If Apple can’t make the perfect smartwatch, who can?


If you read the first reviews of the Apple Watch, you start to see some interesting themes.

On the plus side, everyone seems to agree that Apple has cracked the biggest issue around wearable technology – building a smartwatch you’ll actually want to wear. Compared to its rivals, the Apple Watch is a thing of beauty. Few smartwatches can match it for sheer design cool.

Should smartwatches be less smart, more watch?

But some reviewers have complained that there are too many intrusive notifications and that app performance can be sluggish. Siri’s comprehension is hit and miss, the fitness tracking basic, while the battery only lasts a ‘day’ (about 18 hours). Like the majority of gadgets aimed at the wrist, the Apple Watch isn’t perfect.

Probably because it tries to do too much.

This isn’t just a mistake that the Apple Watch makes. Most Android Wear devices also cram in features and functions in an attempt to add extra value and make them appear more useful. But do we really need access to all of the functions of a smartphone on our wrist? There’s an argument that smartwatches need to be less ‘smart’ and more ‘watch’.

Pebble Time
The Pebble Time offers a lower resolution, app-driven alternative to the Apple Watch with a battery that lasts over a week.

Of course, it’s early days for the Apple Watch. Remember the original iPhone from 2007? That launched without many of the features we now take for granted, like high-speed 3G/4G networking and downloadable apps. That’s not to say that the original iPhone wasn’t a revolutionary product. One pinch, flick or swipe of its captivating multi-touch UI tended to gloss over the shortcomings for most early adopters.

The Apple Watch will doubtless improve year on year. “The body is bound to get thinner;” writes Joanna Stern at the WSJ, “the edges could stand to be less rounded. It isn’t just the aesthetics, either. Soon, we won’t have to charge the battery every night, the software won’t ever get stuttery and those health sensors will get even more accurate.”

In the meantime, what are the alternatives? The Pebble Time trumps the Apple Watch’s 18-hour battery with week-long usage, an amazing achievement considering that it also upgrades the original Pebble’s monochrome display to a colour e-paper screen. It’s also compatible with iOS and Android smartphones, so you’re not locked in to a specific digital ecosystem.

Withings Activite
The Swiss-made Withings Activité impresses with a minimalist analogue design and eight month battery life, but lacks notification support.

The Swiss-made Withings Activité gets the styling right – it uses classic analogue dials rather than colourful digital readouts. While its little brother, the Activité Pop, knocks the price of owning one down to a reasonable £120. Without a screen to power, the Activité watches also feature a CR2025 battery that will last around eight months. Rather than charge this button-sized cell, you simply replace it, much like a traditional ‘dumb’ watch.

The analogue design of the Activité means that it doesn’t support notifications. The stylish Olio Model One offers a balance between the minimalist approach of the Withings timepiece and the handy alerts baked into the Pebble Time.

Olio Model One
The Olio Model One delivers a (waterproof) digital smartwatch in a stylish analogue form factor, complete with notification support.

Built by ex-Apple, Pixar and HP engineers, the stainless steel Olio features a touchscreen with an analogue display, over two days of battery life per charge, Android/iOS compatibility, plus the ability to tap into public APIs to provide discreet notifications for email, calendar appointments, weather updates and text messages.

None of these devices are perfect either. But their innovative approaches show that there’s more than one way to build (and wear) a smartwatch. – Dean Evans

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