Review: Martian voice control smartwatch
November 19, 2013
If you're going to spend hundreds of dollars on a smartwatch, what's the most important feature you'd want it to have? Notifications? Fitness tracking? Or maybe you just want some rock-solid voice control? If you want to talk to your watch like Dick Tracy, then you'll want to read on, as Gizmag reviews the Martian Watch: a device that puts Siri and Google Now on your wrist.
We've already reviewed several smartwatches that focus on notifications, including one that also throws in a camera and the ability to make phone calls. But until the Martian Watch came along, none have tapped into the power of Siri (on the iPhone) or Google Now (on Android). The two virtual assistants are tailor-made for hands-free computing, so we were eager to take the Martian Watch for a spin.
Since tiny watch screens aren't big enough to type on, voice makes a lot of sense on a smartwatch (just ask Dick Tracy). The folks at Martian realized this, and made a fun and handy accessory that, at the very least, gives us a sneak peek at how we might all be interacting with our mobile devices in a few years.
The Martian Watch is the most discreet-looking smartwatch we've used. For the most part, it looks like a standard analog watch, including hour and minute hands. Unless you look closely, you'll have no idea there's anything "smart" going on here.
The Passport model of the Martian that we reviewed has a retro 1960s look, like something Sean Connery-era James Bond might wear. The only clue that it's more than a traditional watch is a small horizontal screen that sits near the bottom of its face.
On the Martian's right side is a standard winder for setting the time. On the watch's left side are two buttons that could easily be mistaken for two more winders. But the bottom one is a "select" button that lets you quickly check for info like the current weather, battery life, and today's date. The top "command" button, meanwhile, activates Siri or Google Now (more on that in a minute).
The watch's casing is made of stainless steel, and, like every other smartwatch we've handled, is pretty beefy (it measures 13.3 mm thick). I've yet to see a full-fledged smartwatch that doesn't look awkward on most women's wrists (my wife heartily agrees), and the Martian Watch is no exception. But I think the Martian's size and look work well on my bigger wrist.
The model we reviewed ships with a fairly standard-looking, adjustable black silicone band. Martian also sells alternative leather and stainless steel bands that you can swap onto the watch.
Like other smartwatches, the Martian Watch isn't very smart on its own, instead leeching brainpower from your smartphone. It's compatible with both iOS and Android phones, but we only recommend using it with an iPhone 4s or later (to use Siri), or an Android phone with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean or later (to use Google Now).
After firing up the watch, the first thing you'll want to do is pair it with your phone via Bluetooth. Then you can download the companion Martian Alerts app (available in both the App Store and Google Play), which is where you toggle settings and set up notifications. The app also links to tutorials and FAQs in case anything isn't clear right off the bat.
When you get a notification, the watch vibrates your wrist, and the alert scrolls across that long horizontal screen. You can adjust the strength of the vibration and the speed of the scrolling from within the app. You can also set a delay before the alert starts scrolling, in case you need to roll up your sleeve or put down a bag of groceries before reading the message.
Notifications work great with Android phones, but are more limited with iPhones. The Android app will shoot any notification from your phone to the watch, and you can also pick and choose which apps you receive alerts from. On iOS, though, you're limited to calls, text messages, Facebook and Twitter messages, calendar alerts, reminders, and email. That's a solid list that covers all the basics, but all other iPhone apps and services are left out in the cold.
The iPhone version of the app also won't send you push email. Your only option is to set up an IMAP or POP account (including Gmail) in the Martian Alerts app, and it will check that account for new email, at most, once every three minutes. To top it off, you can only do this for one email account.
A Martian representative told us that a future update will enable full Notification Center support on iOS, giving you alerts from any app you want (like the Android version already does). Whenever that update arrives, it should boost the Martian's value to iPhone owners. As it stands right now, though, notifications are a little lacking on the iPhone.
Siri and Google Now
Fortunately, some of those blanks on the iPhone are filled in by Siri. Tap that upper left "command" button, wait a few seconds (usually four or five), and you'll hear the familiar Siri chime on the watch's speaker. Start speaking, and Apple's assistant will speak the answer back to you, just as it would on your phone.
Of course the action is still technically happening on your phone. Siri and Google Now are both compatible with Bluetooth headsets, and, as far as your phone is concerned, that's what the Martian Watch is. A Bluetooth wrist-set, if you will.
I found the voice control to be very handy, especially considering Siri's improvements in iOS 7. You can ask Siri to read your emails to you, reply to emails, read and compose text messages, place calls, set reminders, check the weather, find nearby restaurants, book reservations, buy movie tickets, get sports scores, and much more. Anything Siri can help you with on your iPhone, it will help you with on the Martian Watch.
Even if you don't use Apple's virtual assistant on your iPhone, you might find yourself using it a lot more once it moves onto your wrist. Using Siri on the Martian is the most Dick Tracy-like experience I've had with a smartwatch. You might blow it off as a novelty, but I found it to be just as useful as it was fun. You can leave your phone in your pocket, and whether you're walking, driving, or sitting at your desk – a quick tap will summon Siri.
I did most of my testing of the Martian Watch with an iPhone, but I also used it with Android's Google Now on a Galaxy S4. It's a similar experience, though not quite as smooth.
Google Now has a couple of annoying limitations regarding messages. As far as I know, there's no way to have it read your texts or emails aloud to you (asking Google Now to read my messages takes me to a web search). And when you're dictating a new text, Google Now asks you to confirm without reading it back to you. It's fast, but you're also more likely to have dictation errors. To see what it's about to send, you have to look at your phone's screen, which basically defeats the purpose of having a smartwatch.
Both assistants occasionally use visual cues to answer your questions, and those won't show up on the watch. You can minimize this by turning on Google Now's setting to always provide voice feedback. About the only time I ran into this problem, though, was when the answer defaulted to a web search. Both Siri and Google Now should speak anything that they answer directly.
Can you hear me now?
Samsung would like you to believe that the Galaxy Gear is the first smartwatch to support phone calls, but the Martian actually beat it to the punch. Again tapping into that Bluetooth headset functionality, the Martian lets you answer and place calls on the watch.
Calling on the Martian Watch is a smooth experience, and even if you aren't comfortable talking to your watch in public, it can be a handy way to take or make a call when you're on the move or have your hands full.
To place a call, just ask Siri or Google Now to call a contact or phone number. When you receive an incoming call, the watch will vibrate and show the name of the caller on its screen. To answer it, tap the top "command" button. To reject it, tap the bottom button.
If you toggle on a "gesture" setting in the Martian Alerts app, you can also reject a call by holding your arm straight up and jerking your wrist back and forth a couple times. Strange? You bet. But if you don't want to draw stares in public, you could always play it off like you're stretching or adjusting your sleeve.
The mic and speaker both live on the watch's main body, so calls sound the clearest when talking directly into the watch, Dick Tracy style. But you can hear and be heard no matter how you hold your arm. You'll just sound more like you're on a speakerphone if you hold your wrist farther away from your face.
Call quality sounded good through the watch's speaker, and I was told I sounded crystal clear on the other end. The watch has a noise-cancelling microphone, so that shouldn't be too surprising.
Battery life isn't much of a concern here. It's hard to do any kind of formal battery test on a smartwatch, but I never drained it below about 60 percent at the end of a day. I have no problem charging smartwatches every night, but even if you forget, it should last a couple of days or more on a single charge.
Speaking of charging, the watch has a plastic door on its right side, much like Sony's Smartwatch 2. Flip the door open, hook up a microUSB cable (included), and pick up your juiced-up watch in the morning.
Worth the investment?
The Martian Watch ain't cheap. To get your hands on the Passport model I tested, you'll have to fork out US$300. The sportier-looking Victory model costs the same, and the colorful G2G edition drops down to $250.
Is it worth it? Well, for some people, it will be. I think voice is the most natural way of interacting with wearable electronics. In that sense, Martian delivers. Siri and Google Now make so much sense on your wrist, I'm surprised that more smartwatch makers haven't made them the centerpieces of their products. The best part? As those voice control assistants continue to improve, so too will the value you get from the Martian Watch.
We'd prefer if the Martian's price was closer to the $150-200 range. When you consider that its best feature, voice control, mimics the functionality of a $25 Bluetooth headset, $300 is pretty steep. The Martian Watch also lacks any kind of fitness tracking, native music controls, third-party apps, cameras, or standalone wireless capability. Most of those features can be found on rival devices, though it's debatable how important some of them are in a watch.
But again, we can't overemphasize how cool it is to have Siri or Google Now on your wrist. When you add rock-solid notifications on Android, and some basic notifications on iOS (which should improve eventually), you have one of the most intriguing candidates in this first wave of smartwatches. Perhaps most importantly, you get a smart device that could easily pass for a standard analog watch ... well, that is, until you start talking to it.
The Martian Watch is available now from the product page below, and from retailers like Amazon, AT&T, and Best Buy online.
Product Page: Martian Watches
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