Understanding smartwatches

I was wrong. Several years ago I reviewed the first Garmin Fenix 3 smartwatch. This was before the release of the Apple Watch. That’s key to this story. I declared Garmin would have a hard time selling the Fenix 3. The Apple Watch would be better in every way, I pointed out. Therefore, there would be little reason to buy the Fenix 3.

But here I am, in the middle of the woods, wearing the fifth generation of the Garmin Fenix while my Apple Watch sits at home on my desk.

In some ways I was right. The Apple Watch is better by most measurable attributes: there are more apps, the screen is superior, there’s a vibrant accessory market, and it’s thinner, faster and cheaper.

The Garmin Fenix is big, clunky and the screen looks like it’s from a Kindle. It’s not a touchscreen nor does it have the number of apps or band options of the Apple Watch. I like it. To me, the Garmin Fenix is akin to a modern Casio G-Shock, and that’s what I want to wear right now.

Smartwatches are often reviewed like phones or vacuums. Specs are compared, and conclusions are drawn. Wearability is talked about, and functions are tested. If the watch has a swimming option, take it in a pool never mind the fact the reviewer hasn’t done a lap since high school.

I started out doing the same thing with this Garmin. I took it kayaking. I had kayaked twice in my life, and dear reader, I’m here to report the watch performed well on this kayak trip. The watch has topography maps that novel though not useful since the river. It has a cadence beat to help keep strokes consistent. I tried it all. I ended up drinking a lot of Michigan beer instead of tracking the performance of the watch. Sorry.

Still, performance matters to a point.

Here’s my OG review of the Garmin Fenix 5: The watch is significant even on my wrist. The screen is underwhelming though it’s always on and visibility improves in sunlight. The buttons have great tactical feedback. The watch is waterproof to the extent it survived a flipped kayak and hours in Lake Michigan. The battery lasts nearly a week. The watch does not know when it’s on or off the wrist, so notifications will cause it to buzz while it’s on your nightstand.

But most of that doesn’t matter. The Garmin Fenix 5 is exceptional, and I love wearing it.

Smartwatches need to be reviewed like ordinary watches. I need to explain more about how the watch feels rather than what it does or how it works. At this point, several years into smartwatches, it’s not notable if the smartwatch with a smartwatch. Of course, it tracks steps and heart rate and displays select notifications from my phone. If those items work then, they’re not important in a review.

Take a Citizen Skyhawk line. It packs a highly sophisticated complication that’s designed, so the maker says, for pilots. Ball makes a lovely line intended to provide accurate timekeeping for train conductors. There are watches for high magnetic fields, tactical operators, racer car drivers and, of course, countless for divers. Here’s my point: The vast majority of these watches are not used by divers or train conductors or fighter pilots.

This Garmin Fenix watch, much like the Apple Watch or Rolex diver, can be an aspirational item. It’s like the juicer in my kitchen or rowing machine in my basement. I got it because I wanted to be a person who woke up and juiced some veggies before my workout. I haven’t used either in months.

Smartwatches are different from smartphones and need to be reviewed as such. This Garmin Fenix watch has many modes I would never use, yet I love the watch. There’s a base jumping mode. I’m not jumping off a cliff. There’s a tactical mode and a golf mode and an open water mode, and I have no desire to be in situations where I need to track such activities. But I like the thought of having them available if I ever wanted to monitor my heartbeat while shooting targets.

The smartwatch industry is approaching a point where features are secondary to design. It’s expected that the watch will track steps and heartbeat while providing access to various features. It’s like the time and date of a regular watch. Past that, the watch needs to fit in a person’s aspirations.

Everyone is different, but to me, this is how it is laid out: The Apple Watch is for those looking for the top-tier experience regardless of the downsides of constant charging and delicate exterior. Android Watches are those looking for something similar but in a counter-culture way. The Samsung’s smartwatch is interesting and with the new Galaxy Watch, finally reaching maturity.

There are fashion smartwatches with fewer features but designs that make a statement. That’s where this Garmin watch lives and I’m okay with it. Fossil and Timex watches live here too. Using the Apple Watch as a standard, some of these fashion watches cost more, and some cost less, but they all say something an Apple Watch does not.

I’m bored with the Apple Watch, and right now I’m into thinking I live the type of life that needs a smartwatch that tracks every aspect of a triathlon. I don’t need all these features, but I like to think I do. I also don’t need to have a GMT watch with a third timezone, and I don’t need a watch with a hacking movement hand as if I need to synchronize my watch with other members of my special forces squad. But I have those watches along with dive watches and anti-magnetic watches. I’m not alone. The watch industry has long existed on selling lifestyles.

I was wrong before. The Apple Watch isn’t better than this Garmin or most other smartwatches— at least it’s not better for me right now. Maybe two weeks from now I’ll want to wear an Apple Watch and not because it’s better, but because it makes a different statement.

Fossil announces new update Android Wear watches with HR tracking, GPS

Fossil’s Q watch line is an interesting foray by a traditional fashion watchmaker into the wearable world. Their latest additions to the line, the Fossil Q Venture HR and Fossil Q Explorist HR, add a great deal of Android Wear functionality to a watch that is reminiscent of Fossil’s earlier, simpler watches. In other words, these are some nice, low-cost smartwatches for the fitness fan.

The original Q watches included a clever hybrid model with analog face and step counter. As the company expanded into wearables, however, they went Android Wear route and created a number of lower-powered touchscreen watches. Now, thanks to a new chipset, Fossil is able to add a great deal more functionality in a nice package. The Venture and the Explorist adds untethered GPS, NFC, heart rate, and 24 hour battery life. It also includes an altimeter and gyroscope sensor.

The new watches start at $255 and run the Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 chip, an optimized chipset for fitness watches.

The watch comes in multiple styles and with multiple bands and features 36 different faces including health and fitness-focused faces for the physically ambitious. The watch also allows you to pay with Google Pay – Apple Pay isn’t supported – and you can store content on the watch for runs or walks. It also tracks swims and is waterproof. The Venture and Explorist are 40mm and 45mm respectively and the straps are interchangeable. While they’re no $10,000 Swiss masterpiece, these things look – and work – pretty good.

Apple’s Shortcuts will flip the switch on Siri’s potential

At WWDC, Apple pitched Shortcuts as a way to ”take advantage of the power of apps” and ”expose quick actions to Siri.” These will be suggested by the OS, can be given unique voice commands, and will even be customizable with a dedicated Shortcuts app.

But since this new feature won’t let Siri interpret everything, many have been lamenting that Siri didn’t get much better — and is still lacking compared to Google Assistant or Amazon Echo.

But to ignore Shortcuts would be missing out on the bigger picture. Apple’s strengths have always been the device ecosystem and the apps that run on them.

With Shortcuts, both play a major role in how Siri will prove to be a truly useful assistant and not just a digital voice to talk to.

Your Apple devices just got better

For many, voice assistants are a nice-to-have, but not a need-to-have.

It’s undeniably convenient to get facts by speaking to the air, turning on the lights without lifting a finger, or triggering a timer or text message – but so far, studies have shown people don’t use much more than these on a regular basis.

People don’t often do more than that because the assistants aren’t really ready for complex tasks yet, and when your assistant is limited to tasks inside your home or commands spoken inton your phone, the drawbacks prevent you from going deep.

If you prefer Alexa, you get more devices, better reliability, and a breadth of skills, but there’s not a great phone or tablet experience you can use alongside your Echo. If you prefer to have Google’s Assistant everywhere, you must be all in on the Android and Home ecosystem to get the full experience too.

Plus, with either option, there are privacy concerns baked into how both work on a fundamental level – over the web.

In Apple’s ecosystem, you have Siri on iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, AirPods, HomePod, CarPlay, and any Mac. Add in Shortcuts on each of those devices (except Mac, but they still have Automator) and suddenly you have a plethora of places to execute these all your commands entirely by voice.

Each accessory that Apple users own will get upgraded, giving Siri new ways to fulfill the 10 billion and counting requests people make each month (according to Craig Federighi’s statement on-stage at WWDC).

But even more important than all the places where you can use your assistant is how – with Shortcuts, Siri gets even better with each new app that people download. There’s the other key difference: the App Store.

Actions are the most important part of your apps

iOS has always had a vibrant community of developers who create powerful, top-notch applications that push the system to its limits and take advantage of the ever-increasing power these mobile devices have.

Shortcuts opens up those capabilities to Siri – every action you take in an app can be shared out with Siri, letting people interact right there inline or using only their voice, with the app running everything smoothly in the background.

Plus, the functional approach that Apple is taking with Siri creates new opportunities for developers provide utility to people instead of requiring their attention. The suggestions feature of Shortcuts rewards “acceleration”, showing the apps that provide the most time savings and use for the user more often.

This opens the door to more specialized types of apps that don’t necessarily have to grow a huge audience and serve them ads – if you can make something that helps people, Shortcuts can help them use your app more than ever before (and without as much effort). Developers can make a great experience for when people visit the app, but also focus on actually doing something useful too.

This isn’t a virtual assistant that lives in the cloud, but a digital helper that can pair up with the apps uniquely taking advantage of Apple’s hardware and software capabilities to truly improve your use of the device.

In the most groan-inducing way possible, “there’s an app for that” is back and more important than ever. Not only are apps the centerpiece of the Siri experience, but it’s their capabilities that extend Siri’s – the better the apps you have, the better Siri can be.

Control is at your fingertips

Importantly, Siri gets all of this Shortcuts power while keeping the control in each person’s hands.

All of the information provided to the system is securely passed along by individual apps – if something doesn’t look right, you can just delete the corresponding app and the information is gone.

Siri will make recommendations based on activities deemed relevant by the apps themselves as well, so over-active suggestions shouldn’t be common (unless you’re way too active in some apps, in which case they added Screen Time for you too).

Each of the voice commands is custom per user as well, so people can ignore their apps suggestions and set up the phrases to their own liking. This means nothing is already “taken” because somebody signed up for the skill first (unless you’ve already used it yourself, of course).

Also, Shortcuts don’t require the web to work – the voice triggers might not work, but the suggestions and Shortcuts app give you a place to use your assistant voicelessly. And importantly, Shortcuts can use the full power of the web when they need to.

This user-centric approach paired with the technical aspects of how Shortcuts works gives Apple’s assistant a leg up for any consumers who find privacy important. Essentially, Apple devices are only listening for “Hey Siri”, then the available Siri domains + your own custom trigger phrases.

Without exposing your information to the world or teaching a robot to understand everything, Apple gave Siri a slew of capabilities that in many ways can’t be matched. With Shortcuts, it’s the apps, the operating system, and the variety of hardware that will make Siri uniquely qualified come this fall.

Plus, the Shortcuts app will provide a deeper experience for those who want to chain together actions and customize their own shortcuts.

There’s lots more under the hood to experiment with, but this will allow anyone to tweak & prod their Siri commands until they have a small army of custom assistant tasks at the ready.

Hey Siri, let’s get started

Siri doesn’t know all, Can’t perform any task you bestow upon it, and won’t make somewhat uncanny phone calls on your behalf.

But instead of spending time conversing with a somewhat faked “artificial intelligence”, Shortcuts will help people use Siri as an actual digital assistant – a computer to help them get things done better than they might’ve otherwise.

With Siri’s new skills extendeding to each of your Apple products (except for Apple TV and the Mac, but maybe one day?), every new device you get and every new app you download can reveal another way to take advantage of what this technology can offer.

This broadening of Siri may take some time to get used to – it will be about finding the right place for it in your life.

As you go about your apps, you’ll start seeing and using suggestions. You’ll set up a few voice commands, then you’ll do something like kick off a truly useful shortcut from your Apple Watch without your phone connected and you’ll realize the potential.

This is a real digital assistant, your apps know how to work with it, and it’s already on many of your Apple devices. Now, it’s time to actually make use of it.

What to expect at WWDC 2018

According to the calendar, it’s somehow already June. That means Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference is just around the corner. As matter of fact, things kick off in San Jose on Monday morning at 10AM PT (1PM ET).

As ever, the main thrust of the show will be focused on developers — it’s right there in the name — but Apple also loves to use yearly spotlight as an opportunity to make some big announcements on the consumer side, as well. iOS and MacOS will no doubt be the focus of the show per usual, but ARKit, Home Kit, Watch OS and some hardware are likely to make strong showings at the event, as well.

Apple’s certainly surprised us before, but here’s our best (educated) guesses at what the company will be showing off in the next week.

iOS

The company dropped the latest update to its mobile operating system just week. 11.4 provides some key insight into the state of the ecosystem and, perhaps, a glimpse into where Apple is going as it continues to build connections between its various software offerings. The home was the key this time out, as the company added AirPlay and improved HomePod functionality, among others.

A glimpse at iOS 12 could well be on the schedule for Monday morning. From the sound of leaks, rumors and the like, this latest major upgrade is more about increasing the overall stability of the operating system, rather than focusing on the latest flashy features — including bug fixes and helping improve the updates introduced in its predecessor.

That said, there’s likely to be at least a few interesting new, consumer-facing additions to iOS this time out. NFC-based door unlocking is one of the more compelling rumors, this time around, bringing even more highly personal functionality to Apple’s handsets.

A bigger push into personal health seems like a no-brainer, given everything that Apple’s been focusing on with its wearable. Just this morning, word of a new digital well being features made the rounds, bringing into sharp focus the amount of time users spend on their devices. If “Digital Health” does get added here, it will join the likes of Facebook and Google in a push to give users more insight into their hardware habits.

MacOS

Apple’s desktop operating seems poised to get a little less love that its mobile counterpart, this time out — but honestly, what else is new? In fact, the biggest rumor on this front is the addition of so-called “Universal Apps,” which further blur the line between desktop and mobile. The system would essentially provide seamless syncing between apps on the two operating systems, allowing users to switch between devices, picking up where they left off.

WatchOS
In spite of a recent rename, Wear OS got virtually no love at Google I/O the other week. But Apple’s own wearable initiative has been a much more consistent success story for the company. While the company seems unlikely to actually show off a newer version of the watch itself, we’ll probably get a glimpse at Watch OS 5. What, exactly the wearable OS will look like, however, is strictly conjecture at the moment, though the long-awaited addition of Spotify has been rumored, and fitness features, as ever, seem like a no-brainer.

ARKit

Speaking of no-brainers, Apple could use some news on the augmented reality front, after a full year of hype. ARKIT 2.0 has been rumored for the event, bringing the ability for multiple users to share the same AR environment, to facilitate IRL multi-person games and other activities.

Hardware

This being a developer conference, hardware is never the primary focus for the event, but it always seems to sneak its way in. After all, Apple’s already got the eyes of the tech world on it this week, so why announce some new gadgets?

New MacBook Pros seem like a reasonable candidate for the event. New Intel processors under the hood are the likeliest addition on that front. And then there’s the whole keyboard bit. The new switches have been a headache for the company since they were launched back in 2016, including reports of increased failure rates and the looming specter of class action suits. Now would be the perfect chance for the company to introduce a new-new version of the QWERTY.

Rumors have always been floating around with regard to a new MacBook Air — a product that’s been MIA for some time now, particularly in the wake of the new standard MacBook. A cheaper version of the once revolutionary laptop is said to be coming at some point this year, and WWDC could be just the right launching pad.

iPhones seem pretty unlikely here, given the release schedule the company has adhered to, but much like the MacBook Air, the iPhone SE is due for a refresh. Perhaps the company will mix things up by tossing the four-inch iPhone into the mix.

AirPower is yet another wildcard. The company announced its all-device wireless charging pad in the fall, and we’ve not heard hide nor hair of it since, which is pretty unlike Apple. Maybe we’ll actually get a release timeframe this time out? Also potentially on the list are a refreshed iPad Pro, which was missing at Apple’s recent education event and a cheaper HomePod. The latter seems the least likely of the bunch, but Apple’s smart speaker will likely get some love this time out.

Apple devices are butt dialing 911 from its refurbishing facility – 20 times per day

 Since October, emergency responders in Elk Grove and Sacramento County, California have received over 1,600 false alarm 911 calls coming from an Apple repair and refurbishing site in the area.
It’s not clear if the calls are coming from Apple’s iPhones or Watches but each time a call originates out of the Elk Grove facility, there’s no one on the other end of the line and… Read More