Thursday 8 December 2016

Which Smartwatch should you buy?

Time for a smartwatch? Choice considers the options

Clodagh O'Donoghue

Published 11/02/2016 | 02:30

Customers look at the Apple Watch at the Apple Store in June 2015 on Fifth Avenue in New York City
Customers look at the Apple Watch at the Apple Store in June 2015 on Fifth Avenue in New York City
Apple Watch Sport, €429
Apple Watch, €679
Samsung Gear S, €300 online

A new technology category that has emerged in the last couple of years is the smartwatch.

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Of course, the idea of a watch that was clever enough to do more than simply tell the time has been around for decades, with various attempts made over the years to popularise watches that hooked up to computers, watches that doubled as pagers, and watches that could be used like a phone. None of these early efforts at smartwatches took off.

However, by the end of 2012, there was plenty of wearable technology for the wrist in the form of exercise monitors, GPS trackers and early smartwatches from Sony and Pebble. In 2013, Samsung entered the market with its Samsung Galaxy Gear and Apple followed in 2015 with the release of the Apple Watch. It is timely then for Choice to take a first look at this market and to put some of these latest gadgets to the test.

What is a smartwatch?

A wearable device, a smartwatch is a minicomputer, often shaped like a small smartphone, that sits on the wrist. One reason it has taken a while for smartwatches to really take off is that there seems to be a lack of consensus among manufacturers about what a smartwatch should actually do.

Is it merely a smartphone accessory or should it be a standalone device? Currently, most smartwatches need to be paired with a compatible smartphone via bluetooth to offer any sort of functionality.

Working in tandem with your smartphone, these devices notify you of calls, texts, tweets, calendar alerts, and social network and news updates.

Thus, for those who like to be always connected, these devices can let you surreptitiously keep an eye on incoming messages and they can help make sure you don't miss an important call because you could not hear your phone ring in your bag.

Some smartphones also allow you to accept or reject phone calls and those that include a microphone let you hold phone conversations right on the watch itself without having to go near your phone. Some allow you to send or reply to texts by choosing from a range of preloaded messages or to dictate a message or other instructions using speech recognition software.

In addition, many smartwatches have inbuilt sensors, such as heart-rate monitors or accelerometers, that enable them to track your physical activity or the number of calories you have burned. More and more apps and updates are being released to boost the usefulness of smartwatches.

Of course, these devices also tell the time - though the display does not necessarily show the time continuously as this can drain the battery. And the Samsung Gear S is an example of a smartwatch that is touted as being a standalone device, though its functionality increases when it is paired with a compatible Samsung phone.

What to consider

Smartwatches are pricey devices, with models in the batch we have on test ranging from €199 to €679 and, if you are looking for a larger, 42mm version of the Apple Watch, this will currently set you back €729. Beyond whether these devices will deliver sufficient utility to warrant such a major investment, here are some other things you might like to consider before making a purchase.

Operating systems and compatibility: Before choosing a smartwatch, you will need to determine which ones are compatible with your phone. Smartwatches, like smartphones, have an operating system (OS) - such as Apple's own Watch OS or Android Wear, used on smartwatches by Asus, Motorola, Sony and others - and as the smartwatch will need to talk to your smartphone, you will need to make sure that the two devices are compatible before you buy.

Unsurprisingly, the Apple Watch and Watch Sport only work with iPhones, and these must be an iPhone 5 or a later version.

Android Wear currently requires a phone running Android 4.3+ or later and Android Wear for iOS is available for the iPhone 5 and later Apple phones.

Samsung's Gear S runs the manufacturer's customised Tizen operating system and only works with a small number of Samsung Galaxy phones, though the newer version, the Gear S2, promises compatibility with a wider range of devices.

Comfort: Smartwatches need to be comfortable if you are going to wear them for long periods of time but currently these devices tend to be large and most are rectangular. However, some models, such as the Motorola Moto 360, have a round face and feel a little less bulky so those with smaller wrists may find such models more comfortable.

Touchscreen: Most smartwatches today have a full-colour touchscreen that enables users to navigate through various tasks and may even let them type text messages.

Voice control: The small size of the smartwatch screen can make operation fiddly, so many smartwatches offer voice control using speech recognition features like Apple's Siri and Android's OK Google. For example, voice commands may be used to perform an online search or dictate a text message.

Battery life and charging: Battery life varies between smartwatches from around a day to a week or more depending on the sophistication of the device's technology, the battery type and how the watch is used, with GPS and navigation functions, workouts and other activities that require constant communication with a paired smartphone running down battery life more quickly. If the battery life of your smartwatch is not all you could wish, it should at least be convenient and fast to charge. Some devices come with wireless chargers or snap-on docks for easy charging.

Activity tracking: One major benefit of a smartwatch is its ability to track daily fitness, from monitoring heart rate, to counting calories burned, to calculating the number of steps taken. Not all smartwatches have GPS though, so those looking to track a run or hike might need to bring a smartphone along too. Moreover, those who mostly want a device to monitor fitness should consider opting instead for a dedicated activity tracker that may also be able to deliver notifications and other smartwatch features and may have the added benefit of being more resistant to shock and sweat as well as being lighter on the wrist.

Smartwatches on test

A batch of smartwatches has been sent to our labs and testers looked at how these devices performed, assessing such aspects as display quality and usability, the ease of controlling phone calls as well as conversation quality, the ease of reading, writing texts and setting alarms, support for popular social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, the effectiveness of the voice recognition function and the accuracy of the step counter and fitness tracker with and without a GPS-connected smartphone.

Other elements that were evaluated included the battery life and charging time of each smartwatch, the comfort of wearing the watch for long periods, and the ease of setting up the watch, controlling it both via gesture commands (such as moving or swiping) and key and touchscreen operation, and installing apps as well as the variety of apps available in the official store.

Each smartwatch model was then subjected to some rough treatment to test its water and scratch resistance. You can see on the table below how each model fared.

As the jury is still out on how truly useful these devices are, we have not designated any Choice Buys. You will see, however, that the Apple devices scored highest in our tests followed by the Samsung Gear S.

These product tests are extracted from 'Consumer Choice', the online magazine of the Consumers' Association of Ireland (CAI), and are carried out for the CAI by independent consumer research organisation International Consumer Research and Testing. For more information see thecai.ie

1. Apple Watch, €679

The Apple Watch is a sleek rectangular smartwatch that pairs with the more recent iPhones, from the iPhone 5 onwards. It sports a high-resolution sapphire crystal touchscreen that is bright, clear and very responsive.

This smartwatch is very easy to use, with a simple set up and a 'digital crown' or dial located on the side of the device that makes touchscreen operation very straightforward thanks to the ability to zoom in and out, navigate through lists and make selections.

With no SIM card option, this device will need to be connected to a smartphone via Bluetooth, but it offers plenty in terms of functionality, including notifications, alarms, the ability to take and make calls via the built-in microphone, a heart-rate monitor, and activity tracking features.

Testers found that the voice controls worked well and the watch can be used to operate the camera and music features of the paired smartphone. Moreover, this is a durable device, scoring top marks in our water- and scratch-resistance tests.

With a range of easily interchangeable straps available, the price given is for the 38mm screen size with the least expensive strap - and, for the bigger wrist, a 42mm version is also on offer at a price of €729.

2. Apple Watch sport, €429

Considerably less expensive than the Apple Watch but still far from cheap, the Apple Watch Sport offers all the same features and specifications and achieved the same scores in our tests, placing both Apple products at the top of our table.

The chief difference between the two Apple smartwatches is the greater scratch resistance offered by the Apple Watch. Having paired the Apple Watch Sport with a compatible iPhone, you can customise the watch face and receive calendar and social media notifications, texts, and emails, with audio or vibration signals that can be set to alert you as items come in.

You will be able to reply to texts using preloaded automated responses or dictating your message via the effective speech recognition function, which can also be used for web searching, asking for directions, and so on. In addition, you can make and receive calls, with good sound quality delivered, and a range of fitness tracking features is provided.

The tested version of the Apple Watch Sport had a plastic strap but other straps are available and are easily inter-changeable. Again, the price stated is for the 38mm version but a larger 42mm version is available priced at €479.

3. Samsung Gear S, €300 online

The Samsung Gear S differs from many other smart-watches in that it can be used as a stand-alone device. A compatible Samsung Galaxy smartphone will be needed for the initial installation but after this a SIM card can be inserted into this smartwatch to deliver standalone functionality and enable it to receive notifications, texts, emails, and calls without the need to have a linked smartphone in the vicinity.

Running the Tizen operating system, this smartwatch offers a full - though rather small - keyboard for typing texts and emails and you can access the internet if you install a web browser. The 2-inch curved AMOLED display is reasonably high resolution and allows for zooming and scrolling to aid operation and navigation.

This device particularly shines in terms of its fitness features, with a step counter, GPS receiver and heart-rate monitor all built-in with no reliance on a smartphone.

While still available online, the Gear S has been largely superseded in shops by the Gear S 2, which sports three versions - only one of which, the Gear S2 3G, replicates the standalone capabilities of the Gear S - a new circular design, and compatibility with a wider range of phones. We will report on the Gear S 2 in detail when the test results come back from our labs.

Irish Independent

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