After speaking with Sony’s smart technology team in Japan and trying out these two smartwatches, I predict whether or not either will take off
With the introduction of the Apple Watch a few months back, a fledgling smartwatch arms-race has taken shape. And while several developers (Samsung, Motorola, and Pebble, to name a few) have already made a modest splash or two in their own sections of the digital pond, others are tucking in their legs and going for the cannonball.
Sony is betting that the third time will be the charm with its aptly-named SmartWatch 3 (starting at $249.99), and Will.i.am’s company i.am+ is seeking to marry form and function with the new i.amPULS smart cuff (starting at $399 by invitation only), which is set to hit the market this spring. Either of these devices could create a tsunami that would blow their competitors out of the virtual water—or, they could silently sink below the surface, never to be heard from again. Let’s see which is more likely:
Sony SmartWatch 3
Sony isn’t the least bit embarrassed about the less-than stellar reception that its two previous forays into the smartwatch market have received. In fact, it sees itself as perfectly poised to dominate the oncoming watch wars, thanks to its ability to learn from its past mistakes.
Or as Stefan K. Persson, head of companion products at Sony, told me, “Competitors are only now launching first generation devices, while we are already launching our third generation device with all the insight gained from over half a million customers combined with Sony’s wealth of technology expertise to create the best ever smartwatch experience.”
And what ‘insight’ have they gained? Well, for one thing, they’ve dropped their own Micrium uC/OS-II operating system (which was used on the SmartWatch 2) in favor of the Android Wear operating system. This update not only improves user interface, but also grants the added bonus of making the watch compatible with any phone running Android 4.3 or higher. And, thanks to Android’s open-door policy in regards to third-party app developers, the SmartWatch 3 experience will be as customizable as any user could want.
The watch can be operated not only through direct contact with the screen, but also allows for voice control. By verbally accessing the built-in virtual assistant (Google Now), wearers are able to get answers to questions, send messages, make appointments, etc.
The watch features a rectangular shaped 1.6” 320×320 TFT LCD Transflective display screen (meaning it’s designed to remain perfectly visible even in direct sunlight) set in a waterproof plastic shell with a polished metal casing. The watch is designed with durability in mind, but also manages to avoid appearing bulky when worn, thanks to the design of the removable silicone strap.
On the other hand, the strap itself doesn’t breathe as well as a leather one would, and the adjustable clasp — while useful for making sure that the watch fits snug against the wrist — has a painful tendency to pull out any arm hairs that it comes into contact with. Still, it’s likely that Sony will eventually offer other strap designs, given that the watch itself is easily removable from the band.
Charging the phone is done through the use of a micro USB cord, the port for which is set into the back of the watch face. The battery (a 420mAh) can keep the watch running for over 48 hours between changing breaks, depending upon just how much use the watch is getting.
Beyond telling time and sharing alerts sent by the wearer’s phone, the watch also allows users to check their email, take phone calls, track their daily exercise (despite the conspicuous and disappointing absence of any kind of heart-rate sensor), and more. The built-in Bluetooth connectivity that makes it possible for the watch to communicate with an Android smartphone also enables the use of Bluetooth headphones.
This is important, because the watch is capable of storing music offline (up to 4GB, given its current storage capacity), so users can enjoy their favorite tunes even when they don’t have their phone nearby (such as when they are out jogging). Something similar can be said for the built-in GPS feature, although using it has a tendency to drain battery life at a significantly increased rate.
All in all, the SmartWatch 3 is a step in the right direction, offering solid design through minimalist style, with just enough innovation to keep things interesting.
On the other side of the coin, you have the i.amPULS. The brainchild of pop star-turned-tech-designer will.i.am, Puls (pronounced “pulse”) is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. For one thing, it’s not a watch. Yes, it wraps around a user’s wrist. And yes, it displays the time.
However, as will.i.am is quick to point out, “Watches don’t have SIM cards.” So, what is it then? According to will.i.am, it’s a cuff. Do cuffs generally contain SIM cards? Well, that’s a question beyond the scope of this review.
Puls is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. The one-inch-wide cuff comes with 16GB of internal storage, 1GB of RAM, and 3G connectivity. Setting it apart from other smartwatches on the market, Puls does not need to be used in conjunction with a smartphone; it’s capable of operating completely independently. As such, it features WiFi capability, as well as a built-in GPS device. As far as the data plan goes, AT&T is currently the only provider with plans to support Puls, but that could certainly change if the cuff’s popularity were to take off.
Puls eschews the tried-and-true operating systems favored by most other smart wearables in favor of its own unique OS. Interfacing with the device is accomplished through a series of swipes, which may take a certain amount of getting used to. Of course, verbal commands can be issued as well via Puls’ Virtual assistant, AneedA. The cuff does its best to take the place of a user’s smartphone, and thus it includes the ability to send and receive phone calls. Texting through Puls is also a possibility, and can be accomplished through verbal commands to some degree of accuracy. Or, one can instead choose to use the onscreen keyboard to type messages. Unfortunately, this is where certain problems arise.
The screen itself is rather small, and the resolution leaves something to be desired, so hitting all of the correct letters on the first try may be unlikely. That’s a problem, because the keyboard lacks a delete key—backspacing can only be accomplished by performing a long swipe to the left. In fact, there isn’t any space key, either (long swipe to the right for that one).
According to will.i.am, a major focus of technology should always be fashion (or fashionology, as he describes it). Unfortunately, for many early users, Puls fails to really deliver in the fashion arena. The band is large and clunky, and completely inflexible, making it an uncomfortable and unattractive accessory around many wrists.
But enough of the standard stuff; what really sets the Puls apart is where it leaves the beaten-path and ventures instead into the realm of the weird. The battery—despite carrying a charge that will only power the device for a few hours—can actually be recharged by wearing a specially designed jacket. The jacket is said to be able to increase the cuff’s battery life by several days.
Making a phone call? Instead of the classic touch-tones that have been a feature of telephones since the end of the age of rotary dialing, Puls opts to use will.i.am’s voice to actually sing the numbers to users while they dial. Users may also be interested to use the ‘Humin’ app, which will allow wearers to exchange personal information simply by clicking their cuffs together.
The cuff even features a pre-loaded app called Vibe+, an emotion-sensing program which uses verbal clues to determine a user’s current emotional state. Users simply speak into the cuff for approximately twenty seconds, and the app then rewards positive emotions with on-screen graphics of gems, as well as points which can be shared between other users … for some reason. Yes, it sounds crazy on paper, but chances are it’s just as crazy in practice.
Of course, there are still a number of objectively practical features to help round out the more off-the-wall ones. Puls can function as a pedometer, accelerometer, be used to access various social media sites, store a user’s music, and may feature even more useful apps as they are created. On the other hand, given that Puls will only be able to access apps featured on its own custom app store, the availability of third-party apps will likely be limited—at least for the time being.
Yes, Puls is crazy, but it may just be crazy enough to work. If users can get around some of the more perplexing problems associated with interface and comfort, they may just find a unique smartwatch experience that sets a new benchmark for wearable tech for years to come.
The views expressed are of the author.
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