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When I first spotted the Omate TrueSmart—a smart watch that doesn’t need to connect to a smartphone—I was, to put it politely, skeptical. With its own wireless data capabilities, a fully functional Android operating system, 1.5-inch touch screen, GPS, and dual-core processor, the device is basically a tiny smartphone with a wrist strap. I figured it would be overloaded and unusable, as well as overly expensive, since it requires its own data plan to take advantage of all its functions.

Despite my skepticism, I’m a sucker for smart watches, and I hope that eventually someone—Google, Apple, or a tiny company I’ve never heard of—will get one right (see “So Far Smart Watches Are Pretty Dumb”). The crowd is certainly on Omate’s side: in September, the device received over $1 million in funds from thousands of backers on Kickstarter. So while I was dubious, I remained hopeful that Omate could have figured it out with the TrueSmart.

This optimism was hard to maintain. My eyebrows rose when I took my “beta” version of the TrueSmart out of its plastic case and saw that it came packed with a tiny screwdriver. Apparently, that’s the only way to open the little slot on the side so you can slip in a micro SIM card, which you need to make calls and access a mobile data network from the TrueSmart. It’s also required for cracking open the back of the watch to add a microSD card to increase memory capacity. The gadget, which is just starting to ship, costs $249 or $299 depending on its memory and storage capacity. In the U.S., you can use a micro SIM from AT&T or T-Mobile.

After struggling to insert my T-Mobile SIM and a microSD card (and losing a few miniature screws in the process—fortunately it comes with extras), I strapped the watch to my wrist and turned it on. Its 1.5-inch display glowed and buzzed to life, flashing the Omate TrueSmart logo.

Despite its diminutive size, the TrueSmart was surprisingly simple to navigate. It comes with two different interfaces: an Android one and an Omate creation that looked pretty but often seemed to stutter and quit. I stuck to the Android version, and had no problem flicking through apps (it came preloaded with several, including Instagram and Twitter), tapping on alerts and updates, or swiping through photos. The display was bright enough that I could easily use the watch inside or out, even on a sunny day.

In addition to its touch display, the TrueSmart has two buttons on its right side. The top one turns it on and off and puts it to sleep, while the bottom brings you back to the home screen or, if you hold it down, lets you scroll through all your open apps.

Not infrequently, I tapped an app, or selected a setting, I hadn’t meant to choose. But when I did hit the right buttons, there were some pleasant surprises. While the display made reading anything longer than a few sentences a chore, it was excellent for viewing Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram updates.

I also liked watching YouTube videos on the TrueSmart. They streamed well and sounded decent through a small speaker on the bottom edge of the watch’s frame. It was squint-inducing at first, but after a little while I got used to the itty-bitty display.

Though I’ve never had a burning desire to make calls from my wrist, I diligently tested this feature. Calls sounded decent, though my intrepid co-tester (let’s just call her “Mom”) said there was sometimes an echo on her end. I did feel extremely self-conscious, and I probably wouldn’t want to make a call unless I was by myself.

There are other input options, however. TrueSmart is the first smart watch I’ve tried that includes a virtual keyboard—it includes Fleksy, which is meant to be extremely good at figuring out what you’re trying to type even if your fingers miss. After using Fleksy over the course of an afternoon I found it surprisingly fast and accurate for typing on such a tiny screen.

There were some problems, though. Fleksy’s tiny keyboard takes up most of the display when you’re typing, making it difficult to see the message or status update you’re creating. And typing usernames and passwords was often excruciating, since I often typed the letter right next to the one I actually wanted to hit.

The watch comes with its own app store, OStore, which had a handful of developer-made apps in it, including OWatchON, which turns on the watch’s face when you shake your arm, and a smart-watch version of the music app Spotify. A few more trickled in as I was testing the device.

Though the TrueSmart was touted as the first smart watch to come with the Google Play app store, the device I received wasn’t. An update sent to Omate’s Kickstarter backers in October indicated that the company was still working with Google on this. Omate CEO Laurent Le Pen advised me that unlocking the device would allow it to automatically surface over a dozen Google apps (the code for this is shared on his Google+ page); I did so after several days and it resulted in a bit more fun but a lot more problems.

Unlocking the watch added the Google Play store, as well as a slew of apps including Google Maps, Gmail, and YouTube. Frustratingly, the unlocking process seemed to upset the TrueSmart. And the Google Play app crashed every time I tried to use it, although a firmware update that arrived as I wrapped up my testing seemed to solve that problem.

It is possible to use the TrueSmart with a smartphone, but that didn’t go too well, either. This requires an app be installed on both the smartphone and the TrueSmart, and when I tested the TrueSmart, the smartphone piece was not yet publicly available. Omate sent me a version of each app to use, but they never worked properly together. A few times, the watch alerted me to calls and texts on my connected Android phone. Mostly, though, it sat idle while the smartphone rang. A few times, I tried rejecting or accepting an incoming call to the smartphone from the watch, but the smartphone just kept ringing.

The camera is a fun idea, but not very useful. It’s located on the right side of the watch, where it protrudes from between the power/sleep and home buttons. I took a number of shots and found it really difficult to focus on what I wanted to capture, whether it was snow-covered trees in Lake Tahoe or my fiancé making unattractive faces in the kitchen. So unless you’re extremely flexible, you can forget about snapping any selfies with this thing strapped to your arm.

The watch’s battery life also wasn’t good—a problem since you wear a watch all day. With heavy usage I eked out almost five hours; Omate says it should give users 100 hours of standby time, or 240 minutes of talk time (a strange metric for a watch, unless you’re Dick Tracy).

A much bigger problem, however, was with the hardware itself. As part of my test, I took the TrueSmart on a weekend getaway to Lake Tahoe. It had no problem getting cold and snow-covered while out snowshoeing. But then I noticed it shutting down a number of times, seemingly for no reason.

After checking its settings and making sure I wasn’t inadvertently pressing the power button to turn it off myself, I realized the battery case was barely hanging on to the back of the watch—a loose fit could easily disconnect the battery. I tried to tighten the case many times, but couldn’t get all the screws to catch. Eventually, I solved the problem by removing a rubbery gasket that sat between the watch and the rear door and using a few new screws.

The TrueSmart has some intriguing ideas that I’d expect to see refined and eventually copied by competitors, such as its stand-alone communication capabilities. Right now, though, it’s just not up to snuff for all but the most curious app developers.

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Credit: Photograph by Rachel Metz | MIT Technology Review

Tagged: Computing, Communications, Mobile, Android, wearable technology, smart watch

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