The biggest problem with most smartwatches today

Pebble notification shotPebble / KickstarterThe new Pebble Time Steel.

If someone asked you what the primary function of a wristwatch is, you’d probably say it’s to tell the time. So why would anyone buy a smartwatch that does a horrible job of telling you the time, especially if they’re meant to replace wristwatches you may currently own?

Since 2013, the startup Pebble has been making smartwatches that last for a week on single charge with displays that continually stay on, which is the least I’d expect from a smartwatch I’m going to use for time-telling purposes. That makes it more appealing to me than other options.

But others are catching up, and I find myself looking at Google’s Android Wear smartwatches following its latest software update that gives you the option to keep the watch face on at all times. You know, like a real watch.

As of Thursday, only the LG Watch Urbane and the Asus ZenWatch run the latest Android Wear version, but others will likely get the update in the coming weeks.

As appealing as the always-on watch faces are, however, I wouldn’t want to buy either just yet. Android Wear still has quite some way to go before it can offer the same versatility and functionality as Pebble’s smartwatches do. For example, Android Wear batteries only last about a day, while the Pebble’s last seven. And Android Wear watches can barely handle a shower while Pebble watches are waterproof down to 130 feet.

Then there’s the Apple Watch, which is absolutely stunning. Its Watch OS operating system works beautifully with the Watch’s design. But the fact that it doesn’t continually stay on to tell the time doesn’t cut it for me, not for a $US350 minimum price tag. (I’m also an Android phone user, so the Apple Watch is a no-go for me.)

Apple’s reasoning for keeping the display off is limited battery capacity, so hopefully Apple will add the always-on option when it can figure out how to squeeze enough battery life into the Apple Watch. According to my colleague Steve Kovach, who’s been using the Apple Watch for three weeks, the Apple Watch does a pretty good job at guessing when to switch on the display when you raise your wrist, but it’s not a perfect solution yet.

The “always on” option shows that smartwatches with powerful software and premium designs are going in the right direction. Now, we just need better batteries or a software solution that manages power better. It’s only a matter of time until smartwatches will be worthy alternatives to regular watches. Until then, I’ll be counting down with my $US10 Casio.

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