Google is preparing to fully roll out Android Wear and the first smartwatch to run the platform could be going on sale soon, but it remains to be seen if consumers are actually interested in extending their mobile devices to their wrists. Having spent a month with the Android and iOS-compatible Martian Notifier smartwatch, I've come to the conclusion that it may offer the best way for early adopters, the mobile-obsessed or the busy every-man or woman to get his or her feet wet in the new wearable world.
While early smartwatches like the original Pebble and Samsung Galaxy Gear were clunky and almost cartoonish in their aesthetic and usability, Martian's watches are designed with form and functionality more front of mind. The Notifier model that I've been wearing, as we noted in our initial hands-on at CES, is actually a stripped down take on Martian's original Dick Tracy-style voice command watches.
The Notifier ditches the notion of talking into your wrist in favor of a customizable regime of vibrating notifications and a lower $129 price tag – two attributes that make it a simple but powerful entry-level smartwatch. After a week of wearing one around, friends and family finally began to detect that what appeared to be a snazzy new analog timepiece was drawing an unusual amount of my attention. Inevitably, the most common response was one of intrigued surprise along the lines of "that's a smartwatch? I thought they all had big, ugly screens."
In short, the Notifier is the watch to wear if you want to be an early adopter and be incognito at the same time. If you're the type of person that would have no qualms about staring and tapping at your wrist to interact with limited app functions and read full e-mails, rather than just the single-line notifications that the Notifier delivers on its tiny 96 x 16 pixel graphic OLED display situated within a traditional analog watchface, you might want to wait for Android Wear or an Apple iWatch.
Plenty of buzz
At first blush, the idea of a smartwatch that vibrates and has a digital screen only 16 pixels high might seem overly limiting, but the secret sauce here is the Notifier's customizable vibrations.
Any event that your phone can recognize as a notification, the Notifier can assign a custom vibration pattern to. So if you're in the middle of an important conversation you might get three short vibrations on your Notifier informing you that a tweet has come in. No need to even look at your wrist. But if you get the long, single buzz you've set to indicate a new text, you might want to check that one, since you were expecting a relevant SMS to come through. If you skipped looking at some earlier notifications for whatever reason, a nifty history features allows you to scroll through recent buzzes using the physical buttons on the side of the watch.
It sounds crazy – that this kind of alert triage could actually have much value on a daily basis – but it absolutely cuts down on time spent staring at a device (or at the watch itself) and it was missed when I took it off for a few days in the middle of the month.
Smart, but not perfect
The reason I went without wearing the Notifier for a few days is one of several tiny flaws that began to accumulate over the weeks I spent with it. To start, it requires an odd, longer-than-normal USB cable to charge. So if you are one of the multitudes that use cables interchangeably for your many devices, and you happen to forget the proprietary Martian cable when you go away for a few days, you're out of luck when it's out of juice.
To be fair, I could have kept wearing it as a timepiece, because the analog clock is actually powered by a separate, two-year battery, which is a smart addition. But I opted instead to switch back to my old Timex so I wouldn't have to fret about another feature the Notifier lacks: water resistance.
Surely having to remember to take the smartwatch off before going swimming or showering helps to keep its price down, but in the long term, it could be a death sentence for a life-long wearer of waterproof watches like me – habits are hard to break.
However, my single biggest frustration using the Notifier for an extended period of time had to do with Bluetooth quirks. Put simply, the watch didn't always seem to play well sharing my phone's Bluetooth radio with other devices. If I had to answer a call via a headset or if my phone uploaded data to a fitness tracker, it could knock the Notifier offline for a period of time. Suddenly an hour or two may have gone by in notification-less bliss; meanwhile my wife is wondering why I've been ignoring her furious texts.
Another recurring problem that may be related to the above issue was the backlog of notifications that sometimes led to near constant buzzing on my wrist for up to several minutes.
Bluetooth can be a strange beast, particularly when used as heavily on a single device as I tend to do, so I imagine many folks may not run into these problems, but it seems that some software fixes may be in order. The Martian App that controls the whole system was easy enough to navigate and setup, but it offered no real way that I could find to stop it from trying to constantly connect to the watch when it was turned off; eventually I temporarily uninstalled the app.
Overall, the battery life on the Notifier itself is pretty good, offering 5 days of use per charge, but I suspect that the app and its heavy hand on my Bluetooth radio took a chunk out of each charge of my device's battery.
The Martian Notifier is an underrated and affordable smartwatch that is also the best proof of concept I've seen to date of wearables as a new product category. If even this basic approach provides this much value, then there's real potential in the form factor. It's also as light and comfortable as any regular wristwatch and looks more slick than most.
However, there are still kinks to work out, and this small operation is likely to get bowled over by bigger names in the coming months with fancier, more function-intense smartwatches.
If it can't generate enough buzz on its own to start a minimalist smartwatch movement, perhaps Martian will be swallowed by one of the aforementioned big names and we'll see a refined, second-generation Notifier pushed out to a wider audience in the not too distant future.
The Martian Notifier is available now for an aggressive US$130. You can read more at the product page below.
Product page: Martian
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story claimed that the finish of the watch scuffed easily. However, with some considerable effort, the author was able to remove the marks, which likely were left by paint from another surface rubbing off on the watch. We apologize for the error and confirm that our review unit is now scuff-free.