Today we’re looking at the current lineup of smartwatches from Metawatch, the more casual Strata and the very elegant Frame.
The Galaxy Gear is here. Samsung has pushed smartwatches forward and the question becomes this:
Even at it's best, does anyone really want a smartwatch?
It's an expensive question to consider at the Galaxy Gear's $299 retail price. Luckily a couple of trailblazers before it still have available options that might outlive the still unproven offering from Samsung. Pebble had a very successful Kickstarter push that set some records. They've had some issues to date with delivery though and not everyone is a fan of the one size fits all aesthetic. Metawatch is another company that found more than enough support on Kickstarter to produce the Strata smartwatch. Pebble and Metawatch both chose low power e-ink displays to try to provide basic info for weeks at a time on a single charge. No colors, no video, no games, simple at a glance notifications. Is the experience too simple though? Let's look more in depth at the full line of e-ink smartwatches from Metawatch.
Main advantage: Plenty of colors and multiple designs to choose from, looks like a watch, provides basic info at a glance
Main concern: Price is high considering what Samsung's latest can do, development is slow to non existent
Unique features: e-ink display lasts for at least a week on one charge, charging “clip” is cool but if you lose it or misplace it you are out of luck (a universal solution would have been much more practical)
One thing was certain the day Metawatch was initially conceived, decent watch design wouldn't be an issue. The Metawatch pedigree originates from none other than Fossil. According to that bastion of unquestionable truth, Wikipedia says that Fossil handles the manufacturing for many of today's top fashion watches including Michael Kors and Burberry. The company knows how to make a watch and the look and feel isn't an issue here. There are issues though, and when the competition is as strong as Samsung you can't afford any mistakes. The Metawatch feels like a smartwatch designed by fashion designers instead of software programmers. The tech is catching up to the looks here.
The two Metawatch designs are for two different people. The frame is elegant and perfectly acceptable for business. It's mostly stainless steel with black or white gloss accents and a black or white leather strap that doesn't seem to be able to be changed out. People really are wowed by the simple design and it has a very satisfying weight in the hand or on the wrist. Though they don't advertise it formally, the frame has a 3 ATM water resistance.
Official 3 ATM classification:
“Suitable for everyday use. Splash/rain resistant. NOT suitable for showering, bathing, swimming, snorkeling, water related work and fishing. ”
If that doesn't seem like enough for your and you could be in a pool with your clothes on at any point, the more casual Strata is for you. With a 5 ATM water resistance you can do just about any everyday water related activity without worrying about your watch.
Official 5 ATM classification:
“Suitable for swimming, white water rafting, non-snorkeling water related work, and fishing. ”
The Strata comes in 5 different colors and has a molded plastic face and strap that hugs your wrist. It's large without being gaudy and again, most that I'd encounter enjoyed the look. It's a little different without being too far out.
Both watches are basically the same aside from the superficial. Both have three buttons on each side, identical internal functionality, and a small single point of light that illuminates the screen for about 10 seconds in a pinch. Both watches have the same 96×96 pixel “sunlight readable” reflective mirror display. E-ink is black and gray basically, this is how it conserves battery life in the end. You can toggle between mostly black or mostly gray in the settings but whichever you choose, the screen is an acquired taste. It's only readable to the reader really because you need to look at it dead on or it will be washed out. It does remain very readable in direct sunlight which is a huge plus. Both utilize smart bluetooth 4.0 to conserve battery and they quote 5-7 days of battery life on a charge.
The unmistakeable plus of either Metawatch and other e-ink pieces vs. their colorful counterparts is battery life. The Metawatch will give you a full week of use consistently while the Galaxy Gear can only promise 24 hours with heavy use. Are you ready for yet another device that you need to charge daily? Part of the draw of a smartwatch is not wasting your phone's battery by constantly checking for notifications. Is it better then to just transfer that battery use to another device that you'll pay an extra $300 for? My own answer is no. In practice, I just don't want or need the extra hassle. A device like the Metawatch is very forgiving to the forgetful tech shepard. Once a week is more than enough for a watch.
The main function of any smartwatch are quick glance notifications. For a perfectly executed watch that did just this I would be happy to pay about $100 at best. It's a convenience piece but it's not necessary by any means and the price should reflect that. The lowest priced offering from Metawatch is any of five color options for the basic Strata model at $149. For the price, you'll get a watch that can do a lot in theory but is still struggling to figure itself out. I've personally struggled over how to frame (hehe) Metawatch's offerings for months now. I've been waiting for the company to WOW me with a software update and I genuinely wanted to root for the underdog here. Unfortunately, the company seems all too happy to let the developer community attempt to pick up the slack in their own firmware. Competitors offer many other notifications that Metawatch isn't attempting to match. It's not really Metawatch's fault completely, Samsung just changed the market considerably and to be able to have any real appeal this device needs to do everything originally promised plus more still. There are no fitness applications on the Metawatch. You won't find GPS prompts either. Music control is the one extra feature that the company put some time into. It works well enough, you'll have to press buttons twice at times but the functionality is great overall. Artist and song titles, Volume up and down, track forward and play/pause. No track back, shuffle, or repeat functionality but this is only meant to be a quick glance solution and it works well. On the whole, something like the pebble shows a good deal more functionality next to the Metawatch so we know that more is possible. Metawatch needs to set the tone with their firmware and allow third party developers to enhance it. Instead, Metawatch consistently struggles towards basic functionality while the developers try to make solutions which aren't very pretty in the end and are definitely not for the amateur enthusiast. If you aren't pushing for more as a company, how do I confidently invest in a product from you?
While the watch will work with either iOS or Android, my testing was done exclusively on Android phones. It took months to get here, but all basic functionality is there now. You'll get vibrating quick notifications for text, Gmail, and incoming phone calls. Phone and text notifications are very rich (more on that in a minute) but gmail shows you which inbox received a message but nothing at all about the actual message or the sender. The exact reason you need a quick glance notification of something like email is to decide if a message needs more attention or not, the gmail notification on the Metawatch is essentially useless as is. Text notifications ID the sender and will show about three full sentences worth of characters of the actual message, brilliant. Phone notifications will send a long vibration during incoming calls and display a caller ID along with the time on the screen. If you dismiss the call on the watch then the call is dismissed on the phone as well but you aren't given any other options. Developers have released third party apps that allow you to not only answer calls on the phone from the watch but you can also choose to have the phone answer in speakerphone whenever answered from the watch. This is a clear example of Metawatch waiting for others to expand the functionality of the watch. You'll also see calendar reminders, twitter, and facebook notifications with connected accounts by default. For Facebook, you can choose if you'd like updates for friend requests as well as for unseen messages and notifications. You won't receive full screen notifications for facebook though, instead you have to have a facebook widget on one of your watch's screens and it will update accordingly. You'll select your update interval between every half hour all the way up to once every 24 hours. There isn't a simple way to manually push notifications for the social media obsessed unfortunately. Calendar Notifications are rich as well and they give you all of the relevant details to a point.
You'll set everything up inside of a companion app called Metawatch Manager. The app is actually very well designed and has become a very nice shell to manage content (which the watch still lacks to date) A large connect and disconnect button on the apps main screen aides in initial bluetooth pairing. Once connected you'll see a basic representation of your watch's four screens and their widgets. Though the screen is separated into a four section grid there are widgets to fill two boxes horizontally and vertically as well as full screen watch face widgets. This is the one place Metawatch needed to get right if nothing else... they didn't get it right. Only four watch faces are available for whatever reason. One is a large digital clock face framed by contrasting bars with the day and date as well, nice enough. Next is a graph paper background with the time and date and metawatch's large logo on the bottom. Finally two niche faces for the American market at least. One is the simple date and time and three flying fish? Another is, I assume, a full screen of Chinese Characters. Even Apple's watch shaped iPod nano 6G came with 18 faces I believe by default. The Metawatch ends up being a customizable watch with no options to customize. Even if people were frustrated with a lack of features at least everyone could have a functioning digital watch that they loved the look of individually. Large oversight.
Back to setting up your watch's screens, you'll find different sized widgets for the time, calendar, facebook, your phone's battery, weather, and individual Gmail inboxes. It's all enough to get by, but none of it wows and updates just aren't coming. It's very simple and pleasant to rearrange your screens. You're shown only widgets that will fit on a current screen and you're immediately given a preview on the watch when you change things in the app. In the end I'm just a bit confused. There are so many great ideas started and at a lower price point and with a little bit more attention given, I'd easily pick the Metawatch over any other option on the current market. Unfortunately, they don't seem to want that as much as I do. At this point I can't fully recommend their watches unless you're very patient or a developer yourself that can use the platform to do more. The theme of the watch is untapped potential so if the company gets a jolt of energy sometime soon this could be a must have piece of gear, we'll all have to wait and see.
Thank you again to Metawatch for supplying their product for review.
What's in the box: watch, charging clip, usb charging cable, quickstart instructions
Is it worth buying: E-ink watches are a great idea. Nothing out there has gotten it right all the way just yet. Pebble lacks design creativity and Metawatch can be clunky and is definitely missing features. The Galaxy Gear came in at a $299 price point. For all it can do at that price, companies like Metawatch will need to regroup (Metawatch's limited edition Strata watches cost the same) I have a feeling that an ambitious company will launch a kickstarter soon enough and clearly split this market into two categories. Full color phone replacement watches like Samsung's that don't last that long per charge, cost more, and are luxury pieces for the few at one end. While on the other end, sub $100 functional workhorse e-ink watches that last weeks on a charge, just work at a glance, and look simple without looking cheap. The release of Samsung's latest will obviously push Apple and possibly Google to follow suit and smartwatches might be as prevalent in a year as portable bluetooth speakers are today. Someone will release the ideal watch that I've described above. Metawatch needs to put some effort into it's tech between now and then or risk getting caught in limbo and left behind.
ENJOY YOUR GADGETS!