Smartwatches. What a great idea right? A watch. That is smart. It plays music, notifies me of stuff, controls the music on my phone, helps me navigate, tracks my "fitness", and so and so forth. And most smartwatches can be purchased at not entirely unreasonable prices.
So great, right?
In fact once upon a time I wrote a piece for this very same newspaper recommending a whole bunch of functions, both "non-negotiable" and "good to have", that would make for the ideal smartwatch. (The piece was, if I recall correctly, in the run-up to the launch of the first Apple watch.) I refuse to hyperlink to that article. Because I now realize that I was a complete and utter idiot when I wrote it.
To put all my mistakes in a nutshell: I made the mistake of thinking that the ideal smartwatch would function like the ideal smartphone: an unlimited selection of apps and functions but on the surface of your wrist.
But back then I didn’t know that this was a misconception. So I bought a Pebble smartwatch, off a Kickstarter campaign, and wore it for many weeks. I liked it. It was great fun. Before I realized something. There was a problem. The wrist, I came to realize, was a really bad place to house a computing device.
Try this. Try holding up your wrist and looking at your watch for several minutes. Unless you have a highly developed set of muscles in your forearm (for whatever reason, I am not going to judge you), this is actually quite painful to do. So, very quickly, I realized that there was really no point in installing all kinds of complicated apps on my smartwatch. I just did not have the patience or weight training discipline to hold up my wrist by the side of the road, scrolling through several pages of text to figure out when my next bus was.
As time passed, and my arm began to wither away, I realized that the most gratifying way to use the Pebble was to actually use it for some pretty basic operations: control the music on my phone, measure steps, some message notifications, display a second timezone and, most important of all, vibrate when I get a call. (You see, I hate the ringtone on a mobile phone. It freaks me out and gives me tremendous stress. I am not sure why. Therefore I always keep my phone on vibrate mode. Which means I miss a LOT of calls. But not if my wrist vibrates each time.)
Thus, when the market for such devices exploded with Apple Watches and Android Wear models, all far more capable than the Pebble, I was interested only as a journalist and not as a consumer. I tracked the market, spoke to people, reported on trends and so on. But never considered spending any money on them and procuring them for long term use. I tested a few and always came back to the same issue: holding up your arm to compute is just very disagreeable. Later I realized a second problem that made things worse.
Try this. Try holding up your wrist. And now poke at it with your other hand. Do that a few times. Now both your arms—the poker and the poked—hurt. Because holding up your wrist and poking at it with a finger is one of the most unnatural things you can do. (Generally speaking. Not being judgmental.)
This is why, for decades, centuries even, watchmakers have been designing watches that can tell you a buttload of information at a single glance. Take a fairly complicated traditional wristwatch. Just a single glance will tell you the time, the day, date, perhaps moonphase, a second time zone… whatever.
The dial-face of a traditional watch, regardless of how ancient most people think of mechanical or quartz watches as being, is the product of centuries of innovation, evolution, improvement and continuous human observation. It has been designed so that anyone—Napoleon, Eisenhower, Baron Richthofen, Gandhi, your grandmother—could glance at it and immediately process volumes of information.
Can smartwatches achieve the same seamless transmission? I am not so sure.
And so, things stood for a long time, I would wear my Pebble occasionally. But also my HMT, Seiko, Casio, and all the other pieces in my collection.
And then a couple of months ago, by a strange coincidence, I was given three smartwatches to review at approximately the same time. One of TAG Heuer’s Connected smartwatches, a Sony SmartWatch SWR50 and, most interesting of all, a Skagen Hagen Connected Hybrid Smartwatch.
The TAG Heuer watch was, as you would expect, superbly manufactured and sat beautifully on the wrist. It was powered by a somewhat customized version of Android Wear and worked very very smoothly. I doubt there is a better execution of Android Wear in the market. But all this comes at a TAG Heuer price. And besides, like I said before, if you only use it for the basic functions like I do, that price is something to think over.
I did not like the Sony watch at all. It was a pain to activate and connect to, the instructions online were ambiguous, and I spent the first couple of days doing nothing but updating the watch software. Over and over again. Besides, I didn’t like the way the watch was put together. It all felt a bit meh. (Sony, did not expect this from you.)
And then I thought to myself, why not try using the watch for notifications and such like? Oh my god. My wrist just kept pinging away all day. Instantly deactivated. There are two things going for the watch however. Firstly you can charge with with a micro-USB cable. And secondly the watch is comparatively cheap, at around £200.
I strapped on the Skagen Hagen (ugh) expecting to like the watch without using it smartly in anyway. You see, the Hagen looks almost exactly like a normal watch. It doesn’t have a touch-screen, Android Wear, or anything else you’d associate with a smartwatch.
It is, as the name says, a hybrid. A watch that tells the time, but also has an additional dial that helps communicate a few things: a second time zone, a the date, who is calling you right now, an alarm and, most prominently, how close you are to meeting your fitness target (in my case, 10,000 steps). Then there are buttons that can be assigned to various tasks, including music controls, a vibration alerting system and a sleep-tracking algorithm.
You know what? I love the Hagen. I really do. It does all the things I use most in a smartwatch—call alerts, steps tracking, music controls—without any of the stuff that drives me insane—poking, prodding, waiting for screen to activate, swiping and even charging (the watch runs off a watch cell battery like normal watches). Connecting it to my phone was a breeze, and, subsequent updates to the firmware have enhanced functionality. Also the watch is cheap. You could get one for around $150 right now.
And I love it. Really. In as far as you should trust journalist reviews of devices, I highly recommend the Skagen Hagen, and similar hybrid models, if anyone is in the market for a watch that is just smart enough to get things done. A vibration here, an alarm there, a second time zone here, pause your podcast there. And if you don’t want any of that faff? No problem. It is an entirely respectable watch that tells the time.
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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