The 12 pros and cons of a cellular smartwatch

Samsung Gear 2 variant would be a standalone smartwatch, according to reports

Samsung is reportedly working on a variant of its Gear 2 smartwatch that works over cellular networks and doesn't require a Bluetooth or other connection to a smartphone.

The Korea Herald reported this week that Samsung and wireless carrier SK Telecom of South Korea are working together on the project, according to unnamed sources. Initially, the new device would be sold in South Korea but could eventually be sold globally.

Samsung is reported to be working on a standalone version of its Galaxy Gear 2 smartwatch that doesn't require connection to a smartphone.

SK Telecom would release the new smartwatch with a USIM (Universal Subscriber Identity Module) for use on various cellular networks.

The concept of a cellular-connected smartwatch isn't new, and a few startups showed prototypes of such devices, including the Neptune Pine smartwatch, at International CES in January.

In 2009, LG Electronics created the Watch Phone to function over 3G cellular. LG's device had a camera and 1.4-in. display, which could be used for voice and video calls. It was also priced at more than $800.

Given that Samsung is expected to create a similar standalone smartwatch device and the recent introduction of developer software from Google and Samsung, as well as smartwatches and smartwatch upgrades that connect to smartphones via Bluetooth from prominent vendors like Motorola and LG, it's worth pondering the many pros and cons of a cellular smartwatch.

The pros of a standalone smartwatch

1. You can get quick access to many functions that would otherwise require a connection to a smartphone. This avoids digging into a pocket or purse for the smartphone once you get a notification, either on a Bluetooth-connected smartwatch or by hearing a tone on the smartphone, of an email or a call. Studies show that users check a smartphone dozens of times a day, and a quick glance at a watch would be more convenient.

Professionals, including stockbrokers and doctors, have told vendors they want something like a smartwatch for quick notifications on the movement of a stock price or the change in a patient's condition.

This notification capability with a standalone smartwatch isn't entirely different than a Bluetooth-connected smartwatch, except that the standalone device offers the promise of getting or sending quite a lot more information that might mean not having to use or carry the smartphone much at all.

2. Depending on the size of the display, you could see plenty of information on a standalone smartwatch. The Neptune Pine, which startup Neptune is building with funds from Kickstarter, has a very large (for a smartwatch) 2.4-in. display with cellular, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections, which makes it large enough to run most Android apps. Conceivably, a standalone Gear 2 could make it possible to search an Internet browser on your wrist, which might work for viewing YouTube videos, if not for reading stories on the New York Times site. The same applies to text messages and emails, the latter which might be readable, at least the subject line and sender.

3. With a speaker and microphone in the Gear 2 and other standalone devices, you could make voice calls. The Gear 2 will also have a camera, which opens up the realm of the "Dick Tracy" watch, where video calling is possible.

4. Because of the cellular connection, a standalone smartwatch would have an Internet connection allowing connections to virtually any server in the world. That means a vendor could sell services in the same way that Amazon sells services to Kindle tablets, according to Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. This kind of value-add might be an ideal ecosystem for Google if it wanted to give more widespread connectivity to its coming universe of Android Wear watches from Motorola, LG and others to, say, Nest thermostats and other devices in a home or business far away.

5. It would be cool to have one. All the big vendors are hoping that early tech adopters get onboard with wearables. There are already more than 100 different styles of sport bands and smartwatches on the market, with nearly all paired with a smartphone via Bluetooth. Selling less-expensive sports bands that monitor your health is one way that retailers want to lure users into higher uses, and adding cellular could have some appeal.

6. It helps Samsung. At Samsung, there is a penchant for building "one of everything," which is possible because Samsung is a huge company and also makes displays, processors and many of the parts needed for consumer electronics. Samsung is likely to make a cellular-connected smartwatch partly because it can, and that puts pressure on its less capable competitors to match its efforts, analysts said.

"I am not sure a standalone smartwatch will help Samsung in the battle, but it certainly follows their approach to enter any market," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Kantar WorldPanel. "It's their 'no bullet will be spared' approach, to follow that battle analogy."

The cons

1. Hardware costs might be the biggest worry for users of a standalone smartwatch with all the bells and whistles of something like an LG Watch Phone, initially listed at $800. That price is more than a high-end unlocked smartphone costs today just for the hardware. In fact, that's more than the cost of a Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone and the original Bluetooth-connected Galaxy Gear smartwatch for $300. AT&T on Thursday said it will cut $50 off the $299 price for the Bluetooth-connected Gear 2 for a limited time when a customer also buys a Galaxy S5 smartphone for $200 plus contract.

2. Cellular service costs could be the deal breaker. Today, both AT&T and Verizon Wireless offer shared data plans that allow buying a bucket of data for use on as many as 10 devices. That approach could be applied to a standalone smartwatch, conceivably, but then users might also have to pay for a monthly service cost for the device (maybe $10 or more a month per device) and a separate voice plan in addition to the voice plan on a smartphone.

AT&T and Verizon wouldn't comment on how a standalone smartwatch might be handled under their current sharing and voice plans. Paying for cellular service on both a smartphone and a standalone smartwatch might force users to choose one or the other.

"I'm unlikely to give up my smartphone, since it has more capability and is a general purpose communications device and Web device with apps, and has a bigger screen than a device I wear on my wrist," Gold said. "Will this standalone device be seen as a duplication and therefore not necessary? "

3. A cellular-connected smartwatch raises many questions about network connections. "Will a device on my wrist actually be able to adequately connect to the network?" Gold asked. "Building good radios is hard and takes up room in a device with chips and antennas. So it's not a slam dunk."

4. Battery life could be a bigger challenge than any other hardware concern. With the cellular radios and antennas in a standalone smartwatch, a bigger battery would be needed. Wearers of conventional wristwatches expect their batteries to last for years, and even a few days with a Bluetooth-connected smartwatch seems too frequent for many. Daily charges on a standalone smartwatch might be the same as with what we've come to expect with a smartphone, but some users will probably balk. The Gear 2 without cellular has a 300 mAh battery, which is tiny compared to many smartphones, which are expected to last three days with requiring a charge, based on average usage.

5. Given the need for a larger battery in a standalone smartwatch, more room for antennas and cellular radio chips, and the need to have a screen that is big enough to support videoconferencing and browsing, it is hard to believe that the Gear 2 would be large enough. The Gear 2 specs for a Bluetooth connection to a Samsung Android smartphone, as released by Samsung, show a 1.6-in. display and a 2.4-ounce overall weight. At that size and weight, it is already too large for the wrists of many people, according to analysts who have surveyed potential users.

6. Size and weight are one thing, and both point to, perhaps, the ultimate question about styling. Since many people compare smartwatches to wristwatches and therefore jewelry, the styling question could be paramount. Most female customers will have to decide, "Can I wear this?" the same way they would evaluate a bracelet, giving more attention to styling than they ever gave to a smartphone, which can be buried in a purse or pocket out of view.

Whether the Gear 2 ever lands in the U.S. as a cellular device is unknown. Samsung isn't talking, officially, at least.

"Some wearable devices will break the cord from phones and tablets, but I think that there are still many hurdles for that to happen, like impact on design and battery life," said Milanesi. "Also, users will need to worry about the cost for yet another connected device."

This article, The 12 pros and cons of a cellular smartwatch, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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