Dialing From Your Wrist: A Watch Phone Buyer’s Guide
Leave Your Smart Phone At Home
There’s no denying the scifi appeal of carrying a full-featured smartphone on your wrist.
That’s the promise of the new crop of watch phones (or “phone watches”) that have been slowly trickling out to market over the past year or so. But the pace seem to have picked up this year, with the likes of Timex, Samsung and LG developing their own.
With all the talk about the Apple Watch, not much media attention has been given to these super-powerful devices, so we thought we’d round up the best of the best, for your review.
The key difference between a watch phone and a smart watch is device independence.
A typical smart watch requires connecting (tethering) it to a smart phone over Bluetooth to use all of the watche’s capabilities.
In contrast, a watch phone can operate without a phone. In fact, you don’t need to own a smartphone at all.
In addition, most are jam-packed with all the latest smart watch features. For example, all of the devices listed below (except the Ironman ONE GPS+) offer the following as standard features:
- cell phone with removable SIM card
- web browser (Android)
- SMS app
- social network apps
- and much more
It’s a lot to take in. The only thing they all seem to lack right now is a heart monitor, which is a popular feature available on the latest smart watches by Apple, Samsung, LG and Motorola.
What To Look For
Give the “early adopter” state of technology, here are the things we’d watch out for when selecting the first phone for your wrist:
- battery life: because they do so much, these devices have notoriously short battery lives. As in, a few hours of use. You’ll need to recharge them daily.
- form factor: some are so big they won’t fit under a shirt sleeve. Most people think they are enormous for a watch. You’ll have to decide if the look is for you.
- bandwidth / connectivity: most are 3G compatible (not LTE or 4G), which means you will suffer from old-school bandwidth limitations. Web browsing won’t be reasonable on them, not that you’d want to do a lot of that on a watch anyway.
- operating system: most run on Android (not Android Wear) or Tizen; if Android, look for devices that run on version 4.3 or better. Otherwise, your choice of apps will be limited moving forward.
- network compatibility: most work on older 2G/3G cellular networks. So web browsing may be frustrating.
- microphone and speaker quality: since you won’t be using your smart phone to make and receive calls, you’ll need high quality audio components to avoid sounding like your talking under water – as in, under a roaring water fall (background noise can be a real issue w/ a wrist-worn device).
If we sound negative on the category, we’re not! All of the devices below do an amazing job of packing a ton of cool technology into a small device. And, we happen to believe this product category will be around for a long time.
But the fact is, it’s early. The reality today is that you’ll have to make a few tradeoffs if you want to toss out your smartphone for one of these uber-communicators.
Our Top Picks
There are over three dozen phone watches for sale worldwide (most of them in China). But only five stand out as usable, high-enough quality devices that we recommend taking a serious look at. Some of them are nearing pre-order, and others have been for sale for over a year.
All of the ones below are made by reputable global manufacturers, come with good warranties and work as promised.
That’s not to say they don’t have drawbacks – especially in terms of the ginormous form factor and limited battery life.
But if you’re looking for a high-quality smart watch that doesn’t need a smartphone to work, then these are the units we’d recommend.
Samsung Gear S ($300+, preorders to open soon)
Samsung dove into the full-featured pond a few weeks ago when it announced the new Gear S (for “solo”).
The Gear S carries a nano-SIM card, so it can be used as a standalone 2G/3G phone. This means you can text and call directly from your wrist.
It uses a 1GHz dual-core processor with 512MB of RAM, 4GB of available storage and a 300mAh battery which should deliver enough juice for 2 days of use. The Gear S is IP67 water- and dust-resistant and comes with a 9-Axis Gyro/Accelerometer/Compass sensor, a barometer and a PPG heart rate sensor. Samsung also reports that the S will come equipped with onboard voice recognition and S-Health, Samsung’s new health monitoring application platform.
The Gear S is a big device, too, with its 2-inch 360×480 pixel AMOLED touch screen and a chunky full-width wristband. That said, it’s definitely the best-looking watch phone on the market so far.
You’ll also want to know that the S runs Tizen – not Android or Android Wear. So you won’t be able to use all the cool new Google Pay / Android Wear apps coming out.
The Gear S has will soon begin accepting orders on the Samsung website and on Amazon.com.
Neptune Pine ($349, taking preorders now)
If you have a hankering for the most powerful Dick Tracy communicator ever made, you’ll want the Neptune Pine.
The Pine is cleverly designed and is definitely the highest-tech choice you can buy.
Due to its use of a click-in saddle wristband, it’s a smartphone that you can use on or off your wrist. Just click it out of its holder to use it as a standalone phone, to play games, etc.
Based on Android 4.3+, the Pine supports a wide range of Android / Google Play apps. It’s indistinguishable from a mid-range Android phone, as far as we can tell – except for two things: the screen display is a bit on the slow side (reportedly), and the sound quality is lower than average (early reports).
The specs are impressive. The Neptune is the only watch phone that can take and receive calls and handle data over 4G networks. In addition, the Pine stands out by offering two onboard cameras with an LED flash, a built-in QWERTY keyboard and an onboard compass (in addition to an accelerometer, pedometer and GPS).
But the Pine is expensive ($349) and bulky (look at the company’s photo above). There’s no way it would fit under a normal dress shirt cuff, for example – so don’t plan on taking it to work if you’re an accountant or an ad rep.
The Neptune Pine is available for preorders now on Neptune’s website. First shipments are scheduled to begin in November, 2014.
Androidly ($175, available now)
Androidly is another new kid on the block, just recently released. At only $175, it is the second-cheapest choice on our list.
Like others on this list (except the Ironman), the Androidly comes equipped with a phone, camera, wifi, bluetooth and onboard GPS and accelerometer.
Although similar in functionality, the form factor is different than the Neptune Pine. For example, you can’t detach the phone from its wristband like you can with the Neptune. The upside of this design is that the Androidly looks more like a real watch (sort of).
Still, this is a large and bulky thing to wear on your wrist all day. It probably wouldn’t work under a long sleeve shirt or tighter-fitting coat, either.
Spec-wise, the Androidly is a mixed bag. It offers a ton of RAM (8-16GB), but only works on older 2.5G networks (GSM only) and runs Android 2.2, an older version that will limit your app choices.
You can order an Androidly today on the company’s website, which seems designed for an European audience.
Z1 ($100-150, available now)
The Z1 is the first Android wrist phone that actually worked. It’s still a popular device in China, where it is manufactured and sold under a number of different names.
Like the Androidly the Z1 is based on Android 2.2 and uses 2G/3G GSM connectivity. It supports full telephone functionality, 3G messaging and a wide range of Android apps.
The specs are bit dated, though. Onboard memory is only 256MB and the processor clocks at a pitiful 416MHz, making it the weakest of the bunch. It also comes with a capacitive 2 inch touch screen, GPS, Wi-Fi, a built-in web browser, a 2.0 megapixel onboard camera, an accelerometer, a video and music player / recorders for music and video.
And the Z1 has its issues. Most notably, the touch screen tends to be unresponsive and the sound quality while using the phone is pretty bad, although it’s much better if you use headphones.
That said, you can buy a Z1 today on Amazon for about 50% off list, or about $100. Which is an amazing amount of tech for the price.
IronMan ONE GPS+ ($399, accepting preorders now)
Brand-new to the market and available for preorder now, the $399 Ironman GPS+ is a standalone smart watch plus communicator designed specifically for outdoor sports.
The Ironman ONE GPS+ is not technically a phone, but you can use it communicate with other people over AT&T’s cellular network.
The ONE offers a best-in-class onboard GPS plus cellular-based data connectivity through AT&T (free for 1st year, $40/year after that) that lets you stay in touch without a smartphone in your pocket. This sort of independence matters a lot to runners and swimmers.
The ONE GPS+ uses Qualcomm’s excellent 1.55″ Mirasol reflective color touchscreen display that actually improves visibility when exposed to direct sunlight. And of course it’s weather resistant and water resistant to 50 meters.
The ONE also lets you upload your workout data to popular workout apps including:
The downside? Well, like we said you can’t actually make phone calls on the Ironman ONE. Not that you’d do this often while working out, anyway. And, the ONE GPS+ suffers from a relatively short 8-hour battery life.
Let us know if you’re thinking about getting a watch phone, by leaving a comment below.
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