Wearable Products in 2014

While Pebble arguably resurrected the wearables market in 2013, the biggest year yet was 2014. Many products (and several whole platforms) became consumer available. Many of these devices bring new innovations to the table to expand wearables from simple pedometers to full blown smartphones on your wrist and comprehensive health trackers. It is impractical to do a full review of each launch in the past year, so here are some wearable product highlights from 2014 to lay the foundation for future device reviews in 2015.

Android Wear

Arguably the biggest wearable launch this year was its very first platform OS. Android Wear aims to be the Windows of the smart watch market, enabling device makers to create devices without significant software investment by loading Android Wear. This strategy clearly worked well for Microsoft with PCs and Google with smartphones.

Android Wear is a wearable tailored version of the base Android OS, not a new creation. This provides immediate benefits as device makers can bring up wearable hardware with all the knowledge gained from previous smartphone efforts. As Android (without heavy modification) is not an embedded microcontroller OS, Android Wear devices rely on full featured application processors such as the Cortex-A or MIPS variety, not Cortex-M. Android app developers can create and deploy Android Wear apps using nearly all of the same APIs from traditional Android development. Differences between traditional Android and Android Wear are detailed in the development assistance provided by Google.

Currently, the foundation of Android Wear is not running apps. Rather, it is pairing with an Android 4.3+ device and providing Google Now features. Activating your Android Wear device provides the same list of cards on your wrist that are available in the Google Now page of your Android phone, and they are acted upon and dismissed in a similar way. How much you like Android Wear comes down to how much you like Google Now. “OK Google” voice activated assistance is always on when the device is not sleeping, and bringing a device out of sleep is done via motion detection. Moving and twisting your arm from any position to the position needed to view the watch face activates an Android Wear device. If the device is already in this position and has gone to sleep, you can tap or press a button to wake the device.

Because the majority of functionality is provided by Google Now and the rest by loading apps, each Android Wear device launched provides a nearly identical experience. Thus, purchasing decisions between Android Wear devices fall entirely into the hardware camp. This is not something to be quickly disregarded or dismissed, as the selection of wrist hardware is a very personal choice. A watch’s band material, size, and styling can make or break a device.

For example, the Moto360 I have been using is entirely black with a black leather band. To be honest, I do not like the styling as I think it looks childish. The leather band also absorbs water which limits how I use the device. However, surveying my friends and family, many of them do like the all black and leather styling. To address this, Motorola sells many style variants. Personally, I would purchase the light shade stainless steel and wear that Moto360 a lot more.

Six Android Wear devices have launched and are available via the Google Play Store and some other retailers.

LG G Watch, Moto 360, ASUS ZenWatch

Samsung Gear Live, Sony SmartWatch 3, LG G Watch R

Android Wear launched focused on smart watch features alone. However, in an October update, Google added support for heart rate monitoring, Sensor Fusion / GPS, and music storage and playback via Bluetooth Audio. This provides the framework for the moving (running, cycling, etc.) use case, but Google relies on app support for moving software. In my personal experience, running app support is rough around the edges. For example, the premier running app highlighted by Google (Runtastic) does not support the heart rate monitor nor does it work disconnected from your phone, mostly defeating the experience.

New hardware has also launched since Android Wear’s introduction. The Sony SmartWatch 3 launched in October alongside the new GPS support. Additionally, there have been several OS updates including a Lollipop update landing on my Moto360 very recently (ironically before my Galaxy S4 has Lollipop).

This is possibly the strongest aspect of Android Wear. It is a full blown smartphone OS offering 3rd party app support, continually developed and improved by a company (Google) that is not the hardware vendor. Updates are frequent and quickly deployed. Google is building a foundation of software and hardware to foster an ecosystem. Right now it is far from perfect, but the good news is that if you buy an Android Wear device today, that device will likely be become significantly different and better over time via software and apps updates.


While Samsung is traditionally thought of as a huge Android smartphone vendor, Samsung diverges from Google when it comes to wearables with some interesting results. When Samsung was developing their first wearable, the Galaxy Gear, in 2012 and releasing it in 2013, Android Wear did not exist. Rather than wait for Google (as Samsung did when Google was rushing to release Android 3.0 for tablets to catch up to Apple and the iPad), Samsung went ahead and forked Android themselves. We reviewed the Galaxy Gear shortly after its launch.

This is important history, as it explains the state of things today and throughout 2014. As Samsung did not wait for Android Wear, their first device contained features Samsung defined, such as camera and IR support, without collaborating with Google. Thus, Samsung wearables were in an interesting position of being off-platform from Google and thus not benefiting from Google’s ecosystem efforts, while also containing features and innovations that could not be folded into Android Wear. For example, if Samsung updated the software on the Galaxy Gear to Android Wear, the camera would stop working.

This is both a good and bad position. Samsung has now transitioned most of their smart watches to their own operating system, Tizen, so they can innovate without needing to coordinate with Google. However, apps designed for Android Wear of course cannot run on Samsung’s Tizen smart watches. Thus, Samsung is currently in its own category. Samsung and Google are now in a race to see who can build an ecosystem faster.

If Samsung can win, they do not have motivation to transition to Android Wear. If Google wins and adds in features that Samsung’s smart watch build of Tizen has, then Samsung should likely migrate their devices over to Android Wear. This will be an interesting power struggle to observe in 2015. It should also be noted that Samsung does make one Android Wear device, the Samsung Gear Live, likely to hedge its bets.

Samsung’s devices and OSes are listed below in the order they were released:

  • Samsung Galaxy Gear – released as custom Samsung Android fork; upgradeable to Tizen
  • Samsung Gear 2 – Tizen
  • Samsung Gear 2 Neo – Tizen
  • Samsung Gear Fit – Low level embedded OS (Cortex-M4 CPU)
  • Samsung Gear Live – Android Wear
  • Samsung Gear S – Tizen

Every device other than the Gear Fit are smart watches. The Fit instead focuses mainly on fitness but also has some smart watch functionality. Technically the category is “Fitness Wristband”. In fact, the Gear Fit hardware is similar to the Microsoft Band that we will cover later.

In 2014 Samsung launched a very interesting device, the Gear S. This is effectively a smartphone on your wrist, as it is the first wrist worn wearable to include cellular (3G) and WiFi. It even has a SIM card slot. This is a clear example of where Samsung has diverged from Android Wear features. It also contains a unique curved Super AMOLED display. These curved displays have dubious value in a smartphone but are more obviously useful on a wrist worn device.

With cellular connectivity, the Gear S sits alone as the only wearable you can wear without a connected smartphone on a cycling, canoeing, or running trip yet still make an emergency call or sync up with friends. Samsung also collaborated with Nike to bring the very popular and feature rich Nike+Running app to their Tizen based smart watches. Therefore, from a checkbox perspective, the Gear S might be the most interesting fitness and smart watch wearable launched in 2014. However, a full review is needed to ascertain how well Samsung executed on the entire experience.

Wearable Use Cases Wearable Products in 2014: Microsoft, Apple & Others
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  • Impulses - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    Uhh, there are already smart watches that use OLED displays, and smart watches that are perfectly visible in daylight (OLED or otherwise), and smartwatches that respond to motion (pretty much every Wear device? the 360's more sensitive mode burns a little more battery but it's very responsive).

    Seems to me you haven't looked very closely at much of the options in the market... The biggest issue is really battery life, but adjusting to 1-2 days of battery life hasn't been a big deal to me. We already did it once when we went from feature phones to smartphones after all...
  • name99 - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    If that is what you want, buy a Pebble today. I have one and I like it.
    But I don't see the harm in others pushing the envelope to try to see what this form factor might be capable of.

    To me the Apple solution (offloading all the serious work to the phone) makes more sense TODAY than the Tizen solution. (Google seems at a sort of intermediate point between the two, but I think is pushing the local CPU too hard). And I think a display tech like Mirasol is the way to handle color at low power.

    But I think it's foolish to be too dogmatic about these issues. In particular, we don't know the expected ten year trajectory of all the pieces involved, from the energy supply side to the CPU power usage to the expected use cases. I suspect that
    - CPU energy usage is actually a much smaller issue than screen and wireless energy usage. Meaning that there's no real win in skimping on the CPU (assuming it is, of course, a power optimized fast sleep/fast wake CPU) BUT the OS and OS/app interaction model are critical in ensuring that almost all the time nothing is running.

    - memory may be a substantial power drain. I would not be surprised if the primary reason for Apple's off-load model is limited DRAM rather than a wimpy CPU/desire to avoid using the CPU much
    [I also suspect, but maybe this is foolish, that Apple's battery life is going to be substantially longer than what they're suggesting in the press, that they're trying to calibrate expectations so that when they announce the actual battery life is 3 days rather than 1 day, people are awed and impressed. The reason I say this is that, compared to what's in a Pebble and the OS/app model, I can't see any serious sink of energy beyond a Pebble. Unlike Google/Tizen where there is all the "traditional" OS overhead and, I'm guessing, a lot more DRAM constantly draining away.]

    - color may be "frivolous" but I suspect it's essential to "cross the chasm". I think accepting the limits of Mirasol (colors, but a limited palette) would be a more fruitful direction for Pebble if they want to remain viable than sticking with eInk.

    Thinking "this is a watch plus; we'll architect the system that way" is a sure way to land up on the same path as Palm, Win CE, Nokia and other such "this is a phone plus" companies. These devices will NOT stay as just watches, even if that's the way they are perceived for the first two years or so.
  • mkozakewich - Friday, January 16, 2015 - link

    The OLED displays already use flicking or shaking to turn on. That's still bad. I'd say we use the two-colour e-ink displays so you can get off (white), black, and red or something. There's no reason you need to see colour on it. The problem here, though, is that it's not really visible at night. Putting some kind of night-light feature on would be helpful. Part of me wonders if one could add a transparent OLED on top just for when it's dark.

    Watches and phones already use deep-sleep features. They can last a week if the radios were turned off and no apps were causing the phone to wake every few minutes.

    Designing an OS is actually very difficult, which is why you never ever see anything good in consumer electronics. Think of the OSes driving things like consoles or those screens in cars or printers.

    Fancy animations are actually important. A watch with no extra graphical features just won't have that visual pull and will feel ugly. People won't want to wear them.

    These devices will definitely become cheaper as CPUs are tailor-made for them and the processes shrink even more. In the meantime, though, these things will cost far more than they're really worth. I think the best bet might be to sell them along side a cheapish phone so you can offer a big subsidy for the combination.
  • mrdude - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    With all of these smart watches being released, Dick Tracy is going to have a fit trying to find the right one. Unfortunately for him, fighting crime and solving cases is going to require a Bluetooth pairing to a compatible smartphone.
  • mjcutri - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    One device (and manufacturer) that you left out of the discussion is the recently announced Garmin Vivoactive:

    Garmin is huge among fitness buffs (cyclists - road and mountain, triathletes, marathoners) for tracking their training and races. They also have a few other devices that pick up the smartwatch theme: the more traditional but more expensive fitness tracker, the 920xt, and the just announced the Fenix 3, which combines the features of the 920xt with a more traditional round watch appearance and the Epix, which should appeal to outdoorsy types with the topographic maps display.

    I am hardly a hardcore athlete, but I have been using the old garmin 310xt for a couple years now to track my cycling and running activities and had been using a fitbit one (until I lost it) to track my steps. I am interested in the vivoactive because it looks like it combines the fitness tracker, GPS, and smartwatch into a single device that I could see myself wearing everyday.
  • Stephen Barrett - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    I agree. I couldn't cover everything and that device was actually launched in 2015 so it wasn't a good fit for the article. However, I'll reach out to Garmin and see if I can get a sample.

    Thanks for the feedback
  • mjcutri - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    Thanks Stephen. I enjoyed reading the article and look forward to AT's future coverage of wearables.

    Another advantage of the garmin devices that really appeals to me is that they are stand-alone devices that optionally connect to your smartphone. For me, this means that I can go for a run with just the watch (I hate hauling around my phone when running, which is why I picked up the 310xt in the first place) or I can go fro a bike ride with my phone in my hydration pack and still have access to texts and control my music.

    The only downside to them is the Garmin Connect interface. I have been having a hard time lately getting my 310xt to sync, and because of that I had been thinking about moving away from garmin towards some other smartwatch type device (possibly fitbit surge,) but the new devices with the wifi and/or BT sync seem to eliminate the sync issues I have been having with my 310xt.
  • DBasic - Monday, January 19, 2015 - link

    Garmin's vivosmart has many of the desired features except GPS. However, unlike many similar competitors, the vivosmart is 5 ATM rated - which is why I got it so water activities would not be a concern. Pairing/sync on unsupported phones is a pain but does work.
  • nevertell - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    "Gyms of the future could contain NFC or Bluetooth enabled weights"
    Please, no. Whilst I can imagine NFC working well, bluetooth implies someone would have to charge the weights. And please, just think about that for a second. Also, imagine a gym, usually a gym has multiple kinds of weights to be lifted, and they are stored usually in close proximity of one another. Imagine the bluetooth noise. If you're stacking weights, will you also register each weight individually with your smart device ? Or will the weights have a mesh network and then each smart device will act as a hub that will read the multicast data from each weight and then pick out the weights that report similar accelerometer output data to the smart device's accelerometer data ? Imagine the potential for all the proprietary standards and protocols and the battery drain.

    Wearables as sensors work good if little to no user interaction is necessary to obtain meaningful data.

    Anyway, IMO the best smartwatch today is the pebble steel, that being said, I've only played with some pebbles and some Samsung Smartwatches. And from my experience with them, I believe that the only functions a smartwatch can do reasonably well are sensor data capture, data transmission to a hub, simple input transfer to a hub and short string display. A smartwatch needn't have standalone apps, because today there are no user interfaces that would work well enough on a 1" display with a maximum of 6 buttons and some gestures and point-and-click touch screen. Of course, if battery and processor tech advances fast enough, maybe there'd be room for a smartwatch that can track hand movements over it (like LEAP motion), then there could be a case for standalone apps, but until then, let's not try and shove a half assed Android on a dual core SoC on my wrist and call it a watch.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    Wireless charging is certainly possible, remember. And ultimately it would require a lot of smarts to detect proximity, verify the weights are in use, etc. It's a potential solution, but I don't know how many people are really tracking this stuff and if it would help. Of course, there's the old saying: "What gets tracked improves." It's why Target, Walmart, etc. monitor the performance of employees, because if they don't most will trend towards doing less rather than more.

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