the battery powering the smart functions, at least the time keeping element would remain.
Update: There is mention of a combined analogue winder & battery charger so this seems to indicate no second battery.
What I Want
After reading the blog and the design elements, I am pretty sure it has cemented my overall view of what I want from a Smart Watch.
Analogue design elements \ aesthetics on the outside, with smart functionality on the inside.

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Aerospace Evo
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Sea Dweller           

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Pebble Steel    

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