Strata Stealth runs long, not smoothly (hands-on)

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April 1, 2013 4:34 PM PDT / Updated: April 2, 2013 9:56 AM PDT
Say hello to the Strata Stealth smartwatch from MetaWatch Sarah Tew/CNET

Like many smartwatch products, the MetaWatch Strata Stealth promises to usher in a new era of hands-free convenience. Designed to link tightly to iPhones and Android smartphones, this $179 gadget runs tailor-made mini apps to keep you always in the loop. As with other devices in the nascent smart timepiece category, though, including the Sony Smartwatch , Pebble, and I’m Watch , the MetaWatch operates like a work in progress. While the MetaWatch could have a bright future, the device’s current glitches and software bugs will make you wish you bought a more stable piece of hardware such as the Martian Passport .

Design Despite its unpretentious all-black chassis and deliberate attempt not to attract attention, the MetaWatch Strata Stealth is hard to ignore. That’s because the square-shaped Stealth looks anything but your average analog or even digital timepiece. Wrapped in a thick casing of polycarbonate, 0.63 inch to be exact, the watch is bulky. That’s especially true compared with the svelteness of the Sony Smartwatch (0.3 inch thick) which is half the Stealth’s thickness.

This watch is on the thick side. Sarah Tew/CNET

At a full 1.92 ounces, the MetaWatch Strata Stealth also weighs almost as much as two Sony Smartwatches (0.55 ounce). That said, I didn’t find the Stealth’s size or heft distracting or uncomfortable. One bonus to the Stealth’s design is that it's water resistant to a pressure of 5 atmospheres, so showering and swimming with the device isn’t problem, but scuba diving will be.

Charge the Stealth using its clip-style charger.

Akin to the Pebble and older Motorola MotorActv, the Strata Stealth uses a 1.3-inch screen (96x96 pixels) built for easy reading outdoors and in strong sunlight. MetaWatch describes the device’s display technology further, calling it a reflective mirror screen (Polymer Network LCD). Unfortunately, while I could view the watch even in direct sunshine, its extremely reflective surface created copious amounts of glare. In fact, if a bright light source sat directly behind me, I ran the risk of beaming blinding reflections straight in my eyes. That’s not a trait I look for in a watch face.

The display can be seen in sunlight but is prone to glare. Sarah Tew/CNET

You’ll find plenty of physical buttons on the Strata Stealth, three on each side for a total of six. Pressing the top left activates a tiny light that sits above the screen, while hitting the middle left launches a music player app. The bottom-left key displays watch status info such as Bluetooth, phone connection, battery level, and software version. On the right, the middle button cycles through home screens, and the bottom key activates the device settings menu. Keep in mind the functions of all buttons are contextual and can change depending on which menu screen the watch is displaying.

Features Smartwatch makers like to talk up how incredibly convenient it is to port alerts from phones to wrist-strapped devices. MetaWatch is also a believer in this brave new world. The Strata Stealth is compatible with iPhones and Android handsets via companion apps and runs tiny widgets locally to view weather, calendar, and Gmail information in real time. You can even have one show the current battery level of your handset. Don’t confuse these widgets with phone notifications, which the Strata Stealth can also tackle. Indeed the device is capable of displaying alerts for phone calls, imminent appointments, and SMS text messages as your phone receives them, plus it haptically vibrates in unison to these events.

Opening the MetaWatch application lets you tweak what widgets appear on the watch’s four home screens. Additionally, each watch screen is divided into quadrants that allow you to place a maximum of four widgets per screen. Of course you can opt to see a full-screen clock, or half-screen calendar and weather data.

Tweak what watch widgets appear on the home screens. Sarah Tew/CNET

It’s too bad there’s no full-screen weather or calendar widget, however, since I’d find a more detailed view of this info very useful. Another annoyance is that the Stealth has just one watch face, which is an unforgivable offense for any gadget calling itself a smartwatch. Even the old-school Microsoft SPOT watches and Apple iPod Nano watch conversions flaunted multiple chronometer styles.

Performance If you’re expecting a smooth, pleasant, and trouble-free experience with the MetaWatch Strata Stealth you’re in for a rude awakening. I had a bumpy ride taking this watch for a spin and ran into numerous glitches and unexplained malfunctions along the way. To be clear, however, my Stealth unit arrived running beta software (version 1.4), which wasn’t even compatible with the official MetaWatch Manager app available in the Google Play store at the time. To alleviate the situation, MetaWatch let me use another piece of beta code, a test copy of a yet-to-be-released version of MetaWatch Manager.

With phone and watch running this unreleased software, I was able to successfully link my HTC One (unlocked) and Sony Xperia T test units to the Stealth. It wasn’t easy, though, since watch and phone would often lose connection. The only way I could reliably reconnect was to reboot both phone and watch, which isn’t fun.

Also frustrating was how the weather widget stubbornly displayed the forecast for Dallas, not my local New York City weather info. This happened regardless of whether I changed the watch settings to automatically pick my location or if I set it for New York manually.

The music player app worked pretty well, allowing me to play/pause tracks and alter the volume without touching my handset. The app won’t launch your phone’s music software by itself, so I did have to have it running to control music from the watch.

I’m guessing a big benefit of using a reflective mirror display is increased battery life. MetaWatch claims the Strata Stealth will last for a long five to seven days on a single charge. My time so far with the device reflects this boast; I’ve been able to go about four days in a row (starting at about 70 percent charge) before needing more juice.

Outlook If there ever was a product category ripe for Apple, or even Google, to step in and wrangle into shape, it’s the smartwatch. At best they’re cantankerous gadgets whose great power and flexibility is hobbled by their software quirks. At worst, these gizmos completely succumb to their shortcomings, rendering them unusable, or just plain too frustrating to use. The MetaWatch Strata Stealth falls right in line with its smartwatch brethren, promising a world of advance features but not quite delivering.

That doesn’t mean you should completely count the MetaWatch Strata Stealth out for the count. A MetaWatch community does exist and it has collectively created a much more functional and compelling MetaWatch Manager application for Android than the official app currently available. Even better is the tweaked community MetaWatch app single-handedly created by developer Noah Seidman. It’s graphically slicker, links phone and watch more reliably, and is simply more fun to interact with. If this doesn’t inspire you to believe in the smartwatch cause, nothing short of Apple’s entry will.

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Where to Buy

MetaWatch Strata Stealth

Part Number: STRATASTEALTH

MSRP: $179.00

See manufacturer website for availability.

About The Author

Brian Bennett is senior editor for mobile phones at CNET and reviews a wide range of mobile communication products. These include smartphones and their myriad accessories. He has more than 12 years of experience in technology journalism and has put practically anything fun with a micro chip through its paces at some point.