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Old 03-01-2004, 06:30 PM
Jason Dunn
Executive Editor
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Join Date: Aug 2006
Posts: 29,160
Default Got The Time? The SPOT Watch Review

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Product Category: Watch
Manufacturer: Fossil
Where to Buy: Amazon [Affiliate]
Price: $129.99 USD
Specifications: 1.8"L x 1.8"W x .5"D, three days of battery life, black PVC strap, grayscale screen.

Pros:
  • SPOT concept is fantastic;
  • Large display, easy to see;
  • Decent access to a variety of information sources;
  • Impressive battery life.
Cons:
  • Not very comfortable as a watch;
  • Buttons require too much force;
  • Functions may be better performed by other devices that you carry.
Summary:
The Fossil Abacus SPOT watch is an interesting concept, but for my needs, a failed execution. The idea of a device that actively gets pushed data over FM radio frequencies is compelling, because it allows for scenarios that are much smoother than using a Pocket PC or Smartphone and GPRS/1xRTT. But is it compelling enough to make it worth carrying another device with you? That depends on your needs.

Read on for the full review!


This is a different style of review - it's a chronologically-based review, structurally similar to a blog (only it's a reverse of the reverse chronological order most blogs follow...if you followed that). The photos were taken at the end, just prior to publication, but everything else is "real time". This means that if I wrote something incorrect in an earlier entry, I didn't go back and change it - I made a note of what I learnt in a later entry. I thought this style of review would be appropriate for a device like this, since it's based on discovery of features over time. Let me know if you like this style of review, and we might do more of them in the future. For the literary-minded among you, yes, I'm aware that there are some issues of tense with this review. ;-)

Jan. 29th, 11:50 PM – I just got home from a music practice, and look what’s waiting for me! A Fossil SPOT watch (the ABACUS from Fossil) – very cool. I was told by the PR firm that sent it to me that I should have received it by now, but it turns out that good ol’ Canadian customs stopped it and kept it for a few days, probably trying to figure out what the heck it was. ;-) I quickly opened up the box, then spent several minutes struggling with the watch band. Why the heck is this thing so difficult to open and expand? Now I may be slightly “watch impaired” because I haven’t worn one for over five years, but somehow this watch strap seems like it requires too much of a fight to get open and adjusted. Oh well, I'll fiddle with it tomorrow.

Jan. 30th, 9:11 AM – Ok, it’s time to get this puppy working! According to the Quick Start guide, it should already be charged…but it’s not. Well, it probably died while waiting in customs, so I’ll just put it on the charger and see what happens. Isn’t that strange – I’ve plugged in the base station to power, put the watch on the charger (facing the right way), and nothing is happening. There’s no charge indicator, any light indicating I have a solid connection, or what the watch is even functional in any way. I’ll leave it on the charging cradle for a few hours and see what happens – I wonder if I have a defective watch? You’d think that there’d be a light somewhere on the base station or watch to indicate that it was charging.

Jan 30th, 10:08 AM – Aha! The watch just beeped at me, so I picked it up off the charging cradle and I can see a lightning bolt, which is the charge indicator it seems. Now it’s beeping at me that it has 10% power, which is a critical battery level. Back onto the cradle it goes! I think that’s very poor user interface design – there should be some sort of indication that the watch is receiving a charge.

Jan 30th, 11:45 AM – The watch keeps beeping every hour or so, and I’m not really sure why. An hourly chime? As much as I don’t like the lack of charge indicator, the passive charging mechanism is very cool. No cumbersome port to try and jam the watch into – just put it on the stand and leave it there. Smart!

Jan 30th, 4:00 PM – Yes, it’s definitely an hourly chime. I’m not sure if I should take it off the charging cradle yet, because I don’t want to mess up the charge. Oh what the heck, why not. Ok, so there’s no obvious battery indicator, which probably makes sense. The average person probably only cares when they need to charge it not, that it has a 90% charge. There are three buttons on the right-hand side: the top and bottom buttons cycle through the different watch faces. There are six in total, and inverted versions of each, for a total of twelve watch faces. The big middle button on the right side seems to have functionality based on the watch face loaded – on some, it just beeps and nothing happens, and on other watch faces that show the hours and minutes only, pushing the button will bring up a seconds display and the date.

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Figure 1: The default watch face I'm using.

I should mention the display. It's like using DOS. This is exactly what I was expecting, but let's face it, the low resolution, grayscale thing is old school. I feel like I'm using a Palm V. :roll: I absolutely understand why they had to do this - a high-resolution colour screen would give you perhaps 60 minutes of battery life. Regardless, I haven't used a display this archaic since the mid '90s.

On the left side of the watch, the top button is the backlight – it looks like it would be fairly strong in low light, but this isn’t a PDA backlight, that’s for sure! The button on the lower left is the menu button – it cycles through Face, Time, Register, Messages, and Calendar. Those options really sum up what the SPOT watch is for. The watch is telling me to go to the MSN Direct site , so off I go.

First I log in with my passport, and now it’s asking me for the watch ID, which is conveniently located on the screen of the watch. After that, it takes me to a location page, which has automatically filled in the correct location. That’s good news! I was afraid it wasn’t going to work here, since technically the service hasn’t been launched in Canada. Now it’s showing me a coverage map – impressive!

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Figure 2: It’s showing me the coverage area, which includes Calgary and quite a large distance around it, probably 30 minutes of travel by car outside the city limits. Nice!

There’s some text below the image that mentions the coverage area:

Quote: "As of October 2003, the areas covered by the FM Sub-carrier network include the top one hundred (100) U.S. Metropolitan Transit Areas (MTAs). These areas may be increased or decreased from time to time. Coverage areas are affected by reception limitations of the FM network as well as other factors, which may affect the ability to receive the FM signal. The information provided on coverage area maps is not a guarantee of service availability.”


Now it comes to the time to pay. My choices are $14.95 CND per month, or $99 CND per year. The yearly option is 50% less than paying monthly, so that’s obviously the way to go. Is $99 a good price? It’s really too early for me to tell if it’s worth the yearly fee – we’ll see. Credit info follows, and my credit card number is…nah, I’d better not put that up here. ;-) There’s a 5000 word terms of service agreement that I just can’t force myself to read through. After accepting, I’m taken to a page that tells me everything is activated, and now I can personalize the service. Now here comes the fun part!

It’s smart enough to figure out that if I’m in Calgary, I want Calgary weather. Good. It delivers today’s high/low temperature by default, along with a three-day forecast, and I have the option to add on a UV index, Wind Chill/Direction, Barometric Pressure, Humidity, and Sunrise/Sunset. I want it all! I’m travelling to Seattle in a few weeks, so I’ll add that city, and I’ll also add St. Petersburg, Russia, so I know what the weather is like when I talk to my workmates at Spb Software House.

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Figure 3: The local weather in Calgary.

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Figure 4: How windy is it outside? Your watch can now tell you.

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Figure 5: The high/low temperature for today. There's also a screen that shows a three-day forecast, another that shows the UV index rating, and another that shows the barometric pressure. Very thorough for the weather hounds among us (my wife is one).

Next, I have the option for Calendar appointments. Rather than explaining the whole option, I’ll let this graphic do the talking:

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Figure 6: The Calendar sync screen.

The MSN Direct interface also allows you to remove features you don’t need. Since I don’t own any stocks that haven’t already been de-listed (damn you crappy tech stocks of 2001!), I’ll remove this. There’s an option to receive a new watch face every month, which is cool, so I’ve added that. Let’s see, what else…aha, news! I like being up to date when things happen, so I’ll want to dive into this section. Ok, adding news, adding news….oh, there’s a limit of 10 news sources. Ok, so now I have to be more selective. I noticed that the defaults were things like Associated Press Business, Associated Press News, Associated Press International…and not MSNBC. See? Microsoft isn’t a monopoly about everything! ;-) There’s also an option for breaking news, so I’ll check that – I want to know instantly the next time Ben and Jen break up!

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Figure 7: Configuring the news I want to come to my watch.

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Figure 8: The messages explanation is a little dense – I’m not sure I understand it completely, so perhaps that means I’m a little dense. I’ll check the box and see what happens.

Hey look, my watch just told me it’s activated! Not bad at all – that was less than 30 minutes. Impressive!

The last channel is the Glance channel – this controls what information I’ll see when I glance down at the watch, because it will scroll it by on its own…which will interfere with the time display I’d think.

Jan 30th, 5:07 PM – I asked a friend to send me a message, and the option wasn’t showing up in his version of Messenger, so I don’t think it’s compatible with Messenger 4.7. Not surprising – the entire Windows Messenger/MSN Messenger versioning is a complete debacle anyway. :roll: Another friend had MSN Messenger 6.1 installed, and he was able to send me a message…but I’m still waiting for it. Aha! It just came in at 5:09 PM, so roughly two minutes. Not bad at all! A news flash came in at the same moment, and it’s not really obvious how to switch between them, but I guess the manual method will have to do.

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Figure 9: A message sent by a friend. Notice how big the font is, and how little text can fit on the screen at one time - only eight characters. It makes for some rather nonsensical messages on first glance. I would have preferred to see the first display of the message not waste space on the time/date stamp, and have the FROM name in a much smaller font. Actually, everything should be in a smaller font on this watch...

Note to MSN Direct: in Canada, we use something called “Celsius” for measuring temperature. If the system is smart enough to know I’m in Calgary by looking at my Passport preferences, why can’t it figure out what my weather should be in Metric measurements? After poking around in the settings for a minute I found the function to switch it to Metric, so the problem is solved, but that should be automatic.

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Figure 10: There are two choices for transitions on the watch (Cross Fade and Flash Fade), and this is an example of the Cross Fade in action. Not exactly smooth, but it works.

I find it irritating that when you view a message or news item, it doesn’t seem to go back to the “home” screen after a certain period of time. It just sits at the message until you force your way through the menu back to the clock. In fact, the design of this seems to be focused on having no “home” screen – rather, it stays on whatever you last were looking at. That seems illogical somehow, because what possible reason would there be for me to stare at the same message multiple times a day?

The “watch face of the month” I requested just came in, and it was horrifically ugly 8O , so when it asked “Keep? Yes/No”, I deleted it right away. That’s a nice touch.

Jan 31st, 9:02 AM – Last night before going to bed I checked the battery level: 96%. This morning, I checked it again, and it’s at 95%. That seems almost too impressive, but if that’s accurate then I’m very impressed with the battery life. Even more so when I consider how much I used the watch yesterday to receive a great deal of messages.

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Figure 11: A sample watch face.

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Figure 12: A sample watch face.

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Figure 13: A sample watch face.

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Figure 14: A sample watch face.

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Figure 15: A sample watch face.

Jan 31st, 4:45 PM – I now remember why I don’t wear watches. Whenever I start to get even a little bit physically overheated, the watch strap irritates the heck out of my arm, and off it goes. I was at a meeting this morning near a fireplace, and I happened to be wearing a sweater, so I was toasty warm in no time, and the watch strap was driving me crazy.

One thing I don’t like all that much is the buttons on the watch. Like many computer users, I have reoccurring RSI issues, and repetitive short muscle motions cause me discomfort. The buttons on the Fossil Abacus take too much force to press in for my comfort, and my right arm felt a little sore after spending several minutes going through the functions on the watch. I’d like to see a different button design, perhaps one based on touch-sensitive buttons.

Jan 31st, 8:10 PM – It seems that not all MSN Messenger clients support the “Send to Watch” functionality. A friend in Italy uses the Italian version of MSN Messenger, version 6.0, and he doesn’t have the option to send a message to my watch. I think others ran into this issue too, because when I turned on my mobile phone I had six SMS messages – which tells me that that people either missed the Watch option when they were looking at the options, or they didn’t have it. Confusion like that won’t help this watch get off the ground, that’s for sure!

Feb 1st, 5:35 PM – I’ve been wondering why my appointments weren’t synchronizing, but I realized now that I never downloaded the Outlook add-in to make it possible. I somehow assumed that when I checked off the box and clicked “OK” it would have triggered some sort of slick ActiveX install, so I thought there was a bug in the Web page.

Feb 1st, 8:37 PM – I’ve now installed the Outlook add-in for syncing my appointments, but when I click the button on the toolbar, nothing happens. There’s no dialogue box, no pop-up window, and no indication that…oops. I forgot, I need to reboot my computer before it would work. Don’t you just hate software that asks for that? I often have five things open at once, so rebooting isn’t an option until I’m finished everything. Here are a few screen shots of the process:

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Figure 16: First you authenticate with your passport...

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Figure 17: ...then you select how you want the updates to work. Setting it at automatic is the only logical choice, isn't it?

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Figure 18: This is the final step where it tells me 20 appointments have been uploaded. I believe it sends out six days worth of appointments, though I'm sure there are limits to the total number. Perhaps it's the next 20 appointments, regardless of date?

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Figure 19: An example of what an appointment reminder looks like.

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Figure 20: The calendar month view. Useful for finding out what day of the week a certain day is, but not much else - there's no availability data, which isn't surpsing given the low resolution of the display.

I’m not completely sold on the news feed functionality. It gives you the headline and one to two sentences, which is enough to give you only the most basic bits of info about the story. For some stories, that’s enough – it covers the who/what/where/when, but rarely the why. In other cases, the news blurb is only enough to make you want to read more.

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Figure 21: An example of the news feed.

Feb 2nd, 3:13 PM – The battery life drain seems to have accelerated lately, I’m now down to 27%. I don’t feel I’ve been using the watch more in the last 24 hours than the first 24 hours, but I haven’t been tracking my behavior all that closely.

Feb 2nd, 10:25 PM – The watch just warned me that the battery life was down to 20%, and it switched to Low Battery Mode. I’m not sure what that means, but I imagine the radio has turned off now. I guess it’s time to recharge! Not bad on battery life: roughly four days and 11 hours (107 hours of battery life). When you place the watch on the charging cradle, it lights up and makes a beep when it has a solid connection for charging. That’s a nice touch – users need feedback to know if they’ve done something correctly or not.

Feb 3rd, 2:45 PM – My watch just beeped at me, and I assumed it was reminding me about an appointment I have in 15 minutes. Instead, when I looked down at the watch the screen was blank. After a few seconds, I saw a Microsoft and Fossil logo – the watch had rebooted on me! After the reboot, it looks like things are more or less wiped out. The watch was displaying 12:00 PM (thankfully it wasn’t blinking - that would just be creepy), and in looking at the settings, I have 0% signal strength. The battery level is at 98%, so it wasn’t an issue of power. It will be interesting to see how the watch “repairs” itself – if it doesn’t, I’m not sure what to do. Re-register it with the MSN Direct service? It's not like Sprite Software backups "SPOT Backup Software" just yet...

Feb 3rd, 5:50 PM – Good news! Within five minutes, my watch had the correct time from the network, and within another 30 or so minutes I had all my information back onto the watch – calendar appointments, etc. Very cool! A “self healing” device that re-syncs with the network is a brilliant idea. Someone in the Pocket PC group should take note of this. ;-)

Feb 5th, 2:20 PM – Things with the SPOT watch are now more or less “there”. I know what I can use it for, and what I can’t. One thing I find a little irritating is how news comes in under the Messages category. To me, Messages should be reserved for instant messages from people, and news should be for news. I don’t quite grasp the difference between News and Messages – I wonder if the news in the Messages category is the “Breaking News” category. Ah yes, look at the description here:

Quote: “Receive alerts about breaking news and keep current with important events! Alerts are sent to your watch as messages in the Messages channel, so you get breaking news as it unfolds.”


What does that mean exactly? That regular news is somehow delayed, and in order to get breaking news I have to subscribe to the Breaking News channel? I’m going to turn that feature off, along with a few of the hard news channels I’m subscribed too. It’s a little psychologically depressing to be getting disaster news sent to your watch on a regular basis. Maybe the Space.com channel will be happier. ;-)

I’m in the MSN Direct Web page not tweaking my options a little, and I just noticed that you can configure the way the Glance function works. So, for instance, I really only want the Weather and Calendar channels on my glance, not news, so I can adjust that. Nice!

I just took the watch off the charging stand, where I had left it for the past 24 hours. It immediately started binging at me with appointments from yesterday – why didn't they trigger yesterday? It seems as though when the watch is charging it's suspended to some degree. Although there might be a technical reason for why that is, I think it's a bad design decision. A device that you rely on for appointment reminders should always trigger those reminders, regardless of what state it's in (other than dead from lack of power of course).

Feb 6th, 9:29 AM – It was recharge time again for the watch, although this time I didn’t wait for it to tell me it was about to die. There’s a small battery icon that comes up on the screen when the battery starts to get a little low. I think it's reasonable that most people will put the cradle near their bed, and drop it on every night. It's a good scenario overall - except for travelling that is.

I’ve been thinking more about how the watch is used as message receiving conduit, and there are some flaws in the current implementation. The first one I touched on above – people on my Messenger list don’t know I have a SPOT watch, or what that means, or how to send me a message. There’s no exposure to the fact that they can send a message to my watch, unless I explicitly tell people that they can. I changed my Messenger name to Jason Dunn (right click and send a message to my SPOT watch), but then I ended up getting 10 SMS messages to my phone because people were selecting “Mobile Device” rather than watch – and some of them didn’t even have the option to send a message to the watch. Pure chaos!

The other problem is that there’s no email gateway – if I could get short email messages sent to my watch, it would be much more useful to me. I could create [email protected] and have people email that when they wanted to send a message to my watch. I do something similar with my mobile phone – I have a specific email address that forwards to my mobile SMS address (thank you Fido for having an email to SMS gateway!). Not everyone in the world uses Messenger, but if you’re on a computer, odds are you have access to email. And there are quite a few companies out there that don’t allow IM clients, so that cuts down the number of people that can reach me.

Feb 10th, 10:38 AM – As you can see, my frequency of updates have slowed, which means that this blog review is now over – the momentum is gone. Looking back on my use of the SPOT watch over the past two weeks, what do I think of it? I have mixed feelings about it to be honest. On one hand, I like the potential that I see there – many people wear watches, and there's great potential there for a "dumb" device to evolve and become more useful. The challenge I see here for Microsoft and the SPOT OEMs like Fossil and Suunuto is that another "dumb" device that people carry everywhere is also evolving: the mobile phone. You might not think that a watch and a phone are competitors, but stop and think about it: many people I know stopped wearing a watch because they started carrying a mobile phone everywhere, and their phone tells then the time.

Looking at the target market, the type of people who are likely to buy a SPOT watch, I can't help but think that these are the same people who own mobile phones and PDAs. The question then becomes, what can a SPOT watch offer these tech-savvy people that their other devices don't? How that question is answered over the next year or two will determine how well this product does. One clear advantage that the SPOT watches have is that they're something you wear, and as such, quick access is a given. For some people, being able to glance down and immediately get the time, stock info, or the weather, is an important factor to them. For myself, it's not terribly important. A SPOT watch user is someone who needs to have information, and that information would trigger an action. For instance, when I showed the SPOT watch to my uncle, an avid day-trader, he asked if it could get real-time stock quotes. There isn't that option yet, so as the services evolve for this device it may become popular in specific markets.

So the question is, will I wear the SPOT watch regularly? Probably not. For me, wearing a watch is a bit of a hassle, so the benefits have to outweigh the costs. The benefits of a SPOT watch today are things that I already get from my Smartphone and my Pocket PC. If the SPOT watch was more capable, held more data, or allowed for some form of two-way communication, it would be a more useful device for me.

Feb 22nd, 5:04 PM – One inherent truth in life is that you won't fully appreciate something until it's gone. So, as an experiment, I didn't wear the SPOT watch for a couple of weeks. Did I miss it? No. For my needs, the SPOT watch just isn't a good fit. I know of people who adore theirs, however, so it's a matter of the watch filling a need. Maybe if it would have turned me into this guy, I would have liked it even more. ;-)

Addendum: As I was wrapping up this review, with my SPOT watch sitting on the charging stand unused for many days, it beeped at me to remind me about an appointment that I had entered into Outlook perhaps an hour earlier. It was an important conference call that was set up at the last minute, and I had Outlook closed, so the reminder wouldn't have popped up. Worse, neither my Smartphone nor my Pocket PC had synched in the past hour, so the SPOT watch was the only device that was able to remind me about this call.

It clarified something for me that's been rolling around in the back of my mind since first receiving the SPOT watch: the concept of SPOT is killer, but the integration of it in a watch, for me, isn't useful. What I'd love to see is a SPOT chip set integrated into a Pocket PC or a Smartphone. On a Smartphone, imagine having a bigger, greyscale screen that functioned as a SPOT display, feeding you weather, news, and appointments. That display would always be active, and always be receiving the data over the FM radio frequencies. From what I understand, the SPOT platform is based on a small subset of .NET CF, which should mean integrating it with the Windows Mobile OS shouldn't be too difficult. The concept of SPOT is very powerful, and I hope to see this technology move out into different form factors, where it may very well have a bright future.

Special thanks to SpotStop.com for being a useful resource for me while writing this review.
 
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