Smartwatch Report Card

Tech revolution or just another fad?

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Time flies in the tech world. Just three years ago, tablets were a niche product and 3D television was the Next Big Thing (proverbial copyright: Samsung). Today, tablets are standard, and 3D is just about dead. This brings us to smartwatches: tech revolution or just another fad?

“Smartwatches will appeal to the masses in the near future,” argues Matthew Morey, a senior iOS developer at Chaione who has worked with the Pebble SDK. “[But for now] there are still issues, such as short battery life and lack of processing power, that are currently limiting the market to early adopters.”

In the off-chance that watch-like “wearables” someday become as ubiquitous as the laptop, we’ve gone ahead and rated eight smartwatches available for purchase today. Be warned: these ratings are a little more speculative than our fine-tuned smartphone scores from last week. We’re still discovering what consumers want in a smartwatch, just as manufacturers are tweaking their designs to match users’ preferences. First, we’ll take a look at the scores and our methodology. Next, we’ll look at a few of the individual models, organized by category.

The Scoring Methodology

We incorporated a variety of factors into our overall ratings, including expert scores (PC Mag, Laptop Mag, CNET, Wired), numerical data (battery life, pixel density, RAM, storage, etc.), and a variety of features (including smartphone interactivity, notification methods, sensors, water resistance, and more). Here’s a visual breakdown of the rating:

smartwatch_scoring_methodology
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Note that these watches have been scored on a curve. The Pebble is certainly not perfect, but it received a 100 rating for being better than any of its competitors (for now).

Diving Deeper, by Category

The Classic Watchmaker

Like a chaperone at your high school prom, the Citizen Eco-Drive Proximity looks upon its competitors with polite condescension, a refined veteran among upstarts. (Citizen has been making watches since the 1920s.) Experts praise the Eco-Drive Proximity for its elegant, vintage display and 1,000 day+ battery life. Regrettably, the Citizen smartwatch has comparably few features and unreliable Bluetooth connectivity. The $365 price tag doesn’t help either.

Best for: Don Draper, John McCain

The Crowdfunded Upstarts

Analog

Eager but untested, about half of today’s smartwatch manufacturers developed their products through crowdfunding. Like Citizen, Martian (makes the Passport) and ConnecteDevice (makes the Cookoo) chose simple, analog watch faces at the cost of limited functionality. Among the three, the Passport is the least visually appealing but most functional—a tiny OLED display at the bottom can identify callers and display slow-scrolling text messages. It’s likely the best middle ground for analog watch lovers who want a dose of the latest tech. The Cookoo looks nicer, but the built-in “smart” features are limited to beeping and buzzing alerts where simple icons flash on the screen. The Cookoo’s lower price ($129) keeps it in consideration, but experts have largely dismissed the watch as under-featured.

Digital

Most manufacturers have given up on an analog face entirely, opting for a more flexible, fully-featured digital display. Digital smartwatches allow users to view the content of text messages (and sometimes, emails) without ever reaching into their pocket or purse. Of the remaining crowd-funded watches, Pebble Technology’s watch (Pebble) edges the two Meta Watch offerings (STRATA and FRAME), with more features, a larger screen, slightly better battery life, and more praise from the experts. What’s more, at $150, Pebble provides a reasonable price point for curious tech fans looking for something to test out. Unfortunately, even Pebble has its downsides: the screen doesn’t look much better than your first iPod’s, and users still report bugs when syncing with their phones.

Best for: Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter Users

The Outlier

Italian-based manufacturer i’m S.p.A has released the rather pricey i’m Watch, a nifty little option with features that would satisfy James Bond but a swarm of bugs that might scare off a trained exterminator. While devoted (and wealthy) tech geeks might choose to experiment with the i’m Watch’s many features, the rest of us are likely better off dismissing it as a failed experiment from 007′s Q.

Best for: Daniel Craig, Pierce Brosnan

The Tech Juggernauts

With Apple iWatch rumors swirling and Samsung’s Galaxy Gear mere weeks from launch, Sony‘s aptly-titled SmartWatch has already won over a few first-round buyers. To Sony’s credit, the SmartWatch is one of the better options at this early stage. Experts praise the device for its reliability (the fewest bugs of the lot) and a nearly full set of features (like multi-touch and camera shutter control). It’s also arguably the best looking digital option, with a polished display and intuitive home screen icons. Still, the lack of iOS support, dim display (hard to read outdoors), and low battery life (~3 days) hold back the SmartWatch just enough to miss our top spot in the ratings.

Meanwhile, Samsung’s Galaxy Gear (on sale September 25) looks to disrupt the market with (surprise!) a larger screen (1.63 inches) and even more features (dictated text messages, calendar invites, various third party apps). That said, initial previews cite sluggishness, report low battery life, and bemoan limited compatibility (only the Galaxy Note 3 and 10.1 will work with Galaxy Gear at launch). Sony will be countering with the SmartWatch 2, set to match Galaxy Gear in screen size and features, but at the cost of an overall bulkier design.

Other big players include Qualcomm (planning a limited fall release of its smartwatch, Toq), a rumored Microsoft “Surface Watch” (likely 2014), and Nissan, which just unveiled the flashy Nismo smartwatch that will sync with select high-performance cars.

Finally, there’s Apple. The alleged iWatch has received all kinds of press, but so far the Cupertino-based gadget-maker seems to be in no hurry to produce it. CEO Tim Cook teased a fall lineup of products that will “blow your mind,” but most experts now seem to think an Apple-branded watch is still a ways off.

Best for: Steve Ballmer, Walter White

Conclusion

So should you buy a smartwatch? Opinion remains split. “Companies still need to convince the average user that a smartwatch is something they need,” said Josh Smith, senior editor at GottaBeMobile. “In order to go from geek to mainstream users, companies will need to do more than just make a smartwatch…they need to show users why it is better than taking their phone out of a pocket. [One] interesting use we could see includes using a smartwatch as a security device that keeps the phone unlocked as long as it is connected.” (Samsung plans a similar feature for the upcoming Galaxy Gear.)

Meta Watch CEO Bill Geiser cautions against jumping to conclusions at this early stage, saying, “We’re still in the first inning, with no outs. Most of the attention given smartwatches has focused solely on their function. In my opinion, this must change for smartwatches to become more mainstream.” To Geiser’s point, experts like CNET, PC Mag, Laptop Mag, and Wired have focused largely on features, or rather, the lack of features in today’s offerings. “The reality is we purchase and wear traditional watches for a myriad of emotional reasons, of which telling time is simply a pretext,” Geiser said. “It’s my belief that our motivation for buying and wearing smartwatches will follow along similar lines.”

If you’re ready to buy today, the Pebble offers an affordable option with decent reliability and solid specs. That said, tech enthusiasts may want to wait for the upcoming SmartWatch 2 or Galaxy Gear, each sporting a variety of features and backed by millions in corporate funding. For the rest of us, there’s plenty of time to wait and see. It’s what we did with 3D TVs, after all.

This article was written for TIME by Ben Taylor of FindTheBest.

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2 comments
WillyJobeK
WillyJobeK

Interesting article Ben. I was bummed to not see any teasers for the Apple Smartwatch at their event earlier this week. I'm excited for this market to expand so we can get some serious app development. My hope is that, with Apples new biometric endeavors, we may get something completely integrated with our bodies (checks pulse, monitors breathing, adjusts to environmental factors). As an Apple fanboy (I understand if you think I'm an idiot, but to each his own- I love design and the intangible qualities of high quality hardware, rather than power and specs), my hope is that they reinvent the current smartwatch, which lets be honest, is not that revolutionary. Apple may create the first hugely successful piece of wearable tech. But with their current slump, who knows, Samsung could beat them.. I think Pebble 2013 = Blackberry in 2003. This is the start of something pretty substantial in consumer electronics and app development. 

Benjamin1Taylor
Benjamin1Taylor

@WillyJobeK I hope you're right—I'd love to see Apple enter the space with their blend of tech expertise and visual aesthetics. At this point, though, I think they're just sitting back and waiting. They won't introduce a smartwatch unless they know for sure they can grab the high-end of an established—and growing—market. For now, wearable tech is a mass-market question mark.