Abacus Smart Watch 2006
Last year, Microsoft spent a lot of money launching its MSN Direct wireless service, which broadcasts to a line of first-generation smart watches from Fossil, Suunto, and Swatch. The watches employed Microsoft's Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT), and while they got a lot press and offered some intriguing features, they didn't do well in the marketplace. Part of the problem was they were big and a clunky-looking (read: ultrageeky). Also, at launch, you had to pay an additional $60 a year for the MSN Direct service, which isn't all that much--but when you already have a cell phone and a host of other bills to pay, who needs another expense? (The plan has since been changed to include the first year of service gratis, and $40 per year after that.)
For round two of SPOT--call it version 2006--Microsoft and Fossil have more quietly released a new line of $179 smart watches that addresses some of the first-generation models' shortcomings. The line is simply called Abacus Smart Watch 2006, and for our review, we tested the model with the canvas-style green watchband. However, several other models are available, including ones that offer leather and, for the first time, metal bands.
For starters, Abacus Smart Watch 2006 is 2mm thinner than the slimmest first-generation smart watch, putting it in the same size range as your average sports watch. In other words, it's a little big but no longer gargantuan. The watchband itself, which has a receiving antenna built into it (info is delivered via FM radio signals), was stiff at first but loosened up over time, making the watch more comfortable and easier to get on and off than Fossil's earlier smart watches. We tried one of the models with a metal band, and it, too, was fairly comfortable and featured a simple system for taking out links to shorten the band.
This generation of smart watches comes with a free year of MSN Direct Smart Plan service, so you don't have to worry about shelling out any extra dough--at first, anyway. When you subscribe to MSN Direct, you sign up for a variety of channels. You then automatically receive news abstracts, which basically consist of a headline and a summary sentence. Current selections include general news; reports on business, technology, and sports; and up-to-the-minute weather updates. Additionally, Microsoft has added sports scores from ESPN, stock quotes, the word of the day, this day in history, horoscopes, movie listings, quotes of the day, and a traffic channel (in beta as of this writing). By doubling the watch's memory over last year's models, Microsoft has eliminated another big gripe: now you can subscribe to almost all the channels you want without running out of memory.
The usefulness of any of the information delivered to the watch is debatable, especially as cell phones offer easier and quicker access to the Internet. But we continue to like how you can customize the watch face. And with the increased memory, these 2006 models allow you to upload just about as many watch faces as you want (six are preloaded and several other can be downloaded from the Watch Face channel). If you're a Microsoft Outlook user, we recommend paying the extra $20 to subscribe to Smart Plan Plus, which sets up your watch to receive two days' worth of Outlook Calendar appointments and one-way text messages via MSN Messenger.