The other day I bought a smartwatch. In 2017. You may ask why. It is a fair question considering 50% of Americans consider the smartwatch a passing fad. The Apple Watch, the most popular smartwatch, saw a 71.3% drop in sales last year. Overall, smartwatch sales are down more than 50%. You may ask what happened. Wearables were supposed to revolutionize how we interact with technology, and smartwatches were the first wearable in that great experiment. However, when you get past the initial thrill of a new gadget, one comes to realize that there is one major crux in the usefulness of a smartwatch: they can’t do anything that you can’t already do with your smartphone. However, when my “dumb” watch battery died, I started looking for a new watch. My requirements were relatively simple:
- I wanted a watch that could display the time in two time zones
- It should continuously display the time
This first requirement was in order to display Zulu (UTC) time and local time at once. One of my hobbies is flight simulation, and pilots work with Zulu time. It makes scheduling a whole lot easier when the pilot doesn’t have to adjust to local time when flying between time zones. The reality is I haven’t had much time to devote to secondary hobbies such as this, but if I was going to buy a watch, this feature would be important.
I quickly found that dual time is quite expensive. You need to buy a luxury/designer watch in order to find this feature. There were many so-called “pilot watches” available with many complications which did not come across as very useful for an actual pilot. It turns out that this is a common marketing term.
I soon came to learn that this “dual time” requirement really narrowed down my options, and I am not at all interested in collecting overpriced watches. It quickly became apparent that a smartwatch would fit the bill nicely, for a lot less money.
My second requirement, to continuously display the time, is honestly my favorite feature of my smartwatch. It does sound silly, but it is something the Apple Watch is not capable of. Instead, the Apple Watch is a black rectangle on your wrist. In order to check the time, you must make a silly “looking at watch” gesture in order to check the time. It is easy to see how making obvious gestures to check the time could get very old. Further, I found the screen timeout on the Apple Watch to be too short. You better be able to tell the time in a blink because if it takes you more than a second, the screen will go blank.
I did spend some time wearing the Apple Watch in store. As much as I appreciate Apple computer products, the Apple Watch came across as a prototype rather than a final product. That strategy is rather forward thinking. Apple has launched what is essentially a prototype while they wait for the product they want (a computer on the wrist) to be manufacturable. By releasing something in 2015, they can collect feedback from users and allow developers to begin making apps for the Apple Watch. Apple can also experiment with entering the jewelry/fashion market while they wait for technology to improve to an extent where they can create a smartwatch without compromises. I'm not really interested in wearing a prototype.
What this all means is that the Apple Watch is a device that I cannot recommend from a utility standpoint, but could be a worthwhile gadget to own for early adopters. However, when it comes to smartwatches, there are much better options (at a more attractive price point) available if you look beyond the Apple ecosystem.
I also experimented with the Samsung Gear Watches, which do not use Android Wear. The user interface was quite intuitive compared to Android Wear, but the lack of apps developed for the platform was not appealing. In the end, I narrowed my search to two options: the original Huawei Watch, and the Asus ZenWatch 2.
The Huawei Watch with the round watch face looks a bit more elegant to my eye. Originally priced at $300, it now can be found for $150 on eBay and other sites. While the watch is two years old, it has been updated to Android Wear 2.0. There is a Huawei Watch 2, but the design is less attractive.
The ZenWatch currently runs Android Wear 1.5, which is based on Android Marshmallow. ASUS has promised an update to Wear 2.0 but has yet to keep their word. The watch is square, with a large 1.63" touchscreen. The bezel is also a bit large, but with a black watch face, this bezel does not detract from the design. Because it is a square watch, it is more useful for reading text messages and notifications. Its square design also means I get asked if it is an Apple Watch, so it is more obviously a smartwatch rather than a smartwatch disguised as a traditional watch, which you will find with round Android Wear watches.
The Asus ZenWatch 2 can be had for just $70. At that price, owning a smartwatch was a no-brainer. For just $70, less than the price of a decent mechanical watch, I could see if the smartwatch was really all that it was cracked up to be.
After owning a smartwatch for a month, I can say I am pleasantly surprised. I received the watch two days before my trip to Hawaii. The watch battery life is impressive and it can last me nearly two days. I still charge it nightly, which is not really an inconvenience as I don’t like to sleep wearing a watch. If you forget to charge the watch at night, 15 minutes on the charger will bring it to 80% charge which will last more than the rest of the day.
I do like how I can wear different watch faces depending on the circumstances. The ZenWatch 2 comes with a lot of pre-installed watch face designs. More can be found on the Google Play store. However, because most Android Wear watch face designs are intended for round screens, this task proved to be difficult. You can, of course, install a round watch face on a square smartwatch, but it just doesn’t look very elegant. My regular watch faces are an InstaWeather watch face, a Mickey Mouse watch face, my own custom design Pujie Black watch face with UTC time display, Just a Minute, and a very elegant analog watch face called Skymaster (a $1 purchase).
As I stated in the introduction, there is nothing a smartwatch can do that your smartphone cannot already do. Nevertheless, the convenience of not having to constantly pull out your phone is very nice. Sure, I could pull my phone out of my pocket to check the time as most millennials do, but being able to glance at the time is nice.
- Having all of my phone’s notifications pushed to my wrist is also very handy. I can quickly read text messages and reply with my voice without having to pull my phone out to see what messages I missed.
- I used to miss phone calls because I would silence my phone for a class and my phone would not ring. Now I can “feel” a call on my wrist and glance to see who wants my attention. I can even answer directly on my watch. This is all very cool stuff.
- I can leave my phone on the charger and get notified when it is fully charged or quickly glance at my wrist to see what level my phone is at. If my watch is connected to WiFi, I can even receive notifications beyond Bluetooth range.
- I can Shazam to identify a song right from my wrist, no need to pull out my phone.
- Even when I am actively using my phone, the “second screen experience” is quite useful. If I am reading an article on my phone and someone sends me a text message, I don’t have to swipe down on my phone to read the entire message or reply. Instead, I can glance at my watch and dictate a quick reply.
- If I am playing music for a party on the Sonos system, I can see what song is playing, skip the bad ones, or adjust the volume remotely.
- I can see the current weather conditions along with the time without having to look it up on the phone.
All of these things save me seconds at a time, but it does add up. I had the watch for the last days of finals and it was quite convenient to see not only the time but also “14 minutes until Accounting Final.” Sure, a bit of mental math could have told me how much time I had left to study, but technology can do that for us! Telling time in the context of calendar events is quite useful.
Another nice feature is being able to silence my phone with a tap on the wrist without having to take my phone out of my pocket. Useful for just before a test, when entering Church, or just before an important meeting.
When I flew to Hawaii, I used “App in the Air” to see which gate the flight was at and how much time was left until boarding.
When I landed in Hawaii, I didn’t need to wind my watch back for the new time zone, because it is automatically synced with the phone. This could be quite handy for the frequent traveler, but the time it takes to wind a watch back is equivalent to the time it takes to take the watch out of “airplane mode.”
We went hiking to Kaena Point, Oahu and my watch kept track of my steps and miles walked. Pretty cool for a smartwatch that I bought for less than the price of a Fitbit.
However, my step counts for the week were inaccurate for the simple reason that I didn’t wear my smartwatch all day. Whenever I went swimming (which was always!) I didn’t wear my watch. The ZenWatch 2 is IP67 water resistant, which means I could swim with it for 30 minutes but it is not really recommended. I don’t have to be concerned about rain or getting it wet while washing my hands, but it is not the type of watch you could wear to the pool. That is the one instance where the new Apple Watch beats the ZenWatch.
When driving the smartwatch also proved useful. I cannot recommend looking at a watch when driving. However, the watch provided additional feedback when using Google Maps, such as vibrating when it is time to turn. I was a bit surprised left and right turn vibration patterns were not unique. It also displayed ETA on the watch, which is quite useful for a time-telling device. Further, because of the watch’s close proximity to your mouth (provided your hands are on the wheel), it served as a useful replacement to the Bluetooth headset for issuing voice commands to the phone such as “navigate home” or “navigate to…”
Even the flashlight feature of the watch proved useful. The watch can be used as a small glowing screen of a solid color that isn’t very bright. Nevertheless, I found myself using it when I needed to change some camera settings at a dark Luau.
You can even play music directly on the watch. The ZenWatch 2 has a speaker, and the sound quality isn’t bad. It is certainly better than my $100 tablet. I tried it out while playing tennis. Alternatively, you can pair your Bluetooth headphones directly to your watch and play music that way. The watch has 4GB of storage, which is plenty for a few tunes. Want to go for a run and leave your phone behind? Not a problem.
WearMETAR (Airport Weather) – this little app will display airport weather information. This is useful if you are curious just how high the clouds are over Honolulu airport.
Spotify – I can select a recently played song to play on my phone.
Coffee – this is a really cool app. It is actually no longer on the Play Store (but can be found online for free). It displays text messages and provides a very cool way to quickly respond to a text when talking to your wrist is not appropriate. For example, you can click the car icon, click the “I’m leaving soon” predefined text, and even change the word soon to something else such as “at 1”. You can even create and save your own predefined messages. Unfortunately, Coffee does not support group messages, so I receive double notifications on my watch for text messages (which is not really a big deal because once I reply they both disappear).
OneNote and Google Keep - I can view notes, which I found useful when I need to refer to a shopping list.
Wear Codes - This is something that adds utility to smartwatches. I can pull up barcodes for loyalty cards such as Regal Rewards to be scanned before a movie. You can even have it automatically launch if your location matches the store location.
Find My Phone – My second most favorite feature. Ring your misplaced phone. Quite handy considering I never misplace my smartwatch (I can always find it on my wrist!).
- Not fully waterproof
- The wristband fit isn’t perfect. If only there was a hole between the second and third. As it is, it is slightly loose, but this is minor. Replacement bands can be had for $10.
- Battery life is barely two days. For a smartwatch, this is very good, and if you forget to charge it one night, it should still last you through the next day. However, this doesn’t compare well to your standard “dumb” watch.
- Android Wear user interface. It is not super intuitive and takes some getting used to, with lots of swiping. However, for those that aren’t technically challenged, it doesn’t take long to get used to it.
- WiFi limited to 802.11 b/g
- Not yet updated to Android Wear 2.0
- No ambient light sensor, meaning display brightness must be adjusted manually. I just leave it at maximum brightness (so it can be read outdoors) and forget about it.
So… Is a smartwatch worth it? I would say yes. For $70, I would suggest any Android user give it a try. If you use an iPhone, I would still recommend an Android Wear watch over an Apple one. However, you will need an Android Wear 2.0 watch and in that case, the $150 Huawei Watch looks to be the best bang for the buck.