About Smartwatches

Last week Apple showed off the new Apple Watch for the second time, announcing the full feature set, release date, pricing, etc.  As is the normal Apple way, they are not first to market, and an argument can be made that they aren't even best on the market, but as usually happens with an Apple product, it grabs attention.


What is a smartwatch?  That is a question that doesn't have a definite answer yet, because both industry and consumer are trying to figure that out.  A smartwatch can mean different things to different people, who all want to use it differently.  But there are some things that, for the most part, make up the majority of smartwatches; things like phone notifications, weather info, music controls, fitness tracking, and of course, displaying the time (I know right?) though customization watchfaces.  


The different types of smartwatches do these differently, and every platform has a unique take on apps, interface, and how you interact with them.


The Pebble line of watches, launched on Kickstarter in 2013, offers a small screen, currently monochrome, though a colour screen model is coming.  The Pebble does not offer a touchscreen, instead doing all interactions through 4 buttons on the side of the device.  Pebble’s current incarnation is good for phone notifications that a user can now take limited action on, step tracking, and an app ecosystem that is robust and limited at the same time. The Pebble is limited to 8 apps on the watch at a time, and the limited interaction using only buttons restricts how those apps can operate.  Pebble’s main advantages are battery life of up to a week, compatibility with iOS and Android devices, and easy readability in sunlight.  The original Pebble can be found for as little as $100, and the Steel version of the new pebble time will retail for $250 in the US.


Android Wear is not a single watch, but a platform for watches much like Android is for phones.  Wear Watches all have colour touchscreens, some square, some circular, and sizes, capabilities, and design of each watch is different.  But android wear is consistent in it’s functionality.  Wear works only with Android devices, can can push all Android notifications as well as Google Now cards to the watch. There is also a microphone for voice search, voice replies, but not the ability to make phone calls.  Android apps with Wear support will install to the watch automatically. The functionality of these varies widely from glance-able information to fully interactive touchscreen apps.  Some models include extra sensors for heart rate monitoring, dedicated GPS, and a future update will include wifi so the watches can work more independently.  Adventurous users can even copy music to the watch and listen through Bluetooth headphones.  Battery life on Wear watches can vary greatly, from less than 12 hours in some cases to 2 days, depending on usage.  I personally own a Wear watch and my experience has been roughly 36 hours of battery life.  Wear watches start at around $200 and


The Apple Watch is not yet out, so we can only go with what Apple has said it can do.  There will be 3 different versions of the apple watch in 2 sizes each.  The most inexpensive option will e $450 in Canada, while  the most expensive watch is a true fashion/aspirational device with a price starting at $13,000. Yes, $13,000.  The $13,000 watch features an 18k gold watch and a strap with 18k gold accents.  There is a model in between that will retail for between $600 and $1200.  The Apple Watch features a touchscreen, a “digital crown” and one side button that launches a dedicated communications app.  Apple also includes a “taptic feedback engine” which combines a vibration motor with pressure sensitivity.  You can press harder on the screen to get a different action than a light tough, allowing different interaction options.  There will be apps for the watch, but at launch they will be very limited.  Apple’s framework means that most of the work is done on the phone, and the data is pushed to the watch.  This is to help conserve the battery life of the device, which Apple rates at about 18 hours.


All three of the major smartwatch platforms manage to do things very differently on the same size of screen.  Android Wear is mostly about showing you the information you need when you need it, in conjunction with Google now.  Pebble’s new time interface will be about showing you what is coming up for you, and keeping you organized, and Apple is about making you interact with the watch in similar ways you would with your phone.  Time will tell which one will be better in the long run, but I'm glad that they aren’t all trying to do the exact same thing.


Pricing on these devices is something that is very interesting.  Apple has, unsurprisingly, gone for the high end of pricing.  Pebble watches will vary in price between about $100 and $300, and Android Wear, due to the fact that any manufacturer can make a watch with the software, has a wide array of pricing.  Some watches can be found for $200, and some recently announced watches may be as much as $500.  Many of these options seem like a lot of money to spend on watches that cannot function without also having a phone, and will also be obsolete within 5 years.  In the watch world it is not uncommon to find very expensive watches, but these watches will last decades if cared for properly.  Will a $13,000 Apple watch still work in 2025? Probably not.  


Are smartwatches wroth it today?  Only the buyer can decide what is worth it to them.  I personally own an Android Wear watch that I got on a sale for $140.  I would not have spent the normal $220 asking price for it.  When smartwatches get smaller and more efficient, I would consider it, but on a personal level, they are a tough sell today.  Another question is usefulness.  Some people don’t see the need for one, and some people find a great use in them.  Again on a personal level, I find great usefulness to my watch, and I miss it if i don’t have it on.


The thing to remember though, is that these are first generation products.  The Pebble watches are, frankly, not good looking, which is important for a watch.  Android Wear has some lookers, but also some really ugly watches as well.  I have one of those ugly watches, but when they advance enough to be worth the cost, I’ll get something nicer.  The Apple Watch is very divisive. Some people love it, I personally find it to be the ugliest of the bunch.  Battery life is also an issue.  In my opinion, a battery needs to last 48 hours minimum, so you can forget to charge it one night and still get through the next day.  Only the pebble accomplishes that.  The screens also need to improve.  the LCD’s on Android wear are very hard to use in bright sunlight.  Pebble’s screen is readable, but not high quality.  The apple watch will likely have the same problems as Android wear using an LCD.  Usability is also a concern. No one has it perfect yet, though things will get better over time as we all figure out exactly what and how we want these devices to work.


Are smartwatches the future?  I’m not sure.  I like mine, and the functionality it provides, but I could live without it.  It can be hard to justify a $200-$1000 device that is essentially an accessory to a phone.  These devices will evolve over the next few years, and who knows, maybe more people will be wearing them.  I hope I am, but the future is uncertain.