Hands-on: Neptune Pine smartwatch
Every smartwatch we've used so far has played the role of companion device. They may allow you to leave your smartphone in your pocket a little more often, but they're still a ways off from letting you cut those smartphone strings altogether. At CES 2014, we just got some hands-on time with the Neptune Pine, a smartwatch that can actually replace your phone.
The Neptune Pine is easily the bulkiest smartwatch I've used, but it's also one of the most intriguing. While most smartwatches' screens are in the 1.2-in to 1.6-in range, Neptune Pine gives you a spacious 2.4-in screen. To get some perspective, that's 108 percent more screen area than the Galaxy Gear gives you. It's also half the size of the iPhone 4s' screen. It's very much a tiny smartphone that happens to live on your wrist.
That size is a tricky balancing act. On one hand, you don't want it to take up too much space on your wrist (the Neptune Pine is very much toeing that line). But the flip side is that it's big enough to actually type on, using one of the many Android keyboards. Neptune CTO Aaron Wilkins told me that the 2.4-in screen was the smallest size they could make while still allowing for easy typing. Voice input may end up replacing typing on most wearable devices, but it's nice having the option of hammering out a text or email – especially if you're in public and don't want your dictated messages heard by everyone around you.
Neptune Pine has a VGA front-facing camera, meaning you can use it to video chat right from your wrist (Dick Tracy would be very proud). The lighting was pretty poor in our testing area, so the camera didn't exactly knock my socks off. But considering the conditions, it's about what you'd expect from a VGA front-facing camera.
The Pine also has a 5-megapixel rear camera. Why would you put a rear-facing camera on a watch? Well, that's because you can actually pull the watch's main body off of the strap, as you can see above. At that point, you have in your hands what amounts to a mini-smartphone. Just point and shoot like you would with a full-sized smartphone.
Pine charges via a micro-USB port that reveals itself when you pull the main body off of the band. Neptune claims up to seven hours of internet use on Wi-Fi. Wilkins told me that, with regular use, he has no problems getting a full day of use out of it.
Unfortunately the Android 4.1-running Neptune Pine doesn't yet have the licensing in place to include the Google Play Store and other Google services on the watch. That will be a bit of a bummer if it ships without Google's apps – especially if it's a case of Google blocking access to smaller companies until it can release its own smartwatch (purely speculation on my part, by the way). In the Play Store's place, Wilkins told me the company is working on its own app store for Pine. Hardly an ideal solution: yet another third-party app store layered on top of Android. But under the circumstances, it might be the best route they can take.
Even if those Google services don't ultimately ship with the Pine, though, the device is fully rootable. Having handled the watch, I can confidently say that developers and tinkerers won't have any problem sideloading Google's apps and services, as well as third-party Android apps. The process should be similar to how you'd sideload those services on, say, a hacked e-reader or a custom smartphone ROM.
Based on the few minutes I spent wearing Neptune Pine, I'm eager to spend some more time with it. Having full smartphone functionality on your wrist might not sound like that big of a deal. After all, how hard is it to pull your phone out of your pocket? But it's still very cool having all of that functionality just an arm-lift away. I like the idea of skipping the smartphone altogether, saving some pocket space, and replacing it by popping a SIM card into your watch. Pine is the first device I've used that actually lets you do that right now. It's still early days – with a bulky design that won't be seen on a fashion runway anytime soon – but I still think it's pointing towards the future.
Wilkins says Neptune is hoping to start shipping Pine to its Kickstarter backers by the end of this month. He also mentioned that a 2nd-gen hardware revision is in the works, which he's hoping will be ready within the next few months. You can pre-order Neptune Pine now for US$335 from the product page below.
Product page: Neptune Pine