After trying out Samsung's Galaxy Gear, the Pebble smartwatch and the Fitbit Force exercise band, I'm a bit more bullish about smartwatches, even though these devices are still quite limited in what they can do.
For me, the most useful app so far has been the pedometer that's built into the Galaxy Gear and the Fitbit. Pebble doesn't currently offer a native pedometer app. It does work with some fitness apps, but you have to have your phone with you to use them. There should be plenty of apps for the Pebble once the company's soon-to-be launched app store is a reality, and over time, I'm convinced these types of devices will become indispensable.
The Galaxy Gear, introduced in September at the IFA tech show in Berlin, is a stylish watch that works with only a small number of Samsung phones and tablets, which limits it appeal. I tested a Galaxy Gear watch that was loaned to me by AT&T, along with a compatible Samsung Galaxy 3 smartphone.
The watch, with its steel rim and 1.6 inch color AMOLED display, is attractive as large watches go. And the screen is easy to view, except in bright sunlight. It's comfortable to wear, and Samsung did an OK job making the controls manageable for such a small device.
It comes with a standard micro-USB cord and a proprietary charging cradle. Actually, all three watches I tested have proprietary chargers or cables. I wish they could just connect via a standard micro-USB cable, but perhaps that connector is just a little too big for these watches.
Another issue with all the smartwatches is battery life. Depending on usage, you'll get from one to a few days between charges, which is not much compared to the years I get from the coin-like battery in my not-so-smart watch. Basically, it means carrying the charger with you when you travel, unless it's a really quick trip.
While there are additional apps you can download, the built-in apps are limited. There's a still and video camera app, but the quality from the watch's 1.9 megapixel built-in camera is nothing to get excited about, especially since anyone wearing it is also carrying around a Samsung smartphone with a much better camera.
You can also use the watch to make and receive calls, but the quality isn't nearly as good as it is with the phone. Still, if your phone is deep in your pocket or in a bag or purse, there is something to be said for being able to see who's calling and even answer the call right from your wrist.
Both the Pebble watch and the Samsung Galaxy Gear will notify you and let you read the contents when you get an email or text message. I get a lot of email and most of them are far from urgent, so being informed in real-time that Sears is having a sale is hardly a compelling reason to look at my watch. Text messages tend to be more personal and urgent, so I'm OK with that. And I kind of like the idea that you can figure out who's calling without having to look at your phone. I said "kind of like" because -- for me, at least -- having to take my phone out of my pocket is not that big a deal. These devices have to do more than just solve that "problem" before they have mass appeal.
Of these watches, the one I find myself wearing most is the $150 Fitbit Force, even though it's the least stylish and, theoretically, the least versatile. Fitbit doesn't call itself a smartwatch: it's only major function besides displaying the time of day is to track your footsteps and calculate how many miles you've walked or run and how many calories you've burned so far that day. It can't automatically track other activities, such as cycling, indoor aerobics or swimming. You can manually log those exercises in the Fitbit app, but that's no big deal since there are plenty of free apps that let you manually log exercise and food intake.
One nice feature is that it works with Lose It, the app and website I use to track my food intake and exercise. Fitbit is expected to update the device's software so that it can notify you if a call comes in but, unlike the Samsung watch and the Pebble, you can't download additional apps.
Despite their limitations, I remain bullish about smartwatches because I can see potential, especially if Apple jumps into the fray with a watch that's more stylish and offers more functionality and a robust app store. Someday, I expect these watches to track our activities as well as blood pressure and other vital signs, serve as a TV remote and allow us to start our cars and unlock your front doors. In the mean time, they're interesting gadgets for those of us who don't mind living on the "bleeding edge" of technology.
Contact Larry Magid at email@example.com. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m.