TIME Big Picture

Nobody Can Predict the Success of Apple’s Watch Yet

The new Apple Watch is displayed during an Apple special event at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts on Sept. 9, 2014 in Cupertino, Calif.
The new Apple Watch is displayed during an Apple special event at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts on Sept. 9, 2014 in Cupertino, Calif. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

It’s interesting to read all the coverage Apple got for its watch announcement, and the amazing amount of analysis and predictions that came out shortly after the launch event.

Critics went after everything, from style, form and function. Others lauded its design, potential capabilities and eventual usefulness.

Part of this discrepancy in views is due to the fact that while Apple did show us the watch and give us some early details about what it would do, the company didn’t actually give us a lot of details about things like costs, storage, future apps and security features that could help people develop a more informed view of the product.

Since it doesn’t come out until sometime in early 2015, there’s a lot of time for speculation. And even though we have some solid details we can use to try and draw some conclusions about its potential success, I would like to suggest that to actually try to predict the future success of the Apple Watch today would just be folly. We only have the bits and pieces that Apple wanted to share; it’s not enough to really determine how this product will fare when it finally reaches the market next year.

Why Unveil It So Early?

Many people thought it was odd for Apple to introduce a product like the Apple Watch months before it will ever come to market. For one, it gives competitors a lot of time to try and create something similar that can compete with the Apple Watch when it ships. It also gives the media, detractors and a whole host of folks plenty of time to try and guess what Apple’s really doing and whether it’ll actually have any serious impact on Apple’s bottom line. Given Apple’s penchant for secrecy, one would think that it would have been smarter for the company to hold off announcing the watch until a day or two before it would actually ship.

For those of us who follow Apple very closely, this move, while unique, was a necessary for a couple of reasons. First, this is a brand new category for Apple and the watch market is very complex. Apple actually needs real feedback from people in the watch, entertainment, fashion and tech worlds in order to help refine the final product.

However, there’s another critical reason that the watch was unveiled months before it’s supposed to come to market, and it’s one of the major reasons why it’s impossible to actually predict its success at this time in Apple’s history.

Much More Than Hardware

The proper way to actually view the new Apple Watch is to see it as a platform that includes more than just hardware. It has to have apps and services designed for the new, smaller-screen form factor. This actually follows Apple’s overall formula for success.

Before the company introduced the iPod, it spent two years working with the music industry in order to have media content available for use on the iPod when it shipped. The same thing happened with the iPhone. Apple had to create a special SDK (software development kit) so the developer community could create apps for the new smartphone. While Apple did have its own apps and some special partner apps at launch, the software community moved rapidly to create apps and services for the new iPhone, which ultimately is why people actually buy an iPhone these days.

This similar approach was used when Apple introduced the iPad. At launch, the company had some of its own apps and a couple from partners — and in this case, it could use iPhone apps, although they had to be upscaled up for the iPad’s larger screen. But the software community soon created native iPad apps, and Apple’s tablet took off. In the end, with all three of these products, it’s all about providing customers with hardware, a rich operating system, apps and services.

Waiting for the Killer App

This will be the same case with the Apple Watch. We need a lot more info about what it can do, how it works and, of course, the ultimate value proposition of what it will deliver those who buy it. But the really important unknown factors lie in the types of apps that can be created for such a small screen, and if any “killer” apps emerge that take it from a “nice to have” device to an “everyone needs one” type of product.

The best example of a killer app came from the birth of the PC era. Apple introduced the Apple II computer in 1977, but at the time, it was viewed only as a hobbyist machine. Then in 1979, a program was created that ran on the Apple II called VisiCalc, which was the first spreadsheet. It literally became the killer app that brought the Apple II out of the hobbyist category and into the world of business computing. A they say, the rest is history.

The second killer apps were the word processors that came out about the same time, followed by a product called Lotus 1-2-3 that included a spreadsheet, graphical charts and a database. This was the first killer app for the IBM PC when it came out in 1983, launching the true PC era we know today.

The importance of apps was driven home to me when the iPhone was first launched. When Apple SVP Phil Schiller first showed it to me, he put his iPhone on the coffee table in front of me and asked me what I saw? I told him I saw a blank piece of glass in a metal case. He said that was exactly what Apple wanted me to see until I turned it on. The magic would come from the apps on the device itself. While the hardware is important, he stressed that it would be the apps that make the iPhone dance and sing.

After the launch of the iPhone, I talked to Steve Jobs and asked him if he was certain he had a hit on his hand with the iPhone. He told me he was pretty sure the iPhone would be important, but went on to say that it would be the apps that third-party vendors create that would ultimately make it successful. He also told me that the exciting thing for him was that Apple had developed an SDK to create apps for the iPhone and that he couldn’t wait to see what software developers created.

This really is the formula for the success of any device like this. A company can create a great piece of hardware, but the magic comes from the software community. Who will create the “killer” app or apps that make the device appealing to everyone?

While we only have part of the story about the Apple Watch from Apple, I suspect that even when it launches, we won’t really be able to judge its ultimate success at first. However, I am betting that Apple gets strong support from the software community, who will create a host of apps that may appeal to people from all walks of life. That will ultimately determine the success or failure of Apples new watch.

Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every week on TIME Tech.

TIME FindTheBest

How Much Will the Apple Watch Really Cost?

We only know one thing for sure about the Apple Watch’s price: It starts at $349. Everything else is speculation.

Even so, a bit of research can lead to some educated guesses. I went ahead and parsed Apple’s (few) words on the subject, read through a dozen theories, then did a little analysis of my own. I’ll run through the most popular opinions, comment on each, then predict how much each band and size will cost.

How many price points?

Apple gave us a hint about pricing by curating three collections: Sport, Watch and Edition. The Sport Collection is comprised only of aluminum cases, the Watch Collection only of stainless steel cases and the Edition Collection only of gold cases. So we’re probably looking at three standard price points, which will fluctuate based on your choice of band, and possibly, size (38 mm vs. 42 mm).

It’s almost certain, then, that the 38 mm Apple Watch Sport is the $349 model. Swap out for a larger display and different band, however, and you’re probably looking at a higher price point. But before we get too bogged down in bands and sizes, let’s focus on the big picture: What will be the default price point for each of the three collections?

Price points for each collection: Sport, Watch, Edition

#1: The iPod/iPhone/iPad Pricing Theory

  • $349 for Sport
  • $449 for Watch
  • $549 for Edition

A pricing structure like this would fall right in line with past Apple pricing schemes. For the iPod, iPad and iPhone, Apple has historically charged $100 more for additional storage. Then there’s size differences. The iPad Air starts $100 above the latest iPad Mini, while the iPhone 6 Plus will cost $100 more than the iPhone 6. Taken all together, a simple $100 premium for each collection seems obvious. It’s just the way Apple does things.

It seems obvious, that is, until you consider that the Edition Collection is made out of 18-karat gold. There’s simply no way Apple is selling that much precious metal for less than $600. At the very least, the Edition Collection will have to be priced higher.

#2: The precious metal premium (conservative)

  • $349 for Sport
  • $749 for Watch
  • $1,499 for Edition

The prevailing wisdom now seems to be that the gold watches (Edition) will cost well over $1,000, while the stainless steel watches (Watch) will fall somewhere in the middle. At a glance, these price points seem pretty high, especially considering that today’s average smartwatch is only $219:

But look at these prices from the perspective of a traditional watch enthusiast, and $1,499 for a gold watch isn’t so bad. Under this theory, the Apple Watch’s success will come down to whether customers consider the product a competitor to Pebble ($249) or Rolex ($20k). Naturally, Apple hopes it’ll be the latter.

#3: The precious metal premium (liberal)

  • $349 for Sport
  • $999 for Watch
  • $4,999+ for Edition

First speculated by Apple commentator John Gruber, some now believe Apple’s watches will cost much, much more than most people first thought. (Gruber’s gold watch prediction was actually even higher, at $10k).

The first ominous sign here is Apple’s own words. The company never referred to Apple Watch as a “smartwatch,” and in an earlier interview, Jony Ive himself named Switzerland — not Silicon Valley — as Apple Watch’s primary region of competition. Whether or not you agree with this frame of mind, Apple’s pride (hubris?) on this point is likely to drive their price point up.

But once again, the bigger factor is the 18-karat gold. Rolex’s all-gold watches (including the band) tend to start around $12k, and even those with standard leather bands tend to start at $3k.

I remain skeptical that Apple could sell a consumer tech product at a price point this high, but if the company can convince the world this is a piece of fashion — and not just a glorified iPod Nano — maybe a few of Apple’s wealthiest patrons will cave.

The size of the case

I’m expecting the 38 mm and 42 mm versions to have different price points, as Apple has always attached bigger price tags to bigger products (the 11- vs. 13-inch MacBook Air, the iPhone 6 vs. 6 Plus, for example). For the Sport and Watch Collections, I expect Apple to charge its usual $100 premium on the 42 mm model. But for the Edition line? Even a small increase in gold could mean a significant price jump. For now, let’s call it $300 more for the 42 mm.

But what about the bands?

The first question about bands, I suppose, is whether they will even be included in the retail price of the watch. My best guess is that each watch will come with a base price that includes the Sport Band, but that subbing in an alternative band will increase your final bill, a little like adding RAM when purchasing a MacBook Pro.

Apple also made a big deal about changing out bands for different occasions, proudly showing off the easy-release functionality. For these reasons, it seems likely that each band will also be sold as an individually priced accessory.

So what will those prices be? I looked back over Apple’s past product offerings to see if I could find a similar accessory. I needed something that came in multiple materials, that could be attached and removed, and that could serve as a close companion to a core Apple product. The best analogy I could find? The iPad’s Smart Cover and Case.

The most affordable Smart Cover is made of polyurethane, and costs $39. It comes in six colors, most of them bright or pastel. In other words, it’s the Sport Band equivalent for the iPad. Meanwhile, the leather Smart Case is a luxury accessory, coming in at $79. Buying a leather cover for your iPad would be like buying a Milanese Loop band for your Apple Watch. A quick calculation reveals that the $39 price point is 13% the cost of the cheapest iPad (the $300 non-Retina iPad Mini), while that $79 accessory is 26% the cost.

It’s for these reasons that I predict the cheapest band (the Sport Band) will be about 15% the cost of the watch, while the most expensive bands will be about 30% the cost of the watch. However, I think Apple will price the five non-sport bands relative to its Watch Collection, not its Sport Collection. Case in point: only the Sport Band is present on Apple’s Sport Collection page, while every band is present on Apple’s Watch Collection page.

So here’s what I’ve got:

  • Sport Band – $49*
  • Classic Buckle – $99
  • Leather Loop – $149
  • Modern Buckle – $149
  • Milanese Loop – $199
  • Link Bracelet – $249**

*~15% of $349, the official Sport Collection price

**~30% of $749, the price estimate for the Watch Collection from Theory #2

How did I decide on this order? First, I assumed that the more metal involved, the pricier the band. Take a good look at the Modern Buckle and you’ll see how much more metal it contains than the Classic Buckle. That will likely add up to a $50 price difference for stainless steel, and possibly a lot more for a gold version.

But my best explanation is simpler than all that: This is the order that Apple lists the bands on its main Watch Collection page. It’s a subtle hint about which ones Apple is most proud of. Read down the list yourself, and I imagine you’ll agree.

Finally, what about the Edition bands, (presumably) with gold clasps and hooks instead of aluminum or steel? I used the same logic (15% for the cheapest, 30% for the most expensive, based on the pricing prediction from Theory #2):

  • Sport band: $249
  • Classic Buckle: $349
  • Modern Buckle: $449

The gold premium strikes again. Note that Apple doesn’t list any Edition Collection models with either the Milanese Loop or Link Bracelet. My guess is they don’t exist: They’d likely be so expensive to make, Apple would have to triple the MSRP based on the metal alone.

So unless you’re happy with an aluminum sports model, start saving. The Apple Watch could very well be the priciest Apple product since the MacBook Pro.

This article was written for TIME by Ben Taylor of FindTheBest.

TIME FindTheBest

13 Apple Watch Design Combinations (and What Each Says About You)

You weren’t going to buy an Apple Watch: you were just curious. You were perfectly happy with your iPhone, iPad, iMac, and Macbook Pro, thank you very much. And then, somewhere between “space black stainless steel” and “milanese loop,” everything changed.

So you’re going to buy the new Apple Watch, even if it means missing your best friend’s sister’s wedding and eating only canned tuna for four months. Don’t worry; no one will judge you for making an adult financial decision.

They will, however, judge you for the design you choose, so study up. We’ve reviewed all the options: six metals, six bands and 11 face designs. Here are 13 potential design combinations…and what each will say about you.

A quick look at the Apple Watch and its competitors. Battery life is rumored at one day.

1. The Bare-Bones Basic

Metal: Stainless Steel

Band: Link Bracelet

Face: Utility

What it says: I have no idea what I want out of life.

2. The Hipster

Metal: Silver Aluminum (recyclable)

Band: Classic buckle (bringing it back)

Face: Solar (all-natural)

What it says: I’m anti-establishment, but I just spent $349 on a watch from a multi-billion-dollar company.

3. The Extra-Terrestrial

Metal: Space Black Stainless Steel

Band: Jet Black Sport Band

Face: Astronomy

What it says: I can name every Star Trek character in under 20 seconds.

4. The Waste of Money

Metal: 18-karat rose gold

Band: Mahogany modern buckle

Face: Solar

What it says: I live paycheck to paycheck, but at least I look rich.

5. The James Bond

Metal: Space Black Stainless Steel

Brand: Link Bracelet

Face: Simple

What it says: I watched Skyfall six times in theaters.

6. The Normal Watch

Metal: Stainless Steel

Band: Classic Buckle

Face: Simple

What it says: I just paid 10 times the money for a timepiece that looks like a $35 grocery store Timex.

7. The Mickey Mouse

Metal: Silver Aluminum

Band: Bright Yellow/Green Sport Band

Face: Mickey Mouse

What it says: I’m eight years old.

8. The Risk-Taker

Metal: Space Black Stainless Steel

Band: Milanese Loop

Face: Modular

What it says: Every time I eat out, I order the weirdest, most unpronounceable menu item. I shop for products the same way.

9. The Failed Interior Designer

Metal: 18-Karat Yellow Gold

Band: Blue Leather Loop

Face: Color (orange)

What it says: Don’t hire me.

10. The Apple Fanboy/Fangirl

Metal: Silver Aluminum

Band: White Modern Buckle

Face: Photo (of Steve Jobs)

What it says: I have three more of these watches at home.

11. The Non-Watch Wearer

Metal: Stainless Steel

Band: None (took it off and threw it away; face stored in pocket)

Face: Utility

What it says: I should have just bought an iPod Nano.

12. The Well-Intentioned Couch Potato

Metal: Space Gray Aluminum

Band: Bright Blue Sport Band

Face: Chronograph

What it says: I bought this watch, worked out twice, and now I just send animated emojis to my friends.

13. The Fitness Guru

Metal: none

Band: none

Face: none

(AKA: just wear the same old Casio stopwatch)

What it says: I’m actually in shape and don’t need an Apple Watch to pretend I’m fit.

This article was written for TIME by Ben Taylor of FindTheBest.

TIME technology

These Are the Products the Apple Watch and Apple Pay Must Defeat

Samsung Electronics Co.'s Galaxy Gear wearable devices for KDDI Corp.'s "au" brand sit on display during a product launch event in Tokyo on Oct. 2, 2013.
Samsung Electronics Co.'s Galaxy Gear wearable devices for KDDI Corp.'s "au" brand sit on display during a product launch event in Tokyo on Oct. 2, 2013. Kiyoshi Ota—Bloomerg/Getty Images

A look at Apple's main competitors in the worlds of wearables and mobile payments

Apple made waves Tuesday by entering two new business sectors at once: wearables and mobile payments.

The company announced the Apple Watch, a long-rumored smartwatch that will synch up with iPhones and offer new fitness-tracking feature, and Apple Pay, a mobile payments service that will let users pay for things in physical stores with a tap of their phone or watch.

Wearables and mobile payments are tech sectors that already have plenty of competitors, including heavyweights like Google and Samsung, but have yet to reach true mainstream adoption. Apple will look to recreate the magic it found with portable music players, smartphones and tablets, but its foes aren’t likely to just accept being pushed to the sidelines.

Here’s a look at the current players in wearables and payments and how their efforts have fared so far:

Wearables

Samsung

The Product: Samsung has already bet big on smartwatches with its line of Galaxy Gear. The original Galaxy Gear, released in fall 2013, served as an accessory to Samsung tablets and smartphones, offering a way to read texts and other info relayed from the phone. The watch also sported a camera, an unusual smartwatch feature that the Apple Watch doesn’t have.

Success So Far: The original Galaxy Gear was widely panned in reviews, but the Gear 2 left a more favorable impression. Samsung claimed that it shipped 800,000 of the original Gear in its first two months on the market, but it’s not clear how many of them actually sold to customers. According to market research group NPD, 500,000 total smartwatches were sold in the U.S. between October 2013 and June 2014, and Samsung generated about $75 million in revenue from its portion of those sales.

Pebble

The Product: Startup Pebble proved that the smartwatch could be a viable product line when its 2012 Kickstarter project became the most successful endeavor in the crowdfunding site’s history back in 2012, generating more than $10 million in donations. Now Pebble has grown from a clever idea into a well-established business that offers smartwatches in a variety of styles. The company’s watches link up with both iPhones and Android devices and are fairly affordable with a starting price of $150.

Success So Far: Pebble says it has sold more than 400,000 smartwatches so far and has 15,000 developers making apps for the device. According to NPD, the startup is second to only Samsung in smartwatch sales in the U.S. But these numbers are paltry compared to the scale that Apple likely envisions for the Apple Watch.

Google

The Product: As with phones, Google will mainly take the fight to Apple in the smartwatch space via software. Earlier this year the search giant unveiled Android Wear, a version of its Android operating system tailored specifically for wearables. So far three watches make use of the software: the Moto 360, the LG G Watch and the Samsung Gear Live.

Success So Far: The LG G Watch has earned solid reviews, but the sleeker Moto G disappointed critics when it launched earlier this month. No word yet on sales of these products. Google may have higher aspiration for Google Glass, its computerized glasses that are currently being beta tested in the U.S.

Fitbit

The Product: With Apple positioning the Apple Watch as a lifestyle device, the company will have to take on the current juggernaut of life-improving wearables, the Fitbit. The popular electronic bracelets and clip-on devices can track everything from miles jogged to quality of sleep. The products are cheap too, starting at just $60.

Success So Far: Fitbit has managed to fend off apparel giant Nike in the fitness wearables category and now easily leads the market with almost 50% market share, according to research firm Canalys. Apple will have to convince health nuts that its product is worth three to four times the cost of a regular health-tracking device.

Mobile Payments

PayPal

The Product: eBay-owned PayPal has been inching its way into physical stores for a few years now. PayPal has services that allow you to easily split a restaurant check or buy a new outfit at Abercrombie & Fitch via its smartphone app. The company also recently announced a new service called One Touch which will allow people to buy products with a single button click across a wide variety of programs.

Success So Far: PayPal processed $27 billion in mobile payments in 2013, a 99% increase from from the year before. The company has more than 150 million active accounts supplying a trove of credit card and banking info. That’s a big number, but it pales in comparison to the 800 million iTunes accounts Apple users have created, most of which include credit card information.

Google

The Product: Google came up with a service very similar to Apple’s three years ago. Called Google Wallet, the app allows users to tie information for multiple credit, debit and gift cards to their phones, then use the mobile device to pay for items at participating retail locations.

Success So Far: The Google Wallet app has been downloaded at least 10 million times from the Android store, but the even the service’s creators have admitted that it’s not exactly setting the world on fire. The company’s latest strategy to introduce people to Google Wallet is linking it up with Gmail accounts to allow people to send money to each other via email. With more than 425 million Gmail accounts currently active, the popular service could serve as a trojan horse to to hook users on Google’s payment platform.

Square

The Product: Square is best known for its credit card readers that are popular with small businesses, but the company has designs on eliminating the credit card altogether with Square Wallet, an app that would allow for purchases made without even the press of a button. The phone in your pocket would be able to communicate with a retailer’s payment equipment, and you’d just have to say your name to complete an order. The disruptive concept received a lot of attention, partially because Twitter founder Jack Dorsey is Square’s CEO.

Success So Far: Square gave up on the hands-free payment option earlier this year when it removed Square Wallet from the Google Play and App Stores and replaced it with Square Order, a less ambitious app that basically works like Seamless for grabbing take-out food. The company has reportedly postponed plans for an IPO as it racks up losses, though Square has denied these claims.

 

MONEY Apple

See How Apple’s New Smartwatch Stacks Up

Apple’s new watch has its own set of perks and drawbacks — and deals with the same issues that plague the rest of the smartwatch industry.

TIME video

The New iPhones and Apple Watch (in Two Minutes)

The rumors panned out pretty well: Apple rolled out two new iPhones and its first smartwatch.

Click here for more Apple coverage.

TIME Gadgets

Samsung Gear S Smartwatch Can Make Calls Without a Paired Phone

Samsung

The predominant smartwatch maker introduces yet another wearable, but this one can fly solo.

Smartwatches are notoriously codependent gadgets. If you want to use one to make calls, you need an auxiliary device nearby to do the cellular legwork. Forget smart, they’re like mini-dumb terminals, wrist-bound proxies for another functionally better-rounded piece of technology.

Until now: Meet the Gear S, a curved-screen smartwatch that maker Samsung says can do phone calls all by its lonesome.

The Gear S uses a curved 2-inch 360-by-480 pixel Super AMOLED display attached to a flex band (with changeable straps), and employs a customizable interface that includes views and fonts Samsung says will let you “read messages and notifications at a single glance.”

The IP67-certified (particle and moisture resistant) wearable is powered by a 1.0 Ghz dual-core processor, has 512MB of memory and 4GB of internal storage, and runs Tizen, the Linux-based operating system for embedded devices. It includes both 3G as well as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, charges its 300 mAh Li-ion battery (Samsung estimates you’ll get two days out of “typical usage”) with a USB 2.0 cable, and has a battery of tracking tools, including an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a compass, a heart-rate monitor, an ambient light sensor, an ultraviolet detector and a barometer.

It’ll still sync with or act as a call proxy for a smartphone, of course, if that’s what you prefer, but the big deal — if you care about smartwatches anyway — is that it can get online to check notifications by itself, and you can make and receive calls from your wrist without a secondary device. I see nothing in the specifications about a microphone or speaker, for better or worse, thus ruling out the Dick Tracy angle (meaning, in other words, that you might need a Bluetooth headset to make calls).

Samsung’s covering that angle by simultaneously announcing the Gear Circle, a Bluetooth headset that can pair with smartphones (and while the company doesn’t say as much in the press release, one assumes, the Gear S). The Gear Circle’s extras include a magnetic lock that lets it hang around your neck during downtime, and it’ll vibrate to indicate an incoming call or notification.

TIME Wearables

Android Wear Face-Off: LG G Watch vs. Samsung Gear Live

LG's G Watch (left) and Samsung's Gear Live (right) Jared Newman for TIME

How to pick a smartwatch if you're one of Android Wear's earliest adopters.

Let’s say you plan to ignore the advice of most reviews and buy an Android Wear smartwatch right now. Even though more stylish designs are on the way, you’ve got money to spend and want to see what the fuss is about.

How do you choose between Samsung’s Gear Live and LG’s G Watch? After using each one over the last couple of weeks, I think it’s pretty easy to decide. But first, let’s go through the pros and cons of each watch:

Style

You won’t win a lot of style points for either watch, as they are both thick, square slabs that take up a lot of space across the wrist. In fact, if you hold them next to each other, the watch bodies, bezels and screens are almost exactly the same size.

Where Samsung’s Gear Live stands out, though, is the use of metal around the body and on the clasp under your wrist. The watch band also appears thinner due to its tapered edges, and the snap-in mechanism is less bulky than the G Watch’s more traditional buckle. The Gear Live is a bit gaudier, but it also makes a statement. That’s more my style, given that neither watch is understated to begin with.

Advantage: Samsung Gear Live

Features

The Gear Live and G Watch have almost exactly the same features, as they are required to run the same Android Wear software. Samsung does include a heart rate monitor, but I had trouble getting consistent readings and question whether this is a useful feature anyway. (If you can check your own pulse, you can just as easily measure it with the basic stopwatch function on either watch.)

The G Watch’s best feature, oddly enough, is its selection of watch faces. It has a lot of sharp-looking ones that Samsung doesn’t, and while this will become less of an issue as more third-party watch faces hit the Google Play Store, it’s nice to have some quality faces out of the box.

Advantage: LG G Watch, slightly

Jared Newman for TIME

Comfort

As I mentioned above, the Samsung Gear Live’s watch band has a couple of pins on the end, which you snap into any two holes further up the band. The G Watch has a standard buckle that keeps the watch securely fastened, along with a loop of plastic for holding down the excess strap material.

I found the Gear Live’s band to be more comfortable overall, with ridges on the inside that let your wrist breathe a bit, and it’s nice not to have any excess material to deal with. By comparison, the G Watch’s flat, rubberized band seemed to make my wrist feel sticky and sweaty before long. Both watches do have removable straps, at least.

Advantage: Samsung Gear Live

Battery and Charging

This one isn’t even close. Not only does LG’s G Watch have a larger battery, it also has a better charging cradle that you can just drop the watch onto at night. It’s much more convenient than the Samsung Gear Live’s charging pod, which needs to be snapped onto the underside of the watch in a particular way.

You’ll likely want to charge either watch every night, which actually isn’t a big deal once you get in the habit. (In a way, it’s better than having to charge every few days, because the nightly charge becomes routine.) But the need for a nightly top-up makes a convenient charging mechanism all the more important.

Advantage: LG G Watch

Jared Newman for TIME

Display Quality

In theory, the 320-by-320 resolution AMOLED panel on Samsung’s Gear Live should be the winner over LG’s 280-by-280 LCD screen, as it provides sharper images and better viewing angles.

But the G Watch does have one advantage in its outdoor readability. While neither watch performs well in direct sunlight, LG’s watch does a slightly better job of fending off the sun’s glare at full brightness. It’s not a big enough difference to beat the Gear Live’s display overall, but it does make the displays closer in quality than they look on paper.

Advantage: Samsung Gear Live, slightly

Verdict

Style and comfort are extremely important to me considering this is something I have to wear every day, and the Gear Live’s advantages in those areas outweigh its pesky charger and inferior watch faces. (If I was buying one myself, the Gear Live’s $199 price tag compared to $229 for the LG G Watch wouldn’t hurt.)

LG’s G Watch is still worth considering for some users, especially those who plan to swap in their own straps. But I’m not going that route, so the Samsung Gear Live will be my go-to smartwatch as I continue to get a feel for Android Wear.

TIME Gadgets

Too Many Android Wear Apps Are Missing the Point

Jared Newman for TIME

Watered-down smartphone apps are spreading like weeds on Google's new wearable platform.

If you want an example of everything wrong with smartwatch apps right now, just look at all the Android Wear calculators.

I currently count four calculator apps for Google’s wearable platform, and they’re all useless. You need pinpoint touch precision to enter each number, and none of the apps include a backspace key for when you inevitably mistype something. Using a calculator app on your phone would be faster and less frustrating.

These unnecessary calculator apps underscore the biggest challenge for Android Wear–and for that matter, all smartwatches–right now: Most people are happy to just take out their smartphones, so there’s little need for a watch that tries to do all the same things on a smaller screen.

For smartwatches to make sense, they need to go beyond what a phone can do on its own. That idea seems lost on developers who are creating weak imitations of existing smartphone apps, including games, drawing apps, flashlights and calendars.

Google has tried to discourage these kinds of apps, both in its documentation (“inputs requiring fine-grained motor skills are avoided”) and through Wear’s interface, which deliberately makes smartphone-like apps difficult to launch. But developers are undeterred. In fact, someone has even come out with a third-party app launcher for Wear that seems likely to encourage more bad behavior.

Even some of the highlighted Android Wear apps in the Google Play Store miss the point: Why would anyone want to browse Tinder on a smartwatch, when the smartphone version offers a better experience? How often are you really going to ask the Eat24 app for delivery when you can only get exactly what you’ve ordered in the past?

To make the case for smartwatches, developers need to think more critically about the apps they’re building. To that end, I think it might help to consider a few basic questions:

  • Does the app provide a useful service in specific situations where taking out a phone is impractical?
  • Does the watch show users something important that they’d miss if they didn’t take out their phones in time?
  • Does the watch app save significant time without sacrificing significant functionality?

Android Wear does have a handful of apps that answer “yes” to one or more of these questions, and app makers should take inspiration from these good examples.

Last weekend, for instance, I played a round of golf with help from the Golfshot app. After using the smartphone app to select the course I was playing on, the watch provided a constant read-out of my distance from the hole. If I was any good at golf, this would have been tremendously helpful for deciding which club to use, as my phone was safely stowed away in my golf bag for the rest of the outing. (See question number one.) It’d be even better if the app let you enter a score at the end of each hole, but this is a fine start.

Delta’s Android app is another example of a wearable app done right. If you check into a flight on your phone, the watch provides up to date boarding information right on your wrist (question two) and presents your boarding pass to use at the gate (question three).

Similarly, Allthecooks’ Android Wear functions can save time by showing recipe instructions on your wrist. Having those instructions follow you around the kitchen makes a lot more sense than having to constantly look back to your phone or tablet for reference.

One of the big criticisms of smartwatches so far is that they only make life more complicated. They represent another device to carry, another screen to keep charged every night, another set of apps to deal with.

The thing that interests me about Android Wear is its potential to simplify, presenting information in a way that helps us think about our phones less often. That’s not going to happen if developers keep taking the easy path, turning Android Wear into another screen full of apps.

TIME Smartwatches

Android Wear Review: The Watch That Wants to Save You From Your Phone

Jared Newman for TIME

Google's smartwatch platform shows promise, but needs better hardware and smarter features.

A funny thing has happened to me over the last week and a half, as I’ve been reviewing a couple Android Wear smartwatches from LG and Samsung: Instead of being the guy who takes out his phone at every opportunity, I’ve become the one who stands idly by while other people thumb around on their handsets.

It’s not that I’m always fiddling with the screen on my wrist instead; I’m actually spending less time interacting with screens in general. By having all my phone’s notifications in view, I can ignore the ones that aren’t important and quickly deal with the ones that are. And because the phone stays in my pocket, I’m not tempted to spend the next five minutes looking at Twitter or Facebook. Against all logic, tethering a computer to my wrist has been liberating.

But is that idea enough to convince people to start wearing watches again? It’s doubtful, especially in Android Wear’s current form.

Right now, there are two smartwatches that run on Google’s Android Wear platform. Samsung’s Gear Live costs $199 and is a bit gaudy with its metallic trim and slim snap-on wristband, while the $229 LG G Watch strikes a more utilitarian look with a rubberized band and all-plastic finish. In both cases, the aesthetic leans toward “geek badge of honor,” thanks to clunky rectangular bodies and thick black bezels around the displays. (I’ll compare the two watches more in a future post, as I’ve only spent a day with LG’s model. My quick impressions are that Samsung has the better screen and more appealing design, while LG’s drop-in dock is more convenient for nightly charging.)

The Notification Machine

Like other smartwatches on the market already, such as the Pebble and Samsung’s Galaxy Gear line, Android Wear puts your phone’s notifications on your wrist. But what stands about Google’s approach is how little effort it takes to view these notifications and take action on them with a swipe or voice command.

With Android Wear, there’s hardly any setup involved. Everything’s tied to the actionable notifications on Android phones, so once you’ve paired the watch over Bluetooth, you can immediately do things like manage e-mails, dismiss text messages, control the phone’s music playback, glance at sports scores and get traffic alerts from Google Now. The screen stays in greyscale mode until you tap it or tilt it toward you, at which point you can view each notification by flicking upward.

Jared Newman for TIME

 

This can lead to some delightful moments as you get in the habit of glancing at your wrist for information. Last weekend, for instance, I made a quick trip to the grocery store to grab some breakfast items when I caught a notification from Todo Cloud, a free smartphone app that supports location-based reminders. It was telling me to pick up some pasta–something I’d reminded myself to do earlier–and I would have missed the message if it hadn’t been waiting on my wrist. Without any extra effort on my part, Android Wear saved me a return trip to the store.

It helps that the software is smooth and responsive, and generally runs without any glitches, but I do have a few nitpicks: It takes a little too long for the system to recognize swiping after the screen lights up, and I wish you could un-dismiss a notification if you accidentally swipe it away. It’d also be nice if the main screen had an icon bar, like the one on Android phones, so you could get a high-level view of which notifications are waiting.

Android Wear will also face some natural growing pains, as a lot of third-party apps still haven’t optimized their code for wearables. For example, Secret can notify you when a friend posts, but doesn’t show you the actual post on the watch. You can retweet or “favorite” a Twitter mention, but you can’t reply directly by voice. In WhatsApp, there’s no way to view full messages, reply to them or mark them as read. Because Android Wear is supposed to just work, it’s disappointing when these apps don’t.

That same kind of uncertainty carries over to Android Wear’s voice commands, which you trigger by tapping the main screen or saying “OK Google.” This is useful for quickly dictating a text message, setting a reminder or pulling up turn-by-turn directions, but most third-party apps don’t work with voice — and the handful that do require you to memorize specific syntax. Voice recognition also stumbles in some areas, always recognizing “Android Wear” as “Android Where,” for instance, and failing to interpret punctuation commands like “comma” and “question mark.” I quickly learned to avoid voice unless I knew exactly what I was going to get in response.

Why Not Just Take Out Your Phone?

A lot of the above issues are annoyances rather than dealbreakers. But as Google tries to improve the platform, there’s a more fundamental dilemma that Android Wear needs to figure out: If most people are happy to whip out their phones, why would they care about a device that spares them from doing so?

The answer, I think, will come from functions that are not as practical on a smartphone–things you might not do at all if you have to take the device out of your pocket. Android Wear lays a foundation for these kinds of uses, but doesn’t provide nearly enough of them.

Going back to my grocery store example, while I was shopping I also saw another notification from Google Wallet, letting me know that I was close to the in-store Starbucks. The reminder alone wasn’t useful, but imagine if Wallet had gone a step further and put my Starbucks card’s barcode on my wrist. If every loyalty card, coupon, ticket and boarding pass could pop up in the right location, I wouldn’t even have to think about reaching for my wallet or phone. This is definitely possible with Android Wear–Delta is already doing it for boarding passes–but it’s not a centerpiece of the platform right now.

Likewise, Google has promised the ability to unlock your smartphone or Chromebook with a paired Android Wear device, and it’s easy to imagine this capability expanding to sensitive third-party apps in the future. But even the basic unlocking feature won’t arrive until the next version of Android comes out this fall.

What we have now is a classic Google work-in-progress. The software needs more ways to surpass the abilities of users’ smartphones, and the hardware needs to get thinner, lighter and less clunky. (Motorola’s Moto 360 watch will bring some much-needed style to the lineup later this summer, but it’s not a panacea for bulky tech.) And while I’m not bothered by the one-day battery life of these watches, they need more convenient ways to recharge overnight, such as a wireless charging mat on your nightstand. Until the hardware and software are further along, saving yourself from your phone should probably wait.

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