BARCELONA -- HTC doesn't have a smartwatch, but it now has a smart fitness band.
It's a seriously crowded space, but that's not stopping HTC. As part of this year's phase-change splash into connected products, HTC is debuting a band developed in partnership with Under Armour and targeted at serious athletes.
Called the HTC Grip, it'll be a US-only product arriving this spring for $199.
I got a chance to spend some time with an early prototype in Barcelona, and here were my early impressions.
Design and feel: Sporty but stiff
At first glance, the HTC Grip looks like a future-forward. It's got a similar type of ruggedized rubbery feel in a stiff band design: like the older Fuelband, it comes in three different sizes and clasps onto the wrist, which was pretty tough to do on the pre-production model I tried. There's one launch color: black on top, textured lime green underneath.
There are two extra spacers in the box for sizing, but the stiff feel could turn some people off: the thickish bangle-type design is, for better or worse, like Nike Fuelband. To recharge, an included USB dongle snaps into the band's clasp when opened.
What it aims to do
The Grip will measure running, exercise, sleep, and estimate calorie burn, and has onboard GPS to measure runs without a watch, much like the, and other recent fitness watches. But, the HTC Grip is skipping onboard heart rate tracking, opting for Bluetooth pairing with external chest-worn heart rate monitors instead.
It's also enabled to receive lots of messages when paired with a phone: like many current smart fitness bands, will get calendar notifications, incoming calls, messages and other data from your phone. It connects with both iOS and Android. (Or, you can turn those notifications off.)
A touch display
To navigate, you swipe through a touch-enabled curved monochrome OLED display that's reminiscent of LG's never-released Lifeband Touch last year. Tapping a small capacitive circle activates the display, which you'll have to keep doing if you want to check progress.
There are a fair number of sub-menus and even some mini-apps on the Grip, from what I could see navigation will end up ranging from challenging to annoying. With no physical buttons, scrolling left and right, up, down and tapping, while all are responsive, might not be so great when sweaty. The Grip will be capable of responding to messages with canned quick responses, but I'm not sure I'd have the patience.
GPS: More valuable than built-in heart rate?
Having GPS on the Grip could be big for runners, and both HTC and Under Armour are banking on that. The Grip will only get 5 hours of battery life with GPS enabled -- standard for most GPS fitness watches. The worst part is that even with GPS off, the Grip is estimated to last just two and a half days on a charge. I had no way of testing that estimate, but it's well short of the seven-day goal of many fitness bands.
Even though it looks like a Fuelband, the ambitions of the HTC Grip -- and its price -- are closer to the Microsoft Band. And its functions, in many ways, remind me of Fitbit's latest Surge GPS watch, minus heart rate. Microsoft's Band is richer in features, but difficult to use. Fitbit's Surge has all-day heart-rate tracking, but a bulky design. Will the Grip be better?
At least it has a popular app to sync with: Under Armour Record, which has over 100 million active users already and has integrated support for MyFitnessPal, which Under Armour acquired recently. The HTC Grip seems like a clear attempt to compete with Nike and Adidas in smart wearables, but the timing, in mid-2015, seems odd. Can this be exciting for real athletes, or anyone else, in a world of sexier watches and cheaper fitness bands? We'll see, but before testing one for a week or so there's just no easy way to know. It makes me wonder whether HTC Grip would have been a better story in 2013 than 2015, and whether this band can succeed in such a crowded market.