When Microsoft initially launched MSN Direct several years ago, there were few watches available to take advantage of the service. Years later, not only has the service improved, offering greater range for users and more subscription channels, the selection of watches has expanded as well. At this year's CES, Microsoft announced several new watch partners, including Swatch, but also showed off new designs by Tissot and Suunto.
Suunto, a Finnish manufacturer, refers to its Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT) watches as "wrist-top computers." Its previous model, the, was regarded as one of the best first-generation SPOT watches, and now, the N3i can be seen as the update to it. It sports a slimmer size, an interchangeable leather strap, and of course, the MSN Direct service. But be warned that this pretty watch costs a pretty penny at $299.
While the software on all SPOT watches is essentially the same, the hardware can be decidedly different, depending on which timepiece you choose. Compared to other SPOT watches, the Suunto N3i is quite sporty. This should come as no surprise, seeing that Suunto specializes inwatches. The N3i ships with a leather band that's supercomfortable, and the unit itself is quite thin and lightweight for a SPOT watch. It also rocks a large, scratch-resistant LCD and a five-button navigation system. Unlike the , which has the antenna in its band, the Suunto N3i's antenna is located in the circular ring that encompasses the watch face. The N3i supports changeable watch faces, and this model ships with six default faces and has room for two more downloadable versions.
The N3i ships with a charger that doubles as a USB cable. Compared to the Swatch Paparazzi's, however, the N3i's charger is pretty bulky but less cumbersome than the Fossil's. And thankfully, you can charge the N3i with a computer using just the USB cable. That said, battery life with the N3i was good, and we never lost power. You'll probably have to recharge the battery every four or five days. The N3i is water-resistant up to 330 feet (100 meters), and it boasts all of the features that you'd expect from a somewhat high-end sports watch: a stopwatch, lap and split timers, an interval timer, and programmable alarms. If you crave a more fitness-focused SPOT watch, Suunto also offers the n6HR, complete with a heart-rate monitor, a workout logbook, and downloadable training software.
While the N3i is no doubt a cool piece of hardware, its real selling point is Microsoft's MSN Direct service. However, MSN Direct hasn't necessarily taken off, and that may be in part due to the subscription fees, which will set you back $10 per month or $59 per year. What you get with this subscription is the ability to have your Microsoft Outlook Calendar sent to your watch. Also, others can send you instant messages via MSN Messenger. However, you can only read messages; you can't respond to them. In addition, you have access to 12 channels that offer everything from stock information and sports news to weather updates and horoscopes. If you don't need the Outlook synchronization, Microsoft now offers a Smart Plan for $40 per year that gives you access to just the channels.
We've had some trouble with Fossil watches getting a signal, but the Suunto N3i acquired one quite quickly here in San Francisco and never lost it. Outlook integration was great, as well; you just have to install an applet that "pushes" Outlook Calendar data to the watch. Unfortunately, this rules out any synchronization with Macs. Still, anyone can access the various channels, which provide useful information. We perused the sports and weather channels, and we see how it would be a boon for hard-core movie buffs who want to look up showtimes immediately. The instant-messaging feature also was improved, with messages downloading at a faster pace.
Ultimately, the N3i is a cool gadget for anyone who'd like to access their Outlook Calendar data on the go without carrying a PDA or a smart phone, and having quick access to much of the information that MSN Direct offers is a nice touch. That said, considering that the service costs $10 a month or $59 a year, we're not sure how many consumers are willing to have yet another monthly bill show up in their digital mailbox.