Smartwatches are said to be the new smartphones – and they’re promising to help you reach your fitness goals too. MF looks into what the latest models have to offer
Smartwatches are here to stay – but will they help you train or are they a luxury for those with money to burn?
Is it time to buy a smartwatch yet? As with so many things in life, the answer is: it depends. They’re certainly still in the category of things marked ‘would be nice to have’ rather than ‘only technophobes are holding out’ – but the latest models offer a host of benefits that are starting to tip the scales. So will 2015 be the year you finally stop using your phone to check the time?
Mass-market smartwatches have been a long time coming. Samsung and Motorola are leading the pack at the moment, with the Gear S (£320) and the Moto 360 (£199) respectively, but Apple is about to join them this April with three editions of its own Watch – that’s the actual name. At the time of writing, Apple hasn’t released UK pricing, but US models are expected to start at $350 (around £275 when you include tax). Apple is also pushing its smartwatches as a serious health-improvement product. CEO Tim Cook recently pointed out that the device will prompt users to get up and move every hour, on the back of a large body of research suggesting that too much time spent sitting increases all causes of mortality.
BAND ON THE RUN
Current smartwatches are extensions of activity bands such as the Fitbit Flex and Jawbone UP24, combining the movement-tracking and step-counting facilities of bands with smartphone tools such as messaging, music and maps. They’re also built to withstand knocks and scrapes. The Samsung Gear S is the most conventional in this respect, with a strap that encloses all but the screen. The Motorola’s Moto 360 has a more exposed chassis that’s made of steel, and the Apple Watch – the only range with a specific ‘Sport’ edition – uses aluminium, making it 30% lighter than its chrome siblings. The touch-sensitive screens have been hardened, too, with scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass in the Moto 360 and a toughened display on the Apple Watch Sport in place of the sapphire used elsewhere.
Sensors in each watch track your movement and location and feed the results to a series of cut-down apps optimised for small screens. Both the Apple Watch and Moto 360 require you to sync these to your phone, so you can’t do away with your existing tech just yet. The Samsung Gear S is more independent. With a built-in phone connection, the Gear S can go online to share your data directly, and you can use it for calls and messages while out of reach of your handset. You still need your phone to install apps, but that doesn’t happen every day.
This is a boon for runners because it also means the Gear S can stream live maps from the net and provide turn-by-turn directions on the hoof. The Moto 360 and Apple Watch need to be paired with your mobile to do the same – and rather than simply choosing the watch that best suits your needs, you need to make sure it works with your phone.
Optical heart rate monitors are common inclusions in current smartwatches. These shine a light through your skin to read blood flow, which means you can get rid of your chest strap. Most also have internal pedometers to track motion. These are used by passive fitness tools such as Apple’s onscreen activity rings to record how much you move each day. You can complete Apple’s ‘standing’ ring, for example, by getting to your feet for a minute every hour, 12 times a day. Fortunately, the Watch also has a more demanding app that Apple is framing as a wrist-bound PT, always pushing you towards new personal bests.
At the time of writing there are no smartwatch-specific apps that can track sets and reps at the gym. This seems likely to change, though, because each watch is a platform for which developers can build their own apps, and the manufacturers themselves will be looking to add new features. Apple has been granted a patent for a weight barmounted sensor that transmits data back to the Watch, which will certainly plug this gap if it ever sees the light of day.
If you’re a swimmer you might have to hunt around to find a watch that can withstand the pool, and there are no swimming-specific apps yet. Both the Samsung Gear S and Moto 360 are water-resistant to one metre – less than the deepest point in most pools – and although Apple’s specs are quiet on this point, a representative told Yahoo! that ‘Apple Watch is water-resistant. Sweating, wearing it in the rain, washing your hands and cooking with it are fine [but] take it off before you swim or get in the shower.’
WATCH THIS SPACE
Smartwatches are in their infancy but they already have a lot going for them. First, they largely remove the need to have several gadgets for different activities. Second, they can be upgraded with software and apps in the way that’s made smartphones so ubiquitous. It might be a while before they’re a common sight in the gym – but that doesn’t mean you can’t be the person to start the trend. Turn the page for MF’s reviews of the best smartwatches currently available