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.)
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.