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Smart watch review: Is this a must-have gadget?

These new devices are the vanguard of wearable computing; find out whether they're ready for prime time

Published: February 2014
Qualcomm Toq

Just when it seemed that smart phones had made watches irrelevant, here comes the smart watch. Will these new devices persuade us to actually start wearing a watch again? Time will tell. But one research firm forecasts that more than 5 million smart watches will ship this year, so you're likely to see them on lots of wrists—and maybe even on your own.

A barrage of new smart watches from small startup companies hit the market last year, and now the big guns have arrived as well: Sony, Samsung, and Qualcomm all offer smart watches, and rumor has it that Apple and Google will be joining the crowd.

What sets a smart watch apart from a conventional digital watch, or, for that matter, a wearable activity tracker? Smart watches are wearable-technology devices that maintain a relatively persistent wireless connection (mostly via Bluetooth) to your mobile device—usually a smart phone, sometimes a tablet—and can receive notifications of incoming calls, texts, instant messages, social-network updates, and more, from your mobile device.

Smart watches can also run a wide variety of apps via your smart phone or on the watch. For example, there are health and fitness apps, simple games and Web browsers, apps that control the music on your phone, real-time traffic-monitoring apps, and more. Because most of these smart watches have open software platforms, developers are continuously coming up with new and innovative apps that can increase the functionality of the devices.

We tested six smart watches from MetaWatch, Pebble, Qualcomm, Samsung, and Sony. Since the functionality and features of these watches vary so widely, we separated them into two groups, which we're calling "advanced" and "basic" smart watches. Basic watches have fewer functions and lack touch screens, so you need to navigate through the watch menus via button presses.

Here's the big question: Are mainstream consumers ready for smart watches? This early batch might appeal more to the early adopter than to the average person, but as smart watches become more streamlined and sophisticated—and less expensive—their appeal may become a lot more widespread.

Manufacturer claims

All the smart watches in our tests claim the ability to connect via Bluetooth with some Android and/or iOS mobile devices to receive notifications of incoming calls and messages to your mobile device. The Sony and Samsung models also have NFC (near-field communication) compatibility, another wireless-connection method that's ostensibly easier to use than Bluetooth alone. All but the Samsung and Qualcomm smart watches claim to have displays that are readable in direct sunlight.

How we tested

We evaluated each model for its ease of connecting (or pairing) with a mobile device. We also tested the user interfaces to see how easy it was to interact with the watch and its corresponding smart phone app. We prioritized the core functionality—receiving notifications of incoming calls and messages. We also rated how viewable the smart watch displays were in bright sunlight.

Here are the results of our very first round of smart-watch lab tests.

—Carol Mangis

Advanced smart watches

Qualcomm Toq, $250  

Claimed battery life: Multiple days
Weight: 2.4 ounces [corrected 3/4/14]
Works with: Android 4.0.3 and above

The Toq (pictured above) looks a bit large and clunky compared with the others in this tested group. But the Toq's color display, which uses Qualcomm's low-power Mirasol technology, has very good readability in direct sunlight.

The Toq showcases Qualcomm technologies—in fact, a company spokesman described the watch as a "proof point" for those technologies. In addition to Mirasol, another is AllJoyn, which lets the Toq easily connect to and interact with other AllJoyn-enabled gadgets and appliances. But it has no built-in camera or mic.

The Toq takes a different approach to apps than the other smart watches. Numerous features—music control, weather, stock into—are preloaded, and you can configure the watch via your phone to send notifications from any app you have installed already on your phone.

What we liked
The Toq's interface was quite easy to navigate. Its display’s readability in bright sunlight was very good—along with the Sony, the next best to the Pebble. And uniquely, the battery is placed in the bottom of the watchband, which keeps the watch face thinner. It includes a wireless charging base that works via magnetic resonance.You can accept and reject phone calls from the watch and also initiate a call.

What we didn't like
This smart watch doesn't include NFC. You have to find the interface app in the app market and download and install it on your mobile device before you can start to configure the Toq. And to change the strap's length, you must cut it with scissors and re-pin it (why not just make it adjustable?).

Bottom line
The Toq is a sophisticated and innovative smart watch in many ways. [Edited to reflect price drop: 2/28/2014.]

Samsung Galaxy Gear

Samsung Galaxy Gear, $300

Claimed battery life: about a day
Weight: 2.6 ounces
Works with: Samsung Note 3, Galaxy S III and S 4, and Mega Android phones
 
The Samsung Galaxy Gear smart watch stands out from the pack: It's the only smart watch of the tested group that can make a phone call and the only one with a built-in camera. And it pairs only with some Samsung phones, although Samsung has been increasing the number of compatible devices.
 
The Gear comes with a charging case, which also pairs the smart watch with your mobile device via NFC. The watch comes with six strap colors, all plastic. A microphone is built into the strap's buckle, and the camera lens is integrated into the strap.


The Gear started with 70 apps, but there's a much larger app selection now. Finding apps was really easy; they're organized and displayed well on the phone by category, such as Entertainment, Health/Fitness, and so on. You just click on an app to install it.

What we liked

The Gear, like the Sony SmartWatch 2, has NFC connectivity, and was the easiest watch in this group to set up and pair. It has an intuitive color touch-screen interface; the only external button is Power/Home. You wake the watch up by shaking it on your wrist or pressing that button. Go through the menu by swiping, tapping, double tapping, and tapping with two fingers.

The camera embedded in the strap takes 1.9-megapixel stills and 720p H.264 MP4 video; there are also two microphones, which Samsung claims are noise-canceling.

You can make phone calls with the Gear—by dialing them and by voice, right through the watch. It also has a gyroscope and an accelerometer.

What we didn't like

For now, at least, the Galaxy Gear works only with a limited number of phones. And the display’s readability in bright sunlight was middling.

Bottom line

This is a very versatile smart watch in so many ways. It has the most functionality of the smart watches we tested, with NFC, a color display, voice control, a built-in camera. But it's pricey at $300, and pretty much useless if you don't already own a compatible Samsung phone.

Samsung recently announced three new smart watches, which will ship in April: The Gear 2, Gear 2 Neo, and Gear Fit. In our exclusive preview demo, we found the the company made some very smart improvements. Check our story and video for details. We'll test the new models as soon as they're available.

Sony SmartWatch 2

Sony SmartWatch 2, $200

Claimed battery life: 3 to 4 days
Weight: 1.6 ounces
Works with: Android 4.0 and later

The SmartWatch 2 is a streamlined version of Sony's first smart watch (which went on sale in 2013) with a number of new features. The SmartWatch 2 has a thin bezel; it's almost all screen, which gives it a modern, sleek look. You choose from one of two strap designs, black plastic or black stainless steel, or you can swap those out for a leather strap in one of seven colors ($20 each). We tested the model with the plastic strap, which is light and flexible and can fit close to your wrist.

The Sony SmartWatch 2 uses Android apps only. Sony has an open app platform, so third-party developers contribute apps too. There is a very wide selection of available apps, and many are free.
 
What we liked
The SmartWatch 2 has NFC, in addition to Bluetooth, and pairing is quite fluid. It works with any phone with Android 4.0 and above (not iOS).

The  attractive color touch-screen interface is intuitive to use. The OLED color display had very good readability in bright sunlight, and the touch-screen interface is intuitive. It's one of the lighter watches, at 1.6 ounces.

What we didn't like
Setup is more time-consuming with this smart watch than with others, as you need to download extension apps to your mobile device for every function you want, including messaging and phone call notifications. It's compatible only with Android (4.0 and later) mobile devices, so forget about it if you own an iPhone.

Bottom line
This is a good-looking and versatile smart watch. We love the easy NFC pairing. But it's a pain to have to download additional extension apps for basic features or functions, which you don't have to do on most other models.

Basic smart watches

Pebble Watch

Pebble Watch, $150

Claimed battery life: 5 to 7 days
Weight: 1.4 ounces
Works with: Android 2.3.3 and up; iPhone 4, 4S, 5 and 3rd and 4th gen iPod Touch, iOS 5 or newer required

The Pebble Watch ($150) was one of the first to market (check our first-look Pebble review). Although it's more basic than the offerings from Samsung, Sony, and Qualcomm, it's pretty useful, channeling e-mails, texts, and other notifications from your smart phone or tablet.

The Pebble also runs a wide variety of apps from third-party developers, including fitness apps for bikers, runners, and golfers. In fact, Pebble very recently announced its own App Store, which is reachable through the Pebble phone app. The company says that more than 1,000 apps are available currently.

The Pebble comes in five colors. There's also a new, stylish-looking version of the smart watch shipping soon, the Pebble Steel ($250), that comes in stainless steel or black matte finishes.

What we liked
The Pebble works with Android and iOS mobile devices. Its so-called "e-paper" monochrome display has excellent readability in bright light. And there's a very active user community at the company's online forums. We had fun turning on its backlight with a flick of the wrist, and the magnetic charger is easy to use.

What we didn't like
The Pebble doesn’t have NFC, and you have to find the smart watch app in the appropriate app market for your smart device, download it, and install it. And it has a button-based (non-touch screen), small monochrome interface.

Bottom line
Of the basic watches, we like the Pebble best, for its display, platform, and engaged online community.  

MetaWatch Frame

MetaWatch Frame, $230

Claimed battery life: 5 to 7 days
Weight: 2.7 ounces
Works with: Android 2.3 and up, iPhone 4S and 5 with iOS 6

We looked at two versions of the MetaWatch. The Frame is a little sleeker looking and slightly heavier than the Strata (below). The Frame comes in black or white; there isn't much difference otherwise.

Basic features are preloaded, and you use apps that are on your phone already for notifications, as you do with the Toq. Some third-party apps are also available. The Frame has no touch screen, so all your menu navigation is done by button presses. It's not particularly intuitive.

What we liked

The Frame works with Android and iOS devices.

What we didn't like
To charge the watch, you have to clip on the charger and align it with contacts that you can't see when you're clipping. Why make it so complicated? There's no NFC for easy pairing, and you have to find the smart-watch app in the app market, download it, and install it on your mobile device. The Frame's display readability in bright sunlight was judged to be only good. It's relatively heavy, at 2.7 ounces (only the Toq is heavier).

Bottom line
This is a truly basic smart watch with a small, monochrome screen. There's not much to recommend it.

MetaWatch Strata

MetaWatch Strata, $180

Claimed battery life: 5 to 7 days
Weight: 2.1 ounces
Works with: Android 2.3 and up, iPhone 4S and 5 with iOS 6

The Strata is a little heavier looking than the Frame (although it weighs less, at 2.1 ounces). It comes with a choice of five strap colors. Deciding between the Strata and the Frame is more a style decision than anything, as pretty much everything else is the same.

Basic features are preloaded, and you use apps that are on your phone already for notifications, as with the Toq. Some third-party apps are also available. The Strata has no touch screen, so all your menu navigation is done by button presses. It's not particularly intuitive.

What we liked
The Strata works with Android and iOS devices.

What we didn't like
As with the Frame, you have to clip on the charger and align it with contacts that you can't see when you're clipping. There's no NFC for easy pairing, and you have to find the smart-watch app in the app market, download it, and install it on your mobile device. The Strata's display readability in bright sunlight was judged to be only good.

Bottom line
This is a truly basic smart watch with a small, monochrome screen. Like its sibling, it has little to recommend it.

   

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