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Smartwatches: Not Ready for Prime Time

Smartwatches let you make phone calls, receive texts and detect your pulse—all from your wrist. However, a lack of mobile-application functionality, a limited battery life and lingering skepticism from technology experts means that these devices aren’t for mainstream consumption—yet.

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Once merely an idea that was splashed onto the panels of the “Dick Tracy” comic strip, today’s smartwatches have a bit more functionality than the two-way video communication device that artist Chester Gould envisioned. To be fair, smartwatches have existed since 2009, but thanks to a wave of new devices from Motorola, Pebble, Samsung, Sony and—expected in early 2015—Apple, they’re on the cusp of becoming mainstream. A smartwatch can, among other functions, make phone calls, receive email and texts, measure your pulse, count your steps, capture images and surf the Web.

Consumers are showing increased interest in the devices. Between September 2013 and September 2014, $139 million worth of smartwatches were sold, according to Ben Arnold of The NPD Group, which is a market-research company. “Sales have exceeded my expectations,” he says, adding that the number of shipments increased each month during that period.

In 2014, at least 10 smartwatch models were introduced by major electronics manufacturers, including LG, Motorola, Samsung and Sony, each of which also announced new models for 2015. Pebble became a major player in the field after a successful crowdfunding launch, which raised $10 million on the Kickstarter website. This inspired other startups to turn to similar crowdfunding attempts. At press time, we found at least 150 different smartwatches on the market that ranged from $99 to $450.

Sales of smartwatches are expected to increase dramatically. Citi Research, which is an arm of Citibank, predicts that smartwatches will hit $10 billion in annual sales by 2018. Market-research company BMO Capital Markets predicts that Apple will ship 12 million Apple Watch models in 2015 alone.

However, industry analysts with whom Consumers Digest spoke doubt such projections, because most consumers still haven’t seen, let alone tried, a smartwatch. Consequently, consumers might not be aware of smartwatches’ limitations, including a short battery life, basic functionality, unattractive designs and relatively high costs.

EARLY HICCUPS. Smartwatches can be described best as simplified communication devices. Nearly every smartwatch uses Bluetooth wireless connectivity to tie it to your smartphone and to bring some of the latter’s functionality to your wrist. Samsung became the first exception to this in November 2014 when it introduced the Gear S ($400), which comes with its own 4G radio and, thus, eliminates the requirement for smartphone pairing. However, this means that consumers must add a device to their wireless plan to make full use of the smartwatch’s features. At press time, the lowest price that we found to add a Gear S to an existing mobile plan was $5 per month through Verizon. We didn’t find any other smartwatches that work independently from a smartphone.

By being connected to a smartphone, smartwatches notify users when they receive email, texts or even a phone call through visual cues, vibrations, chimes or a combination of those features. Although this saves users the trouble of pulling out their smartphone to see who’s contacting them, smartwatch screens—typically about 1.5 inches—are too small to display an entire email.

For example, in our hands-on evaluation of the Samsung Gear 2 ($300), we found that notifications provided only the first line or two of an email. If we received multiple email messages at once, however, the notification system directed us to “go to device” (computer or smartphone) and lacked the capability to delete, read or respond to the email messages. Facebook notifications provided even less information—you can see a notification from the social- networking site on your smartwatch if someone comments or posts something on your wall, but you again have to go to the smartphone to see or read the comments. Unsurprisingly, we also found games and other mobile applications difficult to use on such a small screen.

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Still, many experts tell Consumers Digest that they don’t mind the limitations of the screen. Analyst Howard Dresner of Dresner Advisory Services says he always wears a smartwatch. He says it’s much more discreet to glance at his wrist when he’s in a meeting than to check his phone constantly.

Like smartphones, smartwatches typically use an illuminated, full-color touch screen. These screens can drain the battery if they’re left on, so, like smartphone screens, they go black after a few seconds of inactivity to conserve energy. Reactivating the screen requires the push of a button or a strong flick of the wrist. Pebble and a few niche manufacturers get around this by using a low-energy black-and-white, or e-paper, screen that’s similar to that of an e-book reader. This allows the smartwatch screen to remain on at all times. A backlight then helps to illuminate the screen when not enough direct sunlight is available to view it.

Still, battery life remains a concern at this stage of smartwatch development. Eight experts with whom Consumers Digest spoke roundly criticized smartwatches’ short battery life because of the devices’ processors and screens, which require more power than a watch-size battery can provide reliably. Some tell us that their smartwatches require a recharge after less than a day’s worth of use.

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