The age of wearable computing has arrived. With mobile devices already in our pockets and heading to our foreheads, many companies are building on an underutilized piece of skin real estate: your wrist. The product of Italian startup I'm, the I'm Watch has the potential to be the ultimate smart watch with a unique Android UI, a hands-free call function, and the ability to display emails, Facebook messages and tweets right on your wrist. Unfortunately, the $389 timepiece suffers from a bevy of bugs, including frequent freeze-ups and inaudible calls.
As a Milan-based company, I'm is as focused on design as it is on technology. Our review sample certainly fits the bill and it's actually in the low-end Color Collection. The curved, 1.5-inch screen is surrounded by a sleek matte aluminum material, which also appears in the buckle and on two wristband hinges, both of which are emblazoned with the I'm Watch logo.
Our unit had a simple, matte black plastic band, but you can purchase the watch with a red, yellow, blue, green, white, pink or yellow band instead. The Color Series costs $389, with the titanium I'm Watch Tech Collection costing $1,049. The Jewel collection offers black or white straps to go with a yellow gold, silver, black gold, pink gold or white gold with diamond body that costs $19,990. All series have the same hardware inside so we'd opt for the Color Series.
With its sleek, 0.39-inch thick metal chassis, curved body and aluminum-accented wrist strap, the I'm Watch looks more like a colorful fashion timepiece (aka a Swatch) than a geeky gadget. However, because the screen remains off when you're not actively using it, the black screen makes an odd part of that aesthetic. We wish the I'm Watch had an option to keep the time showing, like the Sony Smartwatch does.
The 3.17-ounce I'm Watch has a power button on the right side, which also serves as a back button, wake button and emergency power off button. The device turns off its screen after a period of inactivity (15 seconds to more than 20 minutes), but you can't put it to sleep manually with a button press like you can a smartphone. The left side houses a 3.5mm jack, while there are speaker/mic grilles on either side.
Charging and Syncing Cable
While competitors such as the Martian Watch have a standard microUSB port and others such as the Sony Smart Watch have proprietary docks, the I'm Watch uses its 3.5mm headphone jack as its USB port. A bundled 3.5mm to USB cable connects the watch either to your computer or your wall outlet for charging, provided you bring your own AC adapter. Charging was fairly quick, with the entire watch juicing up in less than an hour and achieving half a charge in 20 minutes or so.
Like most Android devices, the I'm Watch can be mounted as a drive on your computer. When we connected the I'm Watch to the USB port on our PC, the wrist piece displayed a USB icon in its status bar. When we swiped down the notification drawer, we could enable the device's storage mode and it appeared as a drive letter with a little more than 3GB of free space. When mounted, we were able to copy files such as MP3s and JPEGs onto the watch's music and DCIM folders for later viewing / listening.
Set Up and Support
The I'm Watch comes in a very simple white box with a minimum of branding on it. Inside we found the watch itself, along with the charging/sync cable and an instruction manual. The instruction manual looks thick, but offers only a few quick-start steps. As a whole, even the trouble-shooting section on www.imwatch.it had very little information on how to use the watch and deal with problems. Though the site has FAQs and a troubleshooting assistant, we couldn't find real answers to most of the issues we experienced.
After powering on the watch, it asked us to select our time zone, set the time and date and turn the watch around slowly to calibrate its accelerometer for gestures. The device then asked us to pair with our smartphone, which was a truly frustrating experience.
Without an active Bluetooth connection to a smartphone, the I'm Watch can't perform most of its functions. In fact, the I'm Watch not only needs Bluetooth, it needs to pair with a phone that has Bluetooth tethering enabled so it can grab data from the cloud using the phone's Internet connection. If your phone doesn't support Bluetooth tethering or your data plan doesn't come with it, you won't be able to get any updates, install any apps, or configure the I'm Watch.
Unfortunately, even though our Droid RAZR M supports Bluetooth tethering, we were unable to tether the I'm Watch to it, because the phone is not subscribed to Verizon's $20/month hotspot plan. Though we tried a host of third-party apps that provide free Bluetooth tethering, the I'm Watch's control panel listed our RAZR M's tethering as "supported" but "disabled." When we tried again with a few phones (Samsung Galaxy S III, HTC One X and iPhone 5) that had carrier-supported tethering plans, we were able to achieve that functionality and sync our watch to the cloud.
No matter what phone we tried to pair with, the Bluetooth portion of the I'm Watch's settings menu was annoyingly unstable. On several occasions, simply tapping the Bluetooth menu button caused the screen to freeze, requiring us to hold down the power button until the system powered off and we could reboot. Performing a search for pairable devices was also deadly to system stability. When the system didn't crash and did detect our phone, we were able to pair the two by tapping on the phone's name on the watch and accepting the pairing invitation on the handset itself.
Once the two devices were connected, the I'm Watch didn't do a good job of keeping the connection active. Another annoyance occurs if you have paired the watch with more than one phone. Even if the second phone is nowhere near the I'm Watch, you must designate one phone as the Favorite in order for it send/receive data with the watch.
Hardware and OS
The I'm Watch runs on a 400-MHz, single-core IMX233 CPU with just 128MB of RAM. Because of these low-end specs, the watch runs a custom version of Android 1.6, which an I'm spokesperson told us is the best operating system for this kind of hardware. On the bright side, the I'm Watch has 4GB of internal storage, something the Sony Smart Watch does not, and a 1.5-inch, 240 x 240-pixel screen that seemed extremely bright and colorful even at less than 50 percent brightness.
I'm calls the latest version of its operating system I'm Droid 2. Though the OS has an Android heritage, it doesn't run standard Android apps and doesn't even have an Android's settings menu or desktops. When you power on the watch, the home screen shows the time, current weather and three shortcut icons to the phone dialer, email and address book, which you can change by long-pressing them. Swipe down from the top and you'll see a drawer with an audio on/off toggle, a shortcut to settings, a manual sync button and a trashcan icon, which remained grayed out throughout our testing.
Swiping to the right shows the apps menu, which comes preloaded with a number of special watch-friendly apps, including Facebook and Twitter readers, a news app, a calculator and a compass. Swiping to the left reveals shortcuts for settings, Bluetooth, call log and the watch app, which does nothing more than show ticking hands on the screen. There's no home button, though: The user must hit the back/power button as many times as necessary to return to that screen.
Call Quality Issues
The most frustrating part of the I'm Watch is its poor call quality when it makes and receives phone calls using your smartphone's dialer. Even when paired with a phone that did not have Bluetooth-tethering enabled, we were able to initiate calls using the dialer app. Once we hit the send button, the smartphone did indeed dial whatever number we had entered and, provided that the person on the other end answered, a connection was established.
However, on every call we made, the audio coming through the I'm Watch was so garbled and quiet that neither we nor our callers could make out more than a word or two here and there. Over the course of scores of calls made after pairing five different phones (Droid RAZR M, LG Lucid, iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy S III and HTC One X) and in different locations, the problem remained the same. Most sounds were simply being dropped at both ends.
Poor Bluetooth handling rather than microphone / speaker problems must be to blame, because call audio quality was just as bad when we connected a wired headset to the I'm Watch's 3.5mm jack. The speakers themselves worked perfectly when we played some sample music that was stored on the phone.
We tried everything to fix the problem, including factory resetting the I'm Watch and rolling back its OS to the prior version, but nothing helped. We asked another journalist who had received the watch to try calling our smartphone from her I'm Watch, and she experienced the same exact problems.The I'm Watch community page on Facebook is also filled with users who report that the call quality is inaudible.
It's particularly disappointing that the I'm Watch can't make usable phone calls, because the ability to use it like a Dick Tracy communicator is one of its biggest selling points. We can only hope that the company fixes this problem with a software update in the near future.
Though the I'm Watch is supposed to support SMS, we didn't see any way to receive or send SMS messages on the watch. The control panel said that every single smartphone we paired with it did not support "messages."
Apps and Sync
The I'm Watch comes preloaded with several key apps and the ability to add more via the I'market. Out of the box, the watch comes with email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, calendar, address book, alarm clock, calculator, gallery and music player apps, among others.
In order to change app settings or add / remove apps from the store, you must register for a free account at imcloud.imsmart.com. When you register, you're asked for your device's serial number, along with your name, address and date of birth. You must also create a password, while using your email address as the username. After registering, the next time your I'm Watch tries to sync to the cloud it will ask you if you want to authorize your account and, after you tap OK, you won't be asked that again unless you factory reset the phone or remove the device from your account.
As long as we remained paired to a smartphone with Bluetooth-tethering enabled, the regular cloud updates worked quite well. In the I'm Watch's settings menu, you can configure the interval for these synchronizations to be every 15, 30, 45 or 60 minutes, or you can set them to manual updates only. At any time, you can hit the sync button on the notification drawer and the watch will poll the servers for updates at that time. However, we wish the I'm Watch showed incoming emails and Facebook messages via real-time updates like our phone does.
Email, Calendar, Address Book
Using the I'm Cloud portal, we were able to configure the email client to check our Gmail account, but not our business Exchange account or home POP account, as the system only supports IMAP servers for now. At each sync, we got an alert if we had new messages in our inbox.
When we tapped on an individual email in the inbox list, the phone took a few seconds to download it, then showed us the complete text most of the time. However, when we tried to open one image-heavy email, we got an error saying "this message is too big to open."
There's no way to open attachments or respond to an email from the watch. We wish there was at least a way to flag images for follow-up.
Unfortunately, the calendar app only works with Google calendar and, in our case, it didn't work at all. Even after entering our Google account information in the calendar configuration screen on I'm Cloud, the app showed no upcoming appointments.
Provided that your phone supports it, you can automatically sync contacts from your handset to the I'm Watch. With the watch paired to an HTC One X, we were able to download the contact list in less than a minute. All we did was launch the I'm Watch's address book app, long-press in the empty black space in the app, click the import button that appeared and then confirm the import when prompted by the phone. Downloading 25 contacts took less than 30 seconds.
Social Media Apps
We configured the I'm Watch's Facebook app to check our account and watched as it downloaded several direct messages, comments and likes we received. However, the app did not show anything from our news feed and did not contain any images.
The Twitter app, on the other hand, downloaded the 20 latest tweets from friends on our feed and showed the entire text of each. Of course, there was no way to click links, reply or view images.
The I'm Watch also comes with an Instagram app, but does not yet support other social networks like Google+ or Pinterest.
I'market App Store
As of this writing, the watch's I'market app store has 27 apps, with 17 of them free and 10 costing between 0.50 and 2.50 euros; there's no option for U.S. pricing. To browse through the apps and choose which ones we wanted, we logged into I'm Cloud on our PC and and clicked the I'market icon, which showed one large screen with icons for all of the apps with the price below each (free apps have a price of 0.00). There is no way to browse the market from the watch.
We only selected free apps in our testing, but if we wanted to purchase an app, we would first have to add money to our account by purchasing 5, 10, 15, 20 or 25 euro credits using the I'mwallet section of the I'm Cloud site.
After selecting several free apps and syncing our phone, we found that the new apps still didn't appear on our watch. Instead, we had to open the I'market app on the watch and there we saw a list of newly purchased but not-yet-installed apps. When we tapped on the names of each of these apps, the watch then downloaded and installed it from the cloud.
Among the 27 apps, most were very basic, ranging from a flashlight app to one which shows the battery percentage to another which provides an audible metronome you can use while playing music. Other interesting apps included a stop watch, a game of Connect Four and a task list, which crashed when we tried to open it.
While it's not powerful enough to play videos, the I'm Watch can play locally stored MP3 files with aplomb using its I'm Player software. Though the speakers weren't particularly loud, they were more than powerful enough for us to hear the sound very well in a quiet room. The I'm Player software will even sort your songs by artist and album.
The music keeps playing in the background if you exit the app and move on to other tasks. As long as it's playing, a player icon appears in the status bar, and you can return to the player app by pulling down the notifications and tapping on the music notification.
There's also an app called I'm Music, which requires you to sign up for the company's I'm Music service that lets you "search for songs, playlists and online radios you want to store on your I'm Watch." This service normally has a 9.99 euro annual fee but is free to try through February 2013.
We signed up for an I'm Music account and found its Web-based UI extremely confusing. The service allowed us to search by keyword only and then save the random collection of results as one playlist whether we wanted all the songs or not. For example, we searched for "Beyonce" and got a list of 10 tracks, including four from Beyonce, and six from related artists like her sister Solange. We had to either save the whole list or none of it.
When we opened the I'm Music app on the watch, we saw our playlist of songs with a download button next to each. However, when we tapped the download button, the connection timed out after a few seconds so we were unable to see if we got working copies of the songs.
The I'm Watch can view locally stored photos using its I'm Gallery app. We found the sample photos of nature scenes bright and colorful. We were able to navigate between them by tapping forward and back arrows or tapping on their thumbnails on the menu page. We could also zoom in and out by hitting +/- buttons onscreen; there's no pinch-to-zoom.
Using the built-in "I'mages" app, we were able to sync the watch with the Google+ photo album of our choice, though the app configuration screen refers to it as a "Picasa" account, the old name for Google's photo service. After selecting the album and syncing our phone, the I'mages app showed a list of available JPGs with a download link next to each. Though tapping the "to download" link next to each didn't always work, a few of the images downloaded and then appeared in the gallery app. We found it much easier to copy images to the watch over USB.
News and Weather
The I'm Watch comes with both basic news and weather apps, which we were able to configure using the I'm Cloud site. With news, we selected three topic areas of interest (World, Sci / Tech and Entertainment) and then a country for each (United States). During each sync, the watch downloaded 10 fresh headlines from Google News for each section.
After launching the app itself, we could swipe between the three sections and scroll down each one's list of headlines. Unfortunately, the News app only shows the headline and source for each story (example: "Report: Taylor Swift touchy over love life jokes, accepts Michael J. Fox's apology - Fox News"). Unlike with email, there is no way to download the full text.
Using I'm Cloud, we configured the weather app to show forecasts for three different cities. Strangely, the config form has fields for City and Country for each city, but for U.S. cities, the Country field needs to be filled in with the State. So, we had to enter San Francisco as "San Francisco" and "California," not "San Francisco, U.S." After entering the cities we wanted, the current temperature and cloudiness for the top city appeared above the time on our home screen (example: 30 degrees Fahrenheit, cloudy icon, New York).
When launching the weather app, we swiped between our three cities and saw very minimal three-day forecasts for each that just showed the current conditions and then sun/cloud icons for each day, without the ability to get a more detailed forecast that includes temperature or the time of day when precipitation is expected.
There are no benchmarks for the I'm Droid 2 OS, but we don't need a synthetic number to say that performance is sluggish, laggy and crash-prone. Throughout our use, we experienced extended pauses where the system would take several seconds to respond to a command or freeze in the middle of redrawing a screen. Sometimes we had to swipe multiple times for our touches to register. This unresponsiveness was particularly acute in the phone dialer, where it sometimes failed to hang up no matter how many times we tapped the disconnect button.
On several occasions apps crashed, and on others, usually when we were dealing with the Bluetooth menu, the screen froze completely and we had to hold down the power button for several seconds to turn the system off. On other occasions we thought the I'm Watch was frozen, but it unfroze after 30 seconds or more.
Ironically, the older version of the operating system, labeled as version 0.6, seemed much smoother when we reverted to it during a factory reset. It's too bad that we couldn't stick with the version 0.6, but we had to go back to I'm Droid 2 in order to get any of the syncing features to work.
In our testing, the I'm Watch's battery life varied considerably, depending on how much we actively used it. On a day when we had it paired with our smartphone, not syncing it regularly and only activating it a few times, the watch lasted all day long. On another day where we were testing and constantly hitting the sync button and keeping the screen on, it ran out of juice after just a few hours.
Just as with many smart phones, you'll need to recharge the I'm Watch by midday if you use it a lot, but may be able to recharge it only once a day if you don't power it up too much. Even when we left the watch idle, without a connection to any phone and the screen off, it ran out of juice in less than 24 hours.
The I'm Watch is a gold, titanium or aluminum mine of unfulfilled potential. The wrist piece is absolutely stunning, the screen is bright and colorful, the speaker is loud and the preloaded apps provide useful though limited updates from your email, Twitter and Facebook accounts. If the I'm Watch were able to make audible phone calls, had smoother performance and provided more robust apps, it would justify its hefty price. We hope that, through software updates, the company will be able to fix the device's bugs. Early adopters who are willing to take the gamble that this device will eventually perform as advertised might want to take a look, but for now the I'm Watch is a waste of time.