The Moto 360 feels disappointing. The screen is more pixelated than I expected and the materials lack the weight and solidity to suggest quality. It’s not bad, and it’s probably the best feeling smartwatch on the market today, but that’s more a reflection on the weakness of the wider selection.
Let’s put it this way: it’s not a classic in the making.
The relatively poor quality of the current generation of smartwatches is one of the reasons they remain confined to a niche of early adopters despite the launch of numerous models and falling prices this year.
Predictions that smartwatches would be the Christmas gift of 2014 were premature. There’s no sign on the British High Street that these devices will be popular sellers as Christmas presents.
I went to branches of the two retailers carrying the Moto 360 in London: the network operator O2 and department store John Lewis.
The O2 store I visited had none in stock and when the staff member looked up if they were available at other stores, he told me: “There’s one at another London branch and one in Stratford [on the outskirts of London]. But they won’t be able to show them to you. Those ones are just for sale, they can’t take them out of the box.”
If this customer service advisor is to be believed, O2 apparently has two units of the Moto 360 available in London – a city of 8 million people – neither of which they’re allowed to demonstrate. That’s unlikely to translate to many Moto 360s being unwrapped on Christmas day.
John Lewis provided an interesting experience. The Oxford Street branch is a hugely popular Christmas shopping destination and boasts one of the company’s largest electronics showrooms. When I visited in early December, it was buzzing with shoppers poking at laptops, tablets, digital cameras and TVs.
Smartwatches, however, were nowhere to be seen. Apple, Samsung and HP had dedicated zones showing all their wares, each of them well stocked with live demo units and knowledgeable staff, but all focused on mobile devices other than smartwatches.
I asked about the Moto 360 and was taken off to the far side of the electronics zone where, in the bottom of a locked cabinet, on the lowest shelf, two units were hidden away.
Neither of them was boxed or displayed in any way and one of them had a tatty paper sticker on the back.
The assistant seemed unsure of their functions, but he flipped through a few screens and let me wear one of them. Unfortunately mine seemed locked – neither of us could get it to move past the screen where you customise your watch face.
His one was showing the standard Android Wear demo, which shows off a few of the key features. “We have a rep who comes in on Saturdays. If you come back then, he might be able to tell you more about it.”
“Do you sell many?” I asked him.
“Oh, yeah,” he told me, not sounding very convinced. “Probably one or two a day.” I’m not sure he believed himself either.
Aside from the overriding feeling that smartwatches are set to remain niche toys for the near future, certainly until the Apple Watch goes on sale, I was left with a few impressions:
- The retail experience is paramount. The Moto 360 looked very different in real life to the media I’ve seen online. Without any attempt to show it in context, or market it as a luxury item, seeing it in a shop felt like a disappointment. My gut feeling is that these need to be sold like watches and jewellery, not consumer electronics.
- Materials override functions in most people’s minds. In the context of watches, weight is not necessarily a bad thing. When I held the Moto 360 next to an Omega, it immediately lacked substance. I’m conscious, of course, that there are many orders of magnitude of price difference between these brands. However, it is also worth bearing in mind that many of the potential early purchasers of smartwatches will be using big, metal Swiss timepieces as their benchmarks. This isn’t about being better than Samsung, it’s about being an acceptable watch replacement in a wardrobe that might include Rolex, Omegas, Breitlings and the like.
- This is a nascent experience which needs demoing to be understood. Smartwatches rely on connection to smartphones for many of their functions and at the moment the in-store experience just feels like holding an odd, slightly pointless small screen on a strap. If more was done to demo them in context, and to show individual customers what they could do once connected to their own smartphones, they might make more sense.
These are just initial thoughts, I need to spend more time living with a smartwatch day-to-day to reach a conclusion. However, I can’t get past the feeling that, like so many digital products, these early generations are best avoided and it will take longer than expected for devices worthy of the consumer mainstream to emerge. The playing field, once again, is wide open for Apple to redefine what the market expects.