Smartwatches for every taste and budget

*Steve Makris is a technology expert who does a Tech Talk segment during Edmonton’s Sunday Morning News.

Are smartwatches worth having? Is it time for you to get, or give one away this holiday season?

If you are a casual smartphone user and don’t have several hundred dollars to spare, wait. Smartwatches will simply get better and more affordable as more enter the marketplace.

If you are picking up your phone every few minutes checking for updates or are in meetings or a movie theatre and take sneak peeks at your phone and are moderately active, then smartwatches are ready for you. But be warned: smartwatches need to be charged daily, like smartphones. They are also as addictive as smartphones.

With dozens of models around and new ones out in time for the holiday season, the choices are many.  Smartwatches are part of the burgeoning personal wearable device market. They are more sophisticated and capable than their sibling wrist band fitness tracker devices but cost much more. With more memory and powerful processors, today’s smartwatches are more independent from their paired smartphones.

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They come in all sizes, shapes and prices. The current generation is getting more exciting because of new health monitoring capabilities, like continuous heart beat moniroring and more included apps the first time you turn them on. Although not a smartwatch, Microsoft’s upcoming Band 2 ups the ante with 11 monitor sensors including VO2 max readings, the maximum amount of oxygen your body can take in at one time during exercise.

Smartwatches get most of their smartness from wirelessly-paired smartphones which have to be within 10 metres of each other. If away from each other, a smartwatch for example that does not have built-in GPS, will not know where you are. You will miss phone calls or live notifications until you are near your phone again.

If you have an iPhone, your only choice is the Apple Watch, first launched last spring. But to no surprise, it already overshadows many generations of Android Wear watches with more apps, unless you count a watch face as an app. In contrast, Android-based watches, with many generational iterations, use Android Wear to work with any brand Android smartphone. An LG phone, for example, can work with the Moto 360 series watch or the new Asus ZenWatch 2. Android smartwatches work the same, but each maker differentiates models with special features.

Smartwatches are cross phone compatible with limitations. The iPhone can work with Android watches but only in a one way notification mode. The Tizen based OS Samsung Gear S2 can work with OS 4.4 and up Android phones with 1.5 GB RAM or more, after a laborious three stage app install. Still, the S2 works on more than 40 phones. The Microsoft Band 2 Works with Windows Phone, Android, and iPhone. Nice.

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Let’s check the newest smartwatches out.

The Samsung Gear S2 features a rotating bezel for quickly scrolling through apps and making selections. handout

Samsung Gear S2– Samsung’s sixth wearable since 2013, is smart and unique. With a well-designed slim stainless steel streamlined circular body and touch screen, the S2 “rounds” off its two button controls with a circular bezel. Turning the close-fitting bezel in either direction scrolls through emails and news notifications with detailed views, zooms in on a map, skips a track during playback, scrolls through your photos and shows the 20 included app icons. The flagship S Health has seven exercise activities right down to a stationary cycle with constant heart monitoring. The partner Nikon running app tracks your runs and goal keeping. You can store songs and listen via Bluetooth headphones. The battery lasts more than a day. There is a data capable model requiring a SIM card but Samsung Canada will not be carrying it, citing low consumer interest.

The Apple Watch has the most comprehensive apps connection to the iPhone. supplied

The Apple Watch has the most comprehensive apps connection to the iPhone

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Apple Watch –It is impeccably designed with an eclectic range of metal finish and bands beyond most wallets, but an under $500 version works all the same. The watch comes in 38 mm and 42 mm sizes, both too small for many folks but its multi-pressure screen is a tad sharper than competitors. Among its pre-installed 20 apps, it features a graphically-impressive Activity App with concentric bold eye-caching circular progress bars for moving, exercising or standing.  Siri now runs off your wrist too as does Wallet. You can send messages to a friend from the watch and if they have one too, your finger drawn sketch will animate on their watch screen. Tapping two fingers on the screen sends your animated heartbeat to a friend, with a like response back to your phone screen. Apple’s huge third party active app community has embraced the watch with smart ways to run things from your wrist. Starkey’s tiny high-tech Halo iPhone audio streaming hearing aid, for example, has added Apple Watch control volume, memory changes to personalized settings and muting hearing aid microphones. Apple took its time coming out with the watch but it was worth the wait for Apple fans. The Apple Watch is available at the Apple Store and Best Buy, whose website accurately indicates which models are available in every store location.

Moto 360 offers Gorilla Glass custom watch screens and ageless looks. handout

Moto 360 – Motorola has kept its classic circular cylindrical stainless steel design in the second generation Moto 360 46mm screen size starting at $429 and the Moto 360 women’s 42 mm blush leather band model, $399. Not to be confused with last year’s Moto 360, still selling for under $200, this gorgeous watch, running on Android Wear, has continuous heart rate monitor, automatic ambient light sensor screen under Corning Gorilla Glass and a long lasting two-day battery. It features beautifully-designed watch faces with Live Dials that can be customized to display anything from battery level, weather, and fitness stats from your apps.

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The affordable ASUS ZenWatch 2 features slim design and Android Wear functiionality
The affordable ASUS ZenWatch 2 features slim design and Android Wear functiionality. handout

Asus ZenWatch 2 – Asus has the most affordable smartwatch, priced at about $249.99 CDN, out this month and exclusive to Best Buy. Its good looks and tight design work with all Android Wear apps and for that price, and is a better investment over traditional $150 band fitness trackers. But its affordability also means no heart monitor and one-day battery performance. A small price to pay is you want an affordable smartwatch that runs Android Wear with activity monitoring.

The Bellabeat Leaf for women monitors your body and soul. supplied

Leaf Bellabeat – A stylish wood and metal fitness tracker for women with a dual emphasis on taking care of body and soul. The Leaf comes with an internal six-month replaceable battery and needs no daily charging. It monitors your sleep pattern including your breathing, activity reminder, even your menstrual cycle. It has encouraging comments on your physical state and even coaches you on how to do breathing exercises. OK, I’m a guy, but I tried it while sleeping and it proved as accurate as specifically designed smartphone sleeping apps but with a friendlier encouraging demeanor on how you are doing. It even has suggestions on how to improve your sleep. It has the most gentle vibrating wake-up alarm. A necklace accessory is included, but it can be worn as a bracelet, pin or brooch. It syncs with Android or iPhones. Available at Best Buy staring at 149.99

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For more tech news follow Steve’s personal techuntangled blog.

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