writing about tech

Tag: wearables (page 1 of 2)

What’s the point of a smartwatch if you already have your smartphone?

A common criticism of smartwatches since their introduction has been “what’s the point of a smartwatch if it just does all the same things your smartphone does?” While it’s certainly a valid criticism, I also think it’s a bit of a lazy one.  Yes, a smartphone can do basically everything at this point, but it doesn’t mean it’s better at doing those things than a tablet, laptop, or yes, even a smartwatch. Heck, I’d say there’s more value in a smartwatch over a tablet, because it can physically do things that a phone can’t, simply because you’re wearing it. I think it’s difficult to understand those situations until you’ve actually worn one. However, since that’s a weak position to take, I’ll throw out a few examples:

  • I’m driving, and my phone is in my pocket. I remember I have to do something when I get home. I tilt my wrist – Hey Siri, remind me to do that thing when I get home. Hey Siri, okay. Done. Eyes never off the road. Also, replace “driving” with “running” or “biking”.
  • I’m at home, my phone is in another room. My friend asks me if I want to play some Heroes of the Storm. “Sure” I reply, from the built-in responses. Or “Maybe in a bit”, I dictate. Quick response, notification dealt with, never had to go find my phone.
  • I’m biking. I glance down at my wrist, and immediately know my heart rate, as well as the elapsed time, or current pace, or current distance, depending on what I’ve set it to.
  • I check the time, and notice my Move or Stand circle is almost filled. I get up and take care of some business around the house/office, because I need to fill those circles, dammit.
  • It’s getting cloudy, and I wonder if it’s going to rain in the next hour. I tilt my wrist, swipe up to my Dark Sky Glance, and see that it won’t.
  • I’m shopping. I check my shopping list on my wrist, grab something off the shelf, and check the item off.
  • I pull into the garage, and my wrist is tapped. The Reminder I set earlier just went off. I snooze it, knowing it will tap me again in 15 minutes, regardless of where my phone/laptop/tablet happen to be in the house.

Some of these are things I could do with my phone. But why would I? I’m already wearing a smartwatch, and for those things, it’s faster. Better. I could also watch a movie on my phone, but I don’t – because a tablet (or a TV, for that matter) is more suited for the task.

Different screens. Different contexts.

Apple Watch Review

Smartwatches are incredibly hard to review. I’ve reviewed two others now, and I’m still not really sure how to approach it.

As a reviewer, you typically write with the assumption that the reader has, at the very least, accepted the value of the product category, and is simply deciding which product in that category they want. If you’re reviewing a smartphone, it’s a fair assumption that the person reading is already sold on the very concept of smartphones. Smartwatches are different. Many people – even people in the tech world – don’t see the value.

While I have wavered from time to time on the value of smartwatches, I generally err on the side of finding them useful. It’s difficult to explain why, however, because it’s all about the little differences they make in your day – each of which, taken individually, don’t sound terribly compelling. Today, my Pebble-owning co-worker excitedly explained how great it was to get his two-factor authentication codes directly on his wrist, without having to dig out his phone to read them. It’s one of those paradoxes that simultaneously thrill smartwatch owners while confusing cynics. “That’s it?”, they ask. Obviously, that’s not it, but it’s a fair question. If smartwatches are so great, why are they so difficult to sell people on? For me, it’s all about form factor.

My life is full of screens. My laptop screen, my tablet screen, my smartphone screen, and my smartwatch screen. All of them serve fundamentally different purposes, and are ideal for different types of activities. My laptop is better than my tablet for writing or coding or browsing, but not for traveling, or using in bed, or gaming, or using on a stationary bike or treadmill. My tablet is better than my smartphone at most things, other than photography, but isn’t something I want to haul with me from place to place.  My smartphone is better than my smartwatch for most activities that take longer than a few seconds – writing a longer e-mail or text, or browsing Facebook or Twitter.

So why a smartwatch? Well, stop and think for a moment: how many times do you dig out your phone for an activity that only actually requires a few seconds of passive interaction? Checking the time. Checking the weather. Checking your calendar. Checking your notifications. Starting a timer. Checking an item off a to do list. Creating a reminder. Reading a text. Reading an e-mail. Arming an alarm system. Starting to track a bike ride. Checking the stats during that bike ride. Playing or pausing audio. Double-checking directions to wherever you’re going. Paying for something. Identifying a song that’s playing. These are all things I do multiple times a day, and, honestly, a smartphone isn’t the ideal form factor for those. They sound trivial, because they are mostly passive, quick interactions, but they’re also the things I probably do most with my phone, and as average phone size continues to get bigger, taking out an oversized device for a trivial task feels increasingly ridiculous. As with many things in life – the little things make all the difference. Little conveniences, all day, every day, add up to something I like having in my life.

That’s almost 500 words, and I haven’t even really talked about the Apple Watch. There’s a reason for that: it’s because the Apple Watch is a smartwatch. It’s a damned good smartwatch, probably the best I’ve ever used, but it doesn’t sell the form factor in a revolutionary new way.

I don’t think it has to, though.  Apple won’t change the wearable world because they reinvented the product category, but rather, because they will introduce the product category to millions of people who may never have tried a smartwatch otherwise – and I think many of those people will be pleasantly surprised by how much they like wearing one.

The hurdle for many, and rightfully so, is the price. After the $149 Pebble, I balked at spending $249 on a Moto 360 last year, so I certainly understand the hesitation at the Apple Watch’s $349/$399 asking price. The good thing is that it feels like a device worth what you’re paying for it, but still, that’s a lot to ask for a device in a still-largely-unexplored category.

I was initially skeptical of the design, but it grew on me after seeing it in person, and the positive impressions have continued. Unlike some Android Wear watches, which impressively imitate  “regular” watches, the Apple Watch makes no attempt at doing so – for better or worse, it  undeniably looks like an Apple product. This is almost certainly intentional; Apple doesn’t want their watch to be mistaken for a regular watch.  They want people to immediately recognize it’s an Apple Watch. While understandable from a branding perspective, it also highlights one of Android Wear’s chief advantages: choice. Given another a year or two, I imagine almost anyone will be able to find an Android Wear device that matches their taste. If you want an Apple Watch, you better like the Apple Watch.

There is one area of personalization where Apple does win, though, and that’s with watch bands. While some Android Wear devices might let you swap in standard watch bands – again playing in their attempts to mimic a regular watch – Apple has found an incredibly slick, user-friendly way to easily swap bands within seconds. Whatever you think of the Apple Watch, don’t doubt this: Apple (and their third-party partners) are going to make an obscene amount of money selling bands to people. I’m already planning on buying at least one additional band – Milanese Loop – and swapping it out with the Sport band after my workouts. That’s absolutely insane, because I’m not a fashionable person, and this isn’t something I’d even consider doing with a regular watch. But Apple makes swapping the bands so easy, and the Milanese is ridiculously nice.

Fortunately, if you’re more sane than me, the band that the Sport model comes with is surprisingly good. Apple calls it “fluoroelastomer”, but I just call it “incredibly comfortable”. It’s the first watch band I’ve worn in a long time that I can actually forget I’m wearing, and that includes the pretty-great leather band that came with the 360. The only frustrating thing is that I’d prefer the black color, but for some inane reason, Apple refused to sell the silver aluminum Sport with the black band. So white will do, for now.

As I mentioned above, my life is full of screens, and the Apple Watch’s is one of the nicest among them. It’s the first smartwatch I haven’t been able to see pixels on, and AMOLED – with its ability to only light up the pixels in use while keeping the rest of the screen black – continues to be the ideal screen technology for a smartwatch from both an aesthetic perspective and a functional perspective.

One more thing about the hardware: I laughed at the digital crown when it was announced, but now I find myself using it constantly. It’s not a “revolutionary” control mechanism by any stretch of the imagination, but as a button that doubles as a way to quickly scroll content, it’s certainly a nice-to-have.  In the last day or so, though, I feel like it’s gotten slightly less responsive on initial use – like it “sticks” for a moment. It’s certainly tolerable, but hopefully it won’t get much worse.

As many doubt as I had about the hardware, they paled in comparison to my doubts about the software. I questioned Apple’s apparently app-centric approach, while praising Android Wear for its comparative simplicity. Once again, actual usage has mitigated those doubts – mostly.

While much has been made about apps on the Watch, they’re actually not as front-and-center as I feared. You could legitimately live in the watch face and get most of the functionality you’d want, as the watch face hides the two most important features – missed notifications, which are available with a swipe down, and Glances, which are available with a swipe up.

Glances are one of my favorite parts about Watch OS. They give me the information I care about most, while also acting as a shortcut to launch the app if need a bit more or want to interact with the information. Dark Sky tells me the current temperature and the weather for the next hour. Wunderlist shows me my next task. Activity shows me my progress towards my fitness goals. For this reason, I’m also incredibly picky about what gets to go in my Glances area – if I have to go through too many other Glances to get to the one I care about, then much of the point is lost.

Notifications, on the other hand, are about the same as you’ll find on Android Wear, right down to the fact that they inherit the notification actions you’d get on your phone. With Inbox, I can mark an e-mail as “Done” right from the notification on my phone – same with the Watch, and exactly the same as Android Wear. The only exception is with some of Apple’s first-party apps, which generally allow you a bit more interaction than third-parties do. For example, if you’re talking to someone over iMessage, you actually see the same “typing” indication on the watch that you’d see on your phone. It’s a small touch, but it’s the sort of attention to detail that is prevalent throughout the hardware and software.

Otherwise, I’d say Watch OS is actually a bit behind Android Wear in the area of notifications – as-of right now, you can only dictate replies to messages that come in through the default Messages app, so no responding to Hangouts messages or Facebook Messengers messages from your wrist. This is an obnoxious limitation that I hope is dealt with sooner rather than later.

There are some aspects of the Watch I prefer to other smartwatches, though. The “taptic” engine, despite the ridiculous name, really is a step above the vibration engine found in other devices. The same way the Force Touch trackpad actually feels like clicking, the “taptic” engine genuinely feels like something is tapping your wrist to get your attention. The look on people’s faces when I put my watch on their wrist and send myself a message is pretty delightful. The other nice thing: when you get a notification, your wrist doesn’t light up. You just get the tap, and you can either raise your wrist to immediately view what came in, or just check on it later. This has made the smartwatch experience far less distracting to me and those around me, and as an added bonus, people can no longer awkwardly read incoming messages off of my wrist.

Speaking of the screen-on-on-wrist-raise feature, it works…mostly. It might be a little more consistent than the Moto 360 was, but there are certainly times where I go to check something and it misbehaves.  It does seem to false trigger less often, though – for example, it doesn’t randomly turn on and off when I’m driving around.

So, notifications above the watch face, Glances below it – what about the watch faces themselves? Well, some are great, and some are pretty-but-useless, and some are just useless. Fortunately, I (eventually) figured out how to delete the ones I didn’t care about, so now I’m down to Utility (somewhat pretty, mostly useful), Modular (not really pretty, but has the most information), and four others that are very pretty but almost entirely useless.

What makes a watch face useful? What is quite possibly my favorite feature of the Watch – the complications. While Apple currently doesn’t support third-party watch faces, and some suspect they never will, the existence of complications helps soften the blow. On my Modular watch face, I currently have: time (obviously),  date, my next calendar appointment,  current temperature, battery level, and, perhaps my personal favorite, my activity level for the day so far. The activity level information is something I desperately wanted in Android Wear, so I’m pleased it’s a default option on the Watch.

Perhaps the best thing about complications, though, is that they act as shortcuts to full apps. The current temperature is sometimes what I want, but sometimes I want the forecast for the rest of the day – tap on the temperature and I’m in the Weather app. Next calendar entry is great, but what’s my agenda for the rest of the day? Tap on the calendar entry and I’m there. It’s hard to believe that the Apple Watch is, far as I know, the first to do something that seems so obvious.

As for those full-apps? Well, it’s a mixed bag. Like watch faces, some are great, and some are useless? Calendar? Great! Here’s my schedule. Remote? Great! Controlling my TV from my wrist never gets old. Photos? …thanks but no thanks. Twitter? Why, why would I want Twitter on my wrist? Instagram? God no.  Wunderlist? Great! I can jump in and mark something as completed – something I wanted to do on my Moto 360, but a proper Wunderlist app wasn’t available during my months spent with it. Never doubt Apple’s ability to bring third-party apps to the table in a way competing platforms just can’t seem to do, for whatever reason.

Performance of those apps is occasionally slow, as they aren’t running natively on the watch, but rather are just fancy extensions of something running on your phone. However, I’ve found performance generally acceptable, and far better than the initial reviews led me to believe. I’m not sure if Apple made some optimizations prior to the retail release, or if tech journalists are just less patient than me.

We’re now over 2000 words in, and I still feel like there’s a lot more to cover. I could probably go on for another 2000, but instead, I’ll shotgun out some random thoughts I’ve had over the last few days.

  • Force Touch? It…usually works, but it’s frustrating when it fails to. Also not sure if I like the general interface paradigm of hiding actions behind a Force Touch, as it basically requires the user Force Touch every screen to see what they can do. A subtle visual indicator would be nice.
  • Digital Touch? I haven’t drawn anything, or sent my heartbeat to anyone, so I can’t really say. I’ve sent a couple of animated emoji, and they send as animated images to non-Apple Watch owners. Cute, but basically useless.
  • Siri? Mostly great, surprisingly. Way better than on the phone. Dictation still seems a bit slower than Google’s dictation on Android and Android Wear, but it’s acceptable.  “Hey Siri” detection is significantly less reliable than “OK Google” detection, for whatever reason – however, it’s available from everywhere on the watch, not just the watch face, so that helps make up for it. Perhaps more annoying is that Watch OS lacks Android Wear’s “automatically time out and complete the activity” option, so if I create a reminder or dictate a message, I still have to tap “Okay” to finish creating it. Clunky and annoying – it’s obvious Android Wear was built more around voice as a primary input mechanism than the Apple Watch was. Watch OS seems to know that voice input is important, but at times still treats it as a second-class citizen.
  • Taking a phone call on your wrist? Feels kind-of cool the first time you do it, but not something I’d envision doing on a regular basis.
  • The screen is surprisingly easy to see in the sun. Early reviews said otherwise, though that could be because the Apple Watch Sport’s screen apparently performs better in sunlight than the Apple Watch’s.
  • Battery life is more or less the same as it was on my Moto 360. It certainly lasts longer while exercising, and I no longer feel obligated to charge it after a workout to get a full day out of it. Ittill goes on my charger when I get in the shower, because the charger’s already on my nightstand, and where else would it go? Speaking of the charger – I like that it’s magnetic and wireless, but still miss the elegance of the 360’s Qi charging dock, not to mention its use of a wireless charging standard.
  • I like that the watch automatically locks itself when removed from your wrist. Given that anyone with my watch could easily trigger an Apple Pay transaction, this seems like a particularly elegant solution to a necessary feature.
  • Speaking of which: Apple Pay was born to live on the Apple Watch. Apple Pay (and NFC payments in general) are already pretty cool, and while paying with your phone is generally faster than paying with a credit card, paying with something that’s already on your wrist is noticeably faster than both.
  • The watch can be set to unlock to the last used app, which is useful if you’re doing something like using the watch as a remote for an Apple TV, or monitoring an active workout. As a bonus, all apps have the time in the upper right corner, so it’s still useful as an actual watch when you aren’t on the watch face itself. In a way, it becomes a makeshift whatever-activity-you’re-doing-centric watch face.

And then, of course, there’s the fitness stuff. I could write a whole post about that – in fact, I already have – but the long and short of it is that it’s exactly what I’ve wanted out of a fitness tracker for years. It passively tracks my movement throughout the day, while also actively and accurately tracking my heart rate during exercise. The only time I’ve seen it struggle to read my heart rate is while dancing, which Apple explains with: “Rhythmic movements, such as running or cycling, give better results compared to irregular movements, like tennis or boxing.” It’s not that it stops working entirely during those activities, just that it seems to take a reading less often. There are, of course, dedicated fitness trackers that will also read your heart rate – but as someone who has already decided they want to wear a smartwatch, I’m not really interested in wearing something on both wrists.

Most importantly to me, MyFitnessPal’s latest version will update my calorie allocation for the day based on the activity recorded by the watch, and the Fitbit app can be set to record my steps based on my iPhone rather than the Fitbit hardware.  All of this means I finally have what I wanted since the original Pebble – a smartwatch/smartphone combination that will allow me to retire my Fitbit One without sacrificing MyFitnessPal functionality or the social aspects of the Fitbit ecosystem.

So where does that leave us? The Apple Watch is, in my experience, a paradoxical device. Sometimes it feels like Apple’s most-polished first-gen product ever…until it doesn’t. 95% of the time, it’s a smooth, reliable experience…but then Siri will freak out. Or a poorly written Glance will cause my watch to reboot. Or I’ll show the watch to someone and it won’t let me enter my passcode to unlock it without restarting it.

Bottom line: the odd quirk aside, it’s the best smartwatch and the best fitness tracker I’ve ever used, but the price is pretty hard to swallow unless you want both types of devices. Most people probably shouldn’t buy it just as a smartwatch, or just as a fitness tracker – it doesn’t do enough beyond what other smartwatches do to revolutionize the category and push into “objectively useful for everyone”, and it’s too expensive to buy as solely a fitness tracker. 

For most people, it’s hard not to recommend waiting for the next generation – not because this one isn’t good, but because the next one will probably be better and cheaper. If nothing else, the next generation will drive down the cost of this generation. It’s not that it isn’t great or useful – it’s pretty great and pretty useful – but rather, that it’s not necessarily $349 worth of useful. At $299, it becomes more reasonable. At $249, it’d be much, much easier to recommend.

But, if you have an iPhone, and you love gadgets – it’s a pretty damn cool gadget, so that might well be enough. If you love gadgets and have an interest in fitness tracking, like me, then it basically sells itself.  So if the question is “Should I buy?”, the answer for most people is “probably not”. But if the question is “If I do buy it anyway, will I like it?”

Yeah, I think you probably will.

A new smartwatch has arrived

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A few (very, very quick) impressions:

  • Build quality, even on the Sport model, is unsurprisingly fantastic.
  • Setup process was fairly straightforward, though I continue to wonder how fast non-techies will take to it. Even something as simple as configuring your watch face may cause people to people stumble. Makes me wonder how many Apple Watches will be left on the default face configuration.
  • Speaking of faces: most of the built-in ones are actually pretty lame, though there are a few standouts, and you’ll probably find something you like. Solar, Astronomy, and Motion are all gorgeous, though none of them have complications, which limits their actual utility.
  • The UI seems mostly snappy, though it has the occasional Moto 360-esque hiccup. It’s smoother than I expected based on reviews, for whatever that’s worth.
  • Speaking of which – third-party app performance seems to vary, but generally are surprisingly different. From reviews, I expected a disaster, but most of the ones I care about (Wunderlist, Dark Sky, Alarm.com, Evernote) all seem perfectly usable.
  • still can’t believe there’s no Reminders app. Come on. At least I can use Wunderlist or Evernote for shopping lists, I suppose.

More impressions coming in the next few days! I’m excited to see how it holds up during a long bike ride, and if my leg is feeling better, I’ll take it out for a run soon. I’m also curious how it tracks my Just Dance “workouts”.

Misplace your FitBit? There’s (literally) an app for that

This morning, after my stationary bike workout, I misplaced my FitBit One. I knew it was either in my office (where the bike is) or my room, but I wasn’t sure which, and it’s small enough that it could’ve easily fallen in a corner somewhere. Unfortunately, there’s no “find my FitBit” feature on my phone – but it was still connecting to my phone via Bluetooth.

That’s when I got the idea to download an app that would show me Bluetooth signal strength – in my case BlueScan for Android, but there are certainly others for both iOS and Android. By looking at the signal strength, I was able to quickly determine which room it was in (the office) and where it was (on the floor next to my bike).

Signal strength low = not in the bedroom

Signal strength low = not in the bedroom

Signal strength high = probably in the office

Signal strength high = probably in the office

 

I figured this was a neat trick worth sharing, especially as more and more of us are carrying small, easy-to-misplace Bluetooth devices, whether it’s a fitness tracker, smartwatch, or headphones.

Moto 360 Review

“I think smartwatches are dumb.”

Well, I understand why you might feel that way, but I disagree.  I think smartwatches are the kind of thing you only understand after you’ve used one because, unlike with smartphones, there’s no single phrase you can say that sells people on a smartwatch.

Smartphone: “You have the internet in your pocket.”  Boom, done. Here’s all my money. Society is changed forever.

Smartwatches?

  • “You can have notifications on your wrist.”  Okay, great. I don’t care.
  • “It’s also a fitness tracker.” I own a fitness tracker already/my phone does that/I’m lazy and don’t care to be less lazy.
  • “I can issue voice commands and respond to text messages and IMs with my voice.” Okay, that’s kind-of cool, but not life-changing, internet-in-your-pocket cool.

Smartwatches are difficult to sell people on because they are more than the sum of their parts.  It’s not just that you can see and respond to notifications on your wrist, or navigate without taking your phone out, or set a quick reminder, or take a quick note, or monitor your current run or bike ride.  It’s all of those things and how moment by moment, they make your life a bit better in small ways – ways you don’t notice until you stop wearing a smartwatch and suddenly feel a bit crippled.

I think even Apple, with all of their marketing prowess, is going to have their hands full convincing people they need one at first.  This might be why we’ve seen them take the uncharacteristic “put every feature in here and see what sticks” approach to the Apple Watch – it’s quite possible they’re just hoping something will click with the average consumer and become a reason to spend $350+, whether it’s tapping messages to neighbors or staring at tiny family photos on your wrist, or something we haven’t actually seen yet.  Apple’s secret weapon may end-up being peer pressure; if enough people buy into the concept of the Apple Watch, then suddenly a large chunk of your social circle could be communicating in a unique way that doesn’t include you.  It’s like the iMessage effect, except with even more hardware buy-in required to participate.  Of course, that depends on enough people buying into the Apple Watch concept out of the gate, which I think is still a big question mark.

 

Well, that was a lot of rambling…but I still think smartwatches are dumb.

That’s fine.  I don’t think smartwatches are for everyone, but I think the people who love them will really love them.  If smartphones are our surrogate brains, then I’ll gladly use a device that helps make that surrogate brain a bit more useful and efficient.

 

Okay, let’s say I want a smartwatch – should I buy a Moto 360?

No, probably not.

 

Wait, what?  Why not?

I don’t think most people should buy any smartwatch at this point, because as much as I love the concept, the implementation still isn’t particularly mass-market friendly.  The 360 also has its own unique quirks that make it even less mass-market friendly.

 

So are you going to return yours?

Oh, no no no.  Dear God, no. I really like this thing.

 

That makes no sense.

I’m completely sold on smartwatches, and I can’t imagine going back to my Pebble now.  Also, the 360 has a couple of features that no other existing-or-announced Android Wear device has that I think are so vital to the experience that I won’t buy any other smartwatch without them.

 

What features?  You mean the round display?

No, not exactly.  The LG G Watch R also has a round display, and looks pretty nice.  I still think the 360 looks better, but obviously that will vary greatly from person to person.  I’m talking about the ambient light sensor, and wireless charging.

The ambient light sensor seems like the sort of feature that every smart-device should have by default, but somehow, the only other Android Wear watch announced that has one is the Sony Smartwatch 3.  Call me high-maintenance, but the instant I have to dig into the brightness settings of my watch just because I had the gall to step outdoors, I am out.  The Arizona sun is way too bright to even consider owning a watch that can’t adapt to it. The best thing I can say about the 360’s brightness is that I’ve never had to think about it.

As with phones, I’ve found it hard to break away from wireless charging now that I’ve grown accustomed to it.  I have Qi chargers at work, at home, and in the car, and now I have a phone, tablet, and watch that can charge on any of them.  It’s the sort of convenience that’s pretty hard to give up, especially with a wearable that has to be charged every night.  As a bonus, the 360 looks pretty damn good, even when it’s charging:

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Wait, I have to charge this thing every night?

Yup.  Sorry about that.  Battery life isn’t quite as bad as initially reported (pro-tip: don’t trust what a reviewer tells you about a device’s battery life unless they’ve used it for at least a week), but it’s…still kind-of bad.  I thought, at first, that it was unacceptably bad, but after a couple of days of settling in, it’s reached levels that I consider acceptable to me.  Barely.  I worry for how its battery capacity will fare going forward, given that batteries tend to lose a chunk of their capacity over time, but then, such are the risks of being an early adopter.

My rule going into this was simple: if I only had to charge the 360’s battery at times when the watch would naturally be off my wrist anyway, then I could live with the battery life.  Those times are:

  1. When I’m sleeping.
  2. When I get home from work.

Fortunately, #2 has proven to be unnecessary, though I still generally take my watch off when I’m at home, especially if I’m going to be using the computer.  The good news is that this thing charges crazy fast compared to something like a phone – expect close to 2% every minute or so – so if you’re expecting a late night, you can toss in on the charger for 20-30 minutes and be good to go.

There are, of course, going to be times when it will probably die on my wrist – if I go out for a late night without stopping by my house, for example.  I consider those edge cases, though, and honestly, my phone will probably die before my watch either way –  using a Nexus 5 means learning to tolerate kind-of crappy battery life.  At first, I was annoyed at having another device whose battery life I was constantly aware of, but after a few days, I started treating it like my Pebble – ignoring battery life and just letting it be – and it’s been fine.

Inevitably, there will be many who consider this unacceptable, especially considering this is in the default mode, meaning the watch face only lights up when you manually activate it with a wrist motion or a tap, or when a notification comes in.  If you want to have an “always on” watch face similar to the Pebble, or even the Gear Live or the LG G Watch…you won’t make it through the day.  Period.

For me, it works – I accept the sub-par battery life, because it gives me three things no other smartwatch currently does: an ambient light sensor, wireless charging, and a fantastic design I’m not embarrassed to be seen in public with.

 

Is the design really that good?

Obviously, that’s up to you. Personally, I think it’s gorgeous – to me, it’s the first proof that a smartwatch can look great, and a reminder that wearables are going to be as much about form as they are function.  The Pebble may offer 5-6 times the battery life of the 360, and most of the features, but seriously, look at these two and tell me which one you would rather wear:

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Of course, like all other smartwatches, it’s also big.  If you don’t want a big watch, this isn’t the watch for you.

 

How’s that display? What about that ugly black bar at the bottom?

The IPS display doesn’t quite reach the insane pixel density of modern smartphones, or even modern laptops and tablets, so you will definitely notice pixels if you look for them.  Of course it’s a huge upgrade from my Pebble, and it’s great in other ways – most notable its viewing angles and outdoor visibility.  Also, some notifications – especially full-screen album art – are gorgeous on it.  Pictures don’t really do them justice, but I tried anyway.

2014-09-17 20.08.44 2014-09-17 20.09.16 2014-09-17 20.09.42

As for the black bar, I barely notice it, and even when I notice it, I don’t care. If the choice is between a tiny bezel and a black bar, or a big bezel and no black bar, I’ll take the tiny bezel every time.

 

How about that ancient processor?

If you haven’t heard, the Moto 360 runs a processor from 2010 – the TI OMAP3630, which was used in the Droid X and the MotoACTV.  Why?  I don’t know, but if I had to guess, it was to cut costs – Motorola probably still has plenty of those lying around, and Android Wear runs good enough on them that they figured they may as well use them.  If that was what it took to get the cost down to $250…I think they made the right choice, as I don’t think I’d spend much more on a smartwatch at this point.

That said, the difference between it and the Snapdragon 400 that other Android Wear watches have is noticeable, if only just.  If having the latest and the greatest processor is important to you, then it’s quite possible the 360 isn’t for you.  Personally, when it comes to wearables, I’m not interested in staring at the spec sheet, and I’ll choose the lifestyle benefits of a light sensor and wireless charging over a more modern processor any day of the week – even if it means the occasional hitch and stutter, and overall poorer battery life.

That isn’t to say I don’t dream of a Moto 360 running a better processor – I just don’t get too hung up over it.

 

Anything else about the hardware?

The vibration motor is pretty weak if you’re used to a Pebble; I think I prefer it to the over-enthusiastic Pebble, but if you’re used to the Pebble, it’s worth noting, and you may miss the occasional buzz here and there.  Every now and then, the device will ignore my first attempt to wake it, whether it’s through motion or a direct tap on the screen.  Not sure if that’s a hardware or software thing, though.  I’ve occasionally had it disconnect from my Nexus 5, but not any more frequently than my Pebble seemed to.  Like any touchscreen, the Moto 360’s screen will inevitably end up covered in fingerprints – which is an unfortunate state for something you’re always looking at – but I’ll take temporary fingerprints to my Pebble’s infinitely-scratched screen any day of the week.  The leather strap it comes with is fine, but I look forward to replacing it with a metal strap at some point.

 

That’s a lot about hardware.  What about software?

It’s running Android Wear, which I haven’t talked about before because I haven’t had all that much experience with.  Think of it as Google Now on your wrist, plus notifications, and you have a large idea of what it can (and can’t) do.  I’ve often heard it called a 1.0 product, and it’s hard to disagree.  When it works, especially on a device like the Moto 360, it feels like the future.  When it doesn’t, it can be an exercise in frustration and failure.

Dictation from my watch is as great as I was hoping for, with one major exception – unlike Google Now in Android, it doesn’t display the dictation as you’re speaking.   Often I find myself talking to the watch and hoping it hears me right.  It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s a noticeable step back if you’re used to Android’s dictation.  The good news is that the microphone on the 360 is pretty sensitive, so I can whisper commands to it and it registers them perfectly, which is great for setting a quick reminder or saving a quick note.  This is a lot quicker, and more subtle, than taking my phone out for the same action.

Other frustrating quirks: you can start a text message directly with your voice, but not a Hangout message.  Dumb.  Media controls could use some rethinking, as right now you can only play/pause music if the media is already playing on your phone and active in the notification shade.  Considering how easy it is to dismiss notifications on accident, a notification history area would be nice.  Finding and launching an app without using voice commands is a pain, as it’s hidden away behind a couple of menus.  Android Wear inherits some of Google Now’s more annoying quirks, too.  Accidentally swipe away that weather card? Well, it’ll come back.  Eventually.  Probably.

While Android Wear still suffers from a frustrating lack of officially-supported custom watch faces, Motorola has a pretty solid selection.  My personal favorite is Classic, which displays the current day of the month, and subtly shades areas of the watch to indicate when I have calendar appointments.  There’s also a red “countdown” ticker in the upper left that counts down from ten to one when I have an upcoming appointment.  In the following photo, the day of the month is the 17th, I have an event starting in eight minutes, as well as calendar entries from 8:20-10 and 11-12.

2014-09-17 20.14.11

This is a remarkable amount of useful information provided in a subtle package, and shows how even smartwatch without notifications can be useful.  I can’t wait to see what people do with full-fledged custom watch faces – I already have some ideas of my own.

 

How does it compare to Pebble’s software?

Let’s make one thing clear: even in this early stage, I think Android Wear is leaps and bounds over what the Pebble offers.  The Pebble isn’t bad, it’s just basic, and I think there are some aspects of Android Wear you won’t appreciate until you’ve used a Pebble.  For example, clearing a notification on my wrist clears it on my phone, which is awesome, as having to manage notifications in two places degrades a lot of what makes notification triage useful.

More importantly, Android Wear treats Android notifications more intelligently than Pebble.  With Pebble, you have two options – you either get the small subset of notifications that Pebble supports natively, like e-mails and text messages, or you install a third-party apps that sends everything to your wrist until you tell it otherwise.  This is especially annoying the first time you upload a photo to Facebook and your wrist decides to buzz every time the notification is updated with a new percentage.  Sure, you can manually ignore certain types of notifications, depending on the functionality of the third-party app, but that only solves some problems.  For example, Pebble will send you every Google Now weather update as a new “notification”, even if it’s just the weather card being updated.  You can disable Google Now, but then you’ll get miss other notifications from the app, like reminders. Android Wear is just naturally more intelligent in that regard – I rarely find myself wondering “Why is it sending me this?”

It’s also a small thing, but muting the watch to prevent notifications is much simpler on Android Wear – just swipe down from the top.  I find myself using this frequently for meetings or lunches.  This stands in stark contrast to the Pebble, where you have to dig through a couple of menus to find the right toggle.  It was enough of a hassle that I never bothered to do it unless I was really sick of notifications.

In general, I find myself more tolerant of notifications on the Moto 360 than the Pebble.  Maybe it’s just that “new device afterglow”, but I think it’s also the fact the vibration isn’t nearly as strong, combined with the fact I can delete and archive e-mails, reply to messages, and dismiss notifications directly from the watch.  This make me feel like I’m being productive, rather than just being informed of things that I’ll have to be productive about later.

 

What about that Apple Watch?

Comparing it in any meaningful way to the software on the Apple Watch would be silly, as I haven’t tried it and neither have many others.  I will say that, when comparing Google and Apple’s approach to watch software, I prefer Google’s.  We now live in a bizarro-world where Apple’s approach and UI appears unfocused and busy, while Google’s approach and UI is focused and minimalistic. I honestly think there’s way too much going on in the Apple Watch UI – I’d rather swipe and tap giant buttons then try to aim for tiny touch buttons and constantly miss.  In my mind, a smartwatch is for things that either take 10-15 seconds at most, or for constant information I don’t want to drag my phone out for (pace/distance while running, directions while navigating). If I’m digging around a smartwatch interface for longer than a minute, something’s gone wrong.

 

How is it for fitness?

I’ve already written a great deal about the Moto 360 as a fitness device, but the tl;dr is that the 360 is surprisingly great at collecting step and heart rate data, it just needs to send it somewhere. Hopefully that “somewhere” is Google Fit, coming in the Android L release.

 

So…where does that leave things?

My general rule for recommending something without hesitation is that it needs to blend in seamlessly with your life; technology should enhance your life with as little conscious thought as possible.  The Moto 360, and Android Wear, aren’t quite there yet.

That’s not to say there isn’t an audience for this device – if you own an Android phone, really want a smartwatch, and can tolerate the less-than-ideal battery life, this is the one to get.  Period.  Just understand that you are essentially helping Google beta test Android Wear, albeit in a pretty fantastic chassis. I’m never one to count on a software update to fix problems – hardware is purchased as-is and any updates are just a bonus – but I think we can be pretty certain that Android Wear is going to get a whole lot better in the next 6-12 months.  If these updates come with better battery life and performance, all the better – but don’t buy the watch expecting that to be the case.

In the tech world there’s never any harm in waiting, and that goes double for smartwatches.  This market is just getting started, and I think what we see in the next couple of years will blow away what we’re seeing today, the same way innovation in the smartphone market exploded after the original iPhone.

I said in my Pebble review that my ideal smartwatch would be a Pebble, plus a microphone, plus a FitBit – and the Moto 360 is basically that, with a few unfortunate hardware and software quirks thrown in the mix.  If you can’t wait, go for it – I don’t think you’ll regret it, and this is absolutely the smartwatch to buy if you have an Android phone and dig the design as much as I do. Just go in knowing its limitations, and with the knowledge that the second or third generation of these devices is going to be killer.

 

The Moto 360 and RunKeeper – Cycling Addendum

I won’t bore you with reiterating my initial impressions of the Moto 360 as a fitness device, but I learned enough new things during a bike ride this morning that I thought it was worth sharing in a second post.

  1. Battery drain was about the same the second day, so it’s pretty consistent in that regard.
  2. I really wish there was a way to set the 360 so that pressing the physical button would wake the watch to whatever app you were using, rather than to the watch face, as I think a huge amount of battery life could be saved that way.  Considering I already have to tap the screen to make the RunKeeper UI readable in bright light anyway, this wouldn’t be any more trouble. I can, of course, still manually sleep/wake the device – and may try that on my next run to geta better feel for battery life when used that way – but then it requires more swipes to get back into the RunKeeper UI.
  3. The Moto 360 has outdone my FitBit in an important way – it surprisingly managed to count steps while bike riding, something I’ve only ever convinced my FitBit to do when it’s clipped to the very bottom of my bike shorts, near my knee.  I’ve never used a wrist-worn FitBit, but I’ve heard those aren’t very good at tracking bike rides, either.  I’ve been looking forever for a fitness device that would properly track my rides, and I may have finally found it.  Here’s an example of how they compared, with my FitBit worn as-described above:2014-09-11 08.31.17
  4. It seems as though the 360 once again passively recorded my heart rate, although there are two included apps used for heart rate monitoring, and they gave me conflicting info.  One, “Heart Activity”, seemed to think I’d done 30 minutes of exercise:2014-09-11 08.33.07 2014-09-11 08.33.18The other, Heart Rate, seems to think I’ve been Inactive the entire morning:2014-09-11 08.32.21
  5. This leads into my one major issue with the 360 as a fitness tracker, which is that it seems pretty great at collecting data, but not very good at aggregating it.  I’m hopeful this will change with the release of Google Fit in Android L, but right now, it’s confined to the watch and, apparently, Motorola’s servers, at least after I adopted in to the Wellness Profile section of the Motorola Connect app.  Until that data is used elsewhere, though, my FitBit will stay in my pocket, as I use it not just for the data, but for how that data interacts with services my MyFitnessPal.

Overall, I’m pretty optimistic about the possibilities of the Moto 360 as a fitness device.  I don’t think it will replace true dedicated all-fitness devices like an expensive GPS watch, but I can certainly see it replacing the need to carry both a smartwatch and an ambient fitness tracker.

I still have a few things I want to test – I want to see how the Moto 360 responds to my workouts on a treadmill and stationary bike, and I want to see how battery life performs for rides/runs if I manually toggle the display off.  My theory is that it will accurately record the treadmill and not the stationary bike, but I’ve already been pleasantly surprised, so who knows?  After all of that testing, I’ll make a final post with my findings – probably sometime early next week.

My morning with the Moto 360 and RunKeeper

I’m a strong believer in the union between technology and fitness; one of the things that sold me on the original Pebble was its RunKeeper integration.  It’s actually a little distressing how easy it is to convince me to buy a new gadget if I can somehow convince myself it’ll help me.  So, logically, one of the first things I did after I acquired my Moto 360 yesterday afternoon was take it out out on this morning’s run to compare it with Pebble’s performance in that same area.  Unfortunately, I can’t compare it to other Android Wear watches, as I haven’t used them.

My result?  Surprisingly good!  I’ll share my experiences in pro/con style:

Pros:

  • Unlike the Pebble RunKeeper app, I can start, pause, and end my run without taking my phone out of my pocket.  This is actually pretty important, considering I run with my dog, and she stops to…do her business a bit more often than I’d like.  Fumbling with a phone and a leash, while trying to pause my run, is not fun.
  • The Moto 360 tracks both steps and heart rate – the step count seems pretty comparable to my FitBit.  I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the heart rate, but it’s nice to know it’s being done.  I’m hopeful that, in the future, RunKeeper can actually incorporate that heart rate data into my run and display it as part of the graph, as it currently does with standalone heart rate monitors.  It was a nice surprise that it passively monitored my heart rate in the first place.

2014-09-10 08.33.49 2014-09-10 08.36.16 2014-09-10 08.36.54

  • Incoming notifications don’t interrupt my RunKeeper display, unlike they do with the Pebble.  My wrist still vibrates to let me know something knew has come in, but the RunKeeper display remains on top.
  • Battery life held up better than expected after the nightmare stories I’ve heard; it was down to about 65% when I got home, meaning it should last for about the length of a 3 hour bike ride or run – far longer than I usually do, though I have to wonder how well it’ll do during my upcoming half-marathon in January.  I’ll get a better sense for that once I start training in mid October.

 

Cons:

  • Although the 360’s display is always on when RunKeeper is active, it is also too dim to see in the morning Arizona sun.  Tapping the display is necessary if I want to view my elapsed time and pace.  On the Pebble, this isn’t an issue as the display is always active and has the same ambient brightness.  Since tapping the watch is necessary to view the display anyway, it’d be nice if there was an option to have the screen off until I tapped to view my current status.  I’m sure that’d save a lot of battery life.
  • The Pebble relies on a rarely-updating display to maintain good battery life, which is why watch faces with something as simple as an active second hand will noticeably reduce battery life.  So, while battery can drain on the Pebble can be pretty heavy during “live” activities like RunKeeper, I can be confident that the watch will still make it at least the rest of the day after my run or ride.  I’m not sure I can say the same thing about the 360.
  • The 360’s touchscreen gets pretty gross after even light interaction during an hour long run; an unavoidable reality of a watch with a touchscreen, but no less obnoxious.

 

Bonus battery info:

I’ll elaborate more on this in my upcoming review, but my rule with the 360 is that – thanks to the convenience of wireless charging – I’m fine charging it whenever my Pebble would naturally be off my wrist anyway.  This includes:

  1. When I’m sleeping.
  2. Sometimes, when I get home from work.
  3. When I shower in the morning.

#3 is notable, as that’s what I did this morning – dropped the 360 onto its charger right after my run, so it could get a boost while I was getting ready for work.  During the 20 minutes this took, the 360 charged up 27%.  That was far better than I’d expected:

2014-09-10 08.38.06 2014-09-10 08.58.57

Overall, I came away more impressed with the 360-as-a-fitness-device than I expected to be.  I’ve long said my ideal wearable would be a Pebble with a microphone combined with the functionality of a FitBit.  While the 360 isn’t quite enough for me to leave the house without my FitBit, it’s damn close – and if MyFitnessPal incorporates Android Wear data the same way it incorporates FitBit data, then the time may finally come where the FitBit can stay at home.

The only real question is how the 360 performs while biking, since I imagine I’ll be less comfortable tapping the display to wake it when I’m biking than when I’m running.  Of course, that’s a post for tomorrow.

Moto 360 in the house!

Impressions coming in a day or so.

2014-09-09 15.31.23 2014-09-09 15.31.47 2014-09-09 15.58.01-1

Shit’s about to get real

Tomorrow, Apple announces:

  • A 4.7 inch iPhone
  • (Possibly) a 5.5 inch iPhone
  • (Probably) an iWatch wearable device

I currently have a Moto 360 heading to a Best Buy with my name on it, likely due to arrive on Thursday.  Its arrival and purchase will cement both my allegiance with Android (at least for the next couple of years) and with wireless charging, as I will have the Holy Trinity of Qi-compatible smartphone, tablet, and wearable.

However, iOS8 is impressive.  Very impressive.  It fills in most of the functionality gaps between iOS and Android that I’ve been waiting for since my move to Android a couple of years ago.  It also brings larger phones to iOS – another thing I’ve been waiting for. As someone who wants his technology to “just work”, and is already heavily invested in Apple’s ecosystem in the form of OS X, Apple has a serious chance of winning me back over tomorrow, depending on how solid their line-up is.  It’s not that I’m tired of Android – I just see serious value on being all-end with a particular hardware ecosystem, and right now, nothing in the Android line-up delivers quite the comprehensive hardware ecosystem that Apple does.

I don’t think iOS8 with a larger iPhone will be quite enough to win me back, though – in many ways, it hinges on what their wearable brings to the table.  If it’s as health and fitness-based as rumors suggest, then it will be hard to resist, given my near-obsession with the marriage of exercise and technology.

Either way, tomorrow proves to be very interesting.  The time has come, as The Verge put it, to choose my religion.

RunKeeper’s latest update added Android Wear support

2014-07-03 01.59.17

Damn.  There went my last reason to ignore Android Wear and stick to Pebble.

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