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Posted: 1:03 p.m. Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Smartwatches and Fitness Bands: Just Not There Yet

By Rick Broida

www.Savings.com

I’m not one to make sweeping generalizations or blanket statements, but all smartwatches and fitness bands suck and always will.

Okay, maybe someday they’ll get better, but for now my advice is this: steer clear.

That’s based on several months test-driving a variety of products, including the Martian Notifier, Pebble, and Striiv Touch. They’re all appealing enough on paper, delivering various kinds of data to and from your smartphone, but when it comes to real-world performance, they fall short.

Take the Martian Notifier. It’s a nice-looking watch priced at $129, and it connects to your phone via Bluetooth. When a call, text message, or calendar alarm comes in, the watch vibrates and displays a single line of scrolling text. Handy, right? I thought so at first, but that tiny window just doesn’t show enough information. And the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ticker forces you to stare longer at the watch, which is dangerous for drivers. (Believe it or not, it’s faster to glance at your phone’s screen, where you can see the full text of an alarm or message.)

Meanwhile, the watch’s control buttons aren’t at all intuitive–I routinely forgot which did what–and the option to replay the last notification (done by double-tapping the watch face) frequently didn’t work. Worst of all, although the Notifier recharges via a standard microUSB port, that port is deeply recessed, requiring a proprietary cable.

Little annoyances like that make the Notifier hard to recommend.

Then there’s the Pebble ($150), a legendary Kickstarter success story and, truth be told, the best smartwatch you can buy today. I’ve never been a fan of its clunky design or throwback monochrome screen, but I was willing to overlook those quirks in exchange for a roomy display, lots of nifty digital watchfaces, and great notification features.

But my Pebble was plagued by technical glitches. Sometimes notifications would come through, sometimes they wouldn’t. Sometimes I’d get a real-time feed from RunKeeper on my iPhone (which was awesome when it worked), sometimes I wouldn’t. Sometimes the battery would last 4-5 days, sometimes it died within 24 hours.

In other words, the Pebble failed the “it just works” test. I desperately wanted it to work, but eventually got sick of all the inconsistency and troubleshooting. I returned it to Amazon (and paid a 15% restocking fee for the privilege).

Finally, I pinned my hopes on the appealingly priced Striiv Touch ($99), a fitness band with a few smartwatch-like features–not the least of which was its single-line touchscreen. A long tap would make it light up to display the date and time. And notifications could be swiped through, one screen at a time, a much better solution than the Notifier’s ticker.

Meanwhile, it tracked steps and sleep activity, just like the popular Fitbit and its ilk. But as an activity monitor, the Touch made no sense to me. Wrist-heavy actions like washing my hands were counted as steps. And the sleep data collected by the Striiv companion app was utterly incomprehensible. (Besides, what good would it do to have an app tell me I woke up twice in the night? I already knew that!)

Like the Pebble, the Touch seemed to have difficulty staying connected to my iPhone, or at least delivering notifications consistently. Plus, you have to use a special cradle to charge the wristband, a total hassle. That’s necessary to allow for the Touch’s water-resistant design, but after its fourth trip into the shower with me, the touchscreen stopped responding for an entire day. To top it all off, the rubber wristband itself is a huge pain to put on.

As I said earlier: Many of these devices sound great on paper, but disappoint in the real world. Make no mistake, I need a watch that tells time, notifies me of incoming calls and texts, looks good doing it, and doesn’t need charging every few days. That product doesn’t exist yet–but I’m eager to see if Apple takes a stab at it next month, which the rumor mill suggests the company will. I’m no fanboy, but if there’s one company I think can get this product category right, it’s Apple.

Your thoughts? Have you tried a fitness band or smartwatch? If so, which one, and how was your experience?

Veteran technology writer Rick Broida is the author of numerous books, blogs, and features. He lends his money-saving expertise to CNET and Savings.com, and also writes for PC World and Wired.

(Source: Savings.com)