The Motorola Moto 360: The Best Android Smartwatch You Can Buy

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I was sitting at a bar over the weekend listening to a singer when I noticed a young couple standing a few feet away, whispering and pointing toward me.

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I get this all the time, and usually pay it no mind (he says delusionally). Then I heard the guy say “smartwatch” and realized they were staring at the beautiful Motorola Moto 360 I had on my left wrist. I believe at that particular moment I was checking my heart rate for the 14th time in the past hour.

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So taken was this couple by the round and elegant-looking Moto 360, with its sumptuous black leather band, that they actually approached me -- a complete stranger! -- and asked, “Is that the new iWatch?”

Buzzkill!

Their confusion was partially understandable. Apple officially announced its long-awaited smartwatch last week (in fact, a guy at my son’s tae kwon do class asked the same question the day after the iPhone 6/iWatch event).

However, the iWatch won’t hit the market until at least early next year, so loyal Apple users will have to wait for their $349 smartwatch. That’s what the guy at the bar said he was going to do. Yet this ardent Apple fan also expressed disappointment about the iWatch’s rectangular design, especially after seeing the Moto 360 up close.

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Make no mistake: The Moto 360 is a beautiful piece of wearable technology, the only round smartwatch on the market right now. Released in the U.S. on September 5, the Moto 360 competes with two other Android Wear devices released simultaneously in late June -- the Samsung Gear Live ($199) and the LG G Watch ($179).

At $249, the Moto 360 is a bit pricier than its rivals, but if I were going to buy an Android Wear smartwatch (I’m using a review copy I have to ship back to Motorola), I’d gladly spend the extra money on the Moto 360.

But that’s really the question, isn’t it? Are first-generation smartwatches worth the amount of cash you could spend on, say, a Chromebook?

It depends. The Moto 360 and other Android Wear devices can do a lot of neat things to make life easier for owners. But they also have limitations that might make some Android users decide to hold off until the technology gets to the next level.

For now, though, here’s what you can expect from the Moto 360:

Out of the box

Motorola packages the Moto 360 in an attractive white, round cardboard box. Inside are the smartwatch and a very handy charging dock.

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Motorola sent me the black watch with a black band, but the Moto 360 also comes in a nice silver color with a dark gray leather strap. Metal bands reportedly will be available down the road for an extra $50 (though even if I could get one now, I’d still prefer the leather).

Set up for the Moto 360 is easy. First you charge the phone’s battery by placing it on the charging dock. The phone’s screen eventually will urge you to download Android Wear from your smartphone.

One thing I should note here is that you need Android 4.3 and higher to use Android Wear. Right now that’s less than one-third of activated Android devices, but wearables are a long-term play.

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Open up Android Wear on your phone and follow the simple instructions to pair it with your smartwatch, and you’re all set up.

What you can do with your Android smartwatch

But set up to do what?

Plenty, if you’ve activated Google Now on your smartphone. The voice-activated search function is the crucial connection between your Android smartwatch and smartphone (well, that and Bluetooth).

Using Google Now, I have been able to do the following things by issuing voice commands to my smartwatch (whose face becomes activated when you either tap it or shift your wrist up as if you were checking the time):

  • Send texts and emails to contacts (you need “Contact recognition” enabled in the Google Search app settings for these to work)
  • Initiate a phone call to a contact (you can’t conduct the call with the watch, but it will activate the phone’s dialer)
  • Get the current temperature
  • Get directions
  • Find local businesses
  • Pause and resume music
  • Set an alarm
  • Check an agenda
  • Check my heart rate
  • Track my daily steps

With the exception of the phone call, you can do all of these things without having to pull out your smartphone. I was skeptical about the convenience benefits of a smartwatch (seriously, is it that big a hassle to take your phone out of your pocket?), but I’m already sold on these benefits -- and we’re in the early days of smartwatches and the apps that power them.

In addition to using Google Now voice commands, Moto 360 owners will do their fair share of swiping the surface of their smartwatch. That takes a little getting used to. Once you figure out the system, though, it’s easy. Swiping up will reveal Google Now cards. Swiping to the left will walk you through a card’s actions and features, and swiping to the right makes the cards disappear.

A couple of cool details

Don’t like the Moto 360’s default minimalist black clock face? Press your finger on the watch when the clock face is showing and you’ll be presented with a half-dozen other options. Touch one and that’s your new watch face.

You also can use Android Wear to take a photo with Google Camera (which you might have to download). Once the Google Camera app is open on your phone, you’ll see a card for it on the smartwatch. Press that and you’ll see a large shutter button on your smartwatch screen. Press and your phone will take a picture following a brief countdown. The picture even appears briefly on your smartwatch.

Now for the bad stuff

Remember, this is still first-generation stuff, so there are issues. Many will be resolved in coming iterations. Still, if you’re considering buying a smartwatch now, there are some things you should know.

Battery life is a problem for all current smartwatches, and the Moto 360 is no exception. I haven’t checked the drainage rate since the first day I got this smartwatch, but I know the battery initially ran down to 52% in less than three hours. I place the Moto 360 on the charging dock when I’m working on my laptop, but people who are on the move a lot will constantly fight battery drain.

The second issue is that, as great as Google Now is, voice commands seem less accurate on the Moto 360 than on my HTC One. This matters especially when you’re trying to send an email or text of more than a few words. Worse, you can see the garbled text on the smartwatch screen, along with an “X” icon that presumably allows the user to cancel the text or email, but that hasn’t stopped any of my glitchy messages. I’ve had to send follow-ups from my phone explaining to my contacts what just happened.

The fitness tracking apps that come with Android -- the earliest apps for Google Fit -- are just toys, really. They allow you to check your heart rate, count your steps, and set step goals. The problem is that no steps are being counted when you’re not wearing the smartwatch, which will often be the case because you have to consistently charge the damned thing. In contrast, a Fitbit battery will last for three or four days without a charge.

As for available third-party apps, fthere’s Lyft, Pinterest, PayPal, Soundwave,  Allthecooks and a few others. But that will change quickly as developers jump on board Android Wear.  

Finally, the Moto 360’s diameter is a bit wide, and the watch also is slightly thick. Even though I have a fairly small wrist, this didn’t bother me at all, probably because I used a clunky Garmin GPS device during my competitive running days. But smaller women with very slender wrists might find the Moto 360 a bit too large.

Bottom line

If you absolutely must own a smartwatch now, you can’t do better than the Motorola Moto 360 (unless you’re really into rectangular watch faces). The Moto 360 is a functional and great-looking device that will attract attention, but not in that potentially dangerous Google Glass kind of way.

I’ve already decided I’m buying the Moto 360. It’s a quality piece of hardware that will serve as an enjoyable platform for the early days of Android Wear. I’ll be using the Moto 360 to explore the many apps developers will be rolling out for Android wearables in the coming months and years.

The real problem will be finding one: Google’s Play Store is sold out, only three Moto 360s were shipped to my local Best Buy last week (all are long gone), and the device is going for $400 on Amazon.com. Hopefully Motorola will soon catch up to the demand.

Then again, maybe I won’t ship this one back. I don’t want to miss any opportunities to impress bar patrons and check my heart rate.

This story, "The Motorola Moto 360: The Best Android Smartwatch You Can Buy" was originally published by CITEworld.

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