What makes a watch smart? Some would argue that mechanical gears operating in perfect syncopation already represents vast intelligence, but these days a watch is expected to do more than just tell time. In some cases, much more.
Witness the Motorola Moto 360, the latest gadget that aims to put the world on your wrist — or at least the Google-y parts. It’s an attractive, ambitious device, a sexy HDTV to the Pebble’s black-and-white cathode tube. Nothing else comes close — not yet, anyway. The Apple Watch, also announced last month, appears to raise your wrist IQ even higher.
But for now we have the Moto, so let’s take a look at what it does — and, more important, how well it does it. Or if it should do it at all.
This is not going to be a traditional review, and let me preface it by saying I have three basic requirements for a smartwatch (which may well vary from your own): nice design, simplistic operation, and reasonable price. If it looks like a PalmPilot strapped to my wrist (cough, Pebble, cough), I won’t wear it. If it has an over-complicated or buggy interface (Sony SmartWatch 2), I won’t use it. And if it costs too much (Apple Watch), I won’t buy it.
My Moto, My Self
At first blush, the Moto 360 appears to hit all the right notes. It’s a stunner with its round watch face, though it’s still larger and thicker than one would like. (I understand accommodations must be made when you pack so much electronic wizardry into such a comparatively small space.)
The interface, powered by Android Wear, keeps things reasonably simple; double-tap to invoke Google Now voice commands, or swipe in various directions to access various functions. More on this in a minute.
Finally, the Moto 360 is certainly not cheap at $249.99, but it doesn’t feel overpriced. Rather, you feel like you’re getting a pretty nice deal on an advanced luxury timepiece-cum-smartphone-accessory.
And that’s ultimately what the watch is: An extension of your smartphone. One that delivers notifications (calls, appointments, text messages) to your wrist. Likewise, it shoehorns Google Now onto a small, round screen, letting you easily retrieve stock quotes, driving directions, weather alerts, and the like.
Mo’ Features, Mo’ Problems
All this is fine — good, even — but here’s where the Moto 360 goes overboard: fitness tracking. Specifically, the watch keeps tabs on both your steps and your heart rate. No doubt those features add to the device’s bulk, and to little benefit. All this quantified-self stuff? Buncha hooey. A smattering of users might modify their lifestyles toward a 10,000-daily-steps goal, and an even smaller subset might target their workouts to a particular heart rate. I’m not sure who decided all smartwatches should double as pedometers and triple as heart monitors, but it’s to the device’s detriment.
Indeed, when I look at the watch, a full third of the screen is occupied by a step-count banner. If I swipe to get rid of it, I usually (though not always) end up at some other screen I didn’t want. And if I decide I want it back, I can’t figure out how to restore it. Likewise, the interface is really wonky if you want it to show your heart rate.
In other words, Motorola decided to pack in extra features I don’t want, price the Moto 360 higher than perhaps needed, and add a confusing layer to the interface. Oh, and let’s not forget battery life: The 360 is good for a day, period. And while the little inductive-charging cradle is mighty cool, it’s awfully impractical for travel.
If I could take this gizmo back to the drawing board, it would emerge as the Moto 180. Same basic design, but slimmer because it has no fitness features. Or, heck, leave it chunky, but pack in a bigger battery. Or engineer a self-charging feature that draws power from motion or the heat of your skin. If nothing else, the watch needs to charge using the same cable that charges your phone. Any other option adds too much to the hassle factor, at least when traveling.
250 = 360
Let me sum all this up by saying the Moto 360 is a nice piece of hardware, one that any Android user would likely find an asset to his or her wrist. (Sorry, iPhone crowd — this one won’t pair with iOS). It’s cool, capable, and leaps and bounds ahead of most of the competition. And $250 just isn’t a bad price.
On the other hand, the original Pebble now sells for $99, and although it’s an ugly chunk of plastic, it gets the feature set almost exactly right. No superfluous fitness stuff, just useful notifications and info — plus decent battery life. Are you listening, Motorola? And Apple? And Samsung and Sony and all the rest of you? It’s time for someone to get this exactly right.
Photo credits: Motorola, Rick Broida