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We're finally getting the smartwatches we wanted five years ago

The Apple Watch and new devices powered by Qualcomm chips aren’t just smartphones strapped on the wrist anymore.

James Martin/CNET

Qualcomm's Toq smartwatch was so big it dwarfed my wrist. Rectangular and thick, it weighed down my arm and almost restricted my motion. I had to cut the wrist band, which contained the battery in the clasp, to precisely fit my wrist.

It was a watch that only an engineer could love. And I sure wasn't an engineer.

That, in a nutshell, summed up the early days of smartwatches. It was a lot of bulky, rectangular designs that looked more like mini smartphones with bands instead of actual watches. Battery life was abysmal at best, and the devices largely served as step trackers and notification portals. It's no surprise that many consumers struggled to find reasons to actually own them.

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Perhaps no wearable exemplified that more than the Toq, a device introduced in limited quantities in 2013.

The goal for the watch was to show customers what Qualcomm's technology could do and what the "features and characteristics of successful wearable computing [were] going to be," as Rob Chandhok, Qualcomm's president at the time, put it.

My, how far we've come in five years.

The Toq was unveiled on the same day that Samsung showed off its original Galaxy Gear watch. Less than a year later, the first batch of smartwatches running on Google's Android Wear software hit the market.

But everything changed when Apple released its first Apple Watch in April 2015.

While the early companies created the foundation for what a wearable could be, Apple -- as it often does -- took the idea of a smartwatch and made it attractive for the average consumer. It also helped redefine the category, moving it beyond a simple gadget and establishing it firmly in the health and fashion worlds.

Now luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Montblanc are making devices that are watches first, technology second. Apple's partnerships with Hermes and Nike and its health push have moved the Apple Watch beyond just a notifications and fitness tracker, as evidenced by the Apple Watch Series 4's blessing by the US Food and Drug Administration. And others like Samsung have turned their watches into devices that can work even without a companion smartphone nearby.

In short, these are watches that I wouldn't be embarrassed to wear on my wrist.

Turn back time

The smartwatch market of 2013 looks almost nothing like the market of today. That year, companies shipped only 1.4 million smartwatches worldwide, according to researcher IDC. Samsung, with its Tizen software, was the biggest vendor, with 70 percent of the market, followed by Pebble and Android Wear devices.

At the time, they were still the stuff of gadget enthusiasts. Early players like Sony, Samsung and LG approached the device like a smartphone on your wrist, with technology at the forefront. Motorola was an early exception with its round Moto 360 watch, but even it suffered from a bulky body and short battery life.

Fast-forward to 2018. Apple on Wednesday introduced its fourth smartwatch, Qualcomm has partnered with companies like Fossil on fashionable devices, and Samsung again updated its wearable lineup with its new Galaxy Watch.

"2018 makes 2013 devices look quaint," IDC analyst Ramon Llamas said. "We have a lot of watches we wouldn't mind being seen in public with."

Overall, companies this year should ship 43.5 million smartwatches, and nearly half of those will be an Apple Watch, IDC said. Google's rebranded Wear OS -- Qualcomm's key watch software partner -- will trail behind at 12 percent. And smartwatches using the older Android Wear software should total 18 percent of shipments. Samsung's Tizen barely ranks, and Pebble no longer exists.

"Apple Watch is not only the No. 1 smartwatch in the world, it's the No. 1 watch, period," Apple CEO Tim Cook said last week at his company's big product event, which also introduced the iPhone XS, XS Max and XR.

Apple declined to comment further.

A real health tracker

Apple jumped into the wearables market in March 2015 with the release of the Apple Watch. Now on its fourth generation, the device has evolved from a notification and fitness tracker to a robust health device -- something many people expected it to be when it first hit the market.

"All of the things they were rumored to be doing in terms of health happened," Technalysis analyst Bob O'Donnell said. "They're fulfilling the initial vision."

The Apple Watch Series 4, which hits stores Friday, features a redesigned face to put more screen on your wrist. But it's what's under that screen that's the biggest update. Apple incorporated new sensors that can detect falls, one of the major causes of death for the elderly. If there's an accident, the watch can place an emergency call.

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The Apple Watch Series 4 starts at $399 when it hits stores Sept. 21.

James Martin/CNET

And the Apple Watch's new electrocardiogram feature allows wearers to have a heart-rate monitor on their wrists. The company placed an electrode into the back of the device and the digital crown to take the EKG reading. It can be used to detect a serious heart condition called atrial fibrillation (AFib), a fast heart beat that can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. The Apple Watch even has FDA clearance -- something that's rare for a consumer device.

"Now Apple is not only in the hardware business, but it's also in the medical equipment business," IDC's Llamas said.

The device will start at $399 for the Series 4 model with only GPS and $499 for the 4G LTE version. Preorders began Sept. 14, and the watches will be available on Sept. 21.

Fashion forward

Last month at the IFA electronics show, several major brands unveiled new smartwatches that focused on health and wellness functions. On that list was Casio, whose refreshed $549 Pro Trek outdoors-focused watch includes a new "extended mode" that lets the color display last longer for days-long hikes. And Fossil Group's Skagen and Diesel brands launched new watches that both added GPS and heart rate tracking for fitness and outdoor activities.

Earlier in August, Samsung updated its smartwatch line with its new Galaxy Watch, which keeps the older Gear line's distinctive circular bezel control, but offers a few stylistic refinements.

But even as Samsung has rolled out device after device, it's struggled to compete with Apple.

Chipmaker Qualcomm, meanwhile, has pushed the smartwatch market beyond technology companies and into fashion. It has partnered with luxury brands like Fossil Group, Tag Heuer, Movado and Montblanc to create devices that aren't focused solely on specs.

"We're first and foremost making the smartwatch a fashion watch," Pankaj Kedia, Qualcomm senior director and business lead of the smart wearables segment, said last week as he introduced the company's Snapdragon Wear 3100 processor.

The low-power chip will let devices sport always-on watch faces with up-to-date information displayed. New super low-power modes and sports watch-focused enhancements will give the Google WearOS devices more battery life.

Fossil Group, Louis Vuitton and Montblanc will be the first to feature the chips in new Google Wear OS watches. The latter company's device, the Montblanc Summit 2 watch, will hit the market in October. Others will arrive later this year and into 2019.

"Qualcomm has been smart at taking what people initially thought was a niche -- but isn't -- and running with it," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said, referring to the fashion smartwatch market.  

Instead of the bulky Toq of five years ago, the new crop of devices look more like regular watches. They sport sleek, removable bands and premium materials. And they do a heck of a lot more than ping us every time we get a text message.

For all of us who don't want to look like we have phones strapped to our wrists, it's about time. 

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