NEW YORK — All the early smartwatches generating buzz (if not a lot of sales) come not from traditional watch brands but rather tech companies: Samsung, Sony, Google, LG, Motorola, Pebble and — if longstanding rumors bear fruit — Apple.
Now an actual watch company is taking aim. Timex on Wednesday announces that it will be delivering the Ironman One GPS+ smartwatch in the fall. The venerable 160-year-old watchmaker is teaming up with AT&T and Qualcomm on a "connected" version of the Ironman GPS series that Timex sells to fitness buffs.
The upcoming Timex smartwatch is primarily targeted at runners. It has built-in GPS to track your speed, distance, pace and other workout details. But other GPS watches could do that. What sets this one apart is that you can use it untethered, without a companion smartphone.
Granted, most of us carry our phones everywhere we go, but for runners the ability to leave the handset behind is possibly motivating.
The new watch comes with its own wireless connection to AT&T's 3G cellular network. AT&T is supplying the first year of data free, though at $399.95, the watch itself is rather expensive. (Other Timex GPS watches range from less than $80 to more than $200.) The companies haven't specified what data will cost after that first year. You can preorder the watch now.
In other ways the Timex isn't as versatile as other smartwatches. You aren't hit with a bevy of notifications; you can't make or receive calls; and the watch has just a few built-in apps. For now, Timex isn't opening things up to app developers. To measure your heart rate you need a special $439.95 version with a built-in heart rate monitor and accessory chest strap. And there's no voice input, much less a Google Now-type service to anticipate the kind of stuff you might want to see.
While it's premature to review the watch — the software is still early — I did get an exclusive peek, and was able to wear it, albeit briefly, on my wrist. The watch is comfortable but large, and my sense is you'd choose another wristwatch for fashion once finishing your run.
It will be available in two colors, black and green. There are physical buttons on each of the four corners and six prominent icons on the main home screen. As with other smartwatches you can change watch faces, though only a few were available during my demonstration.
Will the Timex name be enough to lure new customers to smartwatches? Timex Chairwoman Annette Olsen says the fact that such a wearable is coming from a watch company is a "very big deal. We think we know everything about the wrist. We know how the watch needs to fit. We know a lot about the design. ... We think that with our knowledge about watches and technology this is a huge opportunity for us."
Glenn Lurie, president of Emerging Enterprises and Partnerships for AT&T Mobility, concurs: "We see that wrist becoming the hub of your body. ... This is an amazing first step."
Lurie says that tapping into AT&T's 3G network (rather than faster 4G) "is sufficient for what we're launching with." For example, via AT&T, when you've completed your run you can press a button to upload data to a fitness website or social media outlet.
Moreover, a runner can set up a network of "angels," the people you designate who can track your run in real-time. There's an SOS mode, too: In case of an emergency, you can press a button to send alerts with your location.
The watch also has its own e-mail address, so someone can send you a message and you can respond in kind. But the process of typing on a small onscreen keyboard seems outdated and kluge. I'm told there might be pre-canned text messages that you can respond with at launch.
Qualcomm is supplying the Brew platform the watch runs on, the chipset and the always-on, low-power 1.5-inch rectangular color Mirasol touch display. The colors aren't the brightest, but the screen is designed to become more visible in direct sun.
Qualcomm showcased Mirasol on its own Toq smartwatch last year, but the company produced that $350 watch in limited quantities more as reference design to attract partners.
Battery life on most early smartwatches has been a major challenge, and that's likely so here, too. Timex says you'll get eight hours of juice with GPS on and about three days otherwise. You charge the watch through a clip that plugs into USB.
The watch has a built-in music player app and 4 gigabytes of storage for holding about 1,000 songs. There's no speaker, so you'd have to listen through a Bluetooth headset.
For those recalling the Timex torture tests and iconic slogan of yesteryear — "it takes a licking and keeps on ticking"— the new model is ruggedized and water resistant to about 150 feet.
Olsen dismisses the fact that many young people don't wear watches and says many do so once landing their first job. "People wear watches for different reasons, not necessarily to tell time. It could be a fashion element. It could be technology. It could be a status symbol depending on the price points."
Only time will tell whether they choose to wear Timex's first-generation smartwatch.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Timex Ironman One GPS+
$399.95, first year of AT&T 3G data service is free
Availability: Fall 2014
Vital stats: Runner's smartwatch doesn't require smartphone. Lets you track distance, pace and other data that you can upload wirelessly to fitness sites and social media. Has SOS and messaging features, built-in music player, and color display you can read in sunlight. But not as versatile as other smartwatches.
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