Do smartwatches and fitness trackers spell the end of the wristwatch?

  • TECH
  • Saturday, 02 Jun 2018

A growing number of smartwatches, such as the Apple Watch, come with eSIMs that let users stay connected to the Internet and make calls even if they don't have their phone with them. — dpa

If you're looking for a more modern timepiece instead of a traditional wristwatch, there are two main options – although these are increasingly overlapping.

Fitness armbands, also known as fitness trackers, have a relatively limited functionality. They are mainly good at measuring things – like your steps or your pulse rate – but some can also alert you to incoming calls or messages on your smartphone. They cost between US$20 and US$100 (RM80 and RM398), depending on the brand and their range of functions.

If you just want to know how many steps you've taken, a cheap band is sufficient, says tech reporter Julia Struck. But even with the cheapest devices, users should make sure that the tracker is waterproof and that the wristband is exchangeable if possible.

From US$60 (RM239) up, you usually get some additional features. Devices that automatically recognise which type of sport the user is currently doing are convenient, says Struck, adding that this is mainly seen on branded products. The wristbands have now also made progress in terms of networking, and can retrieve music, calls or messages from a smartphone, she says. This means that trackers are getting closer to smartwatches in terms of functionality, even if they still look like an armband.

In contrast, smartwatches mostly look like normal watches, not just because they are often round, but also because they usually have a clock face – or at least a virtual one – on their touch display. A variant of the smartwatch is the so-called pulse or sports watch, which offer even more functions than trackers – from GPS to detailed training monitoring. The downside is that these can cost up to US$700 (RM2,788). "The primary purpose of these watches is the precise evaluation of training progress for athletes," says Struck.

Compared to the 1.47 billion smartphones sold worldwide in 2017, the wearables market is still relatively modest, according to figures from market research organization IDC, with around 115 million units sold in the same year.

Smartwatches are more designed for everyday functions, so that users can leave their smartphones in their bag while using the watch to check messages, control music, and use voice recognition to note down appointments or make calls. However, like fitness trackers, most smartwatches can collect movement data such as steps taken or monitor vital functions such as heart rate.

But smartwatches are also remote controls for smartphones, usually connected via Bluetooth. While Apple watches with the Watch OS operating system only connect to iPhones, watches with the Wear OS Smartwatch operating system are more flexible. Google provides both Android and iOS apps for this purpose.

A new trend is the self-sufficient smartwatch, which can make calls, email or surf the web even without a connected smartphone. This works using a built-in SIM card (eSIM), which can be used as a secondary card. eSIMs are already included in the Apple Watch 3, and Huawei also offers an eSIM version of its Watch 2. 

Manufacturers such as Fitbit and Garmin also include other smartphone features in their watches, such as NFC chips, which can be used for making payments. Meanwhile, the Mykronoz brand favours hybrid models that combine elements of analogue and digital watches – its Zetime models have both a display and rotating hands between the screen and the touch-sensitive watch glass.

However, fitness trackers and smart watches are considered controversial by consumer protection groups. "When using so-called wearables and the associated apps, a wealth of sensitive personal data is collected and stored on the providers' servers," says Ricarda Moll from a German consumer awareness group.

Many devices and apps also supply data to third parties, Moll says, adding that users hardly ever know which data is stored and passed on. Moll's advice is to use the settings to restrict the apps' access to data. It is also advisable not to wear wearables all the time, Moll says, but only in specific situations, for example when doing sports. — dpa
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