Tick Tock: Wearable Tech

I don’t wear a watch. I haven’t for more than twenty years. I did when I was growing up; I went through several. My mother bought me a Mickey Mouse watch several years ago. I don’t remember the exact circumstances of why she got it for me, but she did and I wore it even in basic training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) in the Army. It was during AIT in Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio that I lost it. As part of our training, we had to run a litter obstacle course, carrying a patient across a mock battle field. I was part of a four-man team carrying our litter across a stream and, not wanting the watch to get wet, I gave it to the patient on the litter. One of our teammates footing slipped, dunking our patient into the cold water and the patient dropped the watch into the stream. Mickey was lost forever. I bought another watch, an Armitron, if memory serves and wore it for some time. It got wet and the face got messed up, but a jeweler offered to clean it up for me. He painted the face and put a nice gold colored band on it. It got people’s attention, and one person even offered to buy it from me. I refused, thinking it was too pretty to sell, but unfortunately the water damage was not limited to the face. The mechanism broke down and it died. By the time I got out of the Army, or shortly thereafter, I stopped wearing watches. The bands pulled the hairs on my arm and I grew weary of taking them off, putting them on, winding them or changing the batteries, and I kept scratching up the crystals. I tried a pocket watch for a while, thinking it looked cooler, more sophisticated, but it turned out to be a pain in that I kept forgetting to put it in my pocket. It’s not much of a pocket watch if it’s never in one’s pocket. Once I started carrying a pager and then a cell phone, I no longer had any need to wear a timepiece. If I had any need to know what the time was, I could simply look at my phone. It was like a more modern equivalent of carrying a pocket watch that I was less likely to forget to put in my pocket. Besides, I don’t wear a watch.

Fast forward twenty-odd years.

?

A new technology has broken upon the scene: the Smart Watch; a device designed as a companion to the cell phone.

Once Apple introduced the Apple Watch and Samsung offered the Galaxy Gear, many of my friends asked if I intended on getting one. Of course, the Apple Watch was a nonstarter as I don’t like iOS devices, but I did look at the Galaxy Gear. I am a techie after all. If it is new technology, I usually give it the once over; just to see if it will be of use to me. I perused the Galaxy Gear and was underwhelmed. Its clunky design and non-intuitive interface were not enough to pique my interest. I was also disappointed with the plastic band and toy-like appearance. Watches were always a fashion accessory first and foremost and a timepiece second. The Galaxy Gear was neither. Besides, I don’t wear a watch.

There are a couple of other smart watches such as the Fit Bit which offers the ability to track heart rate, step count and activity. Most smart watches do this, but Fit Bit makes fitness the main focus of their device. There is also the Pebble, a low-cost entry into the smart watch category and it looks like it. It has the fit and finish of a child’s toy watch one gets from a toy vending machine or Cracker Jack box. I did not like what I saw. Besides, I don’t wear a watch.

Samsung redesigned the Galaxy Gear to provide it with a standalone cell connection so it is more like a Dick Tracy secret spy watch-phone. It has a speaker and a camera built in. It is essentially a phone one wears on one’s wrist. And it is that much bigger, too. It also costs more than a phone if you don’t get the carrier service contract. No, it would not do for me. Besides, I don’t wear a watch.

While I was in Best Buy perusing the latest tech, I spotted a different watch: the Motorola 360. Sporting a solid stainless steel body and gorilla glass face, the 360 looks like a real watch; more so than any of the other entries in the market. It comes with different bands, too. The entry level offered a black steel body and black leather band, or one could opt for the stainless steel body and metal link band. A brown or gray leather band is also available. This device may be a smart watch, but it actually looks like a watch. It has the fit and finish of a fashion accessory, something that most smart watches lack. Before the Apple acolytes rage against this machine, I will admit that one can configure an apple watch with enough bling to make it a $1000+ fashion accessory too. The Motorola 360 has that look out of the box for $150.

When I unboxed it, its battery was flat dead. Many electronics come boxed with a least a partial charge, but not the 360. It uses the Qi wireless charging system, so there is no charging port on the device, which helps it maintain that classic watch look. After charging for a while, I was able to pair it to my phone via Bluetooth. I initially used a Galaxy Note 3 to pair the watch and it went without a hitch. The only problem was that out of the box the version of the 360 firmware was not efficient with its battery use and the watch depleted in about a half hour of constant use. At this point, I was fairly certain I would be returning the watch. I have no use for a device that cannot last at least ten hours of nominal use on one charge. Fortunately, once I charged it up again, it downloaded not one, not two, but three firmware updates. After completing the last one, the system was much more battery friendly. It also added several new features that the first version didn’t have. The battery now lasts all day. I do have to put it on the charger each night, to ensure it has enough charge for the next day, but when I place it on the charger, it still has anywhere from 40% to 60% charge left after 16 hours of moderate to heavy use. One of the nice things it does when charging is change the display from the standard watch face to a digital clock face that shows the charge level as a ring around the face. This means if I wake up in the middle of the night, it acts like a nightstand clock.

The 360 runs on Android Wear, a stripped down version of Android designed for the minimalist interface afforded by the small form factor of a wrist watch. It is designed to work in conjunction with an Android-powered cell phone, provided said phone is running Android 4.0 (Kit Kat) or higher. Interacting with Android Wear has a learning curve. It is not as intuitive as I would have liked. One swipes left/right and up/down depending on the function one is doing, and there are no obvious prompts as to which way to swipe or what swiping will do. Fortunately, it doesn’t take too long to figure it out, and there is no lasting damage from doing it wrong. One cannot delete a message from the phone on the watch, for example.

Pairing the watch to a cell phone provides the wearer the ability to read incoming text messages or emails on the watch screen without having to open or unlock the phone. Also, notifications are sent to the watch as well, so that appointments, reminders, and updates alert your watch. Some might find this unnecessary as their phone is never out of their hand, but as I have a phablet which rides in my hip pocket most of the time, I like being able to check an incoming alert with a simple flip of my wrist. If I am instructing, my phone is set to vibrate so that it doesn’t interrupt my class. It would be rude as well as distracting to my students if I stopped teaching to wrestle the phone out of my pocket to see what the alert was. Now, I can just look at my watch.

Google searching is one of the core functions of Android Wear. The 360 is better at voice recognition than most phones. Rather than whip out the cell phone to type in a search term, the 360’s dual microphones allow the wearer to simply say “OK, Google,” which brings up the Google app, and then speak the search terms. “Find a pizza place near me,” or “How old is George Clooney,” brings results right to the watch face. Since the watch does pair with the cell phone, if the user has set up Google Now on the phone for the personalized cards, these same cards can appear on the watch as well. The 360 pulls data from the phone for weather, time, date and agenda right on the watch face. You can even get your airplane boarding pass on the watch’s display.

Flat Tire effect at bottom of display

There is a downside. While the watch face may seem large for a watch, it is small for a browser. Reading content on the watch requires a lot of scrolling. One can set the font size to make reading easier, but with my eyes, I have to keep the font relatively large. Android wear does have the ability to open the alert or message on the phone for better reading if it something that requires more attention. Also, there is a small area at the bottom of the screen that is not used for the display. Some people call it the “flat tire” look. This area houses the light sensor the device needs to set the screen brightness. If one selects a bright watch face, the area is very noticeable. I have a black face, so it’s difficult to notice.

Android Wear offers a number of slick watch faces that are user-selectable and the Google Play store offers many apps to design one’s own from either a template, or from scratch if one has an artistic bent. There are many apps available for Wear, from games, to note taking, to ordering pizza, but I find most of them superfluous. The apps I do use are the voice recorder (though it has no speaker, the 360 has two microphones for Google searching) which saves voice notes on your phone, a calculator, a Wear version of Shazam and the coolest one is the camera remote app. Selfies are a breeze now. Simply set up the phone, frame the shot, the check out the image on the watch and if it is good, snap the pick with the watch. Playing games on the watch seems pointless. There are better games on the phone and since the watch is always no more than 30 feet away, best to keep playing on the phone.

It is important to remember what the watch is supposed to be. It is a time piece that also interacts with your cell phone to help keep users connected to their information. It is not a content delivery system, or a personal entertainment system, or a media system, or a development/production system. One still needs a phone/tablet/PC for those functions.

Motorola just released the next version of the 360, which offers a slightly faster CPU and slightly better battery management. It also has three different versions: one for men, one for women and one for the sport-minded. The price has gone up as well, to between $300 and $400, depending on the configuration. I am happy with mine, so I have no plans on upgrading.

After more than twenty years with a naked wrist, I am adjusting to wearing a smart watch now. It felt heavy at first, but then again, any watch would feel heavy to someone who hasn’t worn one in a while. I do like checking the alerts without pulling out the phone and being able to voice search is a great benefit. People who know me have noticed the device. My son came to the house the weekend I bought the 360. As soon as he saw me he said: “What’s with the watch? You don’t wear a watch.”

He’s right. I don’t wear a watch. I wear a Moto 360.

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