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Full-featured Android smartwatches debut at CES

Jan 9, 2014 — by Eric Brown 1,743 views

At CES, two full-featured Android smartwatches with 3G telephony strutted their stuff: the $335 Neptune Pine and the $249 to $299 Omate TrueSmart.

None of the high profile smartwatch launches expected in 2014 appeared at CES this year, but as we await rumored wristwear from Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others, there were plenty of interesting smartwatches on display. Most follow the path of the Pebble watch, typically with minimalist operating systems running on microcontrollers, monochrome displays, and a focus on Bluetooth tethering. Here, we instead examine two relative newcomers that offer substantial smartphone-like Android capabilities: the Neptune Pine and the Omate TrueSmart Smartwatch 2.0.

Both smartwatches were huge hits on Kickstarter in recent months. They both provide WiFi radios and 3G telephony capability, and while they can sync to a smartphone via Bluetooth, they don’t require one.


Geak watch

A few full-figured Android smartwatches have appeared to date, such as the Geak, but even fewer, such as the Burg, offer cellular telephony. Telephony is a feature many people would prefer not to have on their watch, in fear of looking like a character from a spy movie or sci-fi flick. Yet, considering all the people talking into invisible earbuds these days, not to mention the Google Glassers, talking to your watch doesn’t seem so strange anymore.

There’s a good argument that if you’ve gone as far as to provide a substantial processor, screen, and WiFi on your wrist, you might as well go all the way and add the SIM slot. That way, you can fully free yourself from a smartphone that you have dig out of a pocket and can easily lose. There are many situations in everyday life, and many more in vertical markets, where it helps to have at least one hand free.

Pebble Steel
(click to enlarge)

The downside is that the devices tend to be bigger and less stylish than a more watch-like Pebble style device, and they’re also more expensive. Still, the low-end version of the Omate watch costs a reasonable $249, the same as the new Pebble Steel.

Most of the smartwatches introduced by major vendors, such as the Android-based Samsung Galaxy Gear and the Linux-based Sony Smartwatch 2, fall somewhere in between these two new devices, offering more standalone features, but still primarily depending on a smartphone for ideal usage.

Now, for a look at these two new full-featured Android watches.

Neptune Pine

After first being revealed back in February of last year, Neptune’s Pine enjoyed a successful funding round on Kickstarter that finished up Dec. 21 with over $800,000 dollars — eight times the goal. The Montreal-based startup, led by 19-year old Montreal college student Simon Tian, received considerable attention this week at CES on the way to the Pine’s expected public ship date in March. The watch is available for pre-order for $335 U.S.

Neptune’s Pine watch
(click images to enlarge)

Neptune’s Pine is a standalone Android smartwatch that features 3G telephony and just about everything else you’d find on a smartphone. With its relatively huge 2.4-inch 320 x 240-pixel touchscreen, 14.2mm thickness, and 96-gram (3.4 ounce) weight, including the watchband, the Pine isn’t going to appeal to everybody. Yet it appears to offer some reasonable design tradeoffs considering the current state of miniaturization.

The Pine runs Android 4.1 on a Snapdragon S4 Play — Qualcomm’s dual-core, 1.2GHz Cortex-A5 processor — accompanied by 512MB RAM, and 8, 16, or 32GB of flash. The A5 is the most power efficient of the ARM Cortex A processors, but considering all the features on the Pine and the necessarily small 810mAh battery, battery life is probably more limited than what you’d want on a watch. You get five hours for video playback, seven for WiFi, and ten for music. Then again, if if you’re not doing much more than checking the time, it can last up to 120 hours.

Wireless features include 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, and a micro-SIM slot that supports quadband 3G GSM and UMTS/HSPA+/WCDMA. You also get GPS, and even NFC, although the latter is available only on the 8GB version, perhaps due to space constraints.

As with a typical smartphone, you get both rear-facing (5-megapixel) and front-facing (VGA) cameras, with LED flash available for both. This enables something of a novelty for current smartwatches: video chat. Additional features include an accelerometer, gyroscope, and digital compass. A speaker, mic, 3.5mm audio jack, and a micro-USB 2.0 port for charging round out the specs.

The Pine offers a tiny onscreen QWERTY keyboard and a tethering app. The latter lets you view notifications, texts, and email from a smartphone, or use the Pine to answer a smartphone call. Presumably, you can turn off your 3G and WiFi to save the battery when using the Pine in tethering mode.

According to this TechRadar story, future plans calls for tweaking the device to extend battery life, and eventually moving to 4G, once the antennas shrink. Neptune is also looking at flexible OLED screens, which would enable a larger wrap-around display.

YouTube demo of the Neptune Pine smartwatch

The Neptune Pine should ship in March and is available for public preorder starting at $335 at the Neptune website. More information may be found on the Neptune Pine Kickstarter page. Accessories include a $40 Neptune PulseCounter, a $25 clip, and a $55 helmet mount. The 32GB flash option costs an additional $60.

Omate TrueSmart

Another full-fledged smartwatch that made a splash both on Kickstarter and at CES is Omate’s TrueSmart Smartwatch 2.0. Like Neptune, Omate blew past its $100,000 Kickstarter goal, and reached over a $1 million when the bell rang on Sept. 20. It began shipping to Kickstarters in December, and is now available for pre-order for as low as $249.

TrueSmart seen from various views
(click images to enlarge)

The Omate TrueSmart is notable for offering IP67 waterproofing. In addition, at CES this week, Nuance announced it was porting its Dragon Mobile Assistant to the device, providing an alternative input method to clicking on the tiny screen. At the show Nuance and Omate demonstrated placing calls, making calendar appointments, and performing searches via voice.

Nuance is also supplying its Dragon Dashboard for swipe interaction with calendar, sports scores, stock prices, and other functions. Omate will soon add Nuance’s Swype automated text entry application. The Omate TrueSmart is the first smartwatch to offer these features, but Nuance will license them to other wearable devices, as well.

Example TrueSmart screens
(click images to enlarge)

The Omate TrueSmart has a smaller 1.54-inch (240 x 240) touchscreen than the Pine, but has a more powerful processor. It runs a modified version of Android 4.2.2 on an unnamed dual-core Cortex-A7 SoC clocked to 1.3GHz. Like the Pine, the Standard Edition offers 512MB of RAM, but onboard flash is limited to 4GB, with expansion up to 32GB available via a microSD slot. A $299 and up Extreme Edition gives you 1GB of RAM and 8GB of onboard flash.

WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 are both available, either of which can be used for tethering to a mobile device. There’s also a micro-SIM slot supporting 2G quadband GSM, as well as 3G mono band 2100 (Europe) or 1900 (U.S.) for UMTS and the various HSPA flavors. Like the Pine, the Omate TrueSmart offers GPS, as well as an accelerometer, gyroscope, and digital compass. A 5-megapixel camera is available, along with speaker and microphone, but there’s no front-facing camera.

TrueSmart’s embedded electronics
(click images to enlarge)

The 600mAh battery is said to last for one to two days per charge. Accessories include 16GB ($25) and 32GB ($40) microSD cards, and a $40 Bluetooth headset. According to this Time Techland hands-on from CES, there’s no Google Play by default, but there are a variety of preloaded apps, and Omate is working on an app store.

YouTube demo of the Omate TrueSmart smartwatch v2.0
((more Omate TrueSmart videos are here)

One big question for 3G-ready smartwatches is how they will be supported by carriers. According to the Time story, the company is talking to some 20 wireless carriers, including AT&T.

The Omate TrueSmart Smartwatch 2.0 is available for pre-order, and will ship in February. Prices are $249 for the Standard Edition (512MB/4GB) and $299 for the Extreme Edition (1GB/8GB). More information may be found at the Omate website, as well as the original Kickstarter page.

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One response to “Full-featured Android smartwatches debut at CES”

  1. simon says:

    I think it should just function as a bluetooth hotspot for my tablet. Let the watch function primitively as a phone and for texting (it wont do it well though), but let it also have a function to pass on these duties to the attached tablet if it is present… And maybe I will never carry a phone again.

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