May 16, 2019

My First Smartwatch

Today is day 5 of smartwatch ownership for me. This is a purchase that was made after a lot of thought about my needs and how I might use it, but like the tablet before it, I knew that this device would influence my behaviour by the capabilities offered just as much as it solved problems I had and could articulate.

My decision making process swings wildly from the emotional “Shiny! I want it!” to the very analytical “I need to establish precisely how this is going to impact my life and what I am going to do with”. My friend calls my categorisation of things “Toy” vs “Tool”.

For me, this journey started somewhere near toy, my original thought being that I wanted a new watch because I was kinda bored of my old kinetic Seiko, and it’d be nice to have an alternative, but thinking about the tool possibilities of a smart watch gave the toy decision an exciting new shine.

The purchase

I settled on the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active as an opening gambit (after playing in the Samsung Experience Store in London), because it fitted nicely, it was super light, it had some fun stress tracking pieces and it’s hackable so I can do some custom work!

I investigated the hackability enough to know it was possible, but I didn’t know if it was trivial or if I’d have to quit my day job to figure it out. Having used a Pebble and a Fitbit for about a week each in the past, my expectations were that sleeping in it would be hard and notifications in it would be annoying, but if it could beep at me quietly occasionally to keep me on track with the time, that would be really handy.

My first impressions

My first impressions, after a week played out as I expected: I turned some stuff off, I had some pleasant surprises, and some less so.

So after 5 days, here’s my where I stand.

Pros:

  • Super shiny new toy!
  • It’s very light weight and doesn’t catch on lots of stuff.
  • Surprisingly comfortable to sleep in.
  • Notifications become very discreet and very personal. A buzzing phone is still a public announcement, and if I don’t happen to have the phone pressed on me in just the right way, it’s still very possible to miss an important notification like a phone call!
  • Linked to the above, having turned off most notifications, it’s nice to know I won’t miss the ones that do show up.
  • Quickly responding to chat messages with speech to text is awesome!
  • Getting started using it is pretty easy, it comes pre charged and you just strap in.
  • I actually like the casual fitness tracking aspect way more than I expected to.
  • The stress tracking is fun!
  • I see so much potential in the custom watch faces.

Meh:

  • Hourly chimes are attached to watch faces, not settings and I don’t know how to filter available watch faces (10s of thousands of them!) on chime.
  • Settings are pretty confusing in general, although that might just be my problem.
  • I found a configurable every-15-minute chime app, which is okay, but doesn’t go off regularly.
  • By default Samsung adds a number of fitness-type notifications, so I buzzed more often than I was initially expecting, so spent the week turning stuff off.
  • not sure how to use it solo without my phone effectively yet. Presumably I can’t just play spotify without a network connection!
  • Lots of stuff to download when getting started. Super confusing ecosystem.
  • It’s still something I’m not gonna wear during CrossFit, but I knew that, so it’s only a meh.

Cons:

  • Samsung Pay UK doesn’t work with major UK banks including mine, or PayPal. Really? This kills a really neat tap-to-pay feature, and while I wasn’t planning on this, it’s annoying to know I can’t for no good reason that I can see.
  • Samsung phone/watch app ecosystem feels wierd to be in. Not significantly happier with the closed-ecosystem approach from Samsung than I am with Google currently.
  • Samsung Health needs a 3rd party app to integrate with things like Fitbit. Apps like HealthSync make me believe it might at least be possible if it’s important enough to me.
  • DND, Goodnight, Theatre modes etc are very confusing. The DND operation seems to be a bit erratic as well, but again, could be user error.
  • It’s based on Tizen Wearable, not Android Wear OS, so is more locked into Samsung than Android. On the plus, not locked directly into Google.
  • App development via Galaxy Watch Designer and/or Tizen Studio (on MacOS) is a ball ache to get running, since both are based on Eclipse and that prompts a massive amount of hoop jumping to get Java versions working right.

In general I’m very happy I made the purchase, and it’s a promising start! The big surprise feature is how much I love the extra privacy from the personalised notifications. A wonderfully unexpected benefit. The sleep tracking feels like it should be more helpful than it is.

Next thing to do is dig into the development environment and see just how hackable this thing is. I’m excited by the prospect of building my own watchfaces with weird and wonderful features, but excitement may well be quelled if the dev tools are hard to sort out.

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