The watches' interface hasn't changed from that of last year's models. Getting accustomed to it takes a few days, and you can end up toggling through a lot of features if you hit the wrong button, but in all, it's pretty straightforward. Integration with Outlook Calendar was also good. However, sometimes the calendar entries weren't automatically sent to the watch as they're supposed to; occasionally, we had to click the watch icon in the Outlook toolbar to manually "sync" Outlook with the watch. Instant messages are still sluggish, taking several minutes to arrive.
As for MSN Direct, it seems to have improved a bit, but you're still limited to major metropolitan areas around the United States, with some coverage in the 'burbs, but nothing in the boonies. That said, Web setup was fairly simple, and it's easy to instruct the watch to pick up service in another city when you roam outside your local area. For instance, if you travel from New York to Las Vegas, the watch automatically adjusts its time, and you'll start getting local weather and traffic reports.
Battery life has gotten better, too. Instead of having to recharge every three to four days, we were able to go up to six days without juicing up. We also really liked the new charger, which features a magnetic connector that's really easy to hook up to the watch (you can recharge via either the included power adapter or the USB port on your PC). We wish this type of charger were available with more products, though we suspect more companies will take a look at it now that Apple has gone the magnetic route with the power cord in its new notebooks.
In the final analysis, Microsoft and Fossil have made some significant improvements in their next-generation Smart Watches. While there may not be anything drastically new here, such as a color watch face or some irresistible channel, owners of first-generation smart watches will certainly wish they'd waited. To those of you whose interest in the technology was piqued by the onslaught of launch ads but didn't bite, we can only say the Abacus Smart Watch 2006 is an attractively styled watch that has some decent gadget appeal. It may still be a little expensive at $179 ($149 sounds better), but at least you don't have to pay anything extra for the first year of service. Unfortunately, we can't guarantee Microsoft will continue investing in MSN Direct and the SPOT platform forever, especially if sales remain lackluster. But the company has deep pockets, and it seems determined to improve the service in the short term and potentially offer new SPOT-enabled devices in the future.