Smartwatches: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Three years ago this month I road-tested my first smartwatch, the first Android Wear wearable from LG. I bought it on a whim, sight unseen, immediately after watching the webcast of the live keynote for the launch of Android Wear. On a similar whim some six months later I bought an original Pebble on clearance at my local Best Buy. I stuck with that through the launch of the Pebble Time in mid-2015, gave up for a while, came back to the superior Pebble Time Steel and remained a loyal Pebbler until the sale of assets to Fitbit last December. Then I returned to Android Wear, but only devices made by traditional watchmakers. And now, thanks to Gadgetbridge, I find myself reunited with my collection of Pebbles.

I’ve never owned an Apple Watch or a Fitbit, but thanks to Howard I did get to spend a weekend with an original Galaxy Gear way back in the winter of 2013. All this is only to say that I know a thing or two about the device category. So here’s what I think of it, three years on…

Notifications

This is the smartwatch’s core function, to send notifications from your phone to your wrist. And it’s handier than you might think. Whether I’m driving or out with friends I find it incredibly useful to discreetly—and safely—glance at my wrist to see an incoming notification. Whether or not I act on that notification is entirely up to me. I personally only ever use text-to-speech for replies when I’m at home alone; the world doesn’t need any more idiots yelling at their technology in public.

If you don’t already wear a watch and are not sold on the idea of wrist-based notifications then maybe a smartwatch isn’t for you.

Customization

When it comes to the smartwatch’s “killer feature” I do believe one exists, it’s just maybe not as earth-shattering as you might think: for me it’s the ability to change your watchface. No other smartwatch OS has capitalized on this as much as Pebble, but what constitutes a good-looking watchface is, of course, fairly subjective.

I feel pretty strongly that you should also be able to change your strap to compliment your watchface; this feature obviously isn’t unique to smartwatches, and yet some Android Wear OEMs have yet to support quick-release straps or even standard band widths.

Interface

Until I tried it for myself on Android Wear 2.0 I would have been resolute that touchscreens on smartwatches make no sense. But swiping out a short message to my girlfriend stuck at the opposite end of a crowded train wasn’t actually so bad—though selecting from a list of canned responses would have been much faster.

I do think that some supplementary means of navigation is necessary, though. Pebble has buttons, Apple has their digital crown and now the Android Wear-powered LG Watch Sport has it too. Some of us do live in places where gloves are sometimes required, after all.

Battery & Screen

The day-and-a-half of battery life of your typical Android Wear or Apple Watch isn’t as terrible in practice as it sounds; unless you wear your watch in bed for sleep tracking it’s about as easy to put it in a charging cradle as it is to leave it overnight anywhere else. Where battery life becomes an issue is if you’re travelling. If you’re en route to some far-away place you’ll probably want to power down your timepiece between layovers—unless, of course, you’re wearing a Pebble.

Where battery life fails hard on both Android Wear and watchOS is the display. It is flat-out unacceptable to spend $500-plus on a smartwatch and not have its screen fully-lit 100% of the time.

Hybrid smartwatches solve this by regulating the time-keeping functions to traditional watch technology, but in the vast majority of cases that removes the smartwatch’s core function; the display of notifications from your phone is replaced with a generic buzz on your wrist.

So far only Pebble has been able to figure this out with their e-ink displays, though an honourable mention should go to Casio for it’s dual-layer watchface option.

To sum up, every smartwatch OS has its own limitations, but for me the one that makes the fewest compromises is Pebble. And they’ve gone completely out of business, which shows you how messed up the nascent world of smartwatches remains. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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