Which wearable is right for you?
The best tech products to match not just your wrist, but your lifestyle, explained by Thomas Kibwe
You can’t have missed the buzz around ‘wearables’ as an up-and-coming tech category. After several years of early tinkering from leading electronics manufacturers, the market is now set to explode for this new genre of gadget: analysts at CCS Insight have predicted that as many as 411 million smart wearable devices will be sold in 2020, worth a huge US$34 billion.
But what constitutes a ‘wearable’? Is it a fitness tracker, and how does that differ from a smartwatch? And where do headsets come into it? The shop shelves are already so crowded it can be hard to establish which devices do what, and who they might be best for. Which wristband has a battery of six hours versus six months, and which is for cyclists and which for general logging of steps? We break down all the options for you in our helpful guide.
Sports watches aren’t new. They’re arguably the oldest category of intelligent wearable tech out there, and by some way. Triathletes and hardcore outdoors types swear by dedicated running and cycling watches with GPS tracking and heart-rate monitoring from the likes of Garmin and Polar. What is much more recent, however, is the idea of a fitness tracker – one that’s meant for much more pedestrian daily usage around the clock – in other words, a wearable that’s meant for everyone. Manufacturers such as Moov, Fitbit, Jawbone and Misfit have created an entire new product line for these more ambient ‘fitness trackers’, which don’t so much track your runs as log your general activity each day, and gently coax you to do more, improving your general fitness.
Think of them as smart pedometers. They count your steps and send the data to your smartphone so you can see how you’re doing. But they can do much more besides, from evaluating the quality of your sleep to telling the time (goodbye, analogue watch) or even tracking your calories.
It’s easy to confuse sports watches with smartwatches – and increasingly the latter are doubling up as the former – but they’re not always the same thing. Sports watches are more niche; they are timepieces dedicated to logging your miles or laps, and nothing more. Smartwatches are exactly what they say they are: smart.
Typically, they’ve got colour screens so you can use them in the dark, and a faster processor. Crucially, they pair with your phone via Bluetooth so you can quietly receive all your alerts, from emails and calls to traffic updates, on your wrist while your phone stays in your pocket or bag. What unites them, though, is their ability to work with the apps and services you need: by installing apps you can tailor these silent updates and even send messages in them, with no phone required. So the smartest watches are the ones with the most apps – meaning you need to pick your software platform before you pick your timepiece.
There are a few competing platforms. Samsung’s Tizen OS is picking up steam thanks to the company’s pleasant and easy-to-use interface. The big two, however, are Apple Watch and Google’s Android Wear. The latter is available on a wide range of smartwatches from brands including Huawei, Motorola and LG – it’s clean, clear and many popular mobile apps are supported.
Google’s focus is more on delivering notifications rather than providing means to do much with them. For that, you’ll have to get your phone out. The benefits here? Choice: you can find Android Wear watches from the affordable (like the cheap and cheerful US$150 Sony SmartWatch 3) through to powerful metal watches you might mistake for a next-gen Rolex, like the chic Fossil Q.
The watchOS software on the Apple Watch, meanwhile, is much more focused on two-way operation – you can even answer calls on it and have a conversation via your wrist. The apps are often more polished, too, and there’s certainly no faulting the design of the Watch itself. Whichever style you go for, you’re getting the best in class hardware. There is a catch, however: you’ll need an iPhone for it to work at all. Smartwatches are still only smart with the right accessories.
Another branching arm (no pun intended) of wearables is the rapidly developing virtual reality scene. VR headsets are the brave new frontier for tech. If you’ve got a powerful enough computer – or a PlayStation 4 – you can plug one in and dive into virtual worlds, be they vivid and immersive games or simply recreations of locations on the other side of the world. HTC’s Vive headset and the Oculus Rift are the two trailblazers in this area, but don’t discount Sony’s more affordable, if more limited and games-focused PlayStation VR.
Virtual reality doesn’t just stop at headsets, however; increasingly, we’re seeing wearables that work with them to enable other sensory inputs, from VR gloves to 360 degree treadmills so you can walk about inside a VR world like you would a real one.
VR is still quite a confining type of wearable, but one offshoot is much less so. AR headsets (augmented reality headsets) overlay the world around you with information on a translucent screen. You might remember the hype around Google’s Glass shades, which could direct you as you walked down the street. Google has quietly rolled back its commercial plans, but Microsoft is pushing ahead with its own concept, HoloLens, which seems even more promising – imagine being able to see people on a video conference call in the room with you, or place your Minecraft creation on the table in 3D for you to play with. The headset is currently available as a prototype for developers, so look for this sort of wearable to take off soon.
While activity-focused items are still the product category most think of when considering wearables, expect that to change in the years to come. The next generation of mobile technology, 5G, is being designed with connected devices in mind (the ‘internet of things’) – and lots of them. That means that, in time, it will become the norm for most products – and, yes, even apparel you wear – to connect online to store data for your benefit.
In other words, the future of wearables is not just in fitness, but in every aspect of life. Expect web-connected health bands to make monitoring patients easier for doctors, freeing up hospital beds in the process; expect baby clothing to keep a close eye on your infant child’s breathing rate and vital signs for you; expect, in other words, for wearables to fade away into invisibility as they become more and more powerful, and more taken for granted. There won’t be a wearables category any more, because everything you could wear will be connected in some way.
Battery life blues
Just as wearables are already a broad product range, so unfortunately are their battery lives just as diverse. You’ll see some fitness trackers that can keep going for six months; other smartwatches won’t even last a day. Much of it comes down to a few key factors. Colour touchscreens are an enormous power drain, as is built-in GPS satellite location tracking. If you hate having to charge up more and more gadgets every night, look for fitness trackers that connect to your phone via low power Bluetooth 4.0 – these are the most efficient.
Wearable tech: our Top picks
How do you choose the latest gizmo to attach to your wrist? With the help of our top four choices for stylish and functional wearable technology
01 BEST ON A BUDGET
Misfit Flash, $19.99
Wearable maker Misfit is now owned by watch company Fossil, and it’s pushing out great devices like clockwork. The Flash is an absolute bargain of an activity tracker. Its light-up face lets you tell the time – something many rival devices still omit – and it quietly pairs with your smartphone for months on end to keep track of your steps. Six months, in fact – it’s so low power that it runs on a small cell battery you need only change twice a year. It also tracks other sports for you including yoga, tennis, swimming and even dance. Handily, it even comes with a sleep tracker for monitoring your REM cycles.
02 BEST ON A JOGGER
TomTom Spark 3, $129.98
Whereas other running watches offer fiddly heart-rate straps for the extra beats-per-minute data that can be so valuable, the TomTom Spark 3 does it all without extra peripherals, capturing your distance and speed by GPS. As an added bonus, it even measures your body fat and muscle mass percentage, right from your wrist. Perhaps most crucially for those tired of making the same old circuit every day, it lets you store up to 500 music tracks (or podcasts) to listen to via Bluetooth, so you don’t need to take your phone with you on a run.
03 BEST FOR MULTI-SPORT
Garmin vivoactive HR, $219.99
One for all the triathletes and cycling fanatics, the vivoactive HR comes with a heart-rate monitor and GPS tracking, like the Spark 3, but its highly visible colour touchscreen and fantastic battery life (eight days of regular use, 13 hours of GPS tracking) make it perfect for endurance events and sports. This is especially true for cycling: you can buy separate sensors for your bike, and it’ll sync up perfectly with them, capturing handy data such as velocity and cadence. It’s even got you covered for more relaxing sports: you can download maps of more than 40,000 golf courses so you can check out the lie of the land before you tee off. A watch that can improve your handicap? Yes please.
04 BEST ALL-ROUND
Apple Watch Series 2, From $269
It may not come cheap, but Apple’s smartwatch stands head, shoulders and, well, wrists above the rest. Though much of that is down to the product itself – mute, but well built, with an easy to use (and tap) software interface – it’s the ecosystem that stands out. If developers are going to make apps for smartwatches, be they for your favourite music service or calendar application, they’re going to make them for Apple Watch first and foremost. And now that the Apple Watch Series 2 has GPS built in, you can use it as a fully functioning exercise tracker without having to take your phone out on a run (or swim) with you. The downsides? It works only with iPhones, while a flashy colour touchscreen and all that kit underneath means you’ll be charging up every night on your bedside table along with your phone.