IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Smart Watches go for function over form

Lots of useful (if not strictly necessary) data, but wow, they're ugly. Review by Gary Krakow.
The N3 from Finnish sports watch producer Suunto retails for $299.
The N3 from Finnish sports watch producer Suunto retails for $299.Suunto

What do you get when you cross a digital wrist watch with a pager PDA combo? You get something called a Smart Watch that runs on something called MSN Direct.

First a description: Smart Watches are fairly plain-looking digital watches which enable you to receive the latest news headlines, weather, stock quotes and even messages from friends and loved ones. You can also sync the watch to your PC’s Microsoft Outlook calendar and have your appointments pop up on the Smart Watch screen. (MSNBC content is distributed by MSN. MSNBC itself is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

Within each category you can tell the watch exactly what information you want to receive.  For instance, you can choose from five types of tech news headlines, four types of business news, four types of news headlines and three types each of international news, health, entertainment, sports headlines, local news and weather. Within weather you have a choice of local weather for your location, or for North American or international cities. You can also receive the barometric pressure, humidity, UV index, wind chill and even sunrise/sunset times.

There’s also a mode called Glance which lets the watch cycle through all your data choices – one after the other.  It’s the one I usually leave up on the screen.

And yes, the watch does also tells time. MSN Direct synchs with the signal from the U.S. Atomic Clock and passes along the exact time to all Smart Watches. You can also download a new watch face every month.

MSN Direct is a one-way system – incoming. That means Smart Watches can only receive information. FM radio stations in 100 top markets lease a little of their broadcast spectrum to MSN for the service. In markets where there are no participating stations the watch receives nothing. If you live in one of those areas – Smart Watches aren’t for you.

First two Smart Watch models unveiled
Two well-known watch companies announced new Smart Watches this week at CES: Fossil and Suunto. The Fossil Abacus watch retails for $129. The N3 from Finnish sports watch producer Suunto retails for $299.  That’s in addition to signing up for the MSN Direct service: $9.95 per month (with the first month free) or $59 a year.

I’ve been playing with both watches for a few weeks and have some definite thoughts about both of them.  First, as a collector of fine watches I have to say, from the bottom of my heart, both of these watches are really ugly. To its credit, the Suunto looks like it costs more – but there’s not much you can do with a digital screen that has to display text.

You control your Smart Watch by logging on to  That’s where you sign-up for the service, register the watch and tell MSN Direct exactly what you want to see on your watch.  All of those tasks went very smoothly.  You are allowed to have two different watches (displaying the same information) on each account.


he Fossil watch has its receiving antenna built into the full length of the watch strap.  The Suunto’s antenna is actually the metal ring around the watch display. In an impromptu test while flying into Las Vegas, the Fossil began receiving data a few miles outside of the airport while the Suunto began receiving after we landed and I was walking through the airport.

The backlight on the Fossil is white and on the Suunto is green. The Fossil is slightly easier to use. On the other hand, the Suunto wastes less time on each headline in the Glance mode.  You get more information in less time.

The Fossil watch has a clever battery recharging system – it’s inductive – which means you simply place the watch on its little stand and the battery gets recharged without plugging anything into the watch. The Suunto has a clip which plugs into the wall (or your computer’s USB port) and clamps onto outside of the watch. The Suunto lasted a week before really needing a recharge.  he best I could get out of the Fossil was 5 days. You should plan on recharging every other day.

Both watches worked as described.  Some headlines are cut-off to fit them onto the display – but if you want to know more you press the little button on the right and get more info.  Sometimes it does get annoying.

Is there a market?
But the big question is who is going to buy Smart Watches?  Aside from people who have to have the “latest” and “newest” of everything will the masses buy these things?  Businessmen?  Students?  Travelers?  Geeks?  I’ve read what other reviewers have written - many of whom think Smart Watches aren’t so smart.

I don’t know to whom these will ultimately appeal but I can tell you while on my way out to Vegas I was stopped by many people who asked about my watch.  As a matter of fact one fellow airline traveler looked at the Fossil as we were deplaning and exclaimed: “Hey look –the watch says it is 54 degrees outside in Las Vegas.  That’s pretty cool!”

I could probably live a long and healthy life without having constant news headlines and weather forecasts flashing on my wrist – but I have to admit that I catch myself looking at them more and more often.

I believe this product will better than previous attempts at providing information to your wrist because you’re getting a lot of information this time around. MSN Direct’s early problems are likely just teething pains. Small tweaks and new features (up-to-the-minute sports scores come on-line next month).

For me, the big problem is with the way the watches look.  Something will have to be done if they expect business professionals and fashion-conscious people to give up their Rolex, Brietling and Cartier timepieces to wear one of these Smart Watches.