Will 2013 be the year of the smartwatch?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon highlights some new devices in the smartwatch category and discusses why this may finally be the year the gadgets take off.

Remember that hard-hitting, fast-shooting, comic strip police detective Dick Tracy, who wore the wrist watch with a two-way radio? Now you can be like Dick Tracy too with your own smartwatch that lets you answer phone calls and keep track of how far you've walked.

OK, I'll admit I am far too young to remember when Dick Tracy sported his now iconic radio wristwatch in the 1940s comic strip. But for years, this idea of a watch doing more than telling time has seemed like a very cool idea that has found its way into other famous characters and their stories -- think James Bond and Inspector Gadget.

These "smartwatches" have been on the market for consumers for more than a decade. But they've never really taken off in any big way. But with a slew of new devices shown off this year at the Consumer Electronics Show, plus rumors that Apple may jump into the market, is 2013 finally the year of the smartwatch? In this Ask Maggie, I explore this question and look at some of the newest and hottest devices shown off at CES.

I also offer some advice about whether to ditch Android for iOS to ensure you get the latest software updates for your smartphone.

The smartwatch

Dear Maggie,
I'm an avid reader of Ask Maggie. And I've seen you answer a wide variety of topics from countless other avid readers who are in need of insightful opinions. I'm next on that list. I've been in the market for a smartwatch. Yes, you read that correctly: a smartwatch, not a smartphone, tablet, or smart TV, but a watch.

So far I haven't seen anything that really knocks my socks off. I know many companies have attempted to make devices in this category, but no one has really been successful. My question for you, Maggie is, in your opinion, what do you feel is the best smartwatch on the market? And are there any that a middle class customer can really afford? I know some big tech companies have tried to sell smartwatches in the past. But what will it take to finally make this product category mainstream? Your feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks,
Monty Python

Dear Monty Python,
You asked this question at just the right time. Wearable technology is in . And it was all the rage this week at the Consumer Electronics Show. And luckily for you, price points have also come down. Of course, these watches aren't as inexpensive as a Swatch. But the price tags aren't as hefty as a Rolex either.

It's difficult to pick just one product and say that it's the "best" smartwatch on the market, because smartwatches often aren't just watches. These devices do a lot more than just tell time.

This means that picking the one that is best for you requires you to figure out what additional features and functionality you want. For instance, do you want a music player on your wrist? Or maybe you want a device that will also help you stay fit and healthy, tracking your workouts and even how well you sleep. Perhaps you're looking for something that's an extension of your phone that will allow you to answer calls on the go. There are different devices focused on these different areas.

What's out there?

Cookoo Watch

The COOKOO smartwatches COOKOO
The Cookoo watch is one of the more basic smartwatches. It has a digital face of an analog watch and looks a lot like a real watch. But compared with some of the other smartwatches on the market it's pretty limited in functionality. Telling time is the most important feature. And it syncs with your iOS devices (iPhone or iPad) to provide updates. You can also check into some social-networking sites like Facebook. The device will soon work with Google Android devices. It costs $130. It supposedly has a long-lasting disposable battery that's good for a year. And it's waterproof for up to 50 meters.

I'm Watch

I'm Watch CNET
From a design perspective, the I'm Watch smartwatch is among the coolest, with a touch screen that allows users to drag, swipe, or pinch their way through the interface. It syncs with Apple iPhones and Google Android smartphones. The device acts as an extension of your smartphone, allowing you to answer calls by hitting a button on your watch. You can also receive text messages, emails, and notifications. In addition, it allows you to view your calendar, pictures, weather apps, as well as listen to music from your wrist. It has a 1.55-inch, 240x240 color display, and comes with 4GB of built-in storage. The tiny gadget uses a 450MHz Atom 9 processor and comes with 128MB of RAM. All this technology and swanky design come at a price. The I'm Watch starts at $349. The device was first shown off at CES last year.

Martian

Martian Watch CNET/Brian Bennett
If you've always dreamed of having a Dick Tracy watch so you could talk directly into your wrist, then look no further than the Martian smartwatch. The company claims on its Web site that it has "taken the 'SmartWatch' to the next level by adding hands-free voice communication. Use your Martian Watch to talk, listen, initiate voice commands, and be notified of incoming calls and texts, all without your phone leaving your pocket, purse or backpack!"

This is the only smartwatch that I have seen that actually allows you to make phone calls. It uses Bluetooth to connect to either an iPhone or Android phone. If you have an iPhone 5 or iPhone 4S, it also allows you to initiate Siri voice commands and listen to Siri replies through the watch. You can access the integrated voice controls in iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS.

The watch sports a traditional analog face, and it has a tiny screen at the bottom of the device where you can see who is calling your phone. It also gives you a 40-character preview of text messages sent to your smartphone. Like some other devices in this category, the Martian doesn't come cheap. There are currently three styles of the watch available ranging in prices from $249 to $299. The Martian Watch was a finalist for CNET's Best of Show at this year's CES .

Basis Science

Basis Technology watch Basis Technology
Basis Science is one of several companies offering devices that are geared to helping you stay fit via a wearable smartwatch. Similar to FitBit and Nike+ Fuel Band, the Basis Science device tracks your workouts and activity and measures a wide range of biometric data in real time. Sensors measure things like heart rate, skin temperature, and your sleep patterns. And the device is also able to measure how active you've been as well as how much you sweat during a workout.

The idea is that people can use this information to improve their lives by changing behaviors and living a healthier lifestyle. Currently, the device does not sync directly to an Android or iOS app. But the company's executives say that's in the works. Currently, the data can be viewed and manipulated via a Web interface. The Basis fitness gadget sells for $199.

As mentioned earlier, there are tons of wearable fitness devices that are not "smartwatches" per se. Their primary use isn't to be a watch, but because these devices are typically worn on the wrist and keep time as well as keep track of your activity and fitness levels, they can be used as watches.

The Basis Band was also a finalist for CNET's Best of CES in the category of wearable technology .

Pebble

The Pebble watch connects with the iPhone and Android to deliver email, text messages, and calendar alerts, among other things. Pebble Technology
If you're looking for an all-around smartwatch that can do almost everything, from running fitness apps to connecting to Facebook, then I'd go with the Pebble smartwatch. This Kickstarter-funded startup has raised more than $10 million, and it officially kicked off its new product at CES.

The company says on its Web site that "apps bring Pebble to life." The device is "infinitely customizable." This means you can download everything different watch faces to Internet-connected apps that will allow you to use your smartwatch as a fitness tracker, accessing GPS on your smartphone to display speed, distance, and pace data. You can also use the music control app to play, pause, or skip tracks on your phone.

This new smartwatch has a 1.26-inch screen that uses e-paper technology so that it can be viewed even in bright sunlight. The device is water resistant, and it's battery should last a week on one charge.

Like other devices in its category, it uses Bluetooth to communicate with your iPhone or Android smartphone. And it allows you to check text messages, email, and all kinds of social-networking apps such as Facebook and Twitter.

The Pebble watch will begin shipping to Kickstarter backers on January 23. After that, it will be available to the public. And it will only cost $150. It comes in several colors, including red, white, black, orange, and gray. And it also uses a standard watch strap, so that you can swap the style and color that you like best.

Will this category ever take off?

The list I just gave you is just a sampling of what's available in this category. There are tons of other devices out there that offer similar functionality. Even though such devices have been around for some time, this category of product has not really hit the mainstream, as you point out in your question. And to some extent, I think the smartwatch is destined to always be a bit of a niche product category.

Why? Since the proliferation of cell phones, watches have stopped being a necessity. And for years they've been more fashion than function. As my good friend and CNET colleague Scott Stein wrote in a piece about turning his nano into a smartwatch, "In this day and age, watches are a novelty anyway."

That said, I think this could finally be the year that the smartwatch comes of age. In addition to all the new devices showcased at CES and the $10 million funding Pebble mustered on Kickstarter, there are rumors that Apple may launch its own smartwatch dubbed the iWatch. Business Insider reported in late December that Apple has partnered with Intel to develop an iOS watch. Supply chain sources reportedly told Chinese blog site Tech163.com that the watch would be Bluetooth-enabled and sport a 1.5-inch OLED screen. The reports said that the new iWatch could debut as early as the first half of 2013.

Right now, the possibility of an iWatch is still in the rumor stage. But this is a product category that Apple could easily move into and dominate. Apple fans have already been turning their older versions of the popular iPod Nano into watches . Accessory makers made bands so that users could put the small, square device on their wrists.

The Nano could play music, display photos, and keep track of fitness history. Apple bumped up the size of the 2012 Nano, so newer versions of the Nano can no longer serve as a watch. But there are plenty of people who have used these bands to turn their older Nanos into watches, including CNET's own Scott Stein. While Stein said he was impressed with how cool the Nano looked on his wrist and how easy it was to use as a watch, he said the fact that the device was not water resistant and had open ports could be problematic when used on a regular basis as a watch.

Still, it seems like Apple could easily adapt the technology and design of the Nano into a more ruggedized iWatch. If that happens, you can bet that the category will take off.

Best bang for the buck: iPhone or Android?

Dear Maggie,
I am a Verizon customer currently using an HTC Thunderbolt stuck in the Gingerbread world. I am eligible for an upgrade 1/13/13, but I am torn on what to do. I really like the Android OS, but I've grown a bit peeved about how fragmented software on Android devices are, to the point where I think my money is more well spent over the life of my two-year contract with Apple since iPhone devices typically receive software updates over multiple generations of devices in a timely fashion. Do you have any advice that can help me feel more confident before locking myself into another two-year contract?

Thanks,
Brandon

Dear Brandon,
You touch on one of the biggest problems with the Google Android ecosystem. On the one hand, I applaud Google and the open-source community for rapidly innovating on the Android software. And it's terrific that manufacturers are cranking out new models of devices in what seems to be a faster and faster pace.

But that also means that a device you buy today with the latest and greatest software is likely to be outdated within six months. And by the end of your two-year contract with your carrier, your old Android device is really looking ancient.

Part of the problem is the fact that device manufacturers layer their own software onto Android devices, so when new releases of Android come out, they must be tested and tweaked to work on that specific device. The other problem is that some carriers also have "rigorous" testing procedures, so even some Android devices which are already getting an upgrade on a different carrier or in a different country, may not get the update here in the U.S. Unfortunately, for you, Verizon is notoriously slow in being able to upgrade its Android devices.

So what should you do? The way I see it, you have three main options.

  1. You can buy one of the latest and greatest Android smartphones and hope that it gets at least the next update to Android. I'm thinking of a device like the Galaxy S3 from Samsung. It's true that the company hasn't been particularly fast about keeping up with upgrades. But the Galaxy S family of devices is the hottest Android product on the market, so it's likely to be slated for updates sooner than others.
  2. A better option for you if you want to stick with Android and want to make sure you have the latest and greatest software is to simply get a Google Nexus device. These smartphones do not come with the added software from the device manufacturers. They are considered "pure" Google phones. While they're supposed to offer the latest and greatest in terms of technology, sometimes they fall short of other devices on the market. For example, the LG Nexus 4, which is the latest Nexus device, doesn't support 4G LTE network speeds. While I believe that software is important, I also think it's key to consider what you have to give up to ensure you have the next software update.
  3. The last option for you is to get an iPhone, as you have suggested. This is perfectly fine to do. But beware that switching between device ecosystems can be tricky. So you may want to consider all the ins and outs of re-downloading and repurchasing apps that you used on your Android phone onto a new iPhone. Depending on what apps you use, and whether they're available for free on iOS devices, you may have to spend a lot of extra money. And even though iPhones have a more consistent software update schedule, just keep in mind that many people would say that Android's software is a bit more advanced, offering new features and functionalities months, if not years, before they're introduced in iOS.

The bottom line is that the mobile market is moving so fast that it's easy to feel like your device is outdated the day after you buy it. The truth is that any new smartphone you buy today is way more advanced than the one you already own. So use the technology available to you today, and stop worrying about the technology you might miss in the future. For more details on comparing the LG Nexus 4 with the Samsung Galaxy 3, check out this previous Ask Maggie .

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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