It's time for smartwatches

Imagine the convenience of not having to fish out your phone from your pocket or bag every time the message alert chimes - and still be able to read your e-mail. You can do so with a smartwatch.

A smartwatch is a wristwatch with smartphone-like functions that alert you when you have an incoming call, a new e-mail message or an upcoming appointment. It is usually paired with a smartphone via Bluetooth.

Compared with the first wave of geeky-looking smartwatches like the original Pebble, the current wave pays attention to the latest fashion sense.

Mr Kelvin Kao, a director at a social media company, told Digital Life that he bought Pebble's latest Steel smartwatch because he was swayed by the watch's "cool innovative tech feel, while still looking sleek and professional".

The new wave of smartwatches, such as the LG G Watch R and Samsung Galaxy Gear S, also tells their wearers how many steps they have taken in a day and monitor their heart rates, giving them the functions found in GPS sports watches made by Garmin, Polar and others.

"The main features that attract consumers to smartwatches are infotainment and fitness capabilities," said Mr Roeen Roashan, an analyst at research company IHS Technology.

"You want to be able to read e-mail, receive notifications and, most importantly, track your health," he said.

National shuttler Derek Wong, 25, said the Gear S has helped his training. "It's been a great companion in helping me monitor my body condition during training," he said.

Around 2,000 smartwatches were sold in the first quarter of this year in Singapore, according to market research firm GfK. The figure quadrupled in the second quarter. In the third quarter, nearly 10,000 smartwatches were sold.

Mr Gerard Tan, GfK's account director, said: "We are seeing rising adoption of smartwatches, as consumers become more receptive to the product as its technology continues to develop."

Worldwide, 1.52 million smartwatches were sold last year, according to market intelligence firm ABI Research.

In the first half of this year, 1.6 million units were sold. ABI Research has predicted that 5 million units will be shipped in the second half of this year.

The bullish outlook can be attributed to the entrance of two tech giants - Google with its Android Wear OS and Apple with its upcoming watch.

Mr Nick Spencer, senior practice director of ABI Research, said these two factors are "absolutely foundational" for the rise of smartwatches.

"Just look at how the iPhone drove the smartphone market to the benefit of many," he said.

Google's Android Wear, announced in March, is a mobile operating system designed for smartwatches that integrates Google Now technology, such as Google Voice Search, and mobile notifications into a smaller form factor.

With the dominant reach of Android, more smartwatches can be expected to be dressed up in Android Wear, such as Sony's third-generation SmartWatch and Asus' first ZenWatch. Both will be launched in Singapore soon.

As for Apple, its highly anticipated Apple Watch was announced two months ago to much fanfare and with fashion and technology heavyweights attending the launch.

Apple's entrance will be good for the wearables segment, said Mr Ben Wood, chief of research at market intelligence firm CCS Insight. "It is going to raise consumer awareness of wearables to higher levels."

Digital Life compares six of the latest smartwatches in the market and takes them out on a trial run.

trevtan@sph.com.sg

Casio Edifice EQB-500

You will be hard-pressed to tell that the Casio Edifice EQB-500 is a smartwatch.

It looks just like a classic chronograph timepiece with a case, bezel and watch band all made of stainless steel. The build is rock solid and the feel is very conventional. The only giveaways to the smart features are in the form of tiny icons on the watch face. Indeed, its smart features are so basic it barely squeezed into this round-up.

It has an analogue watch dial with four sub-dials, which display world time, 24-hour time, AM/PM and watch mode.

The review unit came in silver. There is also a black version, which I prefer.

The watch supports only selected Apple iPhones and Samsung Android smartphones. The pairing process is straightforward and the mechanical indicators make the process fun.

Pairing involves using the Casio Watch+ app on your smartphone, a Bluetooth connection and pressing the left bottom button of the watch for an instant. Do that and watch the second hand move a notch to the R icon. When pairing is complete, the second hand will move to the Bluetooth icon. Nifty.

Also cool is the ability to sync the watch with your smartphone's time. This is handy when you are travelling across time zones. For the world-time function, choose, say San Francisco (there are 300 cities to choose from), and the world sub-dial will turn its hour and minute hands accordingly.

The watch also lets you find your phone should you misplace it, even without a Bluetooth connection. But the app must be running on the phone.

When an e-mail message arrives, the mode hand moves to the full circle icon. When there are no new e-mail messages, the mode hand points to the circular ring icon.

It all sounds good but there is a rub. The Bluetooth connection would disconnect after around 10 minutes and has to be reconnected when that happens. So the e-mail indicator is not very useful.

Powered by Casio Tough Solar power system, this watch can practically last forever as long as you leave it to charge under the sun or in a lit room.

For those who prefer a classic timepiece with just basic smart features, the Casio Edifice EQB-500 is a great choice.

RATINGFeatures 2/5Design 5/5Performance 3/5Value for money 3/5Battery life 5/5

Overall 3/5

Cogito Pop

The Cogito Pop is the Swatch of smartwatches. It comes in a variety of vibrant and cool hues - pink, white, grey, blue, black and black with purple. Its round face, plastic build and chunky bezel also echo the fun factor of the Swatch.

The review unit has a fetching all-white shade and comfortable rubber watch band.

Unlike other smartwatches (except the Casio Edifice EQB-500), the Pop does not have a display but alerts you through its LED icons.

On the Pop's watch face, you will find four LED icons: text message, e-mail, social media and reminder. Each icon lights up when a corresponding alert is received by your smartphone.

On the right are three buttons. The top button can be used to trigger your smartphone camera, as well as play and pause music. The middle one is the crown, for adjusting the analogue time. The bottom button is used for powering up or down the watch.

Pairing the Pop with your smartphone is easy. Simply download the Connected App (available for Android and iOS), enable Bluetooth on your smartphone and follow the simple instructions on the combination of buttons you have to press.

Once connected, you can launch the Connected App to set up the notification feature. You can set the Pop to beep once whenever there is a notification.

When all the icons light up, it means you have an incoming or missed call, alert or alarm activated. To stop the icons lighting up, press the top button.

You can wear the watch in the shower or at the beach - it is water-resistant to 100m.

The lack of a display for messages and apps means that, unlike smartwatches that need charging after one or two days, this one should go on for a year before you need to change its CR2032 coin battery.

The analogue clock is powered by a smaller SR626SW battery, which is supposed to last three years.

The Cogito Pop is a small and basic notification centre on your wrist that happens to be a cute and funky watch. At only $179, it is the cheapest in this round-up too.

RATINGFeatures 3/5Design 3/5Performance 3/5Value for money 4/5Battery life 4/5

Overall 3/5

Martian Notifier

With a circular watch face and classic analogue display, the Martian Notifier looks like a conventional watch.

The twist is that it connects to both Android and iOS devices to give you notifications via its small Oled screen (96 x 16 pixels) on the lower half of the watch face.

The Notifier is encased in black plastic with a stainless-steel bezel. The smooth silicone band is light and comfortable to wear. A plastic cover above the crown hides a micro-USB charging port.

A small LED light just above the eight o'clock position glows red when the watch is being charged. It turns to green when fully charged and blue during pairing.

Charging is only for the "smart" portion of the watch. The analogue timepiece is powered by a coin battery that should last two years.

To pair the Notifier with your smartphone, download the Martian Notifier app (available for both Android and iOS) to your phone. Turn on the smartwatch by pressing down the lower button on the left until the Oled screen comes on.

When a notification arrives, the blue LED light blinks and the watch vibrates. You will also see a line of message on the display.

The rechargeable battery lasted around three days with the watch constantly connected to my iPhone during waking hours - shorter than the rated four to five days.

However, even if you do not charge the watch or if the rechargeable battery runs down, you can still use it as a regular watch.

The downer is the lack of good water resistance. Securing the plastic cover of the micro-USB port compartment is a must to prevent water damage. But even with the cover properly closed, the Notifier is only splash-resistant. Hand washing and exposure to rain should not damage the watch. Just do not submerge in water.

Another minor foible is the need for the use of a proprietary charging cable included with the watch. Common micro-USB cables will not work with the Notifier.

The Martian Notifier is a simple smartwatch suitable for any occasion at a reasonable price. Pity it is not more resistant to water.

RATINGFeatures 3/5Design 3/5Performance 4/5Value for money 4/5Battery life 3/5

Overall 3/5

LG G Watch R

Although it has a round face, the LG G Watch R departs from the design norm of using most of the watch face as an analogue display and leaving the rest for smart functions.

Available only in all-black, the Watch R has a round 1.3-inch touchscreen display with a resolution of 320 x 320 pixels. It looks like a regular watch, accentuated with a metallic bezel. On the right is a home button that looks like a watch crown. Press this to go back to the clock face. At the back is a heart-rate sensor.

The only Android Wear watch in this round-up, the Watch R is a good-looking watch, but perhaps not as eye-catching as the Moto 360 which also has a round touchscreen display.

The Watch R includes 24 watch faces from LG and Android Wear. To change the watch face, simply tap and hold on the current one and pick from the others.

Notifications, such as Facebook comments, Straits Times news updates and e-mail messages, appear as small "cards" at the bottom of the display.

While the readability of the display is generally good, there are a couple of foibles. First, the round screen can obscure text that is close to its edge. Second, under bright sunlight, you might not be able to see the time clearly in dim-screen mode.

It has a microphone for voice commands. However, you cannot use it to make or receive calls. You can ask the Watch R to set a reminder, take a note or ask how many steps you have taken. Just say "OK, Google" first before giving the command.

The pedometer and heart-rate sensor worked well. They registered results almost similar to my personal Moto 360 and the review sample Samsung Galaxy Gear S.

With the watch constantly connected to the smartphone and with all notifications enabled, battery life was about two days - an average figure for smartwatches that have a display for text and applications.

The LG G Watch R is one of the most good-looking and functional smartwatch around. Being Android-only means it lacks the mass appeal of the Android and iOS-compatible Pebble Steel. However, if you are an Android smartphone user, this is the smartwatch to buy right now.

RATINGFeatures 4/5Design 4/5Performance 4/5Value for money 4/5Battery life 3/5

Overall 4/5

Pebble Steel

The Pebble Steel is the premium version of the original Pebble smartwatch, famed for its crowdfunding origins which saw US$10 million (S$12.9 million) being raised.

While the original looks like a plastic gadget, the Steel has the air of a classic watch.

Its stainless steel body has a smooth metallic finish with curved sides. A subtle LED light at the bottom near the bezel indicates its charging status. There is a timeless feel to the Steel's handsome design.

The Steel feels comfortable on the wrist with both the leather watchband and the metal watch band. The latter is not included and costs $39.90.

The Steel retains the 144 x 168 pixel monochrome ePaper display of the original. You should be able to read the time display easily, even under bright sunlight. In low lighting conditions, you can activate the backlight with a gentle shake of your wrist.

Pairing the Steel with an iOS and Android smartphone is easy. Just download the free Pebble app, turn on Bluetooth and use the app to connect.

Notifications have been improved with the Steel. With the original Pebble, you have to toggle through different apps to read different notifications. The new Pebble OS shows all of the notifications that are displayed on your phone.

As the display can only show 500 characters, you may have to scroll down - by pressing on the bottom right button - to read longer notifications.

There are interesting apps available for the watch, such as Runkeeper, Yelp and a Flappy Bird clone called Tiny Bird.

The new Pebble OS allows developers to develop watch faces that include the battery level and Bluetooth indicators. I had a lot of fun trying out new watch faces.

With the Steel constantly connected to my iPhone 6 Plus, its battery life hovered between three and four days - shorter than the advertised five to seven days. However, it lasted six days on Airplane mode.

Pebble Steel might lack some bells and whistles, such as heart-rate sensor or touchscreen display, which some new smartwatches have, but its simplicity, cross-platform ability, ease of use and premium looks make it the best smartwatch now. 

RATINGFeatures 3/5Design 4/5Performance 4/5Value for money 4/5Battery life 4/5

Overall 4/5

Samsung Galaxy Gear S

The Samsung Galaxy Gear S is the most feature-packed smartwatch in this round-up.

It has a nano-SIM card slot on its rear, so that it can work on its own without the need to be paired with a smartphone. This includes receiving e-mail messages, calling and sending SMS messages. It is also able to measure your heart rate, track your sleep patterns and even gauge the ultraviolet light levels in the vicinity.

The curved 2-inch touchscreen display looks gorgeous. The 360 x 480 pixel resolution makes reading comfortable. The display is also large enough such that swiping and tapping do not feel awkward.

Only one button adorns the front, just below the display. The minimalist facade and chromed edges add to its sleek look.

It fits just right on my wrist. However, those with more petite wrists will find the Gear S clunky.

The rubber watch band is comfortable and easily replaceable. Just pop the Gear S main module out and change to a watch band of a different colour.

The watch face is the default page. From there, you swipe from the bottom to access the apps and swipe from the top to access settings such as brightness and volume.

Swiping from left to right brings up the notifications, while swiping from right to left toggles the music control, fitness features, news updates and calendar.

Setting up the watch for the first time requires an Android smartphone with the Samsung Gear app. Installing apps also requires a smartphone, even though the watch has data connectivity.

I had trouble with messaging, as the virtual keyboard was too small. For calls, the speakerphone was so soft I had to bring the watch close to my ears.

The Gear S lasted two days when connected to a Samsung Galaxy Note 2, before I had to recharge it. Its battery life is average among the other watches in this round-up.

The Samsung Galaxy Gear S comes with tons of features and works well when paired with a smartphone. Just do not use it on its own.

 

RATINGFeatures 5/5Design 4/5Performance 3/5Value for money 3/5Battery life 3/5

Overall 3/5

This article was first published on Nov 26, 2014. Get a copy of Digital Life, The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.