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Smart watch showdown: We test five new models

These new devices are the vanguard of wearable computing. Find out which ones are ready for prime time.

Last updated: July 2014

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Are mainstream consumers ready for smart watches? This early in their evolution, these devices still might appeal more to the early adopter than to the average person. According to a Parks Associates survey released in June of this year, just 4 percent of U.S. broadband households say they are very likely to purchase a smart watch in the next 12 months. But as smart watches become more streamlined and sophisticated, offer more functionality, and drop in price, their appeal may become a lot more widespread.

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 to your mobile device—usually a smart phone—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. There are health and fitness apps, apps that control functions such as music and the camera on your phone, navigation apps, and more. Because most smart watches have open software platforms (at least so far), developers are coming up with new and innovative apps that can increase the functionality of the devices.

A barrage of new smart watches from small startup companies, including Pebble and MegaWatch, hit the market in 2013, and big companies have arrived as well: Sony, Samsung, LG, and Qualcomm all offer smart watches. Rumor has it that Apple will be joining the crowd later this year. And Google recently launched a new operating system, called Android Wear, that’s designed specifically for wearable-technology devices. LG, Samsung, and Motorola, among others, are making smart watches that run on this new OS.  

In our first impressions of the LG G Watch, Android Wear seems like a winner—it features Google Now, the company's Siri-like "intelligent personal assistant," which works very well on this type of device. And Android Wear will make developing smart-watch apps an easier, uniform process. Our next batch of tested watches will include Android Wear models.

For this current batch, we tested five currently available smart watches: the Pebble Steel, Martian Passport, and Samsung Gear 2, Gear 2 Neo, and Gear Fit. (Our first group of tested smart watches are also included here.)

Manufacturer claims

All of the smart watches we tested pair via Bluetooth with a smart device to receive notifications of incoming calls, e-mail, texts, and other information. Some of the smart watches we tested in the previous batch have NFC (near-field communication) built in. It ostensibly makes Bluetooth pairing simpler, but none in this batch have the NFC feature.

Each of the tested watches is Android-compatible; the Pebble and the Martian models also work with Apple iOS devices.

Only the Pebble Steel claims to have a display that is “daylight readable.”

All but the Martian Passport claim some degree of water resistance. The Samsung models claim to be resistant in up to 1 meter of water depth for 30 minutes, and the Pebble Steel claims up to 5ATM (ATM stands for atmospheres and indicates the degree of water resistance, in terms of pressure) with the metal band—the Pebble comes with metal and leather bands. The Steel and the Passport claim to have scratch-resistant screens.

Each of the Samsung watches’ displays go dark when they’re inactive, but you can reactivate them by pressing a button on the watch or by raising your arm to look at the watch. For this latter gesture to work, though, you must enable it via the Wake-Up Gesture setting in the watch’s mobile-device app. And it doesn't work when you're leaning back or lying down. The Pebble Steel’s display doesn’t time out, so it’s always visible. And the Martian Passport has a traditional analog watch face—so of course, it’s always on.

How we tested

We evaluated each smart watch for ease of pairing, ease of interaction, and readability of the display in bright sunlight. We also evaluated the watches’ water resistance, for those that claim to have it.
 
And finally, we tested “scratch hardness”—the resistance of the screen to scratching—for each watch; all the models passed this test. Read on for our test results.
 
—Carol Mangis

Martian Passport: Best for traditional watch enthusiasts

Price: $300
Claimed battery life: More than 2 hours of talk, 7 days of standby
Weight: 2.4 ounces
Claimed water resistance: None claimed
Works with: Any phone with Bluetooth and an HPF (hands-free profile); additional features with Android and iOS devices

The Martian Passport wants to give you the best of both watch worlds, by offering a mechanical, analog watch face and a small LCD. If you prefer a traditional-looking watch and want the “smart” component to be unobtrusive, this model may work for you. It comes in three varieties, all with silver bezels: a white face with a black or white band or a black face with a black band.

The Passport is versatile in that it works with Android and iOS mobile devices. And it features the ability to make phone calls with its built-in microphone and speaker. You can use voice commands (the Passport leverages your phone's voice recognition system; such as Apple's Siri for iOS devices or Google Now for Android) to control the mobile device from the watch. And because of the analog watch face, you can easily see the time in bright sunlight.

Features that aren't so versatile: The Passport’s monochrome OLED display is very small, and it's not a touch screen. You use buttons to navigate, so it's not as intuitive to use as the watches with touch-screen displays. And in bright sunlight, we judged the OLED display to have the worst readability in this tested batch.

Pebble Steel: A basic model, best for stylish swimmers

Price: $230 with one band, $250 with two bands (see below)
Claimed battery life: 5 to 7 days
Weight: 1.9 ounces
Claimed water resistance: 5ATM
Works with: Devices running Android 2.3.3 and up; iOS 4 and up; iPhone 4, 4s and 5; and iPod Touch, 3rd and 4th generation

The Pebble Steel is a stylish new version of the Pebble Watch, which we reviewed previously. But as its name states, the Steel is made of stainless steel and comes in either a steel or black finish. It ships from GetPebble.com with a leather and a metal watchband ($250) and also sells at Best Buy with just a metal band ($230).

On the inside, though, it’s the same as the original Pebble—except for the Steel’s water resistance. The device passed our water-resistance tests.

Our testers judged the Steel’s display readability in bright sunlight to be the best in this batch. But like the original Pebble, it’s a basic device, with a small monochrome non-touch-screen interface that you navigate using buttons. This may be enough functionality for many people—it's a personal choice.

Samsung Gear 2: The most versatile smart watch we've tested

Price: $300
Claimed battery life: Up to 6 days, typically 2 to 3 days
Weight: 2.4 ounces
Claimed water resistance: 1 meter, no longer than 30 minutes
Works with: Most Samsung devices running Android 4.3 or higher

Samsung’s three second-generation smart watches arrived with real improvements and refinements. At $300, the Gear 2 is the most sophisticated—and expensive—of the trio. The Gear 2 Neo is basically a less expensive version of the Gear 2: It has similar functionality, but it's housed in a plastic body instead of metal and has no built-in camera. And the slimmer Gear Fit is a hybrid smart watch and activity tracker.

Like the other Gears, the Gear 2 works only with some Samsung devices. The company has been increasing the number of compatible devices, but check before you buy. Also, these three Gear watches run on the Tizen OS, not on Android. Apps come from the Samsung app market.

The Gear 2 has a metal body and comes a variety of color combos, including all black, a rose-gold-color body with a brown strap, or an orange body and strap, You can change out the strap with any aftermarket strap.

Like the other two new Gear watches, the Gear 2 has an intuitive and vivid color touch-screen interface. It also has an abundance of features: You can make phone calls with its built-in microphone and speaker, and use voice commands to the watch to control your paired mobile device.

The Gear 2 also includes a gyroscope, an accelerometer, and a heart-rate sensor. It also can control a TV or set-top box remotely using a built-in IR blaster, and it has the ability to function as a stand-alone music player. And its built-in camera—handily built into the watch itself rather than on the band, like the original Galaxy Gear—takes 2-megapixel stills and 720p video.

It passed our water resistance tests.

Samsung Gear 2 Neo: Good balance of features and price

Price: $200
Claimed battery life: Up to 6 days, typically 2 to 3 days
Weight: 1.9 ounces
Claimed water resistance: 1 meter, no longer than 30 minutes
Works with: Most Samsung phones running Android 4.3 or higher

The Gear 2 Neo is similar to the Gear 2 in most ways, except that it lacks a camera, and its body is plastic instead of metal. It’s an attractively priced alternative to its more-expensive sibling, especially if taking photos and video from your wrist isn’t a priority.

Like the other Gears, the Gear 2 Neo works only with some Samsung devices. The company has been increasing the number of compatible devices, but check before you buy. Also, these three Gear watches run on the Tizen OS, not on Android. Apps come from the Samsung app market.

Like the Gear 2, the Neo has an intuitive, color touch-screen interface and built-in heart-rate sensor. Also like the Gear 2, it can make phone calls with its microphone and speaker, send voice commands to your mobile device, remotely control a TV or set-top box using its IR blaster, and function as a stand-alone music player.

The Gear 2 Neo passed our water-resistance tests.  

Samsung Gear Fit: Most innovative (and wearable) design

Price: $150
Claimed battery life: Up to 6 days, typically 2 to 3 days
Weight: 0.9 ounces
Claimed water resistance: 1 meter, no longer than 30 minutes
Works with: Most Samsung devices running Android 4.3 or higher

Of the three second-generation Samsung smart watches, the Gear Fit is the most creative and stylish departure from the original Samsung Galaxy Gear. It's just as much an activity monitor as it is a smart watch, and it has a markedly new look—slim, sleek, and light. It also has an unconventional sideways display that’s unlike any of the other tested watches; it takes a bit of wrist-twisting to view it. (You can opt to view your display vertically, but you'll be reading a lot of truncated words that way.)

Like the other Gears, the Gear Fit works only with some Samsung devices. The company has been increasing the number of compatible devices, but check before you buy. Also, these three Gear watches run on the Tizen OS, not on Android. Apps come from the Samsung app market.

Also like the other two new Gear watches, the Gear 2 has an intuitive and vivid color touch-screen interface. It also includes a gyroscope, an accelerometer and a heart sensor, for tracking your physical activities.

It passed our water resistance tests.

Previously reviewed models

The smart watches below were reviewed in February 2014. We had not yet integrated the scratch test or the water-resistance test into our protocol. All are still available for purchase, and we've updated prices.

Photo: Qualcomm

Qualcomm Toq, $200 

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, $175

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 shipped three news models, 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. Meanwhile, here are our initial reviews of the Gear 2 and Gear Fit.

Sony SmartWatch 2

Sony SmartWatch 2, $150

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.

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, $100

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, $80

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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