The world of “mobile technology” is constantly evolving and ever since the launch of the first smartphones the principal manufacturers in the sector have pushed the bar of innovation ever higher, both for hardware and for software. The “smart” technology encompassed in the various devices has succeeded in revolutionising all our lives, and with the different products which have followed each other onto the market year on year, it has succeeded in taking up a position in our lives which is now almost inescapable. One of the main sector trends over the past couple of years is the one linked to the so-called “wearables”, that is to say items which can be worn on the body, which as the months have passed have started to fill the shelves of the major consumer electronics outlets and to attract the interest of consumers across the whole world. When you attempt to carry out a simple on-line search relating to wearable items available on the market, the first thing which strikes you is that they are generally divided into two categories: smartwatches and smartbands. What are the main features of these two types of wearables and which could be the best choice, depending on your own requirements?
Let's start with smartwatches, the accessories which perhaps more than any have contributed to the illusion in the minds of the general public (the power of marketing!) that the era of the smartphone might nearly be over and that we would find all its features on our wrists. That has not happened and, at least for the next few years, is unlikely to do so. It was in 2013 when the first companies which decided to invest in this sector started to add a little sparkle to the market with the first offerings using P-Oled touchscreen displays and almost all with square display panels: Samsung with its Gear, LG with the G Watch, Motorola with the Moto 360 (the first with a circular screen) and Pebble with its product of the same name. Nevertheless it quickly became evident that these accessories were incomplete and were no more than simple “add-ons” for various smartphones, and that some of these were even incompatible with them. As the months passed, the situation changed for the better and at the current time almost all the technological companies offer their own smartwatches with features which can sometimes be very attractive. Furthermore, in order not to lose significant shares of the market, manufacturers of jewellery timepieces such as Tag Heuer and Fossil have modified their own company mission statements by launching into the technological world and offering smartwatch models.
A major step forward in the evolution of this type of accessory has been achieved primarily thanks to progress in the area of software, whether that is from the point of view of operating systems or that of applications, the latter having proved to be the real drivers of smart technology.
Google has revolutionised the market by introducing its Android Wear platform, which is now available on most of the smartwatches produced by third parties (LG Watch Urbane, Huawei Watch Active and Watch Classic, Asus Zenwatch, Motorola Moto 360, Sony Smartwatch, etc.) and is perfect for those who want a versatile and intuitive product, which does not have too many frills and is fully compatible with Android smartphones. In actual fact Android Wear has recently also become compatible with the operating system used by Apple telephones, iOS, even if it is not yet in a position (and perhaps never will be) to offer iPhone owners the entire range of features available from Android. Of particular note is the possibility, for the best Android Wear smartwatches such as the LG Watch Urbane 2, to connect independently to the Internet and to make telephone calls thanks to the presence of a SIM card slot.
For those who desire a smartwatch conceived on a tailor-made basis for your own iPhone, there only remains the option of committing to the Apple Watch, the intelligent timepiece from Cupertino revealed at the end of 2014 amidst proclamations of grand pomp and great promises for the future. The Apple Watch, despite being the usual superb product from this American manufacturer which has been thought through to the smallest detail from the perspective of its design, has still not fully captured the hearts of the public and even today seems to be an object which is fully appreciated only by the fans of the Apple brand and by the “technology addicted”. The operating system created specifically for the task by Apple for its hi-tech watch is WatchOS (now available in its second version) which represents something altogether more structured and complex compared with Android Wear and which allows it to interact with a number of applications which its competitors cannot hope to emulate. However, the Apple Watch is not independent and without an iPhone has no purpose as a stand-alone item (it would simply be an electronic watch). In addition to its purely technological arguments, Apple is focusing especially on the concept of “tech fashion”, that is to say accessories which can also be fashion items. Amidst all the products in the Apple range, the Apple Watch is the one which most easily lends itself to this sort of idea, having been launched onto the market in three models – sport, classic and special edition – with dual sizes in order to adapt to different types of wrist and backed up with a catalogue of straps, in rubber, leather or metal, bearing unique and sought-after characteristics.
Samsung, another great colossus of world mobile phone technology, has experimented widely in the course of the past few years, launching onto the market smartwatches with differing shapes and operating systems. In particular, the Gear S2, the latest arrival from the South-Korean firm, with its circular display panel and driven by the Tizen operating system, promises extremely well for the future thanks to its simplicity of use and the potential for the future development of its apps. Compatibility is guaranteed both for Android and iOS mobile phones.
A final acknowledgement goes to the Pebble, the intelligent watch equipped with an e-ink screen which kicked off the launch of the sector following a highly successful fund-raising campaign on the Kickstarter platform conceived by the company of the same name.
Having had a look around the enormous panorama of smartwatches, from the point of view of brands and operating systems, let us all revisit what principal functions a smart or 2.0 watch can offer. Above all a smartwatch must show the time. It is the technology which makes the difference compared with a traditional watch, and this is able to guarantee a practically infinite number of different watch-faces (the display screens) and customised graphics. In order to minimise one of the main problems of a smartwatch, that is to say its battery life, the various manufacturers have deemed it sensible not to allow the display screen to be permanently lit up. A wave of the wrist suffices to bring it immediately to life allowing you to check the time without any difficulty.
Another essential feature of a smartwatch is the ability to visualise alerts on your telephone. In this area too there are a vast number of customisation options and you can decide to see only some or all of them, leaving your own smartphone in your pocket for most of the time. The latest step forward, which consists of an immediate interaction with these alerts directly via the display screens of your smartwatch, has been achieved with the latest-generation models and the further development of various software platforms. Replying to a WhatsApp message, to a text message or to a voice message with your own voice or a brief text, picture or even a drawing is now just a matter of a few seconds, with everything done from your wrist.
Just like smartphones, smartwatches too can access a dedicated store for applications and this vastly increases their functionality. These apps are much simpler than their telephone counterparts (the ability to compute calculations is significantly lower, even though the chips they use, as in the case of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 400, are the same), but at the same time they allow you to initiate actions directly from your wrist, such as calling a taxi, making notes for yourself, recording conferences, obtaining weather forecasts or checking street locations, displaying appointments or cinema or airline tickets, or keeping up-to-date with the latest news on your own social media profiles, from Facebook to Twitter, through to Instagram or Snapchat.
Another aspect to be considered when buying a smartwatch is the one linked to fitness tracking, because, just like fitness trackers themselves, smartwatches too have various sensors built into them, such as an accelerometer, a heartbeat counter to handle “heart rate” functions, and GPS, which allow you to check your own sporting performances, your sleep patterns and, in general, your own fitness levels. In addition, once again thanks to the presence of dedicated applications, smartwatches allow anyone to take care of their own body and their own person, including from the point of view of their food intake, in a complete and immediate way; all you need to do is glance at the display screen and the job is done.
Finally, smartwatches contain internal memories (usually 4 GB) which can “accommodate” videos, photos and music which you can listen to via Bluetooth or wirelessly.
Activity trackers or fitness watches or, in addition, smartbands, are products which are generally less expensive and whose purpose is to back up or improve sporting activity, by registering data connected with your performance and which then transfer their own “contents” onto a smartphone or tablet once the sporting activity is at an end. In nearly all cases they do not have a screen display and this allows them to enjoy an autonomy of several days or weeks. Depending on the choice of model, it is possible to memorise certain data in preference to others, because the more you spend, the greater the number of sensors present. Amongst the better known smartbands which have met with the greatest degree of success we can mention the Jawbone Up models, the Garmin Forerunners, the Nike Fuelbands, and the FitBit Charge HR and Surge models. Xiaomi too with their Mibands or Asus with its VivoWatch have chosen to compete in this market segment.
The principal features of the fitness watch, then, relate to tracking sleep patterns, steps taken and heartbeat, but some models also offer other functionalities, such as wake-up calls or alerts. A wake-up call is activated and transmitted to the user via vibrations, but its implementation follows a very precise logic: depending on the data captured in respect of sleep patterns, the smartband will decide to vibrate at a precise moment, that is to say when your sleep is at its lightest and only after a specific lapse of time dictated by the user him or herself. A more limited feature compared to that of smartwatches is the one relating to alerts. There are very few fitness trackers which vibrate or show a coloured LED display when an alert arrives on a mobile phone, and those which do so do not allow you to interact with it by replying.
Finally, in contrast to smartwatches, fitness trackers are decidedly more resistant, precisely because they are dedicated to sporting activities and more likely to be subjected to knocks, dirt and sweat. Smartbands, in actual fact, always carry some sort of certification that they are “waterproof”, that is to say impervious and resistant to water and dust, which are fundamental facets for keeping the object “alive” in any situation.
What to choose?
In conclusion, which is the better choice to satisfy your own desire to possess a wearable accessory? A smartwatch or a fitness watch?
Smartwatches comprise within themselves all the features of fitness watches, have access to a range of dedicated applications, allow you to interact with alerts in various ways and let you leave your own smartphone temporarily in your pocket. Furthermore, especially in the high-end models (Apple Watch, Huawei Watch, LG Watch Urbane, Samsung Gear S2 and second-generation Motorola Moto 360), the design too has been carefully construed and the differences compared with a classical timepiece are minimal.
That said, arm yourself with patience and get ready to recharge your wrist-based trinket every day (or with difficulty every two days, except for a Pebble) because of the limited life of the battery. Our advice is to buy it if you want something that reduces the need to pull your mobile phone out of your pocket too frequently, whilst nevertheless being aware that, despite its undoubtedly excellent performance, a smartwatch is still no substitute for a smartphone.
Smartbands, as appears obvious from the preceding description, perform few functions, and amongst these, only one at the highest performance level, that is to say monitoring fitness activities. Therefore we advise the purchase of such an accessory only by those people who are passionate about sporting activities and who do not want to rely on anything too invasive, who do not mind an accessory which nevertheless requires frequent interaction for the monitoring of their own performances, and who accept the need to recharge on a daily basis yet another electronic gadget.
All this, indeed, for the pleasure of their own pockets.