Thursday 29 September 2016

Seconds out... Battle of the smartwatches

Published 20/11/2015 | 02:30

Adrian Weckler chats with Apple CEO Tim Cook, who paid a visit to Independent News and Media's offices on Talbot Street.
Adrian Weckler chats with Apple CEO Tim Cook, who paid a visit to Independent News and Media's offices on Talbot Street.

Are smartwatches the next big thing? What do they actually do? And are you missing out if you don't get one? In the penultimate edition of our Digital DIY series, Adrian Weckler explains in plain English what smartwatches do, what they don't do and which ones you should consider if you think they sound useful.

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Do I really need a smartwatch?

This is the single biggest question that people have about smartwatches: why get one? What problem does it solve in our lives? How will it make our day better? It's one that this sceptical reporter grappled with for over a year.

Last month, though, I had a breakthrough moment that changed my opinion of the devices. I was on a beach throwing a mucky ball for dogs when I felt a text message come in. I guessed it would be from my wife, which meant I really needed to acknowledge it and respond right away. But my phone was in my pocket and my hands were sandy and wet. Rather than reach in there and deposit granules which would take 27 wash cycles to fully expunge, I looked at my watch instead to read the message. My watch then offered to respond by taking a voice note (tapping 'reply' on the watch face and speaking into it).

Although I'm not a fan of voice commands, here was a situation when it might be useful: I tapped and said: "Yes, I'll do that and I'll be about 30 minutes." The watch (an Apple Watch) translated the message perfectly and sent the text while my phone stayed in my pocket unsmudged by wet sand. "Hmm," I thought. "This could actually be sort of useful." Since then, I've started using smartwatches more and more. I'm even starting to feel it missing if I leave the house without one.

Surely a smartwatch is used for more than checking and sending text messages?

Yes, although there is still a finite number of uses for smartwatches at present. Mostly, they are used for two basic things: notifications and fitness. Notifications include things such as Facebook, SMS, Whatsapp, Twitter or Tinder alerts. (Most of us have one or other of these social accounts set up on our phone while almost all of us use SMS.)

The idea here is that the watch can save you time, both from non-essential messages and from your own distraction. For example, when you hear a beep or feel a buzz from your phone, you often reach in to take it out of a pocket or a bag to see who it is or what it's about. Mostly, it's something trivial or non-essential. But because you have the phone out anyway, you might use the occasion to dip in to a social account or casually browse something. Even if you don't, rooting about for your phone uses up seconds, sometimes minutes.

The average person may well waste a lot of time every day doing this. But being able to glance at your wrist for a notification means you don't get sucked into that rigmarole. In this way, the watch actually saves you time and, in a sense, saves you from your own dilly-dallying.

The other big function that smartwatches have is fitness. Virtually all of them come with sensors and GPS features that can track movement, such as steps taken every day. Most of the newer ones now also come with sensors that measure and record your pulse or heartbeat. For runners, gym-goers, cyclists and other fitness types, this is an obvious attraction.

What don't they do?

Very few smartwatches have a camera, as it's just too awkward and a 1.5-inch screen is pretty useless for reviewing them. Many also don't let you make a call through the watch itself. And almost none have headphone jacks, although quite a few let you store and listen to music if you have Bluetooth wireless headphones.

Do these smartwatches work by themselves or do they need a phone?

Smartwatches such as Apple's Watch and Android watches (Sony, Motorola and others) need a phone to operate most of the 'smart' features. They connect to the phone wirelessly using Bluetooth. That's how they know if a call or text message is coming through. Without being connected to a phone, they'll still obviously tell time and some will let you listen to music. Virtually none of today's smartwatches have their own sim cards to use mobile data.

What's the difference between an Apple Watch and an Android watch?

Not a huge amount, but enough to make you have to plump for one or the other from the beginning. Apple's Watch only works with iPhones and, like the phone, has more apps than rival systems.

It also has a slightly different way of working, using the phone's 'crown' (the equivalent to its winding mechanism) to navigate some parts of it. Finally, it is designed to let you pay for things in shops by waving it in front of a contactless card scanner, although this bit hasn't yet been activated in Ireland and is only available in the US and the UK.

By contrast, Android watches are made by multiple manufacturers, with the biggest ones being Motorola, Sony, LG and Huawei. They all use the common Android Wear system, which has its own app store and works with any Android phone. These all have slightly different physical designs, too. (Samsung uses its own watch operating system which seems to be leading it into quicksand.)

Which is better - Apple's Watch or Android watches?

Again, this falls to personal opinion. Both systems have features that the other lacks. For example, many Android models cannot make or take calls through the watch itself, a feature the Apple Watch has. By contrast, Android devices have more advanced Google services that are lacking on the Watch. Apple's devices start at €430 (and go up to €13,300 for gold editions). Android versions start at around €250.

I have an iPhone. Does that mean I have to get Apple's Watch?

No. Google now has a version of its Android Wear system - which connects your phone to your watch to give it all the smart features - in the iPhone's App Store. This means you can get a Sony or Motorola smartwatch and pair it with your iPhone. But be warned that while many of the basic functions, such as notifications, will work in a similar way to Android phones, some features are lacking if you mix the two systems. For example, while you'll see a text message coming in on your Android watch, you can't reply to it on your watch in the way you can if you're using an Apple Watch. There are also more restrictions on apps.

It should be said that there is no problem using alternative smartwatches, such as the Pebble, with an iPhone. But you can't use an Apple Watch with an Android phone. It just doesn't work.

Are there other kinds of smartwatches too?

Yes. The best-selling smartwatch after Apple's Watch is a relatively basic device called the Pebble. It was actually crowd-funded, so it doesn't have anywhere near the same kind of graphics or design that products from billion-dollar rivals such as Apple or Samsung have. Its models offer basic notifications, alerts and fitness functions.

They don't have more advanced functions such as live video-camera feeds from a Nest security device in your home. There are also specialist sport smartwatches from companies like Garmin that have advanced GPS and other sensors that measure things like altitude. These tend to be used mainly by niche sports enthusiasts, such as cyclists, mountaineers and serious hikers.

Finally, there are standalone smartwatches that don't offer notifications to messages but simply include sensors that give your phone more accurate information about what you're doing, particularly for health and fitness purposes. The Withings range (see buyers' guide panel) is a good example. Because it doesn't require LCD screens, it will be appreciated by many as being more elegant-looking than fully-powered mini-computer rivals.

Is it true you have to charge them every night?

Yes. And sometimes you might even run out on the same day. (Although this is rare, in my experience.) Smartwatches are as powerful as many smartphones still in use by people. They have interactive touchscreens, speakers and sensors aplenty. But they only have a fraction of the space a phone has to house a battery. So you're not going to get a week, or even a few days, out of a smartwatch. After a while, you do get used to charging it every night. If you're in the habit of automatically sticking a charging cable into your phone by your bed, it's just one more thing to add.

It's important to note that not all smartwatches are like this: those with lower functionality, such as Pebble devices, last significantly longer (up to a week on a single charge) than fully-loaded versions from Apple, Motorola, Sony and Huawei. It's also important to add that using a smartwatch will slightly weaken your phone's battery life, because you generally need to leave Bluetooth on all the time.

How are you supposed to operate a two-inch screen? I thought we were all moving to bigger phones screens these days?

This is a basic challenge for smartwatches - it's sometimes a bit ludicrous to be swiping, pinching or zooming on screens that are less than a sixth of the size of our normal phones. This is one reason why smartwatches from Apple, Samsung, Motorola and others try to get us to use voice commands as much as possible. If you really don't like the idea of this, a smartwatch might be a challenging proposition.

Is it true you can use a smartwatch to pay for things? How does that work?

Yes and no. Apple has a system called Apple Pay that lets you use your Apple Watch (or your iPhone) in the same way as a contactless payment card. That means that once you input your credit card details into it, you just swipe it in front of the same scanner that accepts current contactless payment cards from the likes of Visa. (To prevent theft or fraud, the transaction only happens if the Watch is on your particular wrist or if you use your fingerprint or security code on your phone.) But while Apple Pay is up and running in Britain, Northern Ireland and the US, it has yet to be introduced to Ireland. (Last week, Apple boss Tim Cook hinted that it might not be long until Apple Pay was launched here.)

How long do they last? Am I supposed to get a new one every two years, like a phone?

Because they're so new (Apple only started selling its Watch this year), we actually don't yet know how long their natural life cycle will be. Traditionally, a watch is something you buy to use for at least seven or eight years. It's hard to see a smartwatch lasting that long in relevance. So far, most of the upgrades on smartwatches appear to be occurring at a software level. In other words, the watch you buy today should still be very usable in three or four years: you just have to update it every year.

Am I missing out if I don't get one of these? Will I end up eventually getting one anyway?

Right now, if you don't have a smartwatch, you're not missing out on any social function in the same way you would if you didn't have your phone. Quite simply, there's no killer function that any smartwatch has that looks set to attract the masses by means of extra efficiency or necessity. They're handy rather than essential.

Irish Independent

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