Smartwatches have outshipped Swiss watches for several years. Before an uptick in March, the Federation of Swiss Watches had posted a 20-month-straight decline in exports, part of a disastrous downward sales trend. If the numbers continue on their current trajectory, these digitally enabled wearable computers may take the lead in actual sales dollars by 2020.
The mechanical watch world has been slow to respond to this pressure, despite plenty of prodding from consumers and industry retailers. But now, a handful of Swiss watchmakers have produced some passable smartwatches.
Well, kind of. Whether these watches are actually “smart” depends on who you ask. The industry calls them “hybrid smartwatches” since they tell time analog-style, with hands instead of a screen. But they also connect to an app on your phone, where they log simple tracking data for your steps, your sleep, and, in some cases, your heart rate. That simplicity has its advantages. With no third-party apps, no visual notifications, and no backlit screen, they can often be powered by a coin-cell battery that lasts months, rather than a lithium ion cell that needs recharging every day or two.
So while you don’t get texting apps, detailed fitness analysis, or NFC-enabled mobile payments from these hybrid smartwatches, you do get something good-looking enough to be worn at a wedding that can also track the calories you burn on the dance floor.
Nokia Steel HR
French manufacturer Withings beat many traditional watchmakers to the connected-watch market with its Activité tracker in late 2014. The brand was acquired by Nokia last year and has dropped the Withings name, but it’s still out in front of the pack. The new Steel HR improves on the successful design of the previous smartwatch, the Activité Steel, by adding a small digital readout on the face. This tiny E-Ink screen provides real-time feedback on heart rate, distance traveled, and battery life while remaining discreet enough to maintain the watch’s analog look. It’s the only watch among the group to attempt the trickery of a screen, and it (mostly) works.
The Swiss-made Steel HR is a sharp, minimalist watch. With muted grey markings, a black face (it also comes in white), and sleek, polished stick hands, it looks like something Apple might create if it attempted an analog watch. In addition to the little screen, there’s also a 0-100 “activity scale.” This smaller dial shows your progress (in percentage completed) toward completing your daily step goal, and is a common sight on analog smartwatches like this one. The Steel HR comes in two sizes, 36mm and 40mm. I wore the 40mm size, which was still significantly smaller than the other watches I tested—slimmer, too. It feels extremely light on the wrist, and its velvety rubber strap was the best I tested for working out. It could also blend in amid a more formal setting if it had to.
Pushing the crown brings the E-Ink screen to life, showing date, time (redundantly), heart rate, steps, distance traveled, alarm setting, battery life, and calories burned. These are all displayed in more detail in the companion app. The watch syncs automatically to the app—you’d think this would be standard, but as the other watches proved, it was not. I had a few gripes: it takes a several seconds for the heart rate to register, and the battery seems to last two weeks during heavy use rather than the promised 25 days. Otherwise, it was by far the most useful watch of the bunch, and for the very competitive price of $180.
$180 for the 36mm, $200 for the 40mm. Rating: 8
Mondaine Helvetica 1 Smart
The Helvetica 1 Smart is one of three connected watches developed by the Swiss company Manufacture Modules Technologies, or MMT. The most expensive, from Frederique Constant, comes in gold; the least expensive, from Alpina, is rugged-looking and sporty. The Helvetica sits between the two.
If you’ve ever been in a Swiss railway station, you’ve seen the inspiration for Mondaine, whose line of watches and clocks use stark clarity to aid in readability. The company’s iconic designs are even sold in the MoMA store. Which is all to say, the Mondaine Helvetica Smart is a hell of a nice-looking watch, with stark black hands and numerals on a white dial with raised hour and minute markers. The deeply bevelled steel case is a large and hefty 44mm, leaving plenty of room for activity and sleep tracking meters. These are set in a nifty dual-concentric circle subdial with two hands at 6 o’clock. When I needed to dress more formally, this is the watch I wore.
As a smartwatch, though, the Mondaine falters a bit. Syncing to MMT’s “MotionX” app must be done manually, by pushing down the watch’s crown. It’s finicky too—I quickly learned the best order of operations was setting my phone flat on the table and holding the watch directly over it, just inches away, to get it to sync. The app’s sleep tracking was just as detailed as the Withings’ app, minus the heart rate, which the Mondaine doesn’t record. The Mondaine’s “activity” graph delivers only vagueness, and the app’s “coach tips” ranged from odd to creepy. (“Sleep insight: We can only dream about faces we have already seen, whether we actively remember them or not.”)
The other thing about those bulky good looks and a fancy leather strap: they don’t necessarily translate into an ideal workout or sleeping companion. Its weight and bulk didn’t bother me while running or playing a game of pick-up soccer, but the sweat-soaked leather strap did. On the other hand, it runs for 2 years before you have to swap the battery, which cuts recharging entirely out of the equation.
The last sticking point is the price: it costs $950, and the other watches on this list are all under $200. What you’re buying is a sharp-looking analog watch first, and a handy, if not all that effective, fitness and sleep tracker second. But I will say this: It’s the only hybrid smartwatch that earned me compliments.
$950. Rating: 7
Fossil Q Crewmaster
The Fossil Q Crewmaster is the Arnold Schwarzenegger of watches: enormous, fun, and a little absurd. It has the bulky toothiness of a dive watch, the complexity of a chronograph, and a color scheme that brings to mind the flag of a far-off nation. The most common comment I got while wearing it was, “What is that thing?”
Which, if you’re into wearing something that gets attention, is great. Despite its enormous 46mm diameter, it’s about as thin as the other watches I tested. Its comfortable to wear when working out, where the big rubber strap is well-suited. The bezel can be turned like a real dive watch, and the Crewmaster feels ready to be worn on a sea adventure—it’s also the only watch I wasn’t terrified to wear in the shower.
Unfortunately, the Fossil is undermined by the limitations of its companion app. The Q App tracks both sleep and activity only in a circle graph that you either complete or don’t, based on your set goals. You can’t see when you worked out, for example, or how much a specific workout during the day played into your total calories burned. And it’s hard to trust sleep tracking that bluntly declares your total hours of sleep without graphical evidence, then lists in small footnotes-style time spent awake or in “light” or “restful” sleep.
More “smart” than the watch’s tracking functions are the extra touches of utility in the controls. Pushing the crown toggles between various time modes and shows the status of your alarm. Above and below the crown, there are two buttons that look like the pushers on a chronograph. The one on top brings up the date (though I couldn’t get that to work), and the second one can be customized to accomplish various tasks like making your phone ring, controlling your music, and snapping a picture—though that last one just turned my phone’s ringtone volume up.
$155. Rating: 6
Timex IQ+ Move
Ah, Timex, the old standby. Even watch geeks can’t resist the allure of a $36 Weekender as a wear-it-anywhere, beat-it-up watch. And yes, Timex’s IQ+ is the cheapest watch on this list at $149. But it’s not cheap enough to make up for its shortcomings.
It’s a fine-looking watch, with a very traditional case shape, crown, and lugs. The “activity” bar that tracks your steps stretches between 3 and 6 o’clock, which fills out the face nicely. It’s also the only watch on this list that has a second hand, which ticks away doing its normal job until you tell it otherwise (more on that in a… second).
Things degrade from there. The reflective hour markers are hard to read unless the light hits them just so, making it hard to read the time. The leather strap is stiff, a little ugly, and not all that comfortable, and is not good for working out. (The watch does come in a version with a rubber strap, which I recommend.)
The app is even more disappointing. Of all the watches I tested, the Timex was the hardest to sync. You have to first press a sync button on the app, then hold down the watch’s crown for five seconds, then wait another ten seconds or so as it syncs.
After all that, the app lacks any detailed statistics. Steps, distance, calories burned, and sleep are all displayed in that impotent circle-graph style. Clicking into them displays your week’s stats in a bar graph that looks like it was made by a fifth-grader. You can set alarms and timers for the watch, and you can use the second hand to display the date (awkward) or activity (redundant) rather than just use it to count the seconds. None of these features are enough to make the IQ+ stand out. Stick to the Weekender.
$149. Rating 4