After smartphones come the smartwatches: IT companies — and, perhaps, even some traditional watch companies — are bringing intelligent watches onto the market, and the demand for them is growing. Scroll down for a primer on these groundbreaking devices, including the latest news on the long-rumored Apple smartwatch.
What can smartwatches do?
The smartwatch, which is worn on the wrist like a normal watch, connects with the smartphone in your pocket using Bluetooth and sometimes NFC. From there, the watch receives both important and less important data: On the display, the buyer can check the time, of course, as well as data such as the current weather situation. However, notifications regarding incoming emails can be much more important, for example. The smartwatch can also be used as an additional control unit for some mobile phone functions: Music can be controlled using the watch without the smartphone having to be removed from the pocket, and calls can be received just by raising the arm to the ear.
Small problems that muddy the overall picture
Of course, smartwatches can’t do everything, and the products from the various manufacturers are subject to many limitations. For example, Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, introduced last year, can only be paired with a few available devices, including the Note 3 and Note 10.1. The very small size is also troublesome for the company: An integrated camera can, for example, take 720p videos, but due to the limited storage space, these cannot exceed a maximum length of ten seconds. The watch also loses all of its “smartness” if there is no compatible device nearby; the Galaxy Gear then only displays the time – an expensive affair given the recommended retail price of $299. Samsung has since introduced newer models such as the Gear2 and Gear2 Neo, which offer standalone music players.
Time to charge my watch…
There’s obviously a big problem in terms of the battery life. People who have only had to charge their cell phone in the evenings will have to do the same with their smartwatch in future. The Galaxy Gear battery only lasts for one day, after which the device, which has a 1.6-inch touchscreen, must be recharged. This fact did not go down too well with the South Korean company’s customers. It doesn’t have to be like this though: A smartwatch called Toq from chip manufacturer Qualcomm can last for several days thanks to energy-saving display technology and can also be recharged wirelessly. When compared with the Samsung watch, the slightly smaller display (1.55 inches) must be taken into consideration.
Devices offered by other manufacturers
Samsung and Qualcomm aren’t the only companies with smartwatches on the market. Other companies are also following suit. We will introduce you to some of the most interesting products in the following smartwatch overview. The list will continue to grow in the future as other interesting electronic watches hit the market.
• The Sony SmartWatch 2
This Japanese company introduced the SmartWatch 2 last year; its predecessor has been on the market for some time. This watch is rather compact compared to other devices and is made of aluminum and stainless steel. The 1.6-inch display offers a resolution of 220 x 176 pixels, and the watch can be linked to compatible Android smartphones per Bluetooth or NFC. Depending on usage, the battery can power the watch for 3-4 days on a single charge. Not bad compared to the 24 hours of battery life offered by the Samsung Galaxy Gear. A Sony SmartWatch 3 is also planned.
• The car watch: Nissan’s Nismo
The automobile manufacturer Nissan of all companies has an interesting smartwatch: Dubbed Nismo, the watch “connects the car to the driver”, according to the advertising brochure. For this reason, it mainly displays information that is (more or less) relevant to the car driver: For example, the driver’s current heart rate is shown as well as the average speed, fuel consumption, and other vehicle-related information.
The Nismo must be connected to a smartphone per Bluetooth. The Nissan smartwatch is also somewhat reminiscent of a navigation device in that it warns the driver of traffic jams ahead. Its seven-day battery life and a comparatively stylish design make the Nismo the surprise product of this year’s smartwatch hype.
• The Pebble E-Paper smartwatch
This relatively affordable smartwatch is equipped with e-ink technology, a 144 x 168 pixel display, and a battery that lasts for seven days. What’s special about it: The device can communicate with both Android devices and iPhones. It is compatible with all models running iOS 5 or later. A slight disadvantage is found in its current availability; the Pebble E-Paper smartwatch is currently only offered in the USA. Anyone looking to import the $150 device is likely to find themselves left out in the cold instead of looking at a watch. Customs is not (yet?) allowing this watch to be shipped.
• The rumor mill is in full swing
The mobile phone veteran Nokia can’t be left out of the mix when it comes to communications technology. Rumors persist that the company will introduce some sort of wearable technology this year, possibly something that incorporates the vibrant colors of its Lumia smartphones and most likely would interface with the Windows phone ecosystem. Whether or not the Finnish company will limit itself to devices with the Windows phone remains to be seen.
• A “traditional” Swiss watchmaker weighs in
Last fall, TAG Heuer teamed up with America’s Cup champion Oracle Team U.S.A. to develop the new TAG Heuer Aquaracer 72, which TAG is calling “the first-ever Swiss sports smartwatch dedicated to competitive sailing.” The watch, which is a product of the R&D departments of both TAG Heuer and Oracle, made its debut on the wrists of Oracle Team USA sailors at this year’s 34th America’s Cup, won by Oracle Team USA in thrilling come-from-behind fashion on September 25. It is, TAG says, the first watch designed both for and by a professional sailing team, specifically engineered to provide every crew member access to crucial race condition data in real time. Click here to read more about this invention and the commercialized version that TAG Heuer plans to release.
And what about Apple?
Since the smartwatches began hitting the shelves, the questions on nearly everyone’s lips were “When is Apple getting in the game and what will it come out with?” Answers got closer this week, when Apple was awarded a patent on a “wrist-worn electronic device and methods therefor;” the device is referred to in the document as “iTime.” (Most rumors had the first Apple smartwatch as being called the “iWatch.”) According to a report on Appleinsider.com, the Apple smartwatch will not only be able to connect to other portable devices such as iPhones, iPads, and laptop computers, but will also incorporate sensors and other circuitry into the watch’s straps as well as its case. The so-called “smart wristband” will include a receptacle for a portable media player. The essential idea behind the proposed iTime smartwatch is converting the sixth-generation iPod nano — which is referred to in the patent documents by name — into a wrist-worn device. The intention is to create a “personal wireless environment” in which the watch can exchange information, either automatically or at the user’s request, from watch to iPhone and vice versa. Phone calls, text messages, and social network feeds would be visible on the display, likely a 2.5-inch OLED screen. Additionally, the patent information describes an enhancement that would enable the wearer to use arm and wrist gestures, rather than solely tapping fingers, to control the smartwatch’s functions, i.e., a simple shake of the wrist to answer an incoming call. No launch date has been set, but experts believe a rollout should happen in late 2014 or early 2015.
Big, expensive, and short battery life – who will buy it?
Lots of users asked this question in relevant Internet forums after the first smartwatches were announced. In spite of all the criticism, it should not be forgotten that these and other smartwatches represent the early generations of a totally new type of device. You just have to think back to the first cell phone, which looked like a brick held up against the user’s ear and did not have anything to offer other than the function of making calls – and compare these devices with a current smartphone. While the initial products have some weaknesses, a key one being battery life, we can say with absolute certainty that this will not be the case forever. The tough competition will ensure that smartwatches that are much more practical will appear on the market soon and that these will be more affordable.
Click here for Watch Insider Alexander Linz’s op-ed on the coming of the smartwatch and what it could mean for the traditional Swiss watch industry, and here to see WatchTime editor-in-chief Joe Thompson discuss the devices on the CNBC program “Closing Bell.”
This article was originally published on September 6, 2013 and has been updated with new information and photos.