Not so long ago, smartwatches were touted as the latest and greatest. Today? Not so much. Sales numbers from Q3 of 2016 suggested a sharp decline in the segment and that, at least for now, the market has cooled. Hell, type “smartwatches are” into Google and the drop-down suggestions finish that phrase with “dead,” “dumb,” “pointless” and “stupid.” The issue? While smartphones, laptops (or tablets) have become de facto necessities in modern life, smartwatches have yet to prove themselves as essential.
That isn’t to say they’re useless — studies and surveys on consumers’ use of smartwatches show that a considerable amount of people’s usage comes from quick glances for time and notifications, with fitness and health tracking also being a big draw. But with low battery life (roughly a day or so for the most part) and generally dorky looks, the smartwatch market leaves potential buyers wondering if plunking down anywhere from $270 to $1,050 for, say, an Apple Watch 2 is actually worth it.
Hybrid smartwatches, however, are a burgeoning niche in wearables that offer something of a compromise. Powered by a traditional watch battery in lieu of lithium ion, they have months of life, and with analog dials and hands, there’s little to tell them apart from any decent-looking quartz piece. Yet hidden inside are sensors and processors that offer fitness tracking and notifications in addition to the time; simply connect your watch to your phone via Bluetooth, download a corresponding app and you’re good to go. For some, it might be enough to keep with the technological times without turning into an Inspector Gadget-esque hyperconnected mess.
It’s a nascent market, first pioneered years ago by the likes by both gadget companies like Withings and even Swiss watchmakers like Frederique Constant. But more and more watches are cropping up. Fossil recently launched some 40 hybrids across all of its brands; MMT — which comprises Frederique Constant, Mondaine and Alpina’s smart offerings — is on its second generation of “Horological Smartwatches”; Timex launched its latest take on the style; and there are a number of analog smartwatch projects today on Kickstarter.
So, are we at the dawn of the future of watches? I tested two different models to find out.
Timex IQ+ Move
The IQ+ Move is the second hybrid in Timex’s stable, and while it shares the same connected app as its first hybrid, the Metropolitan+, the look has been streamlined significantly, with shapely lugs and a cleaner dial. The watch is available in polished stainless steel with a leather strap or black-finished stainless steel on rubber. At 41mm it’s reasonably sized; just like any Timex, if you push in the crown the brand’s iconic Indiglo lights up the entire dial.
Timex’s Connected app offers loads of functionality. For starters, the Timex adjusts to the time and date on your smartphone, so there’s no need to ever fiddle with the crown at all, even for daylight savings. Setting up the app takes just a couple minutes: it prompts you to enter in data like your height and weight and asks you to enter your planned goals for steps, miles walked, calories burned and hours slept. You can then choose the progress of one of those goals to be displayed on the subdial at four o’clock.
Syncing the watch, though, isn’t the most streamlined process. First, you need to open up the app, then tap the sync icon on your phone. The app then prompts you to hold down the crown for five seconds until you hear three chimes. For initial setup, it’s no big thing — but it’s a ritual you need to repeat any time you want to transfer data from your watch to your phone. Overall it’s livable, albeit cumbersome.
The Timex app, for the most part, is solid for the basics. It tracks your steps, it measures the distance you’ve walked, it estimates the calories you’ve burned in a day (taking in both your basic metabolic rate and calories burned through activity) and it keeps track of the length and quality of your sleep. But that’s it. If you’re just counting calories and trying to make an effort to be healthier and more active, it’s a great ally. On the other hand, fitness buffs looking for more nuanced health info to hone their workout routine might be disappointed.
In terms of performance, I had issues with the sensitivity of the tracker itself. On one visit to my rec center, I ran four miles, according to the treadmill. The Timex, on the other hand, only counted about three. More damning was that later that night, I spent a couple hours playing Roller Coaster Tycoon Classic on my iPad (it’s a great game; buy it), which the watch logged as sleep. Maybe it was trying to tell me something.
That said, Timex lets you adjust the sensitivity of the watch sensor on the app — a bit of a finicky trial-and-error affair. For its faults, though, consider that at $150 it’s one of the cheapest trackers you can buy and, all and all, I’d argue that were it a standard quartz watch you could do a hell of a lot worse. The fitness tracking is icing on the cake.
Frederique Constant Notify Horological Smartwatch
Spending around $650 more gets you the Frederique Constant Notify, the second coming of the brand’s original Horological Smartwatch concept. Like the Timex, there’s a lot a streamlining going on with the Notify, compared to its predecessor. Gone is the date/activity progress subdial of the original at six o’clock; now, activity is monitored by a scale in the middle of the dial, accessed by pressing in the crown. The hour hand aligns with either the sleep icon at four o’clock or the activity icon at eight o’clock (indicating which goal you’ve selected), while the minute hand circles the dial, stopping at the percentage of your goal you accomplished. Syncing is also as easy as a simple tap of the crown while the app is up.
Like the Timex, the corresponding app for the Frederique Constant tracks steps, distance, calories and length and quality of sleep; it too syncs with your smartphone’s time. However, Frederique Constant also added a second time zone function (activated by pressing the crown three times), and the watch will also vibrate to notify you if you have a call or a new email. Better news also if you’re a fitness buff — an additional app, SwissConnect Gym, is available to track weight goals and muscle-building exercises.
The Frederique Constant also suffered from a less-than-perfect sensor, though to a lesser extent — a three-mile run on the treadmill clocked in at 2.8 miles on the watch. The bigger issue with the Frederique Constant is that to get the most out of any connected piece, you need to wear it all day, every day — and, while the Notify is fine as everyday wear, it’s not as comfortable for exercise and sleep. The Timex actually fared well during sleep and exercise because of its supremely comfortable rubber strap; the Frederique Constant has a stiffer leather strap that, while easy on the eyes, absorbed sweat during my workouts and was uncomfortable to sleep in. Investing in an additional steel bracelet, or a NATO or rubber strap for it wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Thing is, I genuinely enjoyed wearing both the Timex and the Frederique Constant. For all their foibles, they proved that the idea of dumb watches with smart features has legs.
So should you buy one? That depends. If you’re looking for basic health and fitness tracking and notifications, the current crop of hybrid smartwatches should suffice. I certainly appreciated the motivation that even a ballpark estimate of my daily caloric burn provided. If you’re looking for more functionality, though, it might be worth waiting, as the future looks pretty good. For example, the latest watch from Withings is the first to incorporate heart rate monitoring into the concept. Meanwhile, Fossil announced at this year’s CES that it would continue to invest in its own connected watch ventures, both hybrid and full-on smartwatches. And who knows what will get launched at Baselworld? It’s a space we intend to keep our eyes on this year, as should you.