Although Apple has a reputation for revolutionary products, they don’t appear out of thin air. Usually, when the company enters a new market, it first looks at all the competition and figures out why it hasn’t become popular. Only then does Apple make a big leap forward, as it did with the iPod, iPhone and iPad.
We may see this happen again with smartwatches, a still-nascent category of gadgets that can do a lot more than tell time.
By connecting with our phones, smartwatches can alert us to incoming messages, tell us the weather, give us a glimpse at news headlines or act as remote controls — all without ever making us reach into our pockets. According to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Apple is now testing a smartwatch of its own.
It’s not clear when an Apple smartwatch would materialize, if ever, and both reports are hazy on what its capabilities might be. But you can learn a lot just by looking at the competition and evaluating its strengths and weaknesses.
Here’s a look at other attempts at the smartwatch, both past and present:
Key Features: Connects with the iPhone or Android phones to display incoming calls, e-mails, text messages, calendar alerts, weather alerts, alarms and social network notifications. Third-party apps (such as fitness trackers) extend functionality. It has a 1.3-inch “E-Paper” screen for week-long battery life, and is waterproof.
Price and Availability: $150, up for pre-order now (and shipping to Kickstarter backers)
What Reviewers Say: Reviewers generally enjoyed the Pebble — especially being able to glance at notifications without taking out your phone — but are hoping for more functionality and polish from the software. The Verge notes that Pebble’s iPhone support is a bit messy, while Android is limited to whatever app support Pebble builds in on its own. In other words, neither operating system is really designed to support a smartwatch right now.
Key Features: 1.5-inch color OLED touch screen. Pairs with Android phones to display e-mail, messages, calendar notifications and social network updates. Additional apps available through Google Play.
Price and Availability: It costs $130, and is available now.
What Reviewers Say: The Sony SmartWatch earned some praise for its looks and its unique app selection, but got dinged for its finicky software and the fact that it barely functions when it’s not paired to a phone. Gizmodo, amusingly, called it “maybe the worst thing Sony has ever made.”
Key Features: LCD display can be customized with “widgets” for weather, stocks and calendar, and can show notifications for e-mail, text messages and incoming calls, with support for iPhone and Android. Built-in apps include a running and cycling monitor, music control and an alarm. The phone is waterproof and lasts for five to seven days on a charge.
Price and Availability: $179 and up, available now.
What Reviewers Say: AppleInsider thinks the Metawatch has real potential, though the platform has some bugs to squash and unfinished features to implement. Droid Life seems happy with the watch but hasn’t rendered a final verdict yet.
Key Features: 1.5-inch color touch screen, 4 GB of built-in storage, built-in speaker, aluminum design. Has its own Android-based operating system and app store, and relies on Bluetooth Internet tethering to pull in data.
Price and Availability: It’s officially $449, but the price is down to $399 until the end of February.
What Reviewers Say: Laptop Mag and Trusted Reviews both praised the design and the generous amount of built-in storage, but complained about wonky Bluetooth pairing, weak battery life and a deeply-flawed speakerphone function. The need for a Bluetooth tethering smartphone plan was also a letdown, especially since the watch is already much pricier than the competition.
Key Features: 1.4-inch color touch screen with grayscale mode to save battery life. Pairs with Android phones to show text messages and voice calls. Third-party apps extend functionality and allow users to toggle phone settings, such as volume. Watch module detaches, allowing for replacement wrist bands or other uses.
Price and Availability: A “Developer Preview” previously cost $199, but is no longer available. WIMM’s website now shows an intriguing message: “During the summer of 2012, WIMM Labs entered into an exclusive, confidential relationship for our technology and ceased sales of the Developer Preview Kit. “
What Reviewers Say: I reviewed the WIMM One and thought that while the concept showed promise, the shortage of apps and chunkiness of the hardware made it tough to recommend.
There’s a common thread running through the reviews for these devices: not enough features, and not enough polish. Also, all of these smartwatches look a bit clunky, even the ones with slick designs.
So it’s not hard to see how Apple could step in and make a hit product. Apple is known for slick software, and it can offer tighter integration between watch and iPhone than any existing product. Also, the one solid detail in the Times’ report was the supposed use of curved glass, which would allow for a thinner, more durable piece of hardware. Just like Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player, smartphone or tablet, it clearly hasn’t invented the smartwatch. But there’s still plenty of room to get it right — and that’s exactly what the company is good at.