Review: smartwatches on test

Smartwatches are getting smarter all the time. Paul Lamkin straps on four of the latest models…

18th February 2015

Smartwatches have come a long way since our last wearable tech test. The first wave of devices suffered from short battery lives, grainy displays and clunky interfaces, and didn't stay on our wrists for long. But now, with the help of Google's Android Wear platform, the world's biggest tech companies have given their smartwatches a new lease of life. We asked Paul Lamkin of wareable.com to put four to the test.

Images: thesecretstudio.net

Motorola Moto 360, £199.99

Weight: 49g
Display: 1.56-inch
Wireless: Bluetooth
Battery life: One day
Processor: 720MHz
 

The Moto 360 created the smartwatch revolution’s first real ‘wow’ moment when it was shown at Google’s I/O conference in 2014. Not only was it one of the first devices to run the all-new Android Wear OS, it also came with a round watch face – its Korean rivals from Samsung and LG both combined dull rectangular faces with lacklustre designs.

It’s a fine looking watch, if a tad on the chunky side, but the display is a disappointment, and not just because it’s a standard LCD. The 360’s biggest crime is the dead area at the bottom of the face that makes a mockery of the ‘first circular smartwatch’ claim.

This display is off most of the time, and automatically turns on to reveal the clock face as you look at the screen – a feature designed to save the battery. But getting your horological fix requires an exaggerated, theatrical movement to illuminate the screen, and we often found ourselves having to tap the screen just to check the time.

Fitness is a big theme of the Moto 360. It keeps track of your step goals and heart rate; Heart Activity sets you a target of 30 minutes’ moderate activity a day and tracks your progress.

Google Keep enables you to make notes using your voice. Voice recognition is generally good, but in a moderately noisy environment the system soon falls apart. What’s more, if you’re replying to messages by speaking, there’s no opportunity to verify the content.

Rating: 3/5

Samsung Gear S, £329.99

Weight: 67g
Display: 2.0-inch
Wireless: 3G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Battery life: Not specified
Processor: 1GHz

Samsung’s plan of attack with its products – be they TVs, tablets, smartphones or kettles – is to throw a load of products at the wall and see what sticks. The smartwatch is no exception. The Korean company has launched no fewer than six Gear-branded wearables in the last 12 months, the most intriguing of which is the flagship Samsung Gear S.

Marketed as a ‘standalone’ smartwatch – one that can work without being tethered to a smartphone – the Gear S offers 3G, Wi-Fi and GPS connectivity on the go. You can make and receive calls on it and even send text messages using the tiny keyboard. In reality, you’ll do neither, and the fact you’ll need a Samsung Galaxy phone to activate it in the first place seems lost on its makers.

Once you’re past the initial fiddly set-up process you’re presented with a massive smartwatch running Samsung’s own Tizen OS – a platform with over 1,000 apps, we’re reliably informed, though good luck finding one you’d consider essential.

The real beauty of the Gear S is that two-inch, 480 x 360, curved Super AMOLED display. In the screen stakes, Samsung’s smartwatch has no competition. Its pixels per inch count of 300 is pretty much unrivalled, and if you’re looking for a wearable that’s going to be a head-turner, look no further. However, costing over £300, it’s almost impossible to recommend the Gear S: it feels at best like a work in progress, at worst like a jumbled mess.

Rating: 3/5

Sony SmartWatch 3, £189.99

Weight: 45g
Display: 1.6-inch
Wireless: Bluetooth, NFC
Battery life: Two days
Processor: 1.2GHz

 

Sony’s SmartWatch 3 may not be the best looking smartwatch on the block, but it may well be the most useful. And that’s because it includes GPS connectivity – essential for accurate run-tracking – and a battery that’s bigger than any of its Android Wear rivals.

All Android Wear watches allow you to use apps like RunKeeper and MyTracks to record running routes and distances covered, but right now it’s only the Sony offering that lets you do this without having to lug your smartphone around with you. We compared it against dedicated running watches from the likes of Garmin and Adidas and found the accuracy to be pretty much on the money, so it’s ideal for anyone considering both a smartwatch and a specialised running watch.

As well as running smarts, the SmartWatch 3 also gives you all the usual Android Wear functionality such as notifications, navigation and music controls, and that 420mAh battery should mean that you’ll only need to charge it every other day (unless you’re training for a marathon, that is). The design may be a little on the basic side – Sony misses the target in its attempt to look sporty - but it’s a comfortable fit and is pretty durable.

The SmartWatch 3 also has NFC (near-field communication) and Wi-Fi connectivity, and there’s a good chance that future Android Wear updates will add functions that make use of these – Google Wallet, for instance. So it should be fairly future-proof, too.

Rating: 4/5 (Focus Best Buy)

Pebble, £99

Weight: 38g
Display: 1.26-inch, e-paper
Wireless: Bluetooth
Battery life: 5-7 days
Processor: ARM, 80MHz

 

The Pebble is pretty ancient in wearable tech terms, having first burst onto the scene with a crowdfunding campaign back in 2012. But it’s only recently that it went on sale in the UK, so we thought it only right we include the device that, literally, kickstarted the smartwatch movement.

Despite still being a big seller, the Pebble now looks pretty dated compared to its wrist-seeking rivals. And while its e-paper display will go a long way to boosting battery life – you can realistically expect five to six days of ‘normal’ usage – it’s housed in a clumsy-looking plastic chassis that looks anything but cutting edge, and has fallen behind in an industry determined to align itself with traditional watch design and luxury fashion brands.

The huge interest in the Pebble, however, means that there are now thousands of apps and extensions designed to make this smartwatch more than the simple notification assistant it was built to be. You can only store eight apps on the Pebble at any one time, but thanks to the Pebble Locker, syncing apps from your smartphone is a painless affair.

On the notification front, the Pebble will buzz you for incoming calls, texts, emails, Facebook messages, and so on. So while the Pebble is showing its age a little in tech terms, it’s still pretty useful.

Rating: 3/5


Paul Lamkin is editor-in-chief of wareable.com, a website dedicated to wearable technology
This review first appeared in the March 2015 issue of BBC Focus

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