I (grudgingly) Realized that I Wanted a Smartwatch

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I (Grudgingly) Realized That I Wanted a Smartwatch

Update (12/9/16): In a recent announcement, Pebble announced that they were shutting their doors and selling off their intellectual property to Fitbit. As such, I probably need to retract any nice things that I said about Pebble’s products down below. My new recommendation to everyone is: don’t buy Pebble smartwatches. The watch might work for now but nobody’s going to honor any kind of warranty, provide any support, or further the platform. I’m sure retailers are going to purge their inventories at rock-bottom pricing, but considering what Pebble’s said lies in store for their products it seems foolhardy to buy at any price. You’ve been warned—you’re almost certain to get far less than what you paid for.

Moreover, don’t buy anything from Fitbit either. While I commend their business acumen in acquiring the intellectual property but none of Pebble’s debt or obligations (for example: supporting the existing users), I think it’s a crummy move on their part to turn their backs on all of the existing Pebble users. I already had a frustrating experience with the Fitbit Force when Fitbit “voluntarily” recalled the Force before fulfilling a pending order that I had waited quite some time for. I hope they do amazing things with the pieces of Pebble that they acquired, but I’ll never buy any of their products again after they disappointed me both directly and indirectly.

I’ll enjoy my Pebble Time Steel as long as I can but it will quit working at some point. When that happens, will I replace it with another smartwatch? I’m not so certain.

For the longest time, the entire smartwatch craze befuddled me. I spent the last twenty years or so being very anti-watch. I spent the ’90s and the decade after wishing that my mobile phone would shrink down to a small enough size that it’d easily double as a pocket watch while liberating my wrist. In fact, when I eventually replaced my watch with my Nokia 8260, I was quite prideful in my ability to predict the future. For the next fifteen years, I scoffed at the notion of needing a watch at any point in the future.

Then a couple weekends ago I was at the hospital, precariously holding my newborn son, when my phone chirped at me as a text message came in, then a few moments later a phone call came in, and then immediately after that another phone call, ultimately all of this followed by a voice-mail notification! My brother, Jeff, was trying to get in touch with me in order to find out where he needed to go in order to come see his nephew for the first time (and to also bring the delicious pork he’d smoked.) But I was both unable and unwilling to reach into my pocket and answer his call. As my Nexus 6 rang and vibrated in vain from the depths of my pocket, I asked myself, “Oh crap. Am I going to need to get a smartwatch now?”

To be fair, I’ve been wearing something on my wrist for a couple years now. I have had a Fitbit Flex for quite some time now, so it’s not like my wrist has been completely naked since banishing watches sometime near the beginning of this millennium. But it’s still a pretty surprising 180-degree reversal on my part, especially when you consider my stubborn nature. I grudgingly resigned myself to the fact that I’d be shopping for a smartwatch in the near future and began to think about the features that I wanted to see in my smartwatch.

Smartwatch Requirements

  1. Battery Life: It seems these days I’m always in search of a charger for some piece of electronics that I’m carrying around. I’d really like to see at least 3 days’ worth of battery life and I’d be willing to pay more or sacrifice other features for a longer battery life.
  2. Fitness Tracking: I’m not an especially active guy, but I like the data that I get to see from my Fitbit Flex, especially its ability to keep count of steps and sleep tracking. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to move off from Fitbit as my fitness platform of choice.
  3. Mobile Platform Independent: I’m pretty much a devoted Android guy, but there’s a remote possibility that someday that might change. I’d prefer not to be shackled to any particular mobile operating system just because I happen to own one device from their ecosystem. There’s nothing special about a smartwatch’s functionality that would prevent it from working in numerous environments. If a manufacturer disagrees and sees the smartwatch as an opportunity to further their grip on my household, they’re going to be disappointed.
  4. Color Display: Even though it may consume more battery power than a black-and-white display, I’d still prefer a color display on my watch. My days of a monochromatic watch experience ended with whatever watch I was wearing at the end of the last millennium.
  5. Reasonably Priced: I wasn’t quite sure what dollar figure to place on this, but the smaller the amount the better. The rate at which mobile electronics become obsolete is way too high for me to spend much money on them. For the purposes of my shopping, I set my limit at around $300. I’d consider watches over that price, but they’d really need to blow my socks off.
  6. Chronometer: Oh yeah, it’s a watch—might as well make sure it can perform its primary function.

Determining my requirements didn’t really help me pick a watch at all, but it certainly did help eliminate the Apple Watch. The Apple Watch’s battery would need to be charged at least on a daily basis, ashamedly requires an iPhone to work, and its cost starts above what I consider to be reasonable. Even if I had an iPhone, I would still be inclined to buy a different smartwatch than what Apple’s currently offering.

The Contenders

There are quite a few choices on the smartwatch market, which was a bit surprising. In fact, there are so many out there that I’m relatively certain I’ve overlooked quite a few products that might fit my needs. Ultimately, I narrowed down the list to the following watches.

Among my criteria, my battery requirement eliminated a number of watches. The Huwaei Watch (1 to 2 days), LG Watch Urbane Wearable Smart Watch (1 to 2 days), Motorola 360 (~1 day), and Fossil Men’s FTW2001 (1 to 1.5 days) each failed to meet my minimum of 3 days’ use on a single charge. Furthermore, I was a bit disappointed to find out that each of these watches required that the screen go to sleep in order to reach those “maximum” charge times. Considering the size of the batteries and the displays these watches have, this isn’t a surprising factoid, but it doesn’t stop it from being a disappointing one. I expected that the Fixing_DIY Bluetooth Android Smart Mobile Phone U8 Wrist Watch also has a similar battery limitation, but it does have a tremendous advantage—price! At around ten bucks you could buy one for every day of the month before you got to the price of the Huawei, LG, Fossil, or Motorola watches.

The Pebble Time Steel and Pebble Time both meet my battery criteria thanks to their e-paper displays. The best part about the e-paper display is that it only requires power to update the display, so not only does it use a fraction of the power other smartwatches’ displays take, but it also means things can like the time can be presented on the display and remain there without consuming any power until they require an update. I’ve owned a Kindle Paperwhite e-reader for a while, and I’ve enjoyed using it quite a bit, which gives me a measure of confidence in e-paper displays.

The Decision

Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too? The Pebble Time, Pebble Time Steel, and Fixing_DIY Bluetooth Android Smart Mobile Phone U8 Wrist Watch all met most, if not all, of my criteria. Both of the options from Pebble offerings actually met all of my criteria. By the time I was done shopping, I had made up my mind to buy the Pebble Time Steel, mostly due to its larger battery. But at only $10, it also seemed like a no-brainer to also buy the Fixing_DIY Bluetooth Android Smart Mobile Phone U8 Wrist Watch too!

Both the Fixing_DIY Bluetooth Android Smart Mobile Phone U8 Wrist Watch and the Pebble Time Steel showed up on the same day, so what did I do? Put them both on, naturally! I actually expected that this would cause problems, but wound up being pleasantly surprised to see that notifications were getting sent to both of my phones. It wound up being a bit difficult to use either phone with both on my left wrist, so I wound up wearing one on each of my wrists. Thank goodness I’ve been housebound with fatherly duties, as I looked like a much bigger dork than usual!

Fixin_DIY

The Fixing_DIY Bluetooth Android Smart Mobile Phone U8 Wrist Watch was really surprising to me, consider its price of around $10. Because of the price, I had pretty low expectations. However, the smartwatch was quite capable and exceeded my expectations. It instructed me to download an app, BT Notification, to manage which notifications would get passed on to the phone. One of the features present on the Fixing_DIY Bluetooth Android Smart Mobile Phone U8 Wrist Watch but missing on the Pebble Time Steel is the fact that it includes the functionality of a Bluetooth headset. I was able to successfully call Pat and leave him a voice-mail despite his well-stated position on voicemail. Speaking of Pat, when I gave him the smartwatch to play around with, he discovered a feature that I overlooked—the smartwatch also has a the ability to access your phone’s camera remotely. We couldn’t think of many uses for having access to a remote camera on our wrists, but Pat pointed out that it’d come in handy if you had to see behind something that you couldn’t quite fit your head behind. As expected, you’re able to control (and listen) to your phone’s music, place a call to someone from your phone’s contacts, and read your text messages. Atop of that, the smartwatch also contained a bushel of other miscellaneous built-in apps, including; a calculator, stopwatch, alarm clock, pedometer, calendar (unique from your phone’s calendar app and data), sleep tracker, and a couple others.

I wound up not caring much for the interface of this smartwatch—the touchscreen is just a bit too difficult to use precisely and the design of the user interface is both basic and lacking. The act of acknowledging and dismissing a notification on the smartwatch was difficult enough that I probably would prefer doing it from my Nexus 6 instead. I also found that the smartwatch’s configuration options left quite a bit to be desired. YYou can change the notification and ring tones, but the choices all are pretty crummy and there are only 2-3 for each. The battery life is also pretty lacking—I immediately charged the Fixin_DIY watch and within a few hours of heavy use it was needing another charge, and that was a letdown. The poor battery life gave me doubts about whether or not it could survive an entire day. The size of the watch was also a bit bigger than I would’ve liked, and noticeably bigger in all three dimensions than the Pebble Time Steel.

There were quite a few things about the smartwatch that I liked, especially the price and its handling of the phone’s notifications, but there were also things that I disliked: the touchscreen, size, the user interface, and the battery life. All that being said, I think the Fixing_DIY Bluetooth Android Smart Mobile Phone U8 Wrist Watch is a great value at $10. It ticks off quite a few of my “must-have” features for a smartwatch and does it all for less than the price of a movie ticket. I think that this smartwatch would be an excellent investment for anyone who isn’t quite sure if they want a smartwatch and aren’t willing to spend hundreds of dollars just to satisfy their curiosity.


Dead-on shot with Display Active Laying on its side, with left side up Laying on its side, with right side up Connected to charging cable Shallow(er) viewing angle #1 Shallow(er) viewing angle #2

Pebble Time Steel

At the price of roughly 19 Fixin_DIY watches, I had pretty lofty expectations for the Pebble Time Steel, although in its defense the price was quite more reasonable than the offerings from Apple, Samsung, and Motorola. The Pebble Time Steel surprised me in that it was quite a bit smaller than I expected. A friend of mine has the original Pebble Watch and I wound up being surprised to find out that the Pebble Time Steel was a bit smaller than her Pebble Watch. In fact, I’d wager to say that the Pebble Time Steel took up just about as much of my wrist as my beloved calculator-watch that I had back in the ‘80s, but my wrists are a bit bigger now than they were back then.

So what does the extra $180 get you when comparing the Pebble Time Steel to the Fixin_DIY watch? Quite a bit! First and foremost is battery life. When I first received it I never charged the Pebble Time Steel, and on its initial charge under pretty heavy use the battery lasted five days. And thanks to the properties of the e-paper display, the watch was always on. It was interesting to me how frustrated I got with having to hit a button on the Fixin_DIY watch in order to wake up the display just to see the time. Another exciting feature of the Pebble Time Steel was its plethora of apps and watchfaces. I definitely have a desire to display data from my Continuous Glucose Monitoring system as well as some of the data from my web-analytics platform, Piwik. While I couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for in Pebble’s app store, in looking at some of Pebble’s development material, I’m reasonably confident that I can construct it myself. Lastly, the Pebble Time Steel has water resistance up to 30 meters with some limitations, which means all of my watery day-to-day activities (shower, washing dishes, getting peed on by the baby) aren’t likely to cause any ill effects.


Dead-on shot with Display Active Laying on its side, with left side up Laying on its side, with right side up Watch and Magnetic Charging Cable Connected to charging cable Shallow(er) viewing angle

Conclusion

I’m spending quite a bit more time these days with my hands full, completely unable to pull my smartphone from my pocket. I thought a smartwatch would help out in those situations, and I was mostly correct. But things that I assumed I could do one-handed all actually require two hands: one hand is tied up wearing the watch, and the other hand makes selections via the touchscreen or buttons, which I found a bit disappointing. On the flipside, I was already wearing something on my wrist, and I’d caught myself wishing a few times that it had a watch face and that I could somehow use it with my smartphone.

I’m actually pretty pleased that I bought the smartwatch, but a tiny bit disappointed it didn’t solve the exact problem that I purchased it for. I’m excited because it’s a fun little gadget that I get to tinker around with. The Pebble Time Steel wound up meeting all of my smartwatch criteria, and I truly am appreciating that all of the notifications I care for are getting forwarded to my watch. In fact, I’m tempted to mute the notification tone and vibration on my Nexus 6 as a result of buying a smartwatch.

It may not have been the perfect solution to the problem I was hoping it would solve, but overall I’m pleased with owning a smartwatch. There are a number of things that I wouldn’t mind incorporating into my smartwatch: keeping track of my traffic on my blog, keeping track of my blood-sugar data from my continuous glucose meter, and incorporating the watch into my own home automation. If I can accomplish those tasks then the smartwatch will wind up being a very useful addition to my arsenal of gadgets. Otherwise? Then it’s an expensive toy, but not the kind of toy I expect I’ll outgrow too soon.

How about you guys? What purposes do you have for smartwatches that I’m overlooking? And on the flip side, what concerns do you have that might be stopping you from seriously considering a smartwatch?

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