Watches

I’ve long been an early adopter of new technology. Ever since the purchase of an Amstrad CPC464 back in the 1980s, I’ve been intrigued and fascinated by the advancement of electronics, and what comes next.

Coupled with this fascination is the want to test and review select products ahead of the crowds, particularly those I believe could be of genuine use in everyday life.

Most recently, I’ve been testing a number of new fitness trackers and smartwatches, and asking “are they really worth it, and which one’s the best?”.

Some background

I’m very picky when it comes to technology; a product has to be nigh on perfect for me to adopt and use it long-term. I set the bar high, and have no patience for products that are poorly designed in any way. When I test things, I get to know them inside-out, and can’t bring myself to spend-out on things that feel compromised or unfinished.

As a cyclist and runner, I enjoy collecting and analysing workout data in its many forms, tracking progress and ensuring targets are met. There’s recently been a spate of new fitness trackers hit the market to help everyday folk get motivated to ‘move more’, and take an interest in their daily activity. These have slowly been getting smarter, with added abilities such as heart-rate monitoring, multi-sport and sleep tracking, and display of notifications from smartphones.

It’s the smartphone compatibility that piqued my interest in checking-out some of the latest devices.

I’ve a confession to make

I’m terrible for getting distracted by my smartphone. It goes everywhere with me and I’m forever pulling it from my pocket to check I haven’t missed a call, a text or other notification. Once the phone’s out of my pocket, I’ll often unlock it to check my email, resulting in deeper distraction and removal of focus from the real world and those around me. It’s habit-forming and it’s not good.

On that note, check-out my post ‘Driven to distraction?’ at some point.

Curb your enthusiasm

I recently began to wonder if any of the new wearable devices on the market could help curb my enthusiasm for constant smartphone checking, as well as better manage activity data and help manage my daily work diary, where I’m in and out of meetings, often overrunning or occasionally forgetting appointments altogether.

Devices on test

Following initial research to figure out devices worth testing (!), here’s a list of what’s been on my wrist over the past few weeks:

I’ve had some fun testing these devices, but also a lot of frustration…

Garmin Vivosmart
Device purpose: activity tracker

Standout good:

  • Responsive touch screen
  • Comprehensive feature set inc:
    • Step count
    • Workout tracking
    • Calorie count
    • Heart rate (via ANT+ chest strap)
    • Smartphone notifications
    • Sleep monitoring
    • Music control

Standout bad:

  • Questionable aesthetic – like a chunky plastic bracelet – some people calling it a ‘prison band’
  • Step tracking inaccuracies, even after calibration
  • Can’t turn step tracking off, so increases during activities such as driving and cycling (very annoying)

Verdict: Novelty item = no-go

Fitbit Charge HR
Device purpose: activity tracker

I really didn’t like this device. I found it ugly and inaccurate. Also, as with the Garmin Vivosmart, you can’t pause step tracking, so increases during activities such as driving or cycling.

Verdict: No-go

Withings Activité Pop
Device purpose: activity tracker

Standout good:

  • Minimalist with a beautiful aesthetic; I felt proud to wear this
  • Great battery life (multiple months)

Standout bad:

  • Time keeping inaccuracies
  • No date display
  • Inability to sleep the vibrating alarm
  • Functionality too limited
  • As with the others, you can’t pause step tracking, so increases during activities such as driving or cycling

Verdict: Too basic = no-go

Time to step things up a gear, as the basic activity trackers were just not enough…

Garmin Forerunner 920XT
Device purpose: full featured fitness watch for triathletes

Standout good:

  • Incredible depth of functionality
  • Easy to use and very accurate
  • Comfortable
  • Great GPS reliability

Standout bad:

  • Too big to wear as an everyday watch
  • Smartphone notifications don’t stay on screen for long enough
  • Inability to respond to any notifications i.e. one-way only
  • No access to smartphone calendars

Verdict: Too much fitness functionality for my needs, impractical for anything else = no-go

Pebble Watch
Device purpose: smartwatch

Standout good:

  • Opened my eyes to the genuine benefits of a smartwatch
  • Very reliable bluetooth connection
  • Great e-paper display
  • Multi-day battery life
  • Receipt and display of smartphone notifications e.g. phone calls, texts and emails
  • Easy to use
  • Great range of apps to install

Standout bad:

  • Slightly odd looking
  • Mono display

Verdict: Liked it = go (for a while)

Using the Pebble Watch began opening my eyes to the benefits of a smartwatch, particularly the facility to serve select alerts to your wrist and prevent you checking your smartphone all the time. This alone really enthused me, and begged the question “can I get this, plus activity tracking, calendar/schedule management, regular watch functionality (and more) from a single, elegant device?”.

Enter Pebble Time and Apple Watch

There are lots of reviews about these two devices on the web. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks testing them both extensively, and feel I’ve finally found a keeper. Thing is, which one? They both have some fundamental strengths and weaknesses.

Watches2

Both these devices are extremely capable, holding much future promise. They’re competing in the same market space, but are designed very differently. There’s a detailed features comparison here.

Pebble Time

Standout good:

  • Always-on colour e-paper display looks great (personal taste)
  • Multi-day battery life
  • The new Pebble OS ‘Timeline’ is brilliant, allowing simply navigation of daily schedule, both forwards and backwards in time
  • Quirky, fun graphics of Pebble OS are a great touch
  • Super-responsive menu interface
  • Lots of available apps, most of them free
  • Promise of ‘smart straps’ bringing additional functionality in the future
  • Very reliable LE bluetooth connection
  • Activity tracking through third-party apps e.g. Jawbone
  • Compatibility with iOS Reminders and third-party apps (e.g.) Evernote
  • Compatibility with both iOS and Android
  • More ‘geek cred’ than ‘street cred’, which I rather like

Standout bad:

  • One-way only receipt of data from iOS e.g. cannot respond to text messages from the watch or use microphone, due to Apple’s closed ecosystem
  • Lack of touchscreen (once you’ve used the Apple Watch you’ll miss this if not present on other devices)
  • No sound e.g. for an alarm
  • user reports that bezel scratches easily

Verdict: Really like it = go – killer feature for me is ‘timeline’ functionality – great for work environment

Apple Watch / Apple Watch Sport

Standout good:

  • Beautifully designed hardware
  • Great screen
  • Touch display with new ‘force touch’ technology
  • Growing number of watch-ready apps, a lot of them free
  • Good product/OS development roadmap – software should quickly improve
  • Ability to interact with and respond to text messages, calendars, make phone calls etc – part of Apple’s ecosystem so guaranteed forwards compatibility
  • Very reliable bluetooth connection, with added benefit of wi-fi connectivity if on same network as paired iPhone
  • Haptic feedback very effective, though could be stronger

Standout bad:

  • Battery life just one day in typical active use (not necessarily a showstopper)
  • First generation product, so not yet as refined as it needs to be e.g. apps don’t run natively, clunky workflow / user-journey in places
  • Display is not always-on (to conserve battery life)
  • Has an ‘Apple fanboy / early adopter’ vibe about it – may be embarrassing to wear in this respect, particularly before it gains widespread use

Verdict: Really like it = go (‘sports’ model) – killer feature for me is facility to view and manage calendars, to-dos and incoming communication from my wrist, without having to access my smartphone.

So, which one’s it to be?

I really wish I could combine elements of the two watches – the Pebble Time’s battery life, always-on display and lower price point, and the Apple Watch’s ability to send as well as receive notifications etc.

Which will I keep? I haven’t decided yet, but I’m certainly sold on the genuine benefit of the smartwatch concept, and can’t see myself looking back.

Like I said at the top, I’m an early adopter of new technology. People may poke fun at me now, but they too will join the smartwatch party sooner or later.