Even taking into consideration the latest smartwatch models introduced recently by Apple and Samsung, it has to be admitted that these gadgets haven't been doing as well as vendors hoped. It could be that the size and weight are still off-putting to many users -- or it could be that many don't want to pay several hundred dollars for what can be viewed as a glorified Fitbit.
However, that hasn't put off a number of vendors who are still hoping to make a name for themselves in the Dick Tracy sweepstakes. One that made a bit of a splash on crowdfunding site Indiegogo has just made its appearance in the market: the CoWatch, with hardware from a tech startup called iMCO, software from a company called Chronologics, and the ability to access Amazon's Alexa voice controller.
I had a chance to try out the CoWatch and found it to be a highly interesting project -- one that feels not quite complete but that may have a good deal of potential. One admission before I start: While I've handled other smartwatches, this is the first that I've had a chance to spend extensive time with.
Nicely designed hardware and interface
The CoWatch is attractive in a simple way that I found appealing. It has a circular stainless steel body; between that and the accompanying metal band, the effect is, while not elegant, smart enough to be suitable for both casual and business occasions. The watch comes in silver or black; leather bands are also available for an additional charge.
It offers a dual-core chipset from a company called Ingenic with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage. Unlike the Apple Watch, which has two hardware controls, the CoWatch only has a single button that can be used to wake the watch up or put it to sleep.
I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable the watch was to wear. I've got fairly narrow wrists, and so (like a number of other people) I'm put off by the size and weight of most smartwatches. As a result, when I first saw the CoWatch, which has a diameter of 1.72 in. and a depth of 0.48 in., I was convinced that I was going to be wearing it with great reluctance. However, after an hour or two, I found that its weight of 1.9 oz. was not at all onerous, and that I was, in fact, perfectly at ease having it on my wrist for the entire day.
The AMOLED display is 1.39 in. with a resolution of 400 x 400; indoors, it offers a bright and easy-to-read surface. I did have a bit of problem with it outdoors; even on a rather cloudy day, the watch could be difficult to read unless it was set to its maximum brightness.
One of the nice things about the CoWatch is its "always on" face, which means that you can tell the time without having to tap the watch or handle its hardware. Each face -- there were 23 different designs available at the time of this writing -- has a slightly different "sleeping" appearance, which is a bit dimmer and has a slightly simpler design than the one you see when the watch is fully awake.
The interface is governed by the Android-based Chronologic OS and is fairly simple to understand. Each watch face includes three circles, each of which holds an icon representing a different app (which Chronologics calls a Container). Swipe down for your notifications and up for quick access to some basic actions like volume, wireless connections and battery life. Swipe left or right for another instance of the watch face (there are four altogether) that has the same design but three different Containers. Touch the appropriate Container icon to activate the app.
Currently, there are a number of apps, including ones that let you pause and restart the music on your Android or iOS phone, check the weather, use the watch as a flashlight and get notifications. There are the usual fitness apps that track your steps, check your heart rate and time your run. You can also configure the Containers using the popular app IFTTT (If This Then That), which allows you to customize a wide range of actions. (Not surprising, since the CEO of Chronologics, Leor Stern, used to lead business development for IFTTT.)
Another app lets you actually make calls (since the watch has both a mic and a speaker -- your phone does have to be wirelessly connected, of course). By hitting a phone icon, you get a list of all your starred Google contacts; tap the contact name, and it will immediately make the call. You can then use either the watch or the phone during the call -- although the sound on the watch isn't quite good enough for a long conversation, and the watch timed out while I was saying, "Hello?" at it. (I was able to complete the call using my phone.) It could be handy, however, if you need to take an emergency call and your phone is hidden in your backpack.
The big selling point of the CoWatch, however, is its use of Amazon's Alexa voice control.
Interestingly, the CoWatch is not associated directly with Amazon (although that is where the product is being marketed). I've worked a little with Alexa via the Amazon Fire TV Stick , and I haven't found it all that impressive as far as voice control is concerned, especially when compared with services like Google Now or Siri.
My experience with Alexa on the CoWatch was much the same. While it was fun to play with, it still has a way to go before it's really useful as a mobile service. For example, I needed to remind myself to move my car (to accommodate New York City's ever-present alternate-side-of-the-street parking) at 10:45 a.m. With my Android phone, I could simply say "Okay, Google, remind me to move the car at 10:45 a.m." and I'd get a reminder at the appropriate time.
I went to Alexa on the CoWatch and said "Remind me to move the car at 10:45 a.m." The app put that entire sentence into a To-do list that is part of the Alexa app -- but without an active reminder. Instead, I had to use the watch's Alarm Container to set an alarm for the appropriate time.
In addition, there were frequent glitches; too often, I got a never-ending "Processing" notification when I asked a fairly simple question, and on one occasion, when the watch ran out of battery life, I had to re-authorize my account with Amazon.
Speaking of battery life: You can set the CoWatch for Bluetooth tethering to allow Alexa to work more quickly -- a nice idea, but one that may have consequences. If you choose to keep the tethering constantly active (rather than only when apps request internet use), you can get even quicker access to info, but that, according to a warning on the watch, "may affect battery life."
It certainly may have affected mine; on a day when I was out and about most of the day, the CoWatch (which started out fully powered) sent me a low battery warning about 6 p.m. and totally ran down about an hour later. This despite the fact that it promises up to 32 hours of battery life in always-on mode. I would have given a lot for a micro-USB connection so I could power it back up using a portable power pack, but you can only only power the CoWatch via its base.
On another day, when I set the tethering to be active only when necessary, I got the low power warning around 11 p.m. Better, but still not 32 hours. It was only when I left tethering alone entirely that I was able to get the watch through a long day of use.
Prices for the CoWatch currently start at $279 for the silver version; the black version is $299 (Amazon price). That's about $90 less than the Apple Watch, which starts at $369, and about $30 less than the Samsung Gear S2, which starts at $300. According to a company rep, the CoWatch is due to ship by September 25th.
The CoWatch is a work in progress. The Alexa feature may attract some users, especially if it shows some improvements; I personally didn't find it very helpful. Other issues: Like most smartwatches today, the face isn't all that visible in direct sunlight, and I didn't find that battery life lived up to its promise.
However, despite these drawbacks, I've grown to like the CoWatch. It's comfortable to wear, and offers decent performance. The Chronologic OS has a lot of potential; it's very easy to use and has some useful apps -- I became quite used to glancing at my watch to check new notifications, for example, and I really like the possibilities of answering your phone with your watch.
The number of apps (and the number of watch faces) will need to be ramped up if the device is going to be competitive -- especially against giants like Apple and Samsung. However, if it is adopted by developers and tech enthusiasts (and considering its early adoption of apps like IFTTT, it's a good possibility), the CoWatch could mature into something very interesting.
- Good-looking and comfortable to wear
- Simple-to-use interface
- Interfaces with Amazon's Alexa voice control
- Relatively inexpensive compared to similar smartwatches
- Always-on face
- Alexa is quirky and doesn't always work properly
- Tethering to Bluetooth drastically affects battery life.
- Difficult to see outside unless brightness is at full
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