Among consumer gadgets, watches are an odd category. The most expensive and prestigious watches aren't the ones with the most functions or the most up-to-date chips — they're the ones that do the least, in as old-fashioned a way as possible. Just think of mechanical Rolexes.
So when a watch comes along that uses digital technology to do something new, it usually ends up looking like a gimmick. That was my first reaction to Sony Ericsson's Bluetooth Watch MBW-100 ($399, but see below for cheaper alternatives), which alerts you to calls on your cell phone and tells you who's calling.
But I actually warmed to it over time, and while it's far from an earth-shattering innovation, it's a cool idea that could be more widely adopted — so far, it only works with a dozen Sony Ericsson phones that are equipped with Bluetooth chips, the wireless technology that's usually used to connect to headsets.
As long as the watch is within about 30 feet of the cell phone, it will vibrate gently when you have an incoming call and show the number on a small but crisp digital display below the main analog watch face. If you have the number associated with a name in the cell phone's contact list, the watch will show that name.
Press a button once to mute the phone's ring signal, or twice to send the call to voice mail. If you want to take the call, you still have to fish out the phone, unless you're using a headset.
Pressing another of the phone's three buttons will start or pause the phone's digital music player — a convenient feature for Sony's music-oriented phones, like the Walkman W810i I tried it with.
The watch can also vibrate to alert you that it's losing touch with the phone because it's too far away. This quickly gets annoying at home, and you can turn the feature off, but it could be a real boon if you're traveling and prone to leaving your phone in the cab.
That's it, really. It's not a big feature set for a modern gadget, and it's a far cry from some of the really geeky watches out there, like the ones that have a TV screen, a full Palm personal digital assistant, or the ones that receive news and weather reports from a wireless network.
But with watches, less may be more. The discreet digital display (which uses organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs) gave room for a handsome watch face, which is set in a stylish and very non-geeky stainless steel body, waterproof to 100 feet.
Stylish, that is, but heavy: the MBW-100 weighs 6.6 oz (187 grams), or almost twice as much as the phone it was linked to. That's in the upper weight range of macho watches.
Probably because the battery and vibration mechanism are too big, there's no ladies' model, which is a bit of a pity — women often carry their phones in their handbags, and would have more use for this watch than men who carry phones in their pockets.
Another downside is that the watch needs to be charged, using an adapter connected to the phone charger. It seemed to go about three weeks between charges.
Apart from the silver-colored model sold on the Sony Ericsson Web site, Fossil sells a black version with a different styling for $249. Fossil's Abacus MobileWear brand sells another two versions through retailers like CompUSA and Amazon.com for as low as $149.
Given the small number of phones it's compatible with, the watch is probably of limited appeal right now, but if cell phone makers could unite on a standard that would get more phones talking to watches, this technology could take the step from gimmick to "must have." Well, perhaps "must have" is stretching it. Make that "like to have."