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Smartwatches just aren’t smart enough yet

Column Limitations in functionality don't justify the high prices
Fri Oct 18 2013, 14:57
Lee Bell column portrait

SMARTWATCHES are becoming more ubiquitous by the day, and with every announcement I see, I am increasingly baffled. Almost every major technology firm has either already launched, or is rumoured to launch, wearable devices within the next year, namely LG, Qualcomm, Samsung, Sony, and now even car maker Nissan.

This week alone has seen a few developments in this arena. Yesterday sportswear brand Adidas became the latest company to enter the wearable technology market, having outed its miCoach Smart Run watch, focused on fitness. Earlier this week, it was rumoured that search engine giant Google is working on a watch project codenamed "Gem", which is said to be heavily based on Google Now functionality.

Along with weekly coverage of these types of announcements, market analysis firm Juniper Research has said it believes the wearable device sector is set to explode, with predictions of an $18bn market by 2019.

But I'm not convinced. I am yet to know someone who actually uses or even really wants one of the recently launched and hyped smartwatches, not for their current asking prices anyway. There are plenty of reasons why I think this is the case, but the main one is that they don't deliver a level of functionality anywhere nearly desirable enough to justify the average consumer splashing their cash.

For example, I recently reviewed Samsung's Galaxy Gear, which acts as a second screen for owners of the firm's latest phablet, the Galaxy Note 3, and as of yesterday, the Samsung Galaxy S4. On first glance at the specifications, the watch could be mistaken for offering a plethora of impressive features, with its integrated camera and voice controlled commands, all running on the latest Android 4.3 Jelly Bean mobile operating system.

However, in reality, this isn't the case, and it became apparent before long that Samsung had rushed the launch of the steeply priced Galaxy Gear smartwatch before it could do very much.

For starters, it needs more app compatibility. It doesn't pull updates or messages from social media apps to the device, notifications that I care about and use more than text messages. The 320x320 resolution colour screen also seems a little dated, too.

Another major flaw I discovered in the Galaxy Gear was that though it saved time by allowing me to receive calls via my wrist instead of having to pull the massive Galaxy Note 3 out of my pocket, none of the features would work if I wanted to leave my phone elsewhere. The rather sizeable phablet still had to sit in my pocket, or at least within a range limited by a Bluetooth connection for the watch to function as promised.

As a result, I felt tied down by it. I was carrying around a huge £600 phone that protruded out of my pocket, along with a comparably sized watch that cost £300. I was basically a walking advertisement for how easily you can get mugged, all so I could read some notifications from my wrist instead of my phone. The extended features the Galaxy Gear brings to your wrist are just not worth any of the above drawbacks, in my opinion.

And don't even get me started on battery life. Getting 24 hours of use out of the Galaxy Gear a day, I felt frustrated by the burden that we already know too well with modern smartphones, that of "this is going to last me the day". I think Samsung got it wrong by making the Gear smartwatch dependant on another Android device, because without the Galaxy Note 3 nearby, it's just an expensive digital watch. Samsung should have spent more time in development. What was the rush?

Sony's Smartwatch 2 is yet another fine specimen of this problem. Though, like the Galaxy Gear, it has some neat features, such as the abilities to control music playback, handle phone calls and do things such as mapping while running, it is, like most other smartwatches, just a rudimentary notification collector for specific Android smartphones, with some pretty strict limitations in functionality.

There's also the problem of image. Watches are essentially fashion accessories and are generally bought because of how they look on the wrist, not just that they provide a handy way of telling the time. So far, smartwatches, generally have opposed this notion, and tend to be much bigger and look much uglier, with tighter constraints on design.

Despite my points, not all smartwatches have flopped. One that has seen the most success is perhaps what first started as a Kickstarter project, the Pebble. The Pebble received 68,929 backers, reaping over $10m in funding, ten times its initial pledge goal of just $100,000.

The reason for the Pebble's success is probably its simplicity, which in turn kept its price to a minimum. There's no fancy colour screen or promise to change your life. It's a digital watch that gives you a few additional features for around £100, while being lighter and longer lasting than any of the abovementioned devices.

Right now, I think the hype surrounding the smartwatch by far exceeds the need or want for one, with consumer impression being along the lines of, "We don't know why we want them, but they sound cool."

This is probably the reason why Apple has held off producing a smartwatch. There have been plenty of rumours that it is, but we haven't seen anything yet and that's probably because it believes there's a lot of research still to be done before it can understand what the consumer really wants from a wearable device. µ

 

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