Smartwatches: Not yet ready for primetime

Smartwatches: Not yet ready for primetime
As the tech industry clamors to sell you the smart watch dream, let us explain why today's smart watches aren't really smart.

After smartphones and tablets, the concept of wearable technology sounds very attractive and smart watches naturally feels like the next big thing. However, smart watches in the market today remain iffy to use and lack any real killer features. As the tech industry clamors to sell you the smart watch dream, let us explain why today's smart watches aren't really smart.

The Birth of Smart Watches

Smart watches can be loosely defined as a computerized wristwatch that has functions beyond timekeeping. For example, dive computers are a type of custom-purpose "smart" watch with many features designed to monitor, track and report on critical information such as pressurization, depth and air supply. When you're not diving, some models work just as well as a standard timepiece. 

Such watches have actually been in existence in some form or another long before the current crop of Pebbles, Galaxy Gears and what have you. Nevertheless, one can say that the current excitement and craze surrounding smart watches really started with the Pebble.

On April 11, 2012, Pebble started its crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter in a bid to raise US$100,000 in capital to begin production of its smart watch. The campaign turned out to be a wildfire success and achieved its US$100,000 target within just two hours.

Five weeks later when the campaign ended, the company received a whopping US$10 million in pledges, making it the highest funded project in the history of Kickstarter - a title it holds even to this day.

Following Pebble's success, many brands began making their own smart watches or announced their intent to do so, including big names like Samsung and Motorola, and also smaller players like I'm Watch and Cookoo. At the beginning of this year, Motorola showed off the Moto 360 and LG demonstrated its G Watch.

Apple also also long been rumored to be working on their own smart watch. Apple CEO Tim Cook even said that the wrist "is interesting" and further substantiated his comment by saying that a compelling product needs to be created first so that people would want to wear it. The latest rumours suggest that it could even launch later this year and be available at multiple price points and in different case materials.

Not Quite So Smart

In some ways, the word smart watch, in reference to watches such as the Pebble, Galaxy Gear and so on, is a bit of a misnomer. This is because many of these watches actually do little more than notify the wearer of incoming messages, mails and calls. To some, this may be helpful, but the fact is if you do require to answer that call or if it is an message or email that needs your immediate action, there is no way to pen a reply on your smart watch - you still need to get your phone out.

Speaking of which, these smart watches can only receive notifications only if they are within Bluetooth range, which is not very long - usually around 20 to 30 meters and drops drastically if there are obstructions, such as walls, or interference from other wireless devices, such as your Wi-Fi router.

Once it is out of range, these smart watches lose a lot of their functionality as they do not have many standalone functions and can do little more than tell the time on their own, some not even that.

To this, some brands try to include standalone functions such as Samsung's Galaxy Gear, which was the first massmarket smart watch to feature a 1.9 megapixel camera that lets you take photos and videos.

Samsung's follow up, the Gear 2 improves on that by including an in-built heart rate monitor and preinstalled fitness apps that do not require a smartphone to function. Hopefully, other smart watch makers will follow suit and improve on the standalone functionality of their offerings.

Give Me Juice

Limited functionality aside, another problem plaguing smart watches is battery life. Regular quartz watches, even multifunction ones such as Casio's Protrek series and Tissot's T-Touch series, can easily last for years on batteries.

Some quartz watches even use rechargeable batteries that can be charged through solar power or simply by the wearer's wrist motion, not unlike an automatic mechanical watch.

On the other hand, mechanical watches will run so long as they were being worn or wound regularly as they usually offer at least two days of power reserve.

Even with the most optimistic outlook of battery saving technologies like E-ink displays and displays that go to sleep when not in use, most smart watches are going to need a charge at least every other day to ensure that it does not suddenly die on you.

Instead of a trustworthy companion device, you end up with just another gadget that requires constant charging for minimal functionality.

The problem of battery life is not just limited to your smart watch but extends to your phone too. Enabling Bluetooth the entire time will have some effect on battery life, even with the newer Bluetooth 4.0 low power standard. This then becomes a problem for smartphones with average or below average battery life.

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