Don't Buy a Smart Watch Right Now

By Tim Barribeau, Wirecutter

A Smartwatch needs to have a good battery life, easily loadable apps, keep paired with your phone, and granular controls over what information gets sent back and forth between them. Until then, they're for early adopters only.

For most people, there’s no point in getting a smartwatch yet, as all the options have major kinks that need ironing out. Skip this generation of them. But if you absolutely must have one because you have nothing better to spend your money on (impossible) grab a Pebble.

Amidst a sea of buggy devices, ugly design, concepts that never ship, and problematic pairing, it only gets the nod because it’s less than ideal, but workable, whereas much of the competition simply does not work, or is priced by crazy people.

Photo credit: Flickr user pchow98 via Creative Commons

What is a Smartwatch?

2011 and 2012 saw everyone get extremely excited about the prospect of the smartwatch, a watch that could pair with your smartphone over Bluetooth, and then alert you when you got a message or an email. Depending on how advanced the concept, it would even let you use apps, see weather forecasts, and add handy other widgets. Projects like the Pebble Kickstarter, which raised $10 million with almost 70,000 backers, generated an immense amount of interest amongst tech blogs. Unfortunately, the smartwatches available right now have major issues, like mediocre compatibility, short battery lives, poor software and functionality, and high prices. So far, the Pebble is the best of the lot, but it ain’t great.

The Pebble is the marginal pick in part for being one of the most affordable smartwatches around, going for just $150 now, which is technically still a pre-order, though they are shipping. While it’s not the lowest price of the lot, it does have more functionality than the really cheap guys, like apps and support for both Android and iOS. There are one or two alternatives that are a little less expensive like the $130 Cookoo or the $115 Sony Smartwatch, but the vast majority of these things go for substantially more, hitting $200, $300, or even $500 in the case of the list price of the Citizen Eco-Drive Proximity.

The screen on the Pebble is also worth noting, because it’s a 144×168 pixel e-paper display. Despite what the name might have you think, it's not quite the same tech as you see on an ebook reader, but rather a low-draw LCD that can be read in sunlight, and with long battery life. The Pebble has a listed battery life of seven days — real world reports have been incredibly variable, with some hitting just a day or two, and some making it all the way to a week, and most landing somewhere in the middle. For comparison, most other smartwatches with a display will last 24 hours if you’re lucky. Not having to constantly worry about plugging in your watch? That’s a good thing.

Photo credit: Flickr user artgoeshere via Creative Commons

Also in its favor is the wide-ranging compatibility of the Pebble. It has both Bluetooth 2.1+ EDR and 4.0, the former allows you to use older devices (but with a major battery drain), and 4.0 works with newer ones but only has a small power draw. While the 4.0 tech is built into the Pebble, the watch is still waiting on a software update to activate it. That means it can pair with the iPhone 3GS and newer, and Android 2.3+. You’d be surprised how many of these smartwatches are iPhone or Android compatible, but not both.

The Pebble is also one of the better looking smartwatches. It’s sleek, not horribly intrusive, and a comparatively svelte 8.44mm thick. For comparison, the Cookoo smartwatch is 16mm, the Metawatch Strata is around 20mm thick, and the i’m watch isn’t too thick at 10mm, but looks comically hugewhen actually worn.

The Pebble also ticks a lot of other nice boxes. It vibrates, has an accelerometer, and is water resistant to 5 atm. We wouldn’t suggest deep sea diving in the thing, but it should be safe through shower, sweat, washing dishes, and the occasional swim. It takes a standard 22mm watch band if you want to swap out the one it ships with, and has a backlight so you can view the display at night.

Photo credit: Flickr user retrocactus via Creative Commons

The Pebble is meant to be able to add apps to increase functionality, but that’s where we start to get into the problems. See, there aren’t any apps yet, and we don’t know when there will be. The first SDK is due out in April, and is only for adding new watchfaces, not new apps. Ever since the original Kickstarter, Pebble promised some basic sports apps, like for Running, Cycling, and Golf. Those have yet to eventuate. With an accelerometer, an open SDK, and a tie to your smartphone, it seems like the potential for apps should be huge.

So you’re stuck with the notifications and tools that the Pebble comes bundled with. For the iPhone, system-wide notifications are meant to show up on the Pebble, but getting them to consistently do so is a massive kludge. If your phone and the watch break their link and then re-connect, you have to manually go back and toggle on and off all the notifications that you want to appear — and they all have to show on your iPhone’s lockscreen. It also breaks Siri integration: the iOS digital assistant thinks the Pebble is a Bluetooth speaker, and attempts to speak through it. Unfortunately, it isn’t, so you don’t hear what your iPhone has to say.

Things seem a bit better on Android, where there are a number of third party apps in the Google Play store to pick up some of the slack, and allow you to push more and different information to the watch. But there still aren’t the promised apps for cycling or golfing, which users have been waiting on for an age. It also only shows a single notification at a time, with no way to browse backwards to look at older ones, and while you can dismiss calls from the watch, doing so doesn’t even send them to voicemail.

Photo credit: Flickr user coffeegeek via Creative Commons

The general consensus among reviewers seems to be that it’s a good device, but one that doesn’t live up to its potential yet.

Kevin Purdy at IT World wrote a multi-part review of the watch, which he thinks is far better on Android than iPhone, and says it’s “good at what I think its job is: keeping you aware of things, and giving you freedom to acknowledge…and dismiss things as they come in. Is that utility worth Pebble’s now $150 retail price? Not to everyone.”

Unfortunately, Purdy's Pebble recently bricked while charging overnight, leaving him with a dead device, even after multiple hard reboots. He wroteabout his experience for Fast Company, and talked to me about it. and in his contact with Pebble, it sounds like a very small number of devices were hit with this problem. But with Pebble having such a small team (just five people), it’s very easy for support tickets to pile up.

The general consensus among reviewers seems to be that it’s a good device, but one that doesn’t live up to its potential yet.

Nilay Patel of the Verge said “the Pebble’s charming simplicity and fundamental competence inspires confidence. It’s so good at what it does now that it’s easy to imagine all other things it might do in the future” and “if the Pebble team can deliver on the rest of their promises, they’ll have created the first mainstream wearable computing platform.”

Matthew Stibbe at Forbes said “My feeling is that this has the potential to be a very useful device” and “The company has done well to create a device that looks pretty good, works well, delivers a good battery life and has the potential to be genuinely useful.”

At Engadget, they praised its value, but said “Functionality is still quite limited at this point, and considering how fresh the device is, that's to be expected. The features that are already available work well, and the smartwatch has been a pleasure to use.”

And the WSJ’s Walt Mossberg — who you could argue is the most influential writer about gadgets for the non-gearhead audience over 40 — liked the thing, but recommended people wait for Pebble to iron out the kinks before buying one.

What Else is There?

However, even with all of those issues, the Pebble still the best option around.

Some of the smartwatches that you can actually buy now interact with your smartphone only in a relatively basic way. Take the likes of the Cookoo ($130), the Casio G-Shock GB-6900 ($180), or the Citizen Eco-Drive Proximity (street price of $370). These watches will alert you if there’s an incoming call, message, or email.

Photo credit: Flickr user conanshang via Creative Commons

You can use them to locate your phone if you get separated from it. They might have a button or two to trigger a remote action. But that’s about it. They’re smart functionality tucked into a normal watch. The Cookoo, for example, has icons that light up, but the Citizen is much more subtle, simply pointing the second hand to a specific point and vibrating to alert you. Too bad the alerts hardly work. And frankly, if you’re going through the whole rigmarole of getting a smartwatch, you probably want it to do more than that. The Cookoo hasn’t been without problems either, and when iLounge attempted to review it, their unit died after just two days.

The $250-$300 Martian Watches are designed to look a bit more like a normal fashion watch. Its big draw is that it can be used for voice control of your phone, full-on Dick Tracy styles. Apparently, while the sound quality is excellent, but the voice controls are extremely problematic, and PCMag called it “a funky, but ultimately overpriced, and not particularly useful, smartphone accessory.” Also, they’re limited to a single line of text in the form of a 96×16 pixel OLED display. That little scrolling line of text can tell you the name of who’s calling, or display an SMS, but that’s not really that impressive.

The Sony Smartwatch is Android only, which is almost enough to dismiss it immediately. Sam Biddle of Gizmodo liked the look of it, but was incensed by its poor interface, the low-resolution and non-responsive screen, and the limited functionality of the apps. Jamie Keene of the Verge likewise complained of it being “overly complex to set up” as well as noting the apps were of limited functionality, and the device is initially confusing. And since it only runs Bluetooth 3.0, it’ll also kill the battery life of your phone that much faster.

The Motorola MotoACTV, Basis, and upcoming Leikr smartwatches are all interesting devices, but not really smartwatches. They’re fitness devices primarily, and are designed more for tracking your health and wellbeing than allowing you to interact with your smartphone in any meaningul manner. They have shorter battery lives, but can be used to do interesting things like measure your sleep patterns, or track your heart rate. Not necessarily bad devices, but aimed more at the type of person who wants a fitness tracker.

The i’m Watch sounds like it should be decent, but really it’s a disaster, having pissed off people who pre-ordered years ago, who have been waiting for an age to actually get the damned thing (see the comments here). It’s very expensive, running $350 for preorder, and will be $450 when it’s fully out. It packs a rather nice 240×240 220ppi 1.54" LCD, but that kills the battery life, which officially lasts just 5-24 hour. Yup, you have to charge it daily. It runs a custom version of Android (which at least is being updated to fix some of the horrible bugs), but you have to pay for apps and extras. Much of the design is blatantly Apple cloned, and the reviews so far have been brutal. LaptopMag described the downsides as “Hands-free calling doesn't work; Bluetooth tethering on phone required; No home button; Sluggish and buggy performance; Expensive “ Many of the basic features simply don’t work, the apps are poorly designed and the Bluetooth is spotty, and as one anonymous reviewer put it “I Waited 7 Months for THIS?!…the i’m Watch is a terrible product and one you should avoid at all costs. “

You’re paying to try out half-baked hardware and software that doesn’t have all the features or bugs ironed out. It’s beta testing.

Frankly, there’s only one other semi-decent smartwatch around, and that’s the Metawatch, which unfortunately hasn’t been reviewed nearly as broadly as some of the competition. It’ll set you back $180-$200. It has a 96×96 pixel LCD screen that looks ripped straight from a Tamagotchi. While it can add some apps, the community of users seems to be getting increasingly frustrated by the makers not updating it regularly. The iOS companion app at least comes with a couple of widgets (but not many), but the official Android version doesn’t even have enough widgets to fill the main screen, forcing them to turn to community made alternatives. The product website is promising that email, calendar, Facebook, and Twitter notifications, as well as alarms and a cycling/running app are “coming soon”. However, the primary complaints are that it’s unintuitive, and when David Pogue of the NYT did a roundup of current smartwatches, he praised it for its promise, but criticized the complex setup and lack of instructions, saying that “For now, though, this watch feels like a prototype.”

For most people, all of the options suck. You’re paying to try out half-baked hardware and software that doesn’t have all the features or bugs ironed out. It’s beta testing. Of the lot, the Pebble is the best, but this category isn’t ready for most people yet.

What You Can Look Forward To

Apple is currently being heavily rumored to be working on a smartwatch of some sort. That said, they’ve been pretty heavily rumored to be working on a television set for about as long as I’ve been writing about gadgets, and that hasn’t happened yet, so I’ll believe it when I see it. Samsung has confirmed that it's working on a "watch product", but there's no information on features, price, or anything else — but these leaked screenshots seem potentially promising.

There are also other smartwatches in the midst of fundraising like the Neptune Pine and the Vea Buddy, but all they really have to show for it is a bunch of renders. Manufacturing hardware is a difficult and often delay-filled process (see pretty much every watch on this list), so until you can readily get your hands on one, don’t count on it.

Frankly, the most promising prospect is seeing future iterations of current devices. Hopefully Pebble and Metawatch will sort their act out in in the next generation or two, and actually make something that most people will want to use, and won’t be utterly byzantine to set up and keep paired with your phone. It needs to have a good battery life, easily loadable apps, keep paired with your phone, and granular controls over what information gets sent back and forth between them. Until then, smartwatches seem to be for early adopters only.

This story originally appeared in The Wirecutter, published 2/25/2013 and reprinted with permission.