Comparing smartwatches -- what Apple has to beat

Five new smartwatches define the current cutting edge and set the bar for Apple to beat with its rumored watch

Motorola's Moto 360 smartwatch on show at IFA 2014 in Berlin

Motorola's Moto 360 smartwatch on show at IFA 2014 in Berlin

It's been a big week for smartwatches and the next few days could be even bigger if rumors are true and Apple enters the battle for the wrist on Tuesday.

The company has been such a tremendous force in the smartphone and tablet markets that anything it does could quickly become the standard to which others are measured.

But what does Apple itself have to measure up to?

I spent time on the IFA show floor in Berlin using the new watches from Samsung, LG, Sony, Asus and Motorola and the bar Apple needs to clear is pretty low. All five models are clunky and I get the sense they're still not above the level of high-tech toys for geeks.

The software

Four of the five phones run Google's Android Wear operating system, a customized version of Android for smartwatches. It provides alerts about emails, weather, calendar items and details of flights, and there's also maps, a calculator, games and a fitness tracker.

The exception is Samsung's Gear S, which runs the Tizen operating system and has a 3G modem built in. It also has a tiny on-screen keyboard that can be used to reply to messages and can even be used to make calls. Samsung is pushing the watch as a mini phone in its own right, but that might be too much.

It's a good bet that Apple, famous for minimalist design, will tailor its smartwatch to do a small number of things very well rather than a lot of things in a mediocre fashion. It probably won't be overloading its watch with gizmos and features. An intriguing rumor is that the watch will support wireless payments, something missing from all five watches launched at IFA.

The screen

Just about all the interaction with a watch is done through the touchscreen display, so it's a shame that none of the watches here had better screens. At around 200 or 300 pixels per inch, they're noticeably less sharp than the screens on high-end smartphones, some of which have over 400 pixels per inch.

A sharper screen means greater power consumption, so it could be a conscious trade-off by designers, but this is an area that's ripe for improvement. Apple made waves with its "retina" screens in the past and it's a natural area for the company to attack competitors.

The battery

On the subject of power, most of the new phones will require charging every day or at least every other day.

With Sony's Smartwatch 3, that's via a USB port on the back of the device -- a fiddly proposal. LG had a magnetic dock with built in charging terminals but Motorola has gone for wireless charging -- a much better idea for daily charging and something that's rumored to have been adopted by Apple.

The looks

It's difficult to pass judgement on something as subjective as looks. As with conventional watches, what's handsome to one person is ugly to another. But while styling differs, there's one thing constant: all the watches here are about a centimeter thick. That's perhaps expected for a new technology and an area that will certainly improve, but one that could significantly benefit the first company to make a thin and stylish watch.

Apple's famous industrial design is perhaps the one piece of its smartwatch that is most anticipated and it would be great if the company came up with something stylish and didn't imitate a wristwatch from the past. Who said a smartwatch had to look like a wristwatch anyway? One thing's for sure: whatever Apple comes up with, it will have plenty of imitators.

The protection

On a wrist and exposed to the elements all the time, protection from water and dust is important. A gadget's resistance to dust and water is signaled by an IP rating and on smartwatches there's a big range. At IP55, the Asus Zenwatch is only resistant to a little dust and water, while Sony's Smartwatch 3 is rated to IP68, which means dust won't get inside and it can be submerged in up to a meter of water with no problem.

Getting this right isn't perhaps as difficult as miniaturization, but it is a crucial area for Apple. The launch of a smartwatch would be ruined if people complain about scratches and wear and tear after a few days.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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