Smartwatches are coming, but here are 5 reasons NOT to buy just yet
This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
We all know that something of a "smartwatch revolution" is on the way. Although there have been smartwatches on the market for a bit over one year now, no one has really paid them much mind, because realistically they haven't been able to do what we all want a smartwatch to do. We are getting closer and closer to the point where smartwatches can be a legitimate companion device for our smartphones, but getting closer doesn't mean we're there yet.
getting bigger is easy, getting smaller is hard. So with that in mind, here are some reasons why you should slow your roll and maybe not plan on buying a smartwatch anytime soon.Look, we are early adopters. We love to get our hands on the newest gadgets and software in order to try to understand the plans that various companies have for their products going forward. Unfortunately, that means we know the cost/benefit trade-off that comes with being an early adopter, and we want to make sure you do too. The main issue that ties into everything we're about to go through is this:
That's not to say that there aren't brilliant designers and engineers out there. What that means is that no one is quite sure yet what features are absolutely necessary, which are superfluous, and which features have no right at tll to be on a smartwatch. We are still in the process of figuring out what features work best on smartphones compared to tablets, and some platforms still don't even have the basic features implemented yet, like Windows Phone's lack of a notification center, iOS's severely limited sharing menu, or Android's missing (official) app data backup solution.
Going the other way, it's not so easy. So far, battery life on smartwatches hasn't been so bad. The Pebble gets around 5 days of use per charge, and the Sony SmartWatch 2 gets somewhere around 3 to 4 days of life. Those both sound pretty good, but there are two things to keep in mind - the Pebble is an eInk display, and the Sony SmartWatch 2 is low resolution (1.6-inch, 220 x 176 pixels); and, the uses of these devices are fairly limited right now. As displays get bigger or more dense (Samsung's Galaxy Gear is rumored to be either a 1.67-inch or 2.5-inch AMOLED at 320 x3 20 pixels), battery life drops; and, as functionality increases, usage rates will go up, meaning the display stays on longer, and the battery life goes down again. *Update* The first rumor about the potential Galaxy Gear battery life came out the evening after this was written, and says the Gear may only get 10 hours of battery life. If true, that confirms our worst fear here.
Aside from that conundrum, the simple fact is that the mobile OS platforms are not ready for smartwatches yet. Even the most malleable of the platforms, Android, will have problems adapting, because responsive design works much better as screens get larger rather than when they get smaller. Responsive design works well enough as screen sizes get bigger, because while something designed for a phone may not look the best when scaled to fit a 10-inch display, it will work just fine, because there is plenty of space. Going the other way doesn't work so well, because elements designed for a larger display may technically fit on a smaller display, but your fingers don't shrink, so interaction will be rough.
And, since the mobile platforms aren't quite ready yet, that means the manufacturers will have to do a lot of the work. This means proprietary solutions, and more than likely, some lock-in especially with Samsung. While a smartwatch will work to a certain extent with any mobile device that supports Bluetooth 4.0LE, not all devices do. iOS supports Bluetooth 4.0LE, Windows Phone is expected to get support with an upcoming update, and while most Android devices aren't on 4.3 yet, many Android manufacturers have built-in Bluetooth 4.0LE support already. But, that doesn't mean that things like notification syncing and other apps will work.
1) Rushed hardware
Let's start this where it should be started. Samsung is going to announce the Galaxy Gear smartwatch in 5 days time at IFA in Berlin. This was confirmed just 3 days ago by Samsung Mobile's vice president Lee Young-hee. And, at the time that confirmation was made, Samsung Mobile's VP admitted flat out that the Galaxy Gear is a "wearable concept device". This is not mature hardware. This is not even beta hardware. This is still in the concept phase, because here's the dirty secret: no one really knows how to build a smartwatch yet. Sony will be unveiling its second generation SmartWatch soon as well, which looks to be an improvement over last year's model, but still not a great option either.
But, despite these issues, we are charging into the world of smartwatches full steam ahead. When Samsung's VP recently confirmed the Gear announcement, he also wanted to reset expectations. Despite promises that flexible OLED displays were going to be in devices this year, the Galaxy Gear will not be using a flexible OLED display, meaning no cool-looking curved display. The Gear will be a block of metal and glass hooked to a strap on your wrist. This will not be an elegant solution.
Manufacturers will do their best, but components simply aren't that small yet. If you want independent connectivity for your smartwatch, that will require a SIM card, and even the smalles SIM/radio combo is going to add bulk to what needs to be a very small and light device. Similarly, using a modified smartphone processor chipset doesn't work quite so well as you get smaller, because everything gets more jam packed, and there is less surface area for heat dispersal. Think of some of the hotter smartphones out there, and how they made your hand sweat. Now imagine that was strapped to your wrist at all times.
And, getting back to the topic of displays, there really isn't an elegant solution for smartwatch displays just yet. OLED seems like the best option, or perhaps one of the fabled transflective displays like Mirasol, but we certainly aren't there yet. Right now, there are two basic choices for your smartwatch display: eInk or OLED. An eInk display, like the Pebble Watch, will get you much better battery life, but no colors and far slower performance; while OLED will give you color and performance, but will hit your battery life.
2) Battery life death
Ultimately, this is the number one hardware problem that exists. Everything about the hardware limitations will be tied directly to concerns over a smartwatch battery's life and death. Displays on a smartwatch are the biggest concern in regards to battery life. As we mentioned, it's much easier to make a device bigger than smaller, that's why every year devices not only get faster, but thinner and lighter as well. The move from smartphones to tablets was easy enough, because suddenly you had far more space to fit a battery in the device.
This ties back to the idea That we don't yet know what we're building. The numbers we have right now may not apply soon enough, because what we intend to do on a smartwatch may not line up so well with what we actually use a smartwatch to do. Take for example the Omate TrueSmart watch which recently blew past its Kickstarter funding goal. The device sounds great: an independent smartwatch with 3G, voice, gestures, and Google Play. But, if the best we can muster for an OLED display smartwatch right now is 3 to 4 days of battery life, if you put an always-on 3G radio in there, the battery is going to die extremely fast.
Of course, what we want a smartwatch to do and what it can do are two very different things because of:
3) Beta software
For one second, let's ignore the fact that there are no apps designed for smartwatches (although that is a huge piece of this puzzle), because the apps/new device issue is something of a chicken and egg scenario. While it is obvious that the egg came first (because whatever laid that egg that held the first true chicken was not quite a chicken yet, in evolutionary terms), when it comes to apps and hardware, developers don't like to put in work until a new segment has been proven, but a new segment has a hard time without apps.
It should always be a red flag to users when the company behind a platform has a longer road map than the company pushing out a new device. We've seen this problem before (again with Samsung) with Android tablets. The Android software was not ready for tablets, and Google said as much, but Samsung charged ahead anyway, which led to the awful experience of Android 2.3 on a tablet. Remember, many early Wi-Fi only Android tablets couldn't even get what was then called the Android Market, because Android simply wasn't ready for tablets, but manufacturers didn't care.
Similarly, right now Google has been rumored to be working on a smartwatch, which really means that Google is working on how to scale Android to work well on a smartwatch. Apple isn't expected to ship its smartwatch until next year; and, all other companies with rumored watches - Microsoft, Motorola, LG, etc. - are all working on timetables that likely won't start until late next year at the earliest. But, Samsung and Sony are pushing ahead anyway, despite the fact that Android isn't ready, and the apps aren't there either.
4) Limited software means proprietary ties
Just like the software that will run on a smartwatch isn't quite ready yet, the software that will hook your smartwatch to your smartphone isn't quite there yet. Google is obviously making strides in that direction, most notably with the new Notification Listener API and the support for Bluetooth 4.0 low-energy that come as part of the Android 4.3 update. But, it's a good bet that no smartwatch due out soon will be running Android 4.3, because so very few Android devices as a whole are running Android 4.3 right now.
Samsung already has a habit of creating software lock-ins for users instead of using Google services or open standards, and there's no reason to believe that will stop now. It is fair to assume that all of the software and apps on the Gear will be made by Samsung, and while basic features may work with any handset, it is likely that there will be more advanced features that will only work with a Samsung handset. Plus, there have already been rumors that Samsung learned from its Android tablet beginnings and is pushing developers to house apps in Samsung's own app store rather than depend on Google Play. This could have a big impact on interoperability with non-Samsung handsets.
Sony's SmartWatch likely won't be as locked-in to Sony's Android handsets, but it has suffered the same issues that we're expecting for Samsung. The software on the original SmartWatch was the biggest issue. It was clunky and awkward. We're hoping that Sony has big improvements to show off this year, but until we see it for real, the only conclusion we can make is that until Google (and more importantly Android ) is ready for smartwatches, you are going to be hoping that the manufacturer gets it right.
5) The cost/quality ratio (aka the Early Adopter Tax)
We don't yet have much pricing to go by, but it seems pretty safe to say that whatever the cost, it is too much for the hardware and software you're getting. The Pebble Watch costs $150. The Omate TrueSmart watch looks like it will retail for around $175. Sony's SmartWatch 2 doesn't have pricing, but the original SmartWatch sells now for around $100, but it launched at $150, so it wouldn't be surprising to see the new one come in at about that same price. It seems like hardware manufacturers are trying to get the price to be around $150-175 at the upper end or more since Apple is rumored to be aiming at a price point anywhere from $149 to $229 for its watch. That may not seem like a lot, but remember: all technology becomes obsolete, and none faster than first-generation hardware.
Let's face it, first-generation hardware is almost always either incredibly overpriced, or it is terrible. There is rarely a good middle ground. The original iPhone was far too expensive, and seemed like a complete waste the second the iPhone 3G hit the market. The same is poised to happen with smartwatches. Whatever comes out this year may seem like a reasonable amount for what you're getting, but it probably won't look that way when the rumors start rolling in for real about what Apple, Google, Motorola, and Microsoft have in the works.
The hardware itself may not advance a huge amount, but when you combine whatever hardware improvements there will be (most notably with flexible OLED displays, and hopefully with more dense batteries) with the addition of OS software that is tailored and optimized for a smartwatch, the difference will be pretty sizeable. The hardware and software will both be getting solid quality overhauls, so even if the price doesn't change the value will be much better.
Just because we as consumers want something, and there are companies like Samsung and Sony who are willing to bring it to us doesn't mean that we are going to get what we want. The bottom line is that the Samsung Galaxy Gear (by admission of Samsung Mobile's own VP) is going to be more "concept device" than fully developed product, and while the Sony SmartWatch 2 will be an improvement, it is still working with the same limitations in software as Samsung. We have already been through this once with Android tablets as well, which should have helped us to learn a very important lesson: it's better to wait until the mobile OS is ready for a new form factor than trying to rush into a new segment anyway.
There's a reason why you don't see a Windows Phone manufacturer trying to push ahead of Microsoft to do the same. If rumors are right, Google is looking to optimize Android for even bigger displays like laptops and TVs with the Android 5.0 Key Lime Pie update, which would mean that we shouldn't expect smartwatch optimizations until the next major Android iteration scheduled for the fall of 2014. Anything before then seems to be less of an early adopter device, and more of a reckless adopter device.
Obviously, if you really want to be a part of the early movement, we can't stop you. And, we may be wrong. This first round of devices may surprise us all. But, we always want you to be armed with as much information as you can, in order that you might make the best decisions possible. There will be plenty of early adopters who pick up smartwatches, and there will be plenty of feedback for manufacturers from the multitude of reviews both professional and amateur. The technology will mature, and it will likely do so fairly quickly, but in the meantime, it's always good to be cautious.