Saturday, September 7, 2013

Review of smartwatch facts, myths and potential

Smartwatches are expected to be the next big hit and are being developed by many big companies, including Samsung (Galaxy Gear) and Apple (iWatch). As with most new things, myths and ambiguous information is circulating on the topic of smartwatches and this review aims to provide the facts, point out the myths and highlight the potential of smartwatches.

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Smartwatches, according to many will sweep across the globe in a similar way as smartphones once did. The concept definitely makes a lot of intuitive sense. A device worn on the wrist that will provide the user with a wealth of information in an extreme accessible format certainly does sound attractive to most people. However, before purchasing a smartwatch, it is definitely worth to consider the facts and the myths. Companies such as Samsung and Apple certainly do their best to exaggerate or seed exaggerated expectations into the minds of their potential customers in order to gain an edge once the product is launched on a large scale. This review will provide some of the known and confirmed facts of smartwatches, the myths that are circulating and summarize the true potential and challenges that are still ahead for smartwatches in general, no matter if it is a Samsung Galaxy Gear or an Apple iWatch.

Smartwatch functions and purpose

The purpose of a smartwatch is to allow a user to easily access and interact with various sources of information. Typically remote information such as e-mails, Twitter tweets or weather conditions. The typical design of a smartwatch to the end user, simply involves a strap around the wrist and a large touch screen that is slightly curved to follow the shape of the wrist of a human. At least currently, both for the Samsung Galaxy Gear and the Apple iWatch it appears that physical buttons will be used at a very minimum and if existing, be hidden from view. 

The availability of the touch screen means that the users will interact with the smartwatches in a similar way they currently interact with their smartphones. Something which is now extremely familiar for most people. This, however, is also the source of some myths.

Smartwatch functionality facts and myths


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The smartwatch functions that are generally marketed by various companies are certainly true. Indeed, you will be able to read or compose e-mails, look up the weather, send out tweets or update your Facebook status. However, what is not always made clear is that smartwatches cannot do all of these things by itself. Instead, smartwatches functions similar to the proven Google Glass design. This means that the smartwatch requires a smartphone that it can use to communicate with the world. The connection is done either through Bluetooth or near field communication (NFC). 

The reasons behind this design is not difficult to realize as the size of a smartwatch simply does not enable feasible means to implement cellular network capability and at the very best it may allow wifi to be integrated. However, even if wifi is integrated, the smartwatch would still rely heavily on a smartphone being in the vicinity due to limitations in computing power and storage capacity. 

As an example, while the Samsung Galaxy Gear does come equipped with a camera. But video recordings can only be 10 s long due to limited memory. After this, the video will automatically be uploaded to the smartphone through Bluetooth. 

Without a communication channel to a compatible smartphone, this means that a smartwatch currently will only be able to display the time and date and possibly other very basic information depending on its design if wifi is available.  This is the case for the Samsung Galaxy Gear and the Apple iWatch will also function through similar means, and of course is definitely not very impressive for a watch that costs several hundreds of USD.

Smartwatch battery life drawback


best iWatch Galaxy Gear battery life
Watches as we currently know them typically require minimal maintenance. For quartz watches, changing batteries are done once every few years and for automatic (self-winding) mechanical watches or solar powered watches, battery changes are obviously never required.

For the case of smartwatches, however, the battery life will become a big nuisance for most people. This is a point that is very seldom spoken about. In fact, both the Samsung Galaxy Gear and the Apple iWatch will typically only last for one day of use, similar to the battery life of a smartphone. This means, that every day, a smartwatch user will have to charge both their smartphone and their smartwatch. For most people, having to charge one device every day may be acceptable, but having to charge two devices can become a huge annoyance factor.  Technically, it is challenging to design batteries that can sustain longer use, and with battery research stagnating, the first generations of smartwatches will likely all have similar "poor" battery life.

Smartwatch compatibility issues


top galaxy gear iWatch compatibility issues problems
Since the smartwatches as we know them today will all rely on the availability of a smartphone or some other portable device that has access to the internet, compatibility will be a source of annoyance for many users. For example, the Samsung Galaxy Gear, at the moment, can only be paired with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and the Note 10.1, with support for Samsung smartphones arriving in October. Similarly, it is expected that the Apple iWatch will only be able to pair with the Apple iPhone and the Apple iPad, something which by design will lock users even further into a platform or company. 

While educated users will not face too many issues with compatibility, most users, however, will likely run into a lot of annoyances as they try to pair their smartwatches with incompatible devices.

Smartwatch potential and future

While many of the topics discussed above may sound very limiting, a smartwatch should essentially be thought of as an advanced remote control to a smartphone. Using a smartwatch, the user will be able to, for example, control music playback, see incoming calls and decide if they are to be dropped and quickly respond to incoming text messages or e-mails based on their urgency without having to pull out their phone from their pockets without pulling out their phone. Compared to the current means to remote control a phone which typically involves a small control on a headset, the availability of a touchscreen enhances the functionality tremendously.

The battery life will probably be the single largest source of nuisance for most people. However, if smartwatches do become a big hit and demand exists, engineers will also focus on enhancing this aspect. For example, it is possible to boost the battery life through solar cells, use motion generators that can charge a battery based on the body motions of a user, or to simply design ever more energy efficient components.

This year and the following few years will be extremely interesting to monitor the market response of smartwatches. Right now, Samsung is among the first on the market with their Samsung Galaxy Gear, but as we know, Apple is working on the iWatch, which based on the history will definitely be a worthy competitor. The question is how the user interfaces will be implemented, if the watches will be able to handle physical punishment while sitting on the wrists of users, and if their prices will be considered reasonable.

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