Are smartwatches worth it?

Smart looking: The Moto 360 looks like a conventional watch but is in fact a smartwatch, with a customisable fashion ...
Paul McGeiver/Motorola

Smart looking: The Moto 360 looks like a conventional watch but is in fact a smartwatch, with a customisable fashion strap and digital face options.

Apple's Watch is finally going on sale next month (though not in New Zealand) and the world is supposed to be really excited about it.

They say it is going to revolutionise watches. They say it is going to change the way personal technology interacts with its owner.

They say it will change lives for the better by making the most advanced technology more accessible, because, of course, it is actually strapped to our bodies.

I must admit, I have only seen prototypes of the Apple Watch (at Apple's iPhone event last year). Now the time has finally come for rollout of the consumer-ready version, I'm still not very excited. I'm not taking a personal beef with Apple, though, but rather with manufacturers of all smartwatches.

It is important, firstly, to know why we're supposed to want smartwatches. They are, without question, unbelievably powerful devices. I have tested half a dozen in recent months – the latest of which was the Moto 360. Like the Apple Watch, it has customisable fashion straps and digital faces so you don't feel like you're wearing a computer. It can send text messages, give you GPS directions, and track your heart rate, the daily kilometres you walk and run, and the calories you've burned. It even has apps like Facebook.

Theoretically, these are all good things. Exciting things. But, they're nothing your existing smartphone can't already do. In fact, you actually need your smartphone within very close range of most smartwatches to be able to use most of its features; you cannot, for example, leave your phone at home while you go for a run and still receive a phone call or important email (though the Samsung Gear S is an exception to this).

Smartwatches are, as GQ magazine recently lambasted, little more than "a kind of visual Bluetooth device" that acts as just another conduit for instant information. And, just like a smartphone (and unlike a real watch), you still have to plug in a smartwatch every night to charge it.

So, where do smartwatches fit in the market? Men, especially, love their watches; aside from wedding rings, they are the only items of jewellery we wear. Apple's Watch has dozens of options to make the device your own – from basic sports straps and leather bands right up to the US$10,000 18-carat gold "Edition" series.

The latter is formidable and elegant, for sure, but it is certainly no Rolex Submariner or Tag Heuer Carrera. Realistically, it's like an 18-carat gold iPhone. Yes, it is made of solid gold, but it is still an iPhone and every second person on the street has one.

Smartwatches, therefore, are not for watch aficionados. They are really just for tech fans – those who value newness over craftsmanship; apps over delicate angles.

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And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, because smartwatches can go places you would never take your Patek Phillipe.

Particularly, we're talking mountain tops and cycle trails, because smartwatches are excellent for active people with techie tendencies.

The Apple Watch, Moto 360 and Samsung Gear S (the three market leaders) all calibrate with GPS apps that track the distance you cover on a hike, and measure your heart rate while you're at the gym to verify the intensity of your workout. They can provide you with detailed analysis and guidance on your health, and give you ultimate motivation to push harder and sweat longer.

However, do you need a $500-plus device (as the Apple Watch is likely to be in New Zealand) for that?

Not at all – bona fide fitness trackers like the just-released Fitbit Surge can do it all too, don't need a Bluetooth connection to a phone to fully function, and are less than $350 (lower spec Fitbits, and similar fitness trackers like the Jawbone, are less than $200).

Smartwatches are poised to change the lives of some, because they're beautiful, wearable, intelligent, and highly-capable devices that can do everything your phone can do (as long as you still have your phone on you, and it's the right make and model to sync). Smartwatches can absolutely be reconciled with an existing watch collection; the right smartwatch could even completely replace it. Will people then look at you in futuristic awe? Perhaps. But only until next year. Because, unfortunately and unlike a good Swiss watch, no smartwatch will keep its value – neither monetarily nor technologically.

What will your money buy?

At the lowest end of the market, you can buy Fitbit's basic fitness tracker (the Charge) for around $140, while the Jawbone UP24 is about $150.

A Moto 360 with leather strap will cost about $370, the same price as the average watch by a brand like Fossil.

Samsung's Gear S runs at about $500, and Apple's Watch Sport (with a rubber strap) is likely to be a similar price in New Zealand (its launch price in America is US$349). Comparatively, $500 will buy you a stainless steel designer watch by the likes of Michael Kors.

Apple's stainless steel model, conversely, will cost a lot more: US$549 to US$1099, meaning in New Zealand this Apple Watch may cost $800 to $1500 (about the cost of a standard Longines watch).

A gold-edition Apple Watch (if made available in New Zealand) will be well over $10,000 – enough to buy two or three Tag Heuer watches or one entry-level Rolex.

 - Stuff

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