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ALAN ZISMAN ON TECHNOLOGY

Wearables - The next big thing?   

By Alan Zisman
2016  2016-01-15


If you're wearing a smartwatch right now, show me your wrist. Okay, you can both put your arms down.

Tech manufacturers are always on the lookout for the next big thing. PC sales slowing? That's okay - we can sell you tablets. Digital music players and camera sales slumping? That's because you're buying smartphones. And replacing your smartphone (and maybe your tablet) with a bigger smartphone.

For a while now, the category to watch (sic) has been 'wearables' - primarily watches that do more than tell time. For the past year or so, that product category has looked like smartphone deja vu, with the Apple Watch competing with a variety of products based on Google's Android Wear competing with a variety of independents such as Pebble.

I've often been a tech early adaptor but I've resisted jumping into the wearable market. I've wondered how usable and useful they actually were - whether we'd hit the limit of miniaturization of our user interfaces. I've tended to not want to use devices that expect me to talk to them - partly because I've been diagnosed with a voice disorder, partly because I don't much want to be one of those people that mumbles to their technology when out on the street.

Still, when the Vancouver PR rep from the company with Motorola's account asked if I wanted to borrow one of their Moto 360 smartwatches, I was happy to agree.

Even though the whole category of wearables is comparatively new, the Moto 360 is already in its second generation - the first versions were released in September 2014, while the new models were announced a year later. Both models feature a round design - in contrast to the rectangular Apple Watch and many Android Wear designs. The 2G Moto 360s can be recognized at a glance by their removable watch bands and by having a 'home button' on the side of the case similar to the one on old analog watches used to change the time. While the button on old-style watches is typically at the 3:00 mark, on the new Moto 360s, it's up at an angle, around the 2:00 point.

The updated Moto 360 offers a higher resolution (360x325 pixel) display, a more powerful processor, and improved battery life compared to the first-generation models (which can be found on sale in a variety of online locations).

This new generation of Moto 360 comes in a couple of sizes with either 46 or 42 mm displays, with the 42 mm models being marketed as 'men's' or 'women's' versions - the difference being in the colour of the watch case and the colour and width of the bands. The larger 46 mm model is only available in 'men's' colours.

Like Motorola's smartphones, you get the widest selection of options through the company's Moto Maker websites. Options vary by country - the US site is at: http://www.motorola.com/us/products/moto-360, for instance. Canadians, however, seem to be out of the Motorola-customization loop and limited to whatever options individual retailers choose to offer.

I had the loan of a steel 46 mm 'men's' watch and a rose-gold 42 mm 'women's' model.

A pair of Moto 360s

(There are also Moto 360 Sport models, with sweat-resistant plastic bands integrated onto the bodies, built-in GPS, and a screen that Motorola claims is viewable indoors and out).

Prices starts at US$299 for the 42 mm men's and women's models - including the Sport. Options chosen may raise that price: the 46 mm model, for instance, is an extra $50. A textured bevel adds $20, a gold case adds $30, a metal watch band, $50. Inevitably, in Canada pricing is higher and customation is more limited.

When I first took the larger Moto 360 out of it's packaging, my initial reaction was that it was too big to be comfortable. After wearing it, though, I quickly got used to its size. The smaller 42 mm watch (in men's or women's styles) inevitably comes with a smaller display, though it has the same number of pixels as the larger model resulting in smaller but sharper text and images. It also has a smaller battery (300 mAh compared to the larger model's 400 mAh) which will result in shorter battery life - Motorola rates the larger model at a day and a half's use, while rating the smaller models at one day. My results were somewhat better.

After downloading Android Wear and Moto Body apps onto my Android phone, I was quickly able to pair the watch with my phone via Bluetooth. (Android Wear phones can also be paired to Apple iPhones - Apple doesn't support pairing its Apple Watch to Android phones, however).

Pairing the watch to a phone is necessary if you want to make full use of the phone's capabilities. Once paired, the watch displays notifications, Google Now cards, plays music stored on the phone, and interacts with fitness and other apps. The Moto 360 Sport's built-in GPS lets it be used for some fitness applications in the absence of a nearby phone - but in general, the watch needs to be thought of as an extension of your smartphone. (The Moto 360 is one of only a few watch models to include WiFi - with that enabled, the watch can - in the presence of a WiFi network - get data from your phone 'from the cloud' if your phone isn't nearby).

Once paired with the phone, the Android Wear app can be used to customize the phone's display - there are several sets of optional watch faces included, with more downloadable. I chose a fairly conventional analog-style watch face - in teal blue - with three smaller dials displaying the date, the weather, and the distance that I'd walked each day.

Along with that information, notifications from my phones popped up on the watch - covering the bottom third of the display. A quick peak would show me my latest email message - at least the subject and the sender's name. Or a quick news headline. Or the weather.

A quick wrist motion could move through the notifications - or dismiss them entirely. I never quite got the hang of the various wrist motions, though, and sometimes found movements I was making changed the phone's screen seemingly at random.

Some of the notifications were less useful. On my phone, I use the very attractive Yahoo Weather app. On the watch I often got a notification simply reading 'Yahoo Weather'. Thanks for nothing. The Android Wear phone app's settings can be used to control which apps display notifications on the phone.

From time to time, text would appear at the top of the watch display reading 'OK Google' - clearly a reminder of the spoken phrase to invoke Google Now on an Android smartphone. And when I spoke the magic words to my wrist, Google Now appeared and answered a question.

Once.

Other times I tried, nothing happened.

I liked having a display of how many paces I'd walked that day and was pleased to see that I met my fitness goal - at least for walking - nearly every day. (I owe that to having a dog who needs walks throughout the day. In fact, I'm going to pause writing this article to take Roxie out right now).

Weekly I got an email from the Moto Body app reporting heart activity, steps, estimated calories burnt, and more. Thanks to Roxie, I seemed to be doing pretty well.

Moto Body report

I'd stopped wearing a (standard) wrist watch about five years ago, checking my phone if I needed to know the time. But I found I quickly got back in the habit of looking at my wrist frequently. For the phone, the temperature outside, how far I'd walked so far today, and my email and other notifications. Much more convenient that maneuvering my phone out of my pocket.

The Moto 360 easily lasted all day. I typically charged it over night - convenient since it comes with a wireless charging cradle. (When it sits in the cradle, it displays the time, making it usable as a night-clock). A couple of times I didn't charge it over night, and it lasted for two days. (Your use may vary).

After the first couple of weeks, though, I found myself glancing at it less often - and then mostly to get the time. After a month, I returned the watches. And though I caught myself looking at my wrist a few times over the next couple of days, I quickly lost that habit.

I guess I didn't find myself needing a smartwatch. Maybe that will change as the technology evolves. Or not.

Interested in a Moto 360? Check out:













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About This Blog...

I've been writing about computers, software, Internet and the rest of technology since 1992, including a 17 year (1995-2012) stint as 'High Tech Office' columnist for Business in Vancouver. This blog includes thoughts on technology, society, and anything else that might interest me. Comments, emailed to alan@zisman.ca are welcome - and may be published in whole or part. You can follow me on Twitter or Google + for notice of new blog postings.
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