So far, the Great Wearables Revolution is taking its sweet time. Google Glass, which sent the nation’s hype machine into overdrive, was such a flop that Google pulled it off the market. (They’re working on a better version.) Smartwatches turn out to be big, clumsy gadgets that nobody wants except well-off technophiles. Apple won’t even say how many Apple Watches it’s sold, which can only mean “not very many.”
There are, however, two categories of machinery that the masses are happy to strap onto their wrists: traditional watches and fitness trackers.
Regular analog watches are great because they look great, they’re often waterproof, and you don’t have to charge them every day. Fitness trackers monitor your fitness and sleep, but most require frequent charging, you can’t wear ‘em in the shower, and they’re unattractive silicone bands that scream, “I’m counting my steps!”
It was only a matter of time, then, that it occurred to somebody to combine these two functions—to build activity tracking into fashionable analog wristwatches.
That’s the idea behind the Timex Metropolitan and the Withings Activité. These are great-looking, waterproof, traditional analog watches with interchangeable bands—but they also display your activity progress on a small analog dial, as shown here by the red arrows.
So yes, the idea is fantastic. How’s the execution?
The Metropolitan ($130) is one big, very thick disk. It’s about .5 inches thick; from the side, it looks like a can of cat food on your wrist. It’s advertised as a unisex watch—but if you’re a woman and you’re not built like a Russian pole vaulter, wearing this watch may make you list to one side.
But the Metropolitan’s virtues jump right off the Web page: It lasts a year and a half on a single watch battery. You can swim with it down to 100 feet. Its hands glow in the dark—and if you need more illumination than that, it offers Timex’s classic Indiglo effect, which makes the entire face light up for three seconds when you press a button.
There are four hands on this baby: Hour, minute, sweep second, and a skinny red progress hand that shows how many steps you’ve taken so far. (Actually, it can switch between “number of steps” mode and “distance” mode with a long press on the top button.)
There’s also a small sub-dial, scaled from 0 to 100, that’s a percentage meter for your step goal so far today.
What’s beautiful about all of this is that you don’t need to look at your phone to see how you’re doing; a fuel-gauge-style dial gives you a quicker idea of your progress than a digital readout; and nobody needs to know that you’re wearing a step tracker.
What’s not so beautiful is just about everything else. This watch seems to have been designed on some Galapagos Island of innovation; its feature list is so skimpy, you’d think that Timex isn’t aware of what virtually all other fitness trackers do.
Let’s start with the Bluetooth syncing process. If you have a Fitbit, Misfit, Garmin, Up, Withings, or any other tracker, simply opening up the corresponding app on your iPhone or Android phone begins transferring data from the band and translating it into graphs.
But in Timex land, that sync requires four steps on two devices. 1) Open the app on the phone. 2) Put the watch into syncing mode (hold down the upper button on the watch until the tiny mode arrow points to the Bluetooth symbol). 3) Tap the Sync button in the app (shown here in upper right). 4) Tap a second Sync Watch button.
Incredibly, the watch can store only 7 days’ worth of step tallies. If you don’t sync within that time, you lose the oldest data.
Also, get this: The watch counts your steps, but doesn’t monitor your sleep. Come on! That’s half the fun of wearing a tracker!
As you can probably guess, the Timex doesn’t offer any other common tracker features, either. No workout tracking, achievement badges, or competitions—no way to share your accomplishments with other people. The app can’t even graph your progress by week, month, or year; its sole attempt at massaging your data is a screen that shows your average data for this entire week, month, or year.
The watch doesn’t set itself by communicating with your phone, either. You have to set it with a traditional crown knob.
These, of course, are the complaints of a veteran techie. On Amazon, some owners of this watch absolutely love it for its simplicity. All they want is a glorified pedometer, and they get it.
My guess, though, is that if they knew how satisfying the more full-featured products can be, they’d jump the Timex ship immediately.
If the Timex is big and thick, the Withings is slim and compact. (FYI,the company says it’s name is pronounced “WITH-things,” not “WY-things.” Another tech mystery solved!)
It’s a beautiful, classy-looking, high-end little capsule, waterproof and completely sealed; there’s not a single button or knob. It goes for eight months on a watch battery. It’s truly unisex in design—in fact, some men may find that this watch (especially the band) is a little too dainty.
Truth is, the watch is thicker than it looks or feels; take it off, and you can see a cleverly concealed bulge underneath.
Once again, the idea is that there’s a small sub-dial that points out your percentage progress toward a step-count goal that you specify.
This time, though, you also get most other common tracker features: The watch can track your sleep pretty well and display all of this data on the corresponding phone app as handsome, well-organized graphs. The watch can also track your swimming workouts automatically.
On the app, you can set up a silent vibrating alarm, which is a great feature—except that there’s no way to turn it off! Once it starts buzzing, you have no choice but to wait out the full 30-second seizure. (Yes, I realize there are no buttons on the watch—but how about letting a double-tap mean “turn off the alarm”?)
Since there are no knobs or buttons on the case, how do you adjust it? That’s where the fun begins: you control it from the phone app, watching the hands of the watch spin around as though tugged by ghosts.
For example, the watch sets itself automatically when you land in a new time zone, before your eyes. You can also double-tap the watch to double-check your alarm time; the hands spin into place, pause, and then they return to the proper time.
The app is elegant and complete. It offers friendly competitions with your friends—even people with only an iPhone and no fitness tracker. (The iPhone can count steps as it bounces around in your pocket.)
The app connects to MyFitnessPal, an app that makes it as easy as possible to log the food you eat for calorie and nutrient tracking, and also incorporates weight, pulse-rate, and body-mass data from Withings’ wireless scales, like the Smart Body Analyzer. (That one also shows you today’s weather when you step aboard each morning, which is an incredibly convenient time to find out.)
You can buy this watch in various models. There’s the Activité Pop ($100 on Amazon, choice of colors) to the Activité Steel ($170) to the Activité Sapphire illustrated here (Swiss made, calf-leather band, $450). Just keep in mind that leather bands aren’t recommended for water use, which sort of defeats the purpose. (The Sapphire model comes with a silicone strap in the box, so you can swap it out when you’re going swimming, if you’re so inclined.)
Watches vs. Silicone
Obviously, the Withings Activité watch does far more than the Timex Metropolitan. But, exactly, do you lose by choosing the Withings over, say, a Fitbit?
The main difference is analog vs. digital. You can tell at a glance at the watch that you’re doing very well (or really terribly) at moving today—but if you want the exact step count, you have to open the app. A fitness band with a little screen, on the other hand, shows the exact, current data right on your wrist, incrementing even as you’re still walking.
My favorite fitness band at the moment is the Fitbit Charge HR ($140), which tracks not just activity and sleep but also your heart rate and sets of stairs taken. It also shows the time, but only when you raise your wrist. Meanwhile, it’s not waterproof, it needs recharging every five days, and it looks like a fitness band, which isn’t so classy-looking when, for example, you’re out somewhere formal.
So: Fashion watch or tracker band? Really, the point is that now you have a choice. Actually, wait—the bigger point is that any device that motivates you to move more is important and useful. In the end, it doesn’t matter if it’s a fashion watch, a silicone band, or Bob’s $25 Cheapo Tracker—as long as it makes you healthier.
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David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech; here’s how to get his columns by email. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s firstname.lastname@example.org. He welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below.