There’s a point where you wonder where ubiquitous computing is really heading, and whether wearable devices like smartwatches are really what’s going to take us. Screens on our glasses? Vibrating magnets on every limb?
The dream of a “smart” wristwatch has been kicking around since the days of the Microsoft SPOT and Fossil Palm watches. And even further back than that: take Dick Tracy and “Get Smart,” and the dream of a radio on your wrist. The Martian Passport Watch is that type of device; it taps right into that retro-future fantasy, and it isn’t ashamed to flaunt it.
The Martian Passport doesn't have a headphone jack or store music like an iPod Nano with a wristband. It doesn’t have a touch screen. It doesn’t measure your footsteps or heart rate, or give you health advice like any number of watches like the Nike FuelBand.
The Martian Passport has an analog watch-face that looks like it escaped from a spy movie in the 1960s. However, it also has a one-line OLED display at the bottom, too, and a multicolor LED notification light, but those stay nearly invisible. There's also a microphone and speaker crammed in there, along with real, old-fashioned physical buttons on the sides. What does it do? The Martian screens phone calls and messages. It has Bluetooth and a Micro-USB port. It makes calls. It connects with Siri or Android Voice. It's your wearable microphone for any voice services. It’s the modern-day two-way radio wristwatch that comic-book-reading kids always dreamed of.
But does that childhood dream make sense in a real 21st-century adult life?
The look: Paging Secret Agent 1962
I wore an iPod Nano on my wrist for over a year, and I did it because I loved the idea of wearable watch-tech. Its limited uses -- music and radio playback -- were outweighed by the style it imparted. Watches are fashion statements. So are glasses. I know that. I can tell time on my phone. The Martian Passport knows that, too.
The Kickstarter-assisted Martian comes in three different designs, but the one we got the opportunity to test is the Passport model. It comes in both black and white, and with various wristbands in silicone and leather. Martian makes two other models: the circular Victory and the candy-colored G2G. The G2G costs $249, but the Victory and Passport are both $299.
The Passport has a stainless-steel case and clasp, and an antiscratch glass crystal face, with a gray plastic resin plate on the back. It’s thick, but looks legitimately stylish. In person, it feels and looks even better than photos suggest. The attention to quality shows, and it impressed me, even though I thought the watch-fetishist in me would be disappointed. It matches up well against a Fossil-type aesthetic.
The Passport felt comfortable on my somewhat thick wrist; the silicone band was soft and snug. The quartz analog watch has no second hand, but it’s easy to read. The big right-hand knob handles the time-setting duties.
Two buttons on the left, however, are for the higher-tech stuff. The top button initiates Bluetooth pairing and answers/ends calls or starts voice-activated services.
If no one was paying attention, the Martian Passport wouldn’t stand out as a “smartwatch.” And in that sense, it’s the most successfully designed smartwatch I’ve ever seen.
How it works: Bluetooth and patience
Bluetooth 4.0 is the Martian’s magic glue. Pairing to a phone is an easy enough affair (hold top button down, wait for blue light, pair away). Continuously staying connected via Bluetooth 4.0 over the course of a week or so didn't wear down my iPhone 5’s battery on a daily basis as much as I expected. But, keep in mind that not every has Bluetooth 4.0; for example, anything earlier than the iPhone 4S lacks it, and that could mean a bigger battery drain.
The Martian works with Android phones supporting Voice Command, the iPad 2 and later, iPod Touch fourth-gen and later, and iPhone 3GS and later. For pre-Siri iOS devices, the Martian taps into voice control.
On iOS, the Dick Tracy magic happens by patching in the services of Siri. On Android, it works similarly with Android’s voice activation. You can use Siri hands-free on iOS by using a headset or other Bluetooth device, but it does feel cooler, and more magical, using an old-school push-button watch. It wows onlookers. But the problem, at least when it comes to Siri, is that Siri isn’t always meant for totally eyes-free use. Many search results and services end up being shown on the iPhone display. Asking for the weather, for instance, won’t always get Siri to speak the temperature out loud.
When you connect by pressing the Martian’s top button, you’re really just starting up Siri. But, on a phone, it feels more like the futuristic virtual assistant of rocket-age fever dreams. But you have to love voice. Voice is your only real tool of interaction.
I found voice activation via Siri to be most useful for setting a quick phone alarm, starting a phone call by looking up a contact, asking for the weather, checking on appointments, finding a local pizza place to call. Your imagination may turn up other uses.
You won’t want to converse for too long; it could get tedious, between Siri’s conversational quirks, the position of the noise-canceling microphone, and the sometimes hard-to-hear volume level on the Passport’s integrated speaker -- not to mention the odds that you’ll annoy someone nearby by talking out loud to your watch. Brevity is key.
On Android, the Martian Alerts app that's currently available allows for a few more tricks: it can adjust vibration strength, patch in notifications from nearly any notification-ready app on your phone, and -- most impressively -- push local time and weather information so that it comes up on the OLED screen with the push of a button. These features will hit iOS when the app arrives in the App Store. You can pipe in social media alerts, e-mails, weather updates, and more, but these will start flooding your wrist pretty fast if you don’t filter your options.
It's not all a walk in the park, though. The app requires multiple pairings, both via Bluetooth and in the app itself. Notifications require additional settings to be enabled in Android outside of the Martian app; it doesn't happen automatically. You'd better know your submenus. And even when they do work, most apps' notifications aren't spelled out: "4 new emails" is what you'll see, instead of the e-mails themselves, or an alert that says "Facebook Message" that you can't open up from the phone.
The OLED digital banner below the analog watch-face is only large enough for a modest line of text, and the watch will only transmit the first 40 characters of texts anyway. Incoming caller IDs and texts show up here and scroll across the display.
Out and about
I used the Martian in my car while driving, on a train, while walking to the train in Montclair, N.J., while feeding a 2-week-old baby, and while listening to other headphones. I found it worked, most of the time, like a high-end pager on my wrist. The voice control held up, even though I often felt ridiculous talking into my watch.
In a car, the Martian can be surprisingly useful for patching in Siri-spoken turn-by-turn directions in case your car doesn’t have Bluetooth, but for making calls it got noisy -- I became so focused on hand positioning that it began to feel dangerous. The spoken turn-by-turn was useful when going with my father-in-law to take my son to a nearby science museum, and I realized his car couldn't patch in via Bluetooth to get directions. (You could also just pump up your speakerphone volume instead.)
When I called my wife, I began getting the inevitable “are you talking on your watch again?” Several people I called found speakerphone quality more fickle on the Martian than using speakerphone on my iPhone 5. I’d sheepishly switch back to a normal phone call as soon as I could.
Using the watch for Siri comes in handy for quick contact lookups, alarms, location search, and appointment recall. Again, if you have the patience.
The Martian can't operate on a very long leash from your smartphone: about 10 feet. The moment I went more than a room away, I'd feel a buzzing on my wrist and look down to see that the watch had disconnected.
This also brings up an oddity when dealing with wearing the Martian: when it reconnects again, the watch defaults to being the main audio source for receiving calls. If your phone rings in your pocket and you pick up, the speakerphone on the watch will kick in. You can always select your source on your Android/iPhone and make the phone the primary again, but I found it disorienting when, say, a doctor called back about how my sick son was doing on his medication and I realized he was speaking from my wrist while I was talking into my phone.
Other functions: Gesture, music playback, remote camera control
The Martian Passport also has a magnetometer and three-axis accelerometer, but these features aren’t currently used much, if at all. A “gesture” mode currently supports the ability to turn away a phone call by raising your arm and turning your wrist. Or, you could simply ignore a phone call. I chose the latter. A “camera mode” turns the watch’s top button into a clever remote trigger for the Camera app, but operating the shutter means, ideally, you need to be holding your camera on some tripod, because you’ll need your other hand to trigger the watch button. A “leash” mode lets you know when you’ve fallen out of range with your phone. “Find phone” triggers a tone on your phone if it’s in range, but only via the Martian app.
Weirdly, the Martian can pump in your phone's music via A2DP and its little speaker, should you so desire. It can also be your Siri or voice-control link for music playback, and yes, it does work with both wired and Bluetooth headphones, but ask yourself this: why wouldn't you just use the in-line microphone on your headphones, assuming they have one?
Martian’s instruction manual suggests other future updates and features, and updatable software via the USB cable. Theoretically, motion could be used. I’m not sure how.
Conclusion: Smart, but not smart enough
Suddenly, smartwatches are arriving to make good on promises seen last year and at shows like CES. The Martian Passport does theoretically work, and it’s a cool-looking watch to the casual eye. At $299, though, it’s much pricier than offerings like the Pebble, or even a 2011 iPod Nano and a wristband.
Watch enthusiasts may be used to paying that type of money. Hey, even if you never use the smart Bluetooth features of the Passport, the watch itself works well enough. You could use the Passport as a watch alone, something that’s not always easy on other smartwatches. But you’re paying a price to do so.
The call-screening and vibration-alert tech is the most useful part of the Martian, which really amounts to a next-gen wrist-mounted pager-watch. I’d love to see that tech across a greater variety of watches and at a lower cost.
But let's face it: the speakerphone part of the Martian has limited use. You won’t be in many places where a quiet speakerphone conversation with your wrist makes more sense than simply taking out your phone. The lack of a headphone jack limits the practicality.
What the Martian Passport really amounts to right now is a novelty, with moments of genius. It’s clever, it looks really cool, and it definitely shows how style pays off in a smartwatch design. At times, the Siri-patched voice functions are really fun to use. Other times, not so much. I don't always want to use my voice to interact with my phone. The next time around, this smartwatch just needs to be a little smarter. As a true smartphone wearable accessory, the Passport feels too voice-obsessed and speakerphone-reliant in a touch-and-see world. But its hands-free promise is the beginning of something interesting. The Martian is a smart accessory that doesn't need to be seen to be used.
This isn't the last smartwatch we'll see this year -- not by a long shot. The competition for your wrist and your wallet will be intense. But for smartwatches to be something people will actually want to buy as opposed to maybe read about, they have to work better than the Martian -- but, I hope, look just as cool.