The haters were wrong: Smartwatches aren't all that dumb

Commentary: Though it won't replace your phone (at least not yet), there's still value in owning a smartwatch.

© Monkey Business Images/Corbis

Has a friend ever given you a negative opinion of a movie, only for you to see it yourself and find that, though your friend had some valid arguments, it really wasn't all that bad? That's been my experience with smartwatches; anticipating the worst, I found that they functioned a lot better than I expected.

Let me start by saying I'm biased. I'm pro-smartwatch, because I'm a lifelong watch-wearer. And yes: even though I sometimes check the time on my phone -- where I can see if I have any incoming messages, too -- reaching for that glass slab will never replace the easy, convenient flick of the wrist. So I'm already more optimistic about smartwatches than many -- though I'm still a bit reticent to spend big bucks on them. Also, aside from being too expensive for my taste, what's been said about them hasn't exactly sold me on the idea.

As a reviewer of mobile devices, I recently got the chance to spend some quality time with the Samsung Galaxy Gear S2 and the Apple Watch. I've been using the Gear S2 for about two months now and the Watch for two weeks.

samsung-gear-s2-espn

Checking quick information, like game scores, is easy with the Samsung Gear S2.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Though I'm not crazy about how big either of them look on my dainty wrist, the added functionality was a delightful surprise. It reduced the time I spent on my phone and changed my relationship with it. My phone was no longer the easiest way to quickly access the information that's most important to me.

Using a smartwatch made utilizing a 5.5-inch phone akin to going inside of your bank and asking a teller to withdraw money instead of using the ATM out front; you can accomplish the same thing (and more) with one, it's just not as quick as the other.

Smartwatches are a fast way to get the goods. No, you can't play Minecraft or take a selfie, but you can quickly view new texts, see what's on your calendar for the weekend, and check the time of the next Warriors game, all without having to get your phone out. Small conveniences, but conveniences nonetheless.

On a lesser, yet still important note, I also loved changing the watch faces. Swapping it at my whim was like having a closet full of clothes, but for my watch, and every time I switched it up I felt like I was wearing a new timepiece. Aesthetically committing to one watch is a big deal if you plan to wear it for a few years. With a smartwatch, that anxiety is alleviated. (Now if we can continue to get some better wristbands for the ladies, that'd be super.)

apple-event-sept9-2015-apple-watch-3135.jpg

The Apple Watch works with iPhones, making them a popular choice for Apple fans.

James Martin/CNET

Alas, like many reviewers have stated before me, the smartwatch is far from perfect. My biggest gripes were short battery life, limited app selection and lack of texting capabilities.

Some smartwatches can text, but with constraints. Many models, like the ones I tried, offer canned responses that usually worked fine for basic replies, like "yes" and "no", but anything more detailed necessitates the use of a phone. Some do offer keyboards, but it takes a painstaking amount of effort to type out a message. At that point, it's easier to just use the phone.

There aren't a lot of apps available for smartwatches. This makes it less of a distraction -- aside from checking texts/notifications and using the ESPN, calendar and weather apps, it didn't occupy much of my time -- and I like that. If I want to check social media or play a game I can use a tablet, computer or phone. And even when apps do exist, they generally lack the vast array of choice found on iPhones or Android phones. The Apple Watch has a rudimentary music app as well as Uber, but not the Spotify and Lyft apps that I'd prefer

The deal-breaker for me is poor battery life. Instead of changing a battery every few years (like with my analog watch), I had to charge the watches everyday. That's not the end of the world or anything, it's just annoying. As someone who doesn't religiously charge their phone every night, that's just doesn't work with my lifestyle.

And then, of course, there's price. In 2015, the top-of-the-line smartwatches were generally priced at $300 and up. While that may be cheap by "fashionable watch" standards, it's beyond the impulse buy territory for most shoppers.

samsung-gear-s2-vs-apple-watch-moto-360

From left to right: Moto 360, Apple Watch and Samsung Gear S2.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But barely two months into 2016, things are already looking up. Models like the Pebble Time Steel and the new Fitbit Blaze can go for at least six and four days between charges, respectively. And both can be had for just $200.

Still, they're not perfect: both of those models compromise on other features, like design, screen quality, fitness tracking and apps. And that's the thing with smartwatches; most are luxurious compromises, not essential resources for everyday life.

I'm not ready to actually plunk down the cash for one. But they're getting into the "good enough" realm, considering their price tags. And given the pace of innovation, it's safe to say the compromises will be even fewer and further between 6, 12 or 18 months from now.

In the meantime, I'll make do with my analog Swatch.

Featured Video