Review: Moto 360 smartwatch

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The Moto 360 is available now, starting at US$249 (Photo credit: Eric Mack/Gizmag.com)

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After many months of waiting, the Moto 360, Motorola's stylish round-face Android Wear smartwatch, is finally available and Gizmag has spent over a week now with a review unit. So let's get right to the bottom line, which is that this is the best smartwatch the world has seen so far. But that may not be saying much, as smartwatches still have some growing up to do.

The world of wrist wearables is confusing to navigate right now, with the slow but promising development of Android Wear as a platform, next year's release of the Apple Watch and then Samsung and an array of smaller companies throwing all sorts of ideas at the wall to see what sticks.

What the Moto 360 has going for it is that it's actually attractive and workable as a fashion accessory, it has the broad functionality Android Wear provides, and it is available right now. Let's dig in to Motorola's watch itself for a moment and then we'll return to its place in the wider smartwatch market at the end of this review.

All about design

The key plot point in the story of the Moto 360 for me has come in the reactions it has garnered from friends, family and even strangers on the street. When they notice the glow of the ambient display on the round, steel-framed watch face or see me swiping and tapping away on it, the response is usually something like: "Whoa, what is... is that one of those computer watches?"

After September 9, some of these responses changed to: "Whoa, is that an Apple?"

People have generally been intrigued or fascinated by the Moto 360, which is a markedly different response from the indifferent or disdainful looks I've received while wearing the square LG G Watch, with its much more basic calculator-on-a-strap aesthetic.

The Moto 360 I've been wearing sports a slick black steel housing, what looks like a brass-ringed physical side button and a black leather strap that's certainly comfortable, but not exactly of the luxurious quality you might expect from mid-range to higher end analog watches. As a whole, it is a surprisingly light watch and easy to wear. I often have trouble finding wristwatches that I can wear day after day comfortably, and I've had no such issues with the Moto 360. For those that enjoy a meatier watch, a steel band version is on the way later in the year.

Others in the tech press have made some noise about the fact that the display doesn't actually fill the full 360 degrees of the round face. There is some pixel-less space at the bottom to allow room for some display hardware, leaving something of a "flat tire" look to the face. This is how you get a 1.56-inch display that is round but has a 320 x 290 pixel resolution. I've found this quite easy to overlook, however, especially since the pixels go all the way to the edge of the display around the rest of the face. The narrow bezel helps too (just look how much more bezel you get on the fully round LG G Watch R).

The Moto 360 is really quite pleasing to look at overall, even when in direct sunlight, which is a big improvement over other Android Wear watches. My G Watch became practically unusable during a walk in the park under the strong sun of the Southwestern United States, but the backlit LCD on the Moto 360 shines through. The display itself is covered with Corning Gorilla Glass and IP67 water resistant in up to a meter of water for 30 minutes. I've yet to take the Moto 360 for a swim, especially with the leather band, but it seems to resist splashes and shocks like a champ.

Why wear this wearable?

The Moto 360 brings some other key hardware firsts for an Android Wear watch. The most unique is the always-on heart rate tracking feature that helps monitor your overall activity level. In addition to being able to check your heart rate at any given moment, the Moto 360 also keeps track of how often your heart rate is elevated throughout the day. At least thirty minutes of activity that increases your heartbeat past a certain threshold is recommended for a healthy lifestyle and the Moto 360 helps keep track of how close you come to this goal, even when you aren't thinking about it.

The Moto 360 incorporates an ambient display that uses motion sensors to try and anticipate when you're about to look at the watch, similar to the motion-sensitive active display on the Moto X. This saves time and boosts the "frictionless" information consumption experience that is the holy grail of product design at the moment. Unfortunately, it also seems to adversely affect battery consumption. More on that later.

When the battery is depleted, it's easy to simply throw it on its included wireless charging stand without having to fumble with any cords or ports. It also seems to work with most other wireless charging pads that use the Qi inductive power standard. The down side of this is that if you don't carry around a wireless charging station with you, you're going to eventually end up with a dead watch that can't be helped by any of the ubiquitous USB cables scattered around the globe.

Believe it or not, the tiny Moto 360 has two built-in microphones to provide better voice recognition for all those commands that follow the "Ok, Google" trigger, and I've been pleasantly surprised with the result. While the LG G Watch often had trouble recognizing my dictation over any background noise, even just the steady drone of a fan, the Moto 360 has been pretty accurate, even with erratic screaming children in the background.

Besides some of the hardware-based features mentioned above, the software on the Moto 360 is pretty much indistinguishable from other Android Wear watches, with the exception of some slight aesthetic modifications to make apps look better on the round screen. For a full run-down on what Android Wear can do, see our full review.

In need of improvement

There are lots of reasons to be a proud early adopter with a Moto 360, but after so much anticipation, there are a few points that left me disappointed. Chief among them is the battery performance. The first few days I wore my Moto 360, I was unable to get a full day's use out of it with the ambient display switched on. On one such day, I put the watch on at 8 a.m. and then hit the road for a day full of running errands around New Mexico. By the time I got to a meeting with Gizmag's Will Shanklin to show it off at about 4:30 p.m. it was already dead and I was still over 100 miles away from its charging station.

Other reports cite the last generation TI OMAP 3 processor at the heart of the Moto 360 as the source of its vampiric power-sucking habit. While this may be a contributing factor, this watch is also more packed with sensors – including the always-on heart tracking LEDs – than other smartwatches, and its back-lit screen and ambient display option certainly don't help conserve power, either.

Over the past week at Gizmag we've been experimenting with a few ways to improve the battery life on the Moto 360 and have come up with a couple workable strategies, the simplest of which is just to keep the ambient display off. Even with this option off, the watch screen still wakes up when you raise your wrist, tap the screen or press the side button, but it does reduce the responsiveness a smidgen. The impact on the battery, however, is to almost double how much use you get out of a single charge.

If you're really into having a more alert smartwatch, you can leave ambient display on and simply lower the brightness level in settings and get a nice battery boost, which might be the way to go for those who spend most of the day indoors, or for night owls. To re-adjust the brightness, just hold in the physical side button to jump straight to the settings menu.

Since implementing these strategies, I'm no longer bothered by the battery issue, which is by far my number one gripe with the Moto 360.

My other complaint is that while it's light and only 1.56 inches wide, the Moto 360 still looks pretty big and awkward on a person with a small wrist. If smartwatches become the next big product category, there could be a big opening for a company that can make a smaller watch face that doesn't sacrifice display quality or functionality.

The takeaway

If you are interested in smartwatches now or think you will be in the near future and you've got a few hundred bucks to spare, the Moto 360 is the one to buy. So far, I don't anticipate that another watch will arrive on the scene and blow this one out of the water between now and the eventual availability of the Apple Watch in about 6 months.

Grabbing a Moto 360 now is the best way to try out Android Wear and smartwatches in general to see if you like the concept and to keep up with where the mobile world is heading. If you are a heavy Android smartphone user that spends lots of time staring at that screen every day, this watch will streamline your life at least a little bit and you'll add a little forward-thinking style to your ensemble.

That said, if you are intrigued by smartwatches but don't consider yourself an early adopter and you're horrified by the notion that you could spend $250 on a Moto 360 only to see it become outdated and overshadowed by newer wearables as soon as next spring, then I recommend waiting to see what 2015 holds for smartwatches.

The elephant in the room here is the Apple Watch, slated to go on sale in "early 2015." The Apple Watch looks to be a very different product from the current crop of Android Wear watches. You can learn more about it from our report on the Apple Watch unveiling and also see our side-by-side comparison with the Moto 360. And at the pace it's going, Samsung could release six new smartwatch models by that time as well.

Right now, the Moto 360 sits at the top of a very short stack of available smartwatches, which is kind of like being the best snow skier in the Sahara. If it still interests you, it's available now at retail outlets and online, starting at $249.

Product page: Motorola

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