Timex Ironman One GPS+ is a smartwatch without a smartphone

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/ Updated: September 18, 2014 2:00 PM PDT

Go for a run. Listen to music. Track your location. Get messages. Don't bring your phone. That's the elevator pitch for the Timex Ironman One GPS+, a standalone smartwatch that doesn't need a phone to connect to: it gets its own cellular signal, and connects with AT&T's wireless network to receive and send messages.

Sound too good to be true? Well, if you're a fitness nut who hates running with a phone, this might be your dream device. It's a product that, while novel, has its own quirks to consider: a high price ($399 in North America -- that converts to about £245 or AU$445, but pricing and availability for other regions have not yet been announced), and necessary cellular data service from AT&T among them. But it could be an indicator that future smartwatches are going to try to stand on their own, too.

A rugged take on the smartwatch

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James Martin/CNET
The Timex Ironman One GPS+ looks like it fell out of someone's early-2000s technology time capsule: an ugly plastic design and boxy display give it a weird, speciality-device look. But, that's really what the Ironman One is meant to be -- a rugged, durable watch for on-the-go fitness and connectivity, not a sleek fashion watch. Despite its apparent heft, the Ironman One is actually fairly light and rather comfortable. The old-school "one size fits all" strap should accommodate most arms, but this is a fairly thick device, and might look comical on daintier wrists.

In a lot of ways, this Timex watch seems like the Adidas MiCoach Smart Run that debuted last year, minus the onboard heart-rate tracker, meshed with the Qualcomm Toq. Except, this watch can also get cellular data. If you're not completely immersed in the smartwatch world, just consider this a type of super-smart runner's watch.

Again, this is also a smartwatch without a smartphone, and that built-in cellular connectivity is the chief advantage that sets it apart from other phone-tethered smartwatches out there already. That means you can get messages and respond to them via a pop-up onscreen keyboard. While those missives are treated as an instant-messaging sort of experience, you'll actually be communicating through email, care of an email address assigned to the watch. You'll want to keep conversations brief, as hunting and pecking at letters on the 1.5-inch display isn't an optimal experience. Fortunately, you can also configure and send canned messages, letting people know you're out for a run or simply running late with the press of a button.

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Nate Ralph/CNET

More interesting is that the watch can send alert messages in case you're hurt or need help. Certain contacts can also be preloaded as "angels," or emergency contacts that'll receive a distress message and your exact location when you press an option on the watch's touchscreen.

You can also of course share your location with friends in less dire circumstances. The watch can track speed, distance, and pace and pair with popular fitness apps Runkeeper, Strava, and MapMyFitness. It's also capable of Bluetooth connectivity, so you can connect to an external heart-rate monitor band worn around your chest -- you can order your Ironman watch bundled with a monitor for $450.

AT&T will include a year of free data service with the Ironman watch for US and Canadian customers, but beyond that it'll cost $40 a year to stay connected. An AT&T representative told us that there won't be a data cap on that connectivity, but as there are no apps to install or even a microphone for voice control or messaging, you'll be limited by the watch's simple functionality. The watch has HSPA connectivity and uses a cloud-delivery service powered by Synchronoss.

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James Martin/CNET

The watch is also water-resistant up to 50 meters, which you'd expect from an outdoor sports watch. And the 4GB of onboard storage can be filled with music for offline playback via Bluetooth headphones. In that sense, it's a lot like Samsung's batch of Gear 2 smartwatches.

Mirasol display: Perfect for outdoors

Remember the Qualcomm Toq? The Qualcomm-manufactured smartwatch, with its daylight-friendly color Mirasol display, was more of a concept device to show off how that bright e-ink display would be perfect on a wearable. It actually looks better in direct sunlight, much like an e-ink e-reader. It's backlit at night on the Ironman watch with Indiglo.

Oh, and it's a touch display, too, unlike the Pebble Watch, which uses a reflective LCD and side buttons. The Mirasol touchscreen's responsiveness on the Toq was a little sluggish, more like what you'd get on a Kindle Paperwhite than an Android Wear watch. The experience is about the same here. It is by no means onerous, and I slid about menus and the like with ease, but some experiences -- namely, text input -- felt a bit slow. The four buttons (two on each side) will help you quickly navigate through the menus and jump back to the most important screens quickly.

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James Martin/CNET

This should be one of the most sunlight-friendly watches next to the Pebble, but that doesn't necessarily mean stellar battery life. With GPS and cellular turned on, the watch lasts an estimated 8 hours; if you're also playing music, you can expect about 4 hours of battery life. The watch will last approximately three days if you're just using the cellular radio, but that'll dip if you're sending and receiving a lot of messages. It charges by way of a clip that snaps onto the side, sending power through contacts on the watch's underside.

The Timex Ironman One GPS+ can be preordered now, but it won't be available until later this fall. By then other alternative types of fitness smartwatches should be around in full force. How many of them will also be smartphone-free isn't clear, but my bet would be that this won't be the only one. This could end up being the best smartwatch for survivalists and lumberjacks though...provided there's a battery charger nearby.

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Where to Buy

Timex Ironman One GPS+ (gray)

Part Number: TW5K89000F5

MSRP: $399.00

See manufacturer website for availability.