June 13, 2006 1:49 PM PDT

Microsoft watch keeps up with the times

Last year, Microsoft spent a lot of money launching its MSN Direct wireless service, which broadcasts to a line of first-generation smart watches from Fossil, Suunto and Swatch.

The watches employed Microsoft's Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT), and while they got a lot of press and offered some intriguing features, they didn't do well in the marketplace. Part of the problem was they were big and clunky-looking (read: ultrageeky). Also, at launch, you had to pay an additional $60 a year for the MSN Direct service, which isn't all that much, but when you already have a cell phone bill and a host of other bills to pay, who needs another expense?

For round two of SPOT--call it version 2006--Microsoft and Fossil have more quietly released a new line of $179 smart watches that addresses some deficiencies in the first-generation models' shortcomings. The line is simply called Abacus Smart Watch 2006, and for our review we tested the model with the canvas-style green watchband. However, several other models are available, including ones that offer leather and, for the first time, metal bands.

Abacus Smart Watch
Credit: Microsoft
Abacus Smart Watch

For starters, Abacus Smart Watch 2006 is 2 millimeters thinner than the slimmest first-generation smart watch, putting it in the same size range as your average sports watch. In other words, it's a little big but no longer gargantuan. The watchband itself, which has a receiving antenna built into it (information is delivered via FM radio signals), was stiff at first but loosened up over time, making the watch more comfortable and easier to get on and off than Fossil's earlier smart watches. We tried one of the models with a metal band, and it too was fairly comfortable and featured a simple system for taking out links to shorten the band.

This generation of smart watches comes with a free year of MSN Direct Smart Plan service, so you don't have to worry about shelling out any extra dough--at first, anyway. When you subscribe to MSN Direct, you sign up for a variety of channels. You then automatically receive news abstracts, which basically consist of a headline and a summary sentence. Current selections include general news; reports on business, technology and sports; and up-to-the-minute weather updates.

Putting on the best face
In addition, Microsoft has added sports scores from ESPN, stock quotes, the word of the day, this day in history, horoscopes, movie listings, quotes of the day, and a traffic channel (in beta as of this writing). By doubling the watch's memory over last year's models, Microsoft has eliminated another big gripe: Now you can subscribe to almost all the channels you want without running out of memory.

The usefulness of any of the information delivered to the watch is debatable, especially as cell phones offer easier and quicker access to the Internet. But we continue to like how you can customize the watch face. And with the increased memory, these 2006 models allow you to upload just about as many watch faces as you want (six are preloaded and several others can be downloaded from the Watch Face channel). If you're a Microsoft Outlook user, we recommend paying the extra $20 to subscribe to Smart Plan Plus, which sets up your watch to receive two days' worth of Outlook Calendar appointments and one-way text messages via MSN Messenger.

The watches' interface hasn't changed from that of last year's models. Getting accustomed to it takes a few days, and you can end up toggling through a lot of features if you hit the wrong button, but in all, it's pretty straightforward. Integration with Outlook Calendar was also good. However, sometimes the calendar entries weren't automatically sent to the watch, as they're supposed to be. Occasionally, we had to click the watch icon in the Outlook toolbar to manually sync Outlook with the watch. Instant messages are still sluggish, taking several minutes to arrive.

As for MSN Direct, it seems to have improved a bit, but you're still limited to major metropolitan areas around the United States, with some coverage in the 'burbs, but nothing in the boonies. That said, Web setup was fairly simple, and it's easy to instruct the watch to pick up service in another city when you roam outside your local area. For instance, if you travel from New York to Las Vegas, the watch automatically adjusts its time, and you'll start getting local weather and traffic reports.

Battery life has gotten better too. Instead of having to recharge every three to four days, we were able to go up to six days without juicing up. We also really liked the new charger, which features a magnetic connector that's really easy to hook up to the watch (you can recharge via either the included power adapter or the USB port on your PC). We wish this type of charger were available with more products, though we suspect more companies will take a look at it now that Apple has gone the magnetic route with the power cord in its new notebooks.

In the final analysis, Microsoft and Fossil have made some significant improvements in their next-generation smart watches. While there may not be anything drastically new here, such as a color watch face or some irresistible channel, owners of first-generation smart watches will certainly wish they'd waited.

To those of you whose interest in the technology was piqued by the onslaught of launch ads but didn't bite, we can say only that the Abacus Smart Watch 2006 is an attractively styled watch that has some decent gadget appeal. It may still be a little expensive at $179 ($149 sounds better), but at least you don't have to pay anything extra for the first year of service.

Unfortunately, we can't guarantee Microsoft will continue investing in MSN Direct and the SPOT platform forever, especially if sales remain lackluster. But the company has deep pockets, and it seems determined to improve the service in the short term and potentially offer new SPOT-enabled devices in the future.

David Carnoy is executive editor of CNET Reviews.

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watch, Smart Personal Objects Technology, first-generation, MSN, channel

 

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