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Smart Watches: An Introduction

Perhaps you've heard some of the latest buzz about the newest tech toy, the smart watch. More than just a regular wristwatch, a smart watch is a tiny computer for the wrist that goes beyond basic timekeeping and even the calculators and language translators of the previous century.

Smart watches use apps, like mobile phones and tablets, to provide services such as messages, alerts, audio, video, and even phone calls. Other common smart phone functions include

  • camera

  • thermometer

  • accelerometer

  • altimeter

  • barometer

  • compass

  • chronograph

  • scheduler

  • GPS navigator

  • SD data storage

While some smart watches work completely on their own, most are tied to a smart phone and communicate via Bluetooth network. Smart watches save users the trouble of pulling out their phones for simple things like identifying who is calling on the phone, and they can enhance certain activities, like working out. Here's a look at this new trend, still in its infancy, in case you might like to get on the early adopter bandwagon.

History of Smart Watches

The precursor of the smart watch arrived on the market in 1972 with the first digital watch. Called the Pulsar, it was manufactured by Hamilton Watch Company. The Pulsar name was acquired by the Japanese watchmaker Seiko in 1978, who went on to make a series of watches with basic computer functions, as interest in personal computers grew during the 1980s. Their RC-1000 Wrist Terminal was designed to interface with a variety of computers, including Apple, Commodore, IBM, and Tandy. Seiko produced several more RC watches with improved storage and different color options-a much more sophisticated approach than rival Casio, who was also manufacturing computer watches at the time, based on the popularity of their calculator watches.

In 1998, Steve Mann, who became known for designing "wearable computing," invented the first Linux watch. One year later, the first phone watch hit stores. Made by Samsung, who is still a major player in the smart watch market today, the SPH-WP10 had 90 minutes of talk time via an integrated speaker and microphone. Other notable early smart watches include a Fossil model that ran Palm OS with PDA functions, the Microsoft SPOT (smart personal objects technology), and the 2009 Samsung S9110 Watch Phone.

Smart Watches Today

As smart technology has caught on with mobile devices worldwide, it was only a matter of time before watches came under further scrutiny to provide the same functions. Now there are a wealth of computer companies vying to get in the smart watch game, including Acer, Apple, LG, Sony, and Toshiba, giving veteran Samsung a run for their money. There are also several companies dedicated to producing only smart watches, including i'm Watch, Martian, and Pebble, the number one selling smart watch maker today.

The Pebble, and its dressier version the Pebble Steel, draws on several factors to appeal to consumers. Like the Martian Notifier, it works with both Android and iPhone operating systems, giving it ultimate user versatility when pairing with a smart phone. The face is also highly customizable, allowing users to display personal pictures of their pets, kids, or company logos.

At the top of the smart phone price range, the Samsung Galaxy Gear and Gear 2 only work with Samsung phones. They do, however, sport huge memories, voice command capability, pedometers, and 1.9 megapixel cameras that offer video as well as still images.

At the same price point, the Goophone Smart Watch is one of the rare smart watches that can actually function independent of a mobile phone, using its own antennas to make and receive calls. With 512 MB of RAM and a 1.2 GHz processor, the Goophone Smart Watch is more like a laptop in some of its capabilities, and once the older Android OS is updated, will be a serious contender for top sales.

Sony's 2SW2, with several hundred apps, falls in the lower end of the smart watch price range. While it runs solely on an Android system, it offers both Bluetooth and NFC (near field communication) with its smart phone mother ship, and its four-day battery can be easily charged using a provided USB cord. Sony found a decent compromise in saving battery life by allowing the 2SW2 go into greyscale mode when not it use. Most other models have to be in either "on" or "off" mode, which means users have to reactivate the device to, say, check the time in the middle of the night.

Design Challenges with Smart Watches

Smart watches have a number of design challenges that are inherent in their size and use. First, there's the problem of cramming so much technology into such a small object. Smart phones can look clunky on even a large user, never mind on a very slim or petite one. As more watches come on the market, the weight and aesthetics of these products are becoming increasingly critical. The Pebble, for example, weighs 1.34 ounces and looks more like a traditional watch than many other models, accounting for a good deal of its high sales.

One of the biggest problems in designing a smart watch is balancing battery size with power life. In order to fit a battery in a casing that's about four square centimeters on the face and 7-10 millimeters thick, power has to be sacrificed. Some smart watches can go about a week between charges, but others only have a day or so before they need to be recharged.

Even with the cleverest engineering, the smart watch market today belongs almost totally to those bearing Y-chromosomes. While younger males are typically the earliest adopters of new technology, women make up about 35% of the watch-buying population, so the first company that makes a female-friendly smart watch may clean up in sales. Manufacturers can make a watch that schedules all your meetings, autoreplies to your emails, and even walks your dog, but if it's perceived as too ugly to wear, most women will leave it on the shelf.

Those wrist-heavy watches don't exactly make for great stability either. The larger a model is, the easier it is to bang it against something and break it. Manufacturers of newer watches are trying to create scratch-free surfaces and all-over sturdiness for their models.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all with smart watches is competing against the very devices with which so many are paired. Brands have to give consumers a reason to purchase a watch that does essentially the same things their smart phones do (or less), so making smart watches more convenient and less obtrusive is key.

One growing area of smart watch development that outstrips mobile phones is health apps. While there are watches that can perform more medical functions like communicating with an insulin pump for diabetic wearers, the more common apps are related to fitness and athletic endeavors. Many watches have apps that allow them to read a heart rate monitor, and there are now apps for speed, lap times, event changes (as in triathlons), and GPS/route tracking. Some smart watches are also water resistant to certain depths, making them the favorites with divers.

The Future of Smart Watches

Overcoming design issues will be the biggest challenge to smart watch manufacturers to really get the trend to take off. While the world has been eagerly awaiting Apple's rumored "iWatch," the company instead announced they would release a precursor of sorts, the Apple Watch. While the Apple Watch has many cutting edge features, such as a rotating "digital crown" - a button to turn in place of pinching to zoom and reduce-it will face some stiff competition from the LG Watch R and Moto 360, both of which have round designs that might appeal more to traditional watch wearers and women. The iWatch is reputed to have a curved design more like a bracelet and increased functionality like the latest iPhones, but until it reaches the market, the title of top smart watch is Pebble's to lose.

With sales of 14 million in 2014 and a predicted expansion to 373 million by 2020 (according to emerging technologies research firm Nextmarket), smart watches are the market to grab-if the technology takes off the way it is expected to. Half of the predicted smart watch buyers will use Google's Android operating system, but that number is up for grabs. With seven billion mobile phone subscribers around the globe, many of them looking for the next great thing (including an invention to replace the cellular phone), the smart watch that "pushes the right buttons" may just be the one that wins out.