Smartwatch or Google Glass? A hands-on perspective
December 17, 2013
If wearable computing really is the next big thing, then will the future look more like Google Glass or an iWatch? Well, Gizmag has spent plenty of time with all the big smartwatches, and we're now "Exploring" with Google Glass, so we have a few things to say on the subject. Read on, as we take a look at the present and future of Google Glass and smartwatches.
The first big thing to remember here is that we're comparing shipping retail products (like the Pebble, Samsung Galaxy Gear, and Qualcomm Toq smartwatches) with a beta product that's still unavailable to the general public (Google Glass). All of them are paving the way for the future of wearable tech, but Google makes no bones about Glass being an unfinished work in progress. Its invitation-only status and US$1,500 pricing are the icing on that cake.
So why bother comparing Glass and smartwatches right now? Well, unlike our other consumer product comparisons, this is as much about the future as it is right now. The wrist and the face are two very different approaches to wearable computers, and it isn't clear which one customers will prefer (assuming, that is, that they want either of them). And even though both smartwatches and smart glasses are just getting started, we want to take a look at where they stand right now – and imagine where they might be a few years down the road.
Right now Google Glass and smartwatches have one big thing in common: they're all basically smartphone accessories. I'm sure we'll eventually see wearable devices gaining smartphone independence, but today none of them will actually replace the smartphone in your pocket.
Google Glass is compatible with any smartphone with a Bluetooth connection, but the beta Explorer Edition works a little better with Android phones. Google's MyGlass app is available in Google Play, which opens the door to SMS, turn-by-turn navigation, and free data tethering from your phone. An App Store version will be here soon, though it doesn't look like it's going to have the SMS or free tethering features.
All of the major smartwatches support recent Android phones, though the Galaxy Gear is only compatible with a few Samsung flagships. Only the Pebble and Martian Watch play nicely with the iPhone.
In case you aren't familiar with the basic hardware, the Explorer Edition of Google Glass features a long bar that wraps around the side of your head. The device's processor, memory, camera, and battery are all housed there. The screen is a little prism protruding out from the front. There's a bone conduction audio speaker on the other end, which sends vibrations through your skull so you don't need an earpiece. The side of the device doubles as a touchpad for navigating the Glass UI, and there's a dedicated camera button sitting on top. Once you get Glass adjusted to your head, the screen hovers in the upper-right hand portion of your field of vision. That display stays off most of the time, and only turns on when you activate it.
There's already a healthy variety of smartwatches on store shelves, but they all draw inspiration from the traditional time-keeping watch. Most of them feature a screen of some kind in place of the standard watch face. Some of them have touch screens, while others (like Pebble and the Martian Watch) instead use physical buttons on the watch's side. A couple of them have microphones and speakers for making voice calls, and the Galaxy Gear even has a 1.9 MP camera on its band. Some of the watches have swappable wrist bands, while the Galaxy Gear and Toq have some of their hardware integrated into their unremovable bands. All of them alert you to notifications by gently vibrating your wrist.
There's no question which product is bolder. While smartwatches specialize in glanceable notifications (and maybe some basic smartphone functionality) on your wrist, Google Glass wants to, quite literally, change how you look at the world. Consider it your first baby step in the direction of becoming a cyborg. Smartwatches are relatively subtle, incognito, and concealable; Google Glass is anything but. Wear it in public, and there will be stares.
But a face-computer also has its advantages. Having the world's biggest search engine hovering just above your field of vision, no matter what you're doing with your hands, is an extremely powerful tool. When the internet's treasure trove of information is so intimately connected to you, Glass starts to feel less like a separate device and more like an extension of you. It's easy to joke about the cyborg thing, but I really see Glass as heading in that direction. And even if you don't see yourself as a proto-cyborg, the gawking people you pass on the street probably will.
Even in its beta state, with limited app selection, I think Glass is more useful than the current crop of smartwatches. Notifications are smartwatches' specialty, but only the Martian Watch offers any meaningful voice control (it mimics a Bluetooth headset and taps into the audio portions of Siri or Google Now). The Galaxy Gear also has Samsung's S Voice in tow, but as a scaled-down version of an already-lackluster voice assistant, that's hardly something to write home about. None of these early smartwatches let you search Google and get visual feedback.
Glass, meanwhile, gives you Google Now and Google search. Their results are displayed on Glass' 640 x 360 screen, and if you asked something that Google answers directly, the answer will be spoken. Just about any request or information you could conceivably ask for is no farther than an "OK Glass" voice command away.
Glass also lets you take pictures and record video. In fact, it probably offers the most direct route between whatever you're doing and having snapped a pic. Hell, a new software update even lets you take a picture by winking. I've tested it, and it works as advertised. Glass obviously opens a Pandora's box of privacy concerns, but maybe a good rule of thumb is to always assume that anyone wearing Glass is recording you, and act accordingly.
The wrist, meanwhile, is a great place for displaying fitness data, as evidenced by the recent wave of wrist-based fitness trackers. Several of the full-fledged smartwatches also integrate with popular smartphone fitness apps (like RunKeeper or Runtastic) to show your workout info on the watch's screen. Google Glass' selection of fitness apps isn't bustling just yet, but Strava does have a Glassware app for tracking runs and biking.
Most of these first smartwatches also give you some basic smartphone music playback controls. They typically let you play, pause, skip tracks, and adjust volume from your wrist. Some of them also show you the name of the currently-playing track. I haven't yet seen any that let you search or browse your music library.
Google Glass lets you listen to music on the device itself, through its integrated bone conduction speaker or a connected earbud accessory. This currently only works with Google Play Music, though, and it drains enough precious battery life that it's going to be impractical in most situations.
Speaking of battery life, most of the smartwatches have a big advantage there, with all but the Galaxy Gear lasting several days on a single charge (the Gear can last a couple days with light use). In our early stages of testing the Google Glass Explorer Edition 2.0, its battery typically drops around five to seven percentage points per hour with light use. If you take lots of pictures or video, listen to music, use turn-by-turn navigation, or spend much time at all with the screen on, don't bet on it lasting a full day. Again, though, we're talking about a beta product, so we'd expect that to improve in the final retail version.
If you're looking to snag one of these devices now, prices vary wildly. Pebble is the cheapest of the major smartwatches, at US$150. Sony's SmartWatch 2 rings up at $200, the Galaxy Gear and Martian Watch carry $300 price tags, and the Qualcomm Toq goes for $350.
Those, however, don't hold a candle to the Google Glass Explorer Edition's $1,500 asking price (not to mention the invitation you'll need for the privilege of handing over your money). Google has said that Glass' retail version will be cheaper, but we don't know by how much. The rumored release date for retail Google Glass is sometime in the first half of 2014.
I've reviewed all the major smartwatches, and am using Google Glass right now. It doesn't look like any of them have yet struck the right chords to convince the masses that they need wearable computers in their lives. But with that said, I think they all show a lot of potential, and can be both pretty handy and a lot of fun today. We're really just scratching the surface of what these devices can do, and I think that's incredibly exciting.
If I had to pick one – and only one – of these devices to wear for the next year, which would I pick? That's a really tough question, but I think I might actually go with Glass. Google Now, Google search, notifications, text messages, and navigation floating above my right eye is pretty significant ... almost life-changing. It's akin to plugging your mind into an infinite database of knowledge. It's positively Borg-like.
I also imagine Glass' battery life will get a boost in the retail version, and maybe its form factor will even go on a diet by then. The stares in public are distracting now, but you can always take it off if it gets to be too much. And I find that the more I wear Glass, the less I worry about the gawking anyway.
Several smartwatches make that decision pretty hard though. I liked the Galaxy Gear more than most reviewers (which isn't really saying much), but I've since been disappointed with Samsung's restrictions on third-party app development. Only Samsung-picked developers can release official apps for the Gear, which puts a very low ceiling on the device's potential for improvement.
Pebble might offer the safest smartwatch package with its bustling software development community, compatibility with both the iPhone and Android, and its tempting $150 price. I also like the Martian Watch, for its incognito look and Siri or Google Now audio. I'm still testing the Qualcomm Toq watch, but its gorgeous Mirasol screen and insane battery life are encouraging signs.
It would be silly to get too caught up in where these devices stand right now, especially when we're talking about a beta product like Google Glass. But we can have some fun imagining where these product categories can go in the next few years – and beyond.
The biggest catalyst that everyone seems to be waiting for is Apple's entry into the smartwatch market. If past is prelude, then Apple's rumored iWatch could provide the spark that pushes smartwatches into the mainstream. Would an iWatch with biometric sensors (which could be used for both security and fitness tracking), baked-in Siri, and Apple's trademark simplicity be enough to kickstart a smartwatch revolution? Apple has an uncanny knack for making people without a geeky bone in their bodies lust for tech products, so we wouldn't bet against it.
Google is also rumored to be making a smartwatch, which could put a lot of Glass' software and functionality on the wrist. Though an Apple watch might be more likely to enrapture the mainstream public, Google Now's predictive nature (based on things like your location, Gmail inbox, and web searches) could be particularly handy on the wrist. It would provide many of Glass' advantages, without the disadvantage of making you look like a distant cousin of Geordi La Forge.
Maybe the biggest question is whether the general public will ever warm to strapping something like Google Glass onto their faces. And, failing that, how long will it take Google to trim the device's size down to something slimmer and subtler? Whether we're talking about a few years or a few decades, there will eventually come a time when a fairly powerful computer can be squeezed into something about the size of a standard pair of prescription frames. At that point, it's much easier to see smart glasses becoming household products.
The mass adoption of wearables might end up depending on how attractive and fashionable companies can make them. After all, people generally want to look good. Asking someone to buy a technology product they keep in their pockets or on their desks is one thing; asking them to buy something they wear on their bodies is another bag of potatoes. Wearable computing manufacturers might be wise to talk to fashion experts to try to get a pulse on what's going to make people feel attractive.
Even if the general public never warms to smart glasses, though, Google Glass should still find a home in workplaces. Jobs where you need to keep your hands free – whether you're a surgeon, pilot, or pro athlete – could benefit from having a voice-controlled computer display hovering just above your field of vision. We're only seeing the first glimpses of what Glass can do there.
So which product will win the battle for the hearts and dollars of consumers? In the near term, I'd say the smart money is on smartwatches. They're much subtler, they're nearly as useful, and, well, Apple is supposedly making one. With the right combination of game-changing features, resonant marketing, and compelling pricing, the wrist could prove to be the next big tech battleground.
But longer-term, devices like Google Glass could make even more sense. As Google and other companies gradually slim them down to something less gawdy (or as people become more comfortable wearing cyborg gear on their faces), smart glasses' always-accessible, hands-free nature could have them coming out ahead. Google Glass might be a little ahead of its time right now, but it's also the most intimate form of computing I've experienced. That could eventually count for something.
Of course this isn't a zero-sum battle, and the two product categories could very well thrive alongside each other (though probably not on the same person). As smartwatches and smart glasses eventually evolve into standalone wireless devices, they could gang up to invade the smartphone's turf. I can see a world where tablets serve as consumers' primary home computers, while wearables like glasses and watches push the smartphone to the sidelines. As they improve, they'll make more sense as our primary on-the-go computers.
Either way, it is going to be an interesting next few years for wearable computing. At this point, it's hard to see the category not taking off at some stage. Having used many of the early models during the last year, I know I wouldn't want to completely give up wearable tech. If the general population has a similar reaction (a big if), then it may just be a matter of getting enough people to try them out. And with Apple reportedly set to enter the wearable space, that part is practically a given.
Have you jumped into the wearable computing sphere yet? Are you fully on-board, or do they still feel half-baked to you? Go ahead and tell us all about it in the comments.