What the Heck Is a Smartwatch, and Why Might I Want One?

Daniel Bean
Editorial Assistant
March 19, 2014

You might have seen that Google announced some big news involving smartwatches on Tuesday. Google created a tweaked version of its Android operating system that will make it easy and cheap for other tech companies, including Samsung, HTC, and LG, to create smartwatches that run Google’s software. 

The upshot here is that there are going to be way, way more smartwatches in electronics stores in the coming months. 

But wait a second. Let’s take a step back. You might have never seen a smartwatch. You might not know what one is. We’re here to answer all your questions about this new category of tech products, which could join the smartphone and the tablet as the new must-have gadgets. 

Here goes.

What is a smartwatch?
Our columnist David Pogue recently tackled the topic of what makes a device “smart.” Throwing “smart” in front of something usually means that the device is connected to the Internet in some way or another. 

So “smartwatch” generally refers to a watch that connects to the Internet, and also to other devices like smartphones or tablets, in order to deliver real-time information to your wrist. You can think of it as a watch that does more than just keep time, with some basic functions similar to those you might find on a smartphone.

As smart as these new watches may be, they still require a connection to a smartphone or tablet to be fully-functional. They’re basically companions or add-ons to the smarter device in your pocket.

Who makes them?
The first “big name” gadget maker to hit us with a full-effort smartwatch launch has been Samsung. The company now offers two versions of its Galaxy Gear smartwatch, which can retrieve text messages, control your television, and track your activity. (See? It’s smart.)

Samsung’s Gear 2

Probably the closest thing to Samsung’s Galaxy Gear is Sony’s SmartWatch 2, which also performs several of the more basic smartphone functions right on your wrist.

The Pebble smartwatch, meanwhile, was introduced in early 2013, a Kickstarter project turned hit. Cheaper than both the Gear 2 and the SmartWatch 2, the Pebble is notable for having a screen made from E Ink (like you’d find on Amazon’s Kindle e-reader) to conserve its battery. Though the Pebble can last longer, it lacks some of the more sophisticated features of either Sony’s or Samsung’s offerings.

Samsung’s Gear smartwatches are currently only compatible with Galaxy smartphones and tablets, while Sony’s can connect to any Android device. The Pebble works with Android or iPhone.

On the heels of Google’s Android Wear announcement Tuesday, Motorola and LG have confirmed that they will be offering smartwatch products later this year as well. Rumors also have Apple pinned to a gadget named the iWatch. There’s no solid information as to when or if Apple will spill the beans on that, though an announcement could come this summer. 

What can smartwatches do?
Smartwatches that have hit shelves in the past calendar year can do all kinds of things, from taking pictures to giving you real-time driving directions. Most all of the devices connect to a smartphone via Bluetooth and act as a means to access and control some functions on that smartphone.

Reading texts and emails and controlling media from your wrist seem like the most useful applications yet. But the Gear and Pebble can also run scaled-down versions of some popular smartphone apps like Evernote, Yelp, and Runtastic.

A still from Google’s Android Wear video

Google’s concept video shows Android Wear smartwatches with different voice control commands, similar to Android’s Google Now search and assistant functions. It can also run several Google-specific apps, like Hangouts (aka Gchat) and Google Maps.

How do they work?
Most smartwatches connect to other smart devices via Bluetooth (and, in some cases, low-power Bluetooth for battery-saving purposes). Through the Bluetooth connection, a smartwatch can not only see things like texts and incoming calls on your phone, relaying those notifications to your wrist, but it also allows a shared Internet connection for smartphone apps and other functions like navigation or search.

What are the downsides?
For what you get from current smartwatch models, it’s not a stretch to say that the prices are a drag. Samsung’s Galaxy Gear 2, which packs a camera and motion sensors, is not available in the United States yet, but speculation is that the price will be somewhere in the $300 range, similar to Samsung’s original offering. The elegant-looking but feature-lacking Pebble Steel is on sale now for $249, with the original, bulkier plastic Pebble smartwatch running $150.

For the price, you’d hope to get a bit more support from big-name apps and services, but that’s not exactly the case yet. Google hopes to raise awareness and change the landscape with its Android Wear project. An Apple smartwatch device would no doubt change the perception of the device market as well, and hopefully get more companies making their services smartwatch-friendly.

The Pebble Steel

The feature-packed Gear watches also don’t offer much in terms of battery life. Early reviews of the first Gear claimed that the device would last about a day on a charge. The lower-powered Pebble had five to seven days of battery life. The Gear 2 was built with an even smaller battery to compress the size of the watch itself, but the company is claiming that hardware and software advancements should allow, with normal usage, up to three days of life per charge.

Smartwatches have also been knocked for being overly bulky and unattractive. Though as parts are shrinking and designers are thinking, smartwatch design has improved. 

Why is Android Wear so exciting?
The particularly exciting part of what Google announced Tuesday is this: Android Wear is fit to be the Android of the smartwatch market. Just as Google and Android gathered manufacturing partners for the world of smartphones, many brands and companies have already committed to Wear, including Asus, HTC, LG, Intel, Motorola, Samsung, and Fossil.

What’s next?
If Google is as committed to Wear as it leads us to believe, we may finally have the platform necessary to get real progress in the device category. The rumblings that an iWatch may soon come to shelves should mean great things for the advancement of the device as well.

Whether smartwatches actually become popular depends on consumers. If we buy smartwatches, we’ll see more; if not, they’ll disappear. With the Android Wear announcement, one thing is for sure: You’ll have no shortage of smartwatch options in 2014. 

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