In the past few months, the market for smart watches has really heated up, but so far none of the wrist pieces we've seen has offered the long-sought-after experience of placing calls directly from your wrist. Enter the Martian Watch, an analog timepiece that combines a powerful speaker/microphone combo for voice commands and calls with a small LED screen for incoming alerts. While this $299 ($249 to start) watch doesn't promise the touch screen and apps of competitors, it delivers a working Dick-Tracy-style experience while looking more like a stylish timepiece than a gadget.
Unless you examine it closely, you might mistake the Martian Watch for a typical wrist piece. The face is almost completely analog, with real, physical hour and minute hands that move around a 12-hour dial like they do on any clock built in the past 500 years. A tiny status light sits next to the number 4 on the dial while a slim 11-character LED screen lives below the dial. However, both of these indicators remain dark unless you're actively using the Martian watch's smart features.
The low-tech aesthetic carries over to the watch's sides. The right houses a crown for changing the time, a small microphone and a microUSB port, which sits unobtrusively under a port cover. A speaker sits on the bottom surface while two metallic buttons are on the left side.
The Martian Watch is available in three styles: Passport, Victory and G2G. Our review unit was the Passport style, which has a rectangular chrome-colored shape with a black face, metallic hands and a black silicone band; it also comes with a white face and black leather band or white face and white leather band. Made of stainless steel with a plastic backside, the lightweight Passport style weighs just 2.1 ounces with a leather band or 2.5 ounces with a silicon band.
The Victory style, our favorite, has a sportier look with a rounded portal for its face and a ridged band. It comes in four colors with black, white or tan faces and bands. The $249 G2G style has a more feminine design with a thinner rectangular shape, thin colorful bands and matching colorful faces; it comes in white, baby blue, light red, light green and pink.
Setting up the audio portion of the Martian Watch is as simple as pairing it with your smartphone. After holding down the top button for several seconds, the status light began flashing blue and we were able to discover the Martian Watch on our phone and tap on its name to connect. The phone's pairing code was 0000, but we never had to actually enter it, only tap OK on the phone when it prompted us to enable the connection.
After pairing, we were able to receive incoming calls, communicate with our phone's voice command software or use voice dialing to make calls, all by using the speaker and microphone on the Martian Watch. To get alerts on the watch, we had to install the Martian Watch Android app, which is available as a free download from the Google Play store. Martian said that it submitted an iOS app to Apple, and is awaiting approval.
Configuring the app was straightforward. We had the option to check enable / disable alerts for SMS messages, Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and Calendar. The app also allowed us to toggle text-to-speech support, which causes the watch to read alerts to you in addition to flashing them on its LED screen.
By pressing the bottom button on the watch, we navigated through the settings menu, which allowed us to tweak a few minor settings, enabling or disabling gesture control (for rejecting calls), wireless leash and A2DP Bluetooth, which is supposed to enable music and movie audio playback through the watch but it did not work in our case.
Here, you can also adjust the volume to one of three settings, with one the lowest and three the loudest. We found setting three loud enough to fill a room indoors and to overcome a reasonable level of background noise.
When we received an incoming call, the number displayed on the LED screen while the watch buzzed on our wrist. If the caller was in our address book, his or her name appeared in lieu of the number.
Because we had gesture control enabled, if we wanted to reject the call, all we had to do was wiggle our wrist a few times and the ringing stopped while the caller was directed to voicemail. To accept the call, we simply pressed the top button on the watch and started talking. To hang up a call, we simply hit the top button again.
Audio quality was nothing short of excellent on both ends. At volume level 3, incoming sound from our call partners was louder and more detailed than on any smartphone or smart watch we've used. Our call partners reported that our outgoing audio was equally sharp. By comparison, the I'm Watch, which also has calling ability, provided audio so garbled that neither caller could hear the other.
For better or worse, the Martian Watch's voice command feature is only as good as the voice command software on the phone you pair it with. Though, as of this writing, the iOS app isn't out yet, that didn't stop us from using the watch with Siri on an iPhone 5. After pressing the top button, we heard the familiar tone that indicates Siri is ready for voice input. We spoke into the watch numerous times, asking Siri to conduct searches, take notes or find restaurants near us. We preferred giving Siri commands that resulted in a complete audio response. When she conducted Web searches for us, we had to look at the screen for results, which largely defeats the purpose of talking into the watch.
Unfortunately, there's no way to use the Martian Watch with Android Jelly Bean's Google Voice Actions feature or Google Now, because Android does not support using these services via Bluetooth. Fortunately, most Android phones come with some kind of third-party voice command / voice dialing software. When we paired the Martian Watch with a Motorola Droid RAZR M, its top button launched Motorola Voice, that phone's own proprietary voice control software. Though it doesn't answer questions by voice like Google Now, the Motorola software does allow voice dialing, launching an app, or checking certain information such as battery status and missed calls.
On Samsung Galaxy S III, the Martian watch's top button launched S Voice, that phone's voice software, which has some additional features such as the ability to send tweets by voice, set appointments, get directions or check weather. However, we much prefer Google's Voice Actions and Google Now features, because they answer questions such as "Who is the prime minister of Japan" with a text-to-speech response. We hope Google fixes this Bluetooth issue soon.
Even though Martian doesn't officially support BlackBerry, we were able to use the Martian Watch with a BlackBerry Z10 running the new BlackBerry 10 OS. After we paired it to the phone via Bluetooth, we were able to launch and use BlackBerry 10's Voice Controls, which can send emails, initiate calls, schedule appointments, compose notes, set social media updates and search the Web. However, we were not able to launch the Z10's camera with the Martian Watch.
Windows Phone isn't supported, either, and we were unable to get our Martian Watch working with the one Windows Phone 8 handset we tried.
With the Android app installed, we were able to receive a wide variety of alerts on the watch. During any alert, the watch would buzz several times and then show the relevant text on screen. If we had text-to-speech enabled in the app, the watch would also read the alert text to us. However, we recommend disabling this feature if you're walking around in public, because the people next to you will hear the text of your private messages.
SMS texts appeared on screen, with the name or number of the sender and the first 40 characters of the messages. The text-to-speech feature also cuts off at the same point, but if you're using Siri, you can ask her to read your message to you.
Why does the watch have a limit of just 40 characters when the SMS format carries a 160-character limit? Martian Watch CEO Stanley Kinsley told us the company is concerned that users will stare at their watches and hopes the shorter text will prevent accidents. We don't agree with this logic, because looking at your watch while driving is dangerous even when you're watching just 40 characters scroll by. By setting this limit, the company is also punishing users who want this information when they aren't driving.
After connecting the Martian Watch app to our Facebook account, we got alerts for direct Facebook messages, but not for mentions, comments, likes or being tagged. Strangely, Twitter does not alert you of direct messages, only mentions. Both Facebook and Twitter alerts also cut off after 40 characters.
Email alerts are pretty much useless, because they only show the number of unread messages in your Gmail inbox. The service doesn't work with other types of accounts and it doesn't show information about individual messages. The calendar alerts successfully buzzed for events in our Google calendar.
Ever leave your phone behind in a bar or cab and then wish someone had been there to warn you? The Martian Watch as a leash feature that causes it to buzz when you walk too far away from your phone and the Bluetooth connection is lost. In our testing, this feature worked, but we had walked a good 50 feet away, well out of normal Bluetooth range, before we received the alert. You can't set the distance at which the alarm activates, as with a device such as the Hippih hipKey.
On both iOS and Android, the Martian Watch lets you shoot photos using one of its buttons. To launch the camera, we had to hit the bottom button until the Camera mode option came up and then hit the top button to launch the camera app on the phone. Unfortunately, on both platforms, every time you launch a new session, the camera app pops up and asks for permission to allow the watch to control it. So you'll still need to tap "allow" on the phone, rather than having a true hands-free experience.
Once, we had tapped allow, we were able to shoot as many photos as we wanted by simply hitting the watch's top button. If we wanted to change a setting or switch between back and front cameras, we had to do that on the phone itself. Considering that most people will want to use the Martian Watch to take self-portraits, it's a shame that it doesn't automatically change to the front-facing lens.
Martian rates the watch for two-plus hours of continuous talk time and seven days of standby time with the analog portion of the watch able to operate independently for up to 30 days without a charge. In our anecdotal experience, battery life on the Martian Watch was excellent. Even after wearing it for three days, using it both with and without Bluetooth, the watch still had at least half of its battery left. That said, if you leave it connected all the time, as most users will want to do, it will probably run out of juice sooner. By comparison, the I'm Watch lasts less than a day on a charge, the audio-less Sony Smartwatch lasts a couple of days and the very simple COOKOO Watch can run for more than nine months on its lithium battery.
Dick Tracy, Michael Knight, James Bond: you may feel like one of these characters when you strap on the Martian Watch and use it to call your friends and control your phone. Once you get past the excitement of having a watch that provides two-way audio, you'll be bothered by the limited alert system and, if you're on Android, you'll be disappointed by the inability to use Google Voice Actions. If you're looking for a watch with more robust notifications, consider the Sony Smartwatch, which lacks audio but has a lot of apps on its colorful touch screen. But if you've been waiting for a watch that can send and receive calls, the $299 Martian Watch is worth every penny.