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Watch and learn

Published: 02/07/2014 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2014 » July/August 2014 » LifeStyles » Home » Features »

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Are you wearing a watch right now? Perhaps not, since with the birth of smartphones, timepieces have stopped being essential. And yet, over the next year or two, the same companies who brought us smartphones – with features we didn’t know we needed – want to transform our wristwear.

The gadget industry has declared 2014 to be the year of wearable technology. Few normal people would want to go around in funny-looking specs such as Google Glass or Oculus Rift, but give them an elegant watch that can be customized at the touch of a button to suit their style, and the trend becomes much more interesting.

All the watches featured here offer notifications of some sort – so you can leave your phone in your pocket or bag and still know who’s calling, and often receive text messages, e-mails and social media updates too.

If you travel for business, notifications are great for keeping in touch discreetly. For example, you might not look at your phone in the middle of a meeting but you can glance at your watch for just long enough to read important news from a colleague. At home, the feature is equally important – if you’ve been away all week, it’s best to avoid the modern tendency of staring at your smartphone over breakfast.

Motion-tracking features that monitor your fitness and sleep are good additions as well – you don’t need to pack a separate wristband if you want to track your runs. And it’s worth considering one of the larger smart watches for the extra apps, which allow you to do things such as navigate new cities using maps directly on your wrist.

When choosing a smart watch, there are two key factors to consider. The first is the operating system – will it work with your Apple (iOS) or Android smartphone? The second is whether you’d like one that’s elegant and stylish, or feature-packed but bulky and pricey.

Right now, you can’t have both. Watches like the Samsung Galaxy Gear and Neptune Pine are impressive, but they’re large and have a “beam me up Scotty” sci-fi feel. On the other hand, fashion smart watches like Cookoo, Martian Notifier and MyKronoz ZeBracelet look great, but their capabilities are much more basic. The Pebble is arguably the first smart watch to balance form and function.

Looking forward, all eyes are on Apple and Google to see if they enter the market. There’s nothing yet from HTC and Nokia. Are these big players sitting back and waiting for the dust to settle before launching superb smart watches of their own? Or will the best ones come from brands that have been in this new product category from the beginning, such as Sony?

Innovations to watch include energy-efficient displays like Mirasol, seen in the Qualcomm Toq, and band-to-band communication spotted in the upcoming Razer Nabu. What’s more, there’s huge app potential for business – for example, you could automatically connect on LinkedIn when you shake someone’s hand.

For now, buy a smart watch if you’re a technophile, an early adopter or you simply like the idea of staying in touch without staring at your smartphone all the time. And if there isn’t one that takes your fancy yet, just wait. There soon will be.

Samsung Galaxy Gear $199

The most feature-packed smart watch you can buy today, the Galaxy Gear has the feel of a spy gadget. Unusually, it has a built-in 1.9-megapixel camera, as well as a 1.6-inch touchscreen, a speaker and a microphone. These let you make Dick Tracy-style phone calls from your wrist. On-screen notifications, voice control, activity tracking and device location are all there too, plus good apps such as RunKeeper and Evernote. Downsides are that it’s bulky and it’s only compatible with specific Samsung devices – Galaxy Note tablets and Galaxy S4 smartphones. It’s available in six colors – black, bronze, gray, neon, orange and white. Battery life on the original Galaxy Gear is short (about a day), but with the just-released Galaxy Gear2, Samsung says it’s addressed that problem.

Sony SmartWatch 2 $199

Most smart watches are either very basic or cost a fortune, but the Sony 2 is relatively affordable for a serious piece of wristwear. The features are impressive – it’s splashproof, has a 1.6-inch touchscreen, battery life of three to four days, is compatible with most Android smartphones and tablets, and has NFC (near-field communication) for easy pairing with devices. There are lots of apps, including maps and notifications from Facebook and Twitter. The user interface also feels a lot like Android, so it’s easy to come to grips with. 

Available in black with two wristband options.

Cookoo $129.99

Instead of a chunky touchscreen, Cookoo takes an analog watch face and adds simple icons for smartphone notifications – incoming or missed calls, texts, Facebook messages and posts, Twitter mentions, calendar reminders and e-mails. Available in six colors (black, blue, pink, silver and white, plus limited edition green), it can also control your music, trigger your phone camera, find your phone and warn you if your device is low on battery (iPhone or iPad only). Cookoo works with all the latest Apple (iOS 7) devices and select Android 4.3 devices from Samsung and HTC. The benefit of simplicity? It’s waterproof and its battery life is measured in months, not hours.

 I’m Watch $349

This ambitious Italian-designed smart watch looks good and is compatible with numerous operating systems – iOS 4 and above, Android 4.0 and above and, unusually, Blackberry 10. It can also be paired with Zephyr HxM heart rate monitors to complement its activity tracking features. As you’d expect for the price, it boasts a 1.5-inch touchscreen. Apps include weather, stock markets, news, calculator, time zones and a compass, plus Facebook, Twitter and Instagram notifications. In theory, then, it’s well featured, but in practice users have found its Bluetooth connection unreliable – and without reliable connectivity, it’s not so smart. The aluminum case adds colorful bands in black, blue, pink, red, yellow and white.

MyKronoz ZeBracelet $93.50

This is a Swiss fashion watch that keeps the smart stuff simple – so don’t expect apps. Instead, ZeBracelet rings or vibrates when you receive a call and lets you answer or reject it. The watch’s small, bright OLED display shows the caller’s number and, if you’re using an iPhone, their name. A built-in microphone and speaker lets you use ZeBracelet as a speakerphone and you can also stream music from a paired device. Its battery life is respectable, at three days, and it works with pretty much any phone (Bluetooth 2.1 or higher). Available in black, gold and white, it’s basic but elegant and affordable. 

Pebble Steel $249

The Pebble Steel is the best-looking of today’s larger smart watches. The 1.3-inch display is ePaper, so it’s pin sharp but monochrome, like a Kindle. And it’s not a touchscreen – you navigate using its chunky buttons. Apps can be downloaded from Pebble’s own online store on Android or iOS, and range from e-mail and social media notifications to one that tells you your Mercedes’ tire pressure. It’s waterproof, and can go five to seven days between charges, but there’s no mic or speaker for making calls. It is available in stainless steel and matte black.

Qualcomm Toq $350

Presented in either black or white, the Toq is both a savvy, waterproof smart watch and a showcase for Qualcomm’s new Mirasol displays. The 1.6-inch color touchscreen is reflective, not backlit. Bright sunlight is no problem – in fact, it makes it easier to read, and there’s a front light for use in the dark. Most displays use energy constantly – it requires energy just to bring up an image on the screen – but ePaper works differently. Once the image is there, it takes no power for it to stay there, so the Toq is very efficient. In fact, the battery lasts up to a week. It works with Android (4.0.3 and up). There are apps for clock faces, notifications, stock reports and weather updates, and clever features include wireless charging and optional wireless stereo headsets. But the screen is the star. 

Martian Notifier $129

This is an attractive analog watch with a few key smart features that work with both iOS and Android. Its small OLED display notifies you of calls (with caller ID), texts, Facebook, Twitter, weather, email, calendar, Instagram, Pinterest, favorite games, bank alerts, fitness stats, and any other alert your device allows. You can also program different watch vibration patterns for each type of alert. The notifier doesn’t have a built-in mic or speaker, but a watch button triggers your smartphone’s speakerphone for voice control for uses such as “read text” while you’re on the move. The smart features have a battery life of five days, but the watch itself is powered separately with a conventional battery, so it will keep on ticking for two years. Available in black, red or white.

Razer Nabu Price TBC

Currently in limited beta test, this innovative smart watch looks like a fitness band but secretly sports two displays and some interesting features. A small OLED “public icon screen” faces outwards and shows simple notifications as symbols. A larger OLED “private message screen” on the opposite side means only you can read the actual messages and alerts. Nabu also tracks fitness and sleep patterns, and band-to-band communication offers social possibilities, like shaking hands to connect online. Nabu has a seven-day battery life and works with Android and iOS. Its price is to be confirmed, but early samples for app developers are only $49 so it shouldn’t cost a fortune. Available in black, green, orange and white.  

Neptune Pine $335

The other upcoming device to keep a look out for is this large, standalone smart watch from Canada that takes a SIM card and wants to replace your smartphone. Its 2.4-inch color touchscreen is big enough to be fully functional – pop it off the wrist strap to type two-handed using the on-screen keyboard. It’s a full Android Jelly Bean (4.1.2) smartphone in miniature, with two cameras for photos and video calls, plus it has GPS, an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a pedometer and a digital compass (for activity tracking, maps and apps). The battery lasts five days on standby, or for a day of heavy use. Available in black or white. 

By Caramel Quin

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