Smartwatches are better when they're dumber -- this wearable shows why

A smartwatch is a watch. It has always been a watch. This sounds simple, but smartwatch buyers and makers continue to not fully accept it.

Result: the gadgets aren’t selling. The only one that might be doing ok, the Apple Watch, has the benefit of the biggest tech brand in the world, and has decided to become more of a fitness tracker than a smartwatch.

Shrinking apps and processors to fit on a tiny watch face is difficult. Wearing something big enough to fit the right tech is awkward. The reality is that a watch can’t really replace your phone.

Still, there are some snippets a device can take from a smartphone and do well even when it’s native to your wrist.

The Misfit Phase does a good job of finding those things. More importantly, it does them while looking like a watch. I’ve been wearing it for the past couple of weeks — here’s why I like it:

The Misfit Phase is part of a larger wave of devices known as 'hybrid smartwatches.' These are more 'watches with bonus features' than 'miniature smartphones.' The big benefit is that they look like everyday watches -- because they are. The Phase is no different, and it's among the more stylish ones at that.

Hollis Johnson

Taste is subjective, but I dig the minimalist style here. The watch face is spare, with no seconds hand, small dashes at each hour, a tiny logo at the 12 spot, and a little notification circle at the six. It's pleasant. Misfit sent over a navy blue and gold model, but there are other colours and finishes -- rose gold, white, black, a leather band, etc. -- to choose from beyond that.

The gold highlights here are a bit showy, but it's hard to call something like this ostentatious. It's a mature look, less dorky than a Pebble (RIP) and more elegant than an Apple Watch.

The Phase starts at $175 with a silicone band or $195 with a leather band. Viewed solely as a watch, the Phase doesn't quite feel that expensive.

Hollis Johnson

The steel and aluminium casing doesn't feel cheap, but it doesn't have the sort of sheen or heft you might find on a nicer non-smart-watch. The silicone band here feels less luxurious than the leather on my $US35 Timex. Worst of all, there's no sort of backlighting or 'glow' button. That's a huge pain when it's nighttime and you can't tell what kind of notification you just got.

Still, the band is soft and extremely easy to swap out. The whole thing is water-resistant, so you can wash your hands without issue. And, crucially, you never have to recharge it -- because the Phase runs on a coin-operated battery, you can just wear it, then pick up a replacement battery for a couple bucks every 5-6 months.

You'll like the Phase more if your wrists are on the larger side, though. It's not as thick or heavy as most full-on smartwatches, but it's not dainty either.

Hollis Johnson

While the look of the Phase is fairly gender-neutral, it won't feel as snug or natural on a slimmer wrist. The competing Withings Activite Steel is a lighter and more universal fit.

All told, though, it's not as egregious as it could be. You could ignore Phase's smarts and still be left with an attractive timepiece that doesn't call attention to itself, and doesn't need to be charged. That's key -- Misfit doesn't leave all of the value here in computing that may or may not be worthwhile. As long as you like the look, it has a high floor. You won't feel self-conscious wearing it, because at its core, it's just a watch.

The Phase's smarts are still the selling point, though. You can't do nearly as much here as you could with a standard smartwatch, but that's not a total negative when so much of what smartwatches do is mediocre. Instead, the Phase focuses on the few things smartwatches can do well. The first is simple fitness and sleep tracking.

Hollis Johnson

To be clear: The Phase is no Fitbit. It's no Garmin running watch, either. It works with Apple's HealthKit app, but it doesn't have GPS, and it can't do heart-rate monitoring. I can live with that -- we can't say if wrist-worn heart-rate sensors are even accurate, and I'd rather have an aesthetically pleasing watch than one that has to ugly things up to cater to runners. But if you want an everyday watch that also paints an in-depth picture of your fitness, this isn't it.

Instead, the Phase's ambitions are much more basic. It automatically recognises when you move around or go to bed, then it records it in a clean and mostly straightforward app.

Because fitness trackers are still more about quantifying your life than coaching you to better habits, the Phase scores you on your activities and gives you a number to shoot for. You pick whether you want that goal to push you toward light, moderate, or heavy activity. From there, the app will give you basic guidelines of how much you should walk, run or swim to reach that goal.

Will the Phase's fitness features force you into a healthier life? Not unless you put in the work. But that's an existential issue for almost any wearable that isn't a high-end fitness tracker at this point. What the Phase does do, it usually does accurately.

Business Insider/Jeff Dunn
A few sample screenshots from the Misfit app. Left to right: A weekly view of activity stats, a daily graph of sleep stats, the app notification settings menu.

I went for a 45 minute walk, and the app logged it as 'moderate activity' for about that time (give or take a couple minutes). I ran for 20 minutes, and the app recognised it as being more intense. (You can set the app to recognise these as more specific activities -- soccer, running, tennis, etc. -- though there aren't many of them.) All throughout, it did a decent job of recognising how many steps I'd taken and how many miles I'd travelled.

Sleep tracking is mostly the same deal. The app breaks down how much of your sleep is deep or light, and it's fine, though it can be a bit spotty on the ends. Worse comes to worst, though, you can edit it as needed. In any case, the fact that you can just put it on, fall asleep, and know that it will start tracking is great -- provided you can commit to wearing the watch every night.

I don't reasonably think any of this can make an out-of-shape person fit on its own. The fact that you have to open the app every time you want to sync your stats is a pain, and it's never totally clear how Misfit's points system actually works. But I do think it does enough to be a handy, reliable helper for those who want to take steps in the right direction. And if you never want to bother with it, cool -- you still have a nice watch to wear around.

The smart thing I like most about the Phase is how it handles notifications. Though it doesn't have a 'display,' the Phase can still buzz you when you get a text, call, or email, just like any other smartwatch.

Hollis Johnson

Now, all of this is assuming you're the type who wants to be more connected. You're still a slave to notifications here. I'm just guessing you're too far gone for that to matter.

With that said, the Phase's approach is clever. In the app, you can set the watch to buzz when you receive a call, text, Gmail, or message from Facebook Messenger, WeChat, Viber, WhatsApp, Skype, or Line. Misfit could stand to add more services, but it's a decent start, and texts and Gmail will cover plenty of people as is.

From there, you can apply a colour to each service you care about. When your phone gets a notification from one of those selected services, the Phase will buzz, and the notification dot at the bottom of the watch face will change to the appropriate colour. Beyond that, for texts, you can set it so the watch hands temporarily move to a certain time for specific contacts.

This is surprisingly helpful. When my phone was charging across the room, I could just look down, see that the notification dial was green with the watch hands moved to 10, and know my girlfriend had texted. If I looked down and saw that a pink dot (for Gmail), I wouldn't have bothered to get up. You can see how this'd be useful if you carry your phone in a bag or purse.

The problem, again, is that it's nigh-impossible to use in the dark. This is a fundamental flaw. Things can get pretty confusing if you start assigning each app a colour and watch hand position, too, so it's best used for only the most important services and people in your life.

And no, there isn't a display that lets you actually read the message, but it's not as if squinting to read a 1.5-inch screen or responding by talking aloud is such a wonderful experience. With this, I can see what's important, then decide if I want to respond the comfortable way on my phone or laptop.

Push notifications and activity tracking are the main bonuses here, but the Phase has a host of smaller-scale features as well. Chances are you won't use many of them, but the better ones can be convenient.

Misfit
Some alternative colours and band options.

On the side of the Phase are a couple of 'smart buttons.' Pressing the top one once shows you how close you are (in percentage points) to your activity goal, pressing it twice shows you what time you've set for your alarm. Not having to open the app to do things that minute is great.

Speaking of, you can set the Phase to be a silent alarm, which is always handy. If you're the type who needs to be pushed to move, you can also make it so the Phase buzzes when you've been stationary for a set period of time. Or you can be like me and turn that off.

The Phase's bottom button, meanwhile, can do a lot. It can be used to…

• Take selfies with your phone's camera (not sure how that would be comfortable)

• Click through slides in a PowerPoint (fine if you use that, though you'll look goofy)

• Manually set fitness activities (a bit aimless since you have to open the app anyway)

• Change through music tracks (good if your headphones don't have a remote already)

• Activate a compatible smart home device

• Or remotely ring your phone (a godsend)

I didn't find myself in need of most of this, but it all works.

The Misfit Phase isn't the only device of its kind, and you still need to buy into the idea of a smarter watch to see the value in it. (You can find a nicer-feeling watch for $175, after all.) But its take on the concept is much easier to live with than 'normal' smartwatches, which are too often overwhelming and undercooked.

Hollis Johnson

The Phase understands that smartwatches aren't replacing smartphones, so it does the one thing it can to avoid being tossed in your drawer after a month of toying around: be a good watch. It's always there to tell you the time, it looks nice, and it doesn't die in 30 hours. It then builds from that base, adding simplistic but useful-if-you-want-it activity stats, surprisingly in-depth notifications, and a bunch of nifty extras.

There's room to do this design better, yes, and the Phase can't compare to the Apple Watch or Fitbit Charge 2 as a fitness tracker. But that's not really what it is. If you want a watch that's also a thing that keeps you connected, not the other way around, I can see the Phase carving out a place in your wardrobe.

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