A smartwatch is probably most aptly described by Wikipedia as “a computerized wristwatch with functionality that goes beyond timekeeping”. While the concept has been toyed with since the 70s, it is only in the past few years that it got a huge push. Pebble, one of the most successful Kickstarter projects at the time, got the ball rolling in 2012 with Google and Apple following two years later.
But in 2017 it’s safe (and a bit sad) to say that the smartwatch buzz has died down. Pebble got sold to Fitbit amid financial troubles. Google’s Android Wear watches have largely flopped with some manufacturers walking away from the platform. Apple with all its marketing and retail push won’t reveal it’s Watch sales figures — maybe because they’re not boast-worthy like their other product lines.
Back in 2014, we told you that the time wasn’t ripe to buy a smartwatch. Is buying one today worth it? Having been an avid smartwatch owner and category tracker since my first Pebble in 2013, I still think it is.
1. Notifications Are Useful (Especially Outdoors)
There are weeks where I simply forget to charge my Android-Wear-powered LG G Watch. And I don’t really miss it when I’m at home because I can quickly glance at the phone sitting at the desk. But I do miss the second screen to my smartphone whenever I’m outdoors.
It’s safe to assume that active smartphone users receive at least tens of notifications each day, if not hundreds. And here’s the interesting part: every notification doesn’t really require an action. We acknowledge the content in our head, dismiss the notification, and carry on with life. The activity of pulling the smartphone out of your pocket or bag at every buzz is greatly reduced by a convenient hand-tilting gesture of a smartwatch. For example, imagine you booked a cab using an app like Uber. The app has a persistent notification that tells the cab number, the time it’ll take to arrive, etc. It’s super-handy to have this information right on your wrist.
It’s also great to quickly take action on those notifications, because of quick action buttons. Received an email you don’t care about? Swipe right and hit Archive. Want to acknowledge a reply to a tweet? Swipe and hit the Like button. All from your wrist.
Android Wear has gestures that let you scroll through notifications by simply flicking the wrist. I agree it looks kinda odd when you’re doing that in the presence of random strangers. But it’s great when you have your hands full and still want to see what’s new.
Ultimately, it all boils down to how important phone notifications are to you in general.
2. It’s Easier to Track Turn-by-Turn Navigation
Here’s another nuanced use case that might pique your interest in smartwatches. A lot of newer cars come with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support — putting Google or Apple Maps right on your dashboard. But if you don’t have a new car, there’s a good chance putting a head unit in your existing one will be an expensive or difficult affair.
This is where a smartwatch comes in handy. During trips, I set the destination in Google Maps and turn the phone screen off. On my Android Wear smartwatch, a persistent notification card shows me the distance before the next turn. This is great because sometimes on a long straight road you don’t get voice prompts as often, and a quick tilt of the wrist is all it takes to get some reassurance.
Now just think about modes of transportation where using a smartphone isn’t an option, like a motorbike or a cycle. A smartwatch can be super-convenient in these scenarios.
3. It’s Great for Mundane Activities
When I’m wearing one, I love using the smartwatch to perform mundane activities like setting reminders. It’s convenient to raise the wrist, say the activation keyword (for me it’s “Okay Google”) and speak the reminder to the digital assistant. Or say when I get an instant message, and I need to send a monosyllabic reply (like “OK,” “Cool,” “Yes,” “No”), the interface has one-click preset replies.
In fact, these devices are tiny computers at the end of the day, so they can be smart about it too. If you’re replying to an iMessage on an Apple Watch, it intelligently offers contextual responses instead of a generic canned response. Android Wear 2.0 does the same thing but for any messaging app!
4. It Helps Get Your Butt Off the Couch
It’s no secret that smartwatches started focusing on fitness in an attempt to keep them relevant. Everything about Apple Watch Series 2 was related to fitness, from the built-in GPS to the water resistance. Many smartwatches today come with the prerequisite hardware for fitness tracking, like motion sensors, and a heart rate monitor. And because of their rich user interface, they can track fitness better than those Fitbit bands with one-line displays.
An Apple Watch’s activity app has easy-to-track activity rings that can motivate a sedentary user to get up and move more often. Google Fit, that’s built into all Android Wear devices, also lets you set a daily exercise goal and pushes you to achieve them. Version 2.0 of the platform also has a full-fledged Google Fit Workout app.
Another neat trick? If you have a Bluetooth headset, you can listen to music straight from the watch, no phone required. This is great when you’re going for a jog and don’t want a giant slab (i.e. your smartphone) tugging your track pants down. Most Android Wear devices come with 4 GB of internal memory, whereas Apple Watch comes with 8 GB. That should be plenty to keep your workout music synced. Speaking of syncing, you have to be subscribed to Google Play Music if you’re using Android Wear or Apple Music for the Apple Watch for this to work.
So Why Haven’t Smartwatches Clicked?
If you ask me, the simple answer is because they’re too darn expensive. The average selling price of a smartphone today is around $250 — that’s how much entry-level smartwatches like the Apple Watch Series 1 or the LG Watch Style cost right now. A lot of people still look at smartwatches as accessories to their smartphone, and if you look at the use cases above, there’s no doubt it is an accessory.
Plus many of them are huge, unattractive, and require daily charging. I sincerely hope that instead of positioning them as luxury goods, manufacturers position them more appropriately. We’re seeing one example of that happening: the ZTE Quartz is a highly-specced, 3G-compatible Android Wear 2.0 watch being sold for a reasonable $200.