In some ways, 2014 might be considered the year of the smart watch. A staggering number of watches – in styles from cool and understated to full on Dick Tracy – hit the market last year.
On the other hand, smart watches generally haven’t been a hit with consumers yet. Many people are waiting to see Apple’s take on the "wearable." The Apple Watch, announced in September, is expected to be released in early 2015.
But in the meantime, companies such as Sony and Samsung are hoping that their smart watches will gain a critical mass of users.
As of early 2015, the two best-reviewed smart watches are the Samsung Gear S and the LG G Watch R. The Gear S boasts a large, curved display and its own mobile data connection, which means it can make voice and video calls without needing to be synced with a phone. Samsung’s smart watch is closer to being a phone replacement than a phone accessory: though it still needs to be paired with a Samsung phone to install new apps, it can display notifications, place and receive calls, browse the Web, and track workouts independently.
The downside is that the battery life isn’t exceptional, and the watch runs Samsung’s proprietary Tizen operating system, which means its apps aren’t as well-designed as those for Android Wear, a special version of Android made for smart watches and other small screens. Furthermore, to get the most out of the Gear S, users will need to pay separate data charges for the device. CNET’s Scott Stein concludes, “It has moments of brilliance, but it isn't as fluidly awesome as you'd expect a soup-to-nuts phone/watch running apps could be.”
The LG G Watch R, on the other hand, does run Android Wear. It features a perfectly circular OLED display, and LG allows the user to choose from a selection of watch faces to customize the look of the device. The G Watch R must be synced with an Android phone in order to function (it can’t even display the time on its own) but it can interact with phone apps more smoothly than the Gear S can. The G Watch R also allows for voice dictation and other hands-free interaction, but as of January, its voice recognition software has trouble handling anything but the simplest commands. The watch is waterproof and includes a heart rate monitor, so it’s useful for fitness enthusiasts – but its thick case and so-so battery life are drawbacks.
Other smart watches currently on the market include the Sony Smartwatch 3, which has a relatively minimal design and runs Android Wear smoothly but is hampered by its subpar screen; the Motorola Moto 360, which has a slick design but poor battery life; and the Pebble Steel, an iOS and Android-compatible wearable which displays phone notifications but can’t do much else.
Can Android-based smart watches catch on with customers before the Apple Watch releases this year? Android does have a big head start, since developers and smart watch makers have the chance to collect real-world data on how customers use their watches, and on what features are the most and least important. It’s likely that customers are waiting until the technology matures a bit, and until some company – be it Apple, Samsung, Pebble, or another player – can strike the perfect balance between functionality and ease of use.