The Misunderstood Smartwatch

Sunday, 15 March 2015

The Misunderstood Smartwatch

I bought my first smartwatch -- a heavily-discounted Sony LiveView -- in 2011, while I was still in school. Since then, I've been regularly asked why I'd spend so much money on a watch when I already have a smartphone, and, more recently, why I'd choose a Pebble over a prettier Android Wear device. I've come to the conclusion that this is because most people don't understand the best way to gain utility from a smartwatch, and this is only made worse by the actions of the majority of current smartwatch manufacturers.

Many smartwatches are trying to be too much. That's an unusually technologically conservative comment from me, but I feel very strongly that a smartwatch should be a simple extension of one's main device. When I bought the LiveView, I simply wanted to be able to read my text messages from friends during the school day, without risking trouble by getting my phone out in class with every vibration from a new notification. Yes, this was a 'bad' justification, but I'm still using my current smartwatch for essentially the same thing. I receive hundreds of notifications every day; owning a smartwatch allows me to glance at my wrist for two seconds to determine whether or not the notification warrants me unzipping my jacket and taking out my phone to respond. This is a small convenience that, over time, leads to a very significant utility gain.

Most smartwatch manufacturers have opted to go without hardware buttons, and this is a huge mistake. I'm able to control my music, my laptop, and my lights from my watch without having to look at any screens. Having a wrist-mounted remote is another small thing that can make a large difference with daily use. Apple's Digitial Crown is something that's laughed at by many Android fans, but it's one of the redeeming features of the Apple Watch in my opinion. I have no intentions of buying a smartwatch without hardware buttons.

The Pebble does both of the above very well. Its transflective E-paper screen has excellent visibility in all situations. Its four hardware buttons mean I've got a range of 'blind' control over my connected devices. This, combined with the fact that the Pebble is a good 'dumbwatch', is why I remain with it when beautiful smartwatches like the Moto360 and LG G Watch R are available. It's a good 'dumbwatch' because I can keep it on 24/7 - I wear mine to bed and in the shower. The fact that the screen is always-on and the battery lasts a week means that I don't have to worry about my watch becoming a simple bracelet during the day. The Pebble gets it right. A Pebble with a full-colour circular display would be my ideal, but the Pebble Time Steel looks like a good compromise for now.

If you find yourself asking why you need a smartwatch, the answer is that you don't need one, just like you don't need a smartphone. But after you've correctly used one as an extension to your phone, you'll always want a smartwatch.

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