Wearables show promise; Moto 360 one of the best

Published 5:00 pm Wednesday, February 18, 2015

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Part of the reason I stopped wearing a watch is because of my cellphone. So why would I want a watch that just shows what’s on my phone?

It’s a question more and more people are asking as smartwatches and other wearables start hitting the market in earnest. The Apple Watch, due to release in April, appears poised to redefine what a wearable can be. BlackBerry is rumored to be diving into smartwatches. And in true Samsung fashion, the company has released several wearable options, from VR headsets to FitBit competitors.

But it’s hard to get around that core question of relevance. Why do we need a redundant gadget around our wrist that replicates only part of the things our cellphones do?

I’ve been working with a Motorola Moto 360 connected to a Samsung Galaxy Note Edge — both on loan from AT&T. After about two weeks of testing and taking notes, I noticed that they fell into two distinct categories:

• Do I need a smartwatch?

• Do I need Motorola’s Moto 360?

A lot of people have the same question, judging from the reactions and questions I got while wearing this. The most common question — “Why?” — has one of the easiest answers: “Because it’s cool.” That’s not a very detailed answer, admittedly. So this review will be done FAQ style.

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• Do you like traditional watches? If yes, you’re going to hate not only the Moto 360, but also any soulless blank screen without fine mechanics. Avoid them all. Run away.

• Do you like gadgets around your wrist? If yes, you’re going to love the world of wearables, and you probably already have one now. The Moto 360 is powered by Android Gear, which means there are plenty of apps available for a variety of tasks. There are even a couple of video games, but playing a game on a dinky screen is an exercise in patience.

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• Do you like customizing your watch like it’s a Swatch? The Moto 360 has several design options for those who like a change of face.

First off, the Moto 360 is one of the only round devices of its kind — all other wearable wrist devices have square or rectangular faces — and actually resembles a watch.

Moto offers several looks in body and band style, including a slimmer metal band. The combinations still look heavy duty — guys will love each option, but the bulky face and band may frighten off those who are selective about the jewelry they wear. And there’s no changing the face: It has a diameter of about 1 3/4 inches and is about 3/8 inches thick. Kinda big.

But that’s not unreasonable for a timepiece, and the stainless steel model with black Horween leather certainly looked like it. This thing looks SHARP on my wrist, and fit in with my more dressed up looks.

And the faces are even more flexible. There are plenty of faces to download and buy, from minimal classic looks to functional apps, such as a weather radar. From whimsical designs to mechanical gears, the face can match any mood. The unit’s 320-by-290 display shows them all crisply.

But the unit is also tough. I imagine fans of traditional watches wish their timepieces had Corning Gorilla Glass. After two weeks, I didn’t see a single scratch or ding. The device is rated for IP67 water resistance, so hand-washing shouldn’t stress you out.

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• Do you use an iPhone? Wait for the Apple Watch. It’s supposed to change our lives (for the two hours that the battery is supposed to last — ZING!). As for now, most wearables operate with Android-powered phones. That means Apple users should be patient. As for BlackBerry and Windows Phone users: There is nothing in your future. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

• Do you rely on Android’s notification system to keep up with texts, social networks, etc? You will love the Moto 360, powered by Android Wear. Connected to the Note Edge by Bluetooth, the 360 kept me notified instantly of everything, from missed calls to upcoming events.

I was able to see Facebook and Twitter interactions, and in some cases, able to read the actual message on the display. I received briefings from Google Now about everything from weather updates to New Orleans Pelicans scores. It works tremendously.

That’s the strength of the 360: It lets you use your phone without actually picking up your phone. This is fantastic if you’re in a meeting, at work or especially driving — I was able to read texts quickly and send them using voice commands.

• Do you like speaking loudly to things that don’t understand you? The Moto 360 is up your alley.

While the Moto 360 is decent in terms of hardware, it just can’t keep up with the processing power of a normal smartphone. That means speech recognition doesn’t work as fast. You’ll have to be a little bit patient and wait for the watch to translate. Once you learn when to speak and when to wait, you’ll be able to send a text or make a call without a hitch.

• Do you like doing everything a smartphone does on a much smaller device? That’s kind of an unfair question, because wearables aren’t being marketed that way. There’s a lot that the watch can open up on your smartphone, but many of those have limited advantages, such as playing music.

Some popular apps also have watch applications, such as Evernote. But those apps are limited in what you can do — Evernote, for instance, would let me only look at existing notes, not upload a new voice note. I didn’t have much success getting turn-by-turn navigation to open up through the watch, either. Every time I said “Navigate home,” I got Google results for people who were complaining that the feature wasn’t working on their devices.

The bottom line is that it can’t do any of those things as well as your smartphone.

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• Do you love your FitBit or other health-related gadget? The 360 may be tempting, but the lack of developed software will probably scare you away. It has a good pedometer and heart rate monitor, and Moto Body is a decent skeleton app. And because the device is IP67 water resistant, it will deal with the sweat of a good jog just fine. 

But there are so many redundant health programs — between the 360 and Note, I had Moto Body, Google Fit and S Health all telling me I haven’t done anything for an hour — and none of them are as developed or customizable as other, better apps. Worse yet, the Moto 360 didn’t sync steps with all of those apps, particularly S Health, which I have used while reviewing Samsung devices. 

So keep your FitBit. The 360 is better suited for daily use, and its $249.99 price tag is competitive only with FitBit’s higher-end models.

• Do you hate it when Bluetooth devices don’t sync up? The Moto 360 is free from a lot of those problems. When I would return to the Edge after walking away, it would reconnect seamlessly. Once the watch is paired, it’s a strong pairing.

Updating is another matter, though: One system update required a full battery, which meant the notification of that update wouldn’t clear. That ugly thing was staring at me all night.

As for charging: The Moto 360 is meant for daily use, so get in the habit of charging it overnight. The charging cradle can be stashed on a bedside table or by where wallets and keys are kept. I was caught off-guard once, when the battery appeared to get drained without letting me know. But that was before the above-mentioned system update; after that, I got notifications just fine.

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• Should I buy a wearable? And that’s the biggest question, isn’t it?

The Moto 360 is one of the best on the market. It has some of the best hardware, a fashionable, professional look and the classic round face. The look is so sharp that I didn’t even have issues with the “flat tire,” a blank strip of black at the bottom that has been a source of some criticism. I was really happy with how it looked and felt.

As far as functionality, the watch is basically an advanced notification screen. I love being able to work through notifications instead of going through apps, and the Moto 360 is made to do just that. That was the best part of using the watch, in fact: Seeing news, emails, messages and more at a glance on my wrist was fantastic.

The price point will likely scare away casual shoppers, however. For $249.99, I’d expect more than a pedometer that shows me tweets. But the Moto 360 shows that there is a great wave of wearables coming, and they can be both stylish and functional.