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Tick Tock Tech

Ready for a new twist on the wrist? These smart watches offer much more than just another pretty face.
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

I'm as enthusiastic about fine watches as any man. Show me a luxury timepiece, its mechanical movement lovingly carved from beechwood-aged adamantium by 200-year-old Swiss craftsmen, and I am suitably agog. Yet a quiet, insistent voice echoes in the dim recesses of my mind, asking, "What can it do that an ordinary watch can't?" (That voice sounds a lot like my wife's, strangely enough.) The answer, of course, which I would never speak aloud in her presence, is that a watch that costs as much as a car will incite envy in lesser testosterone-based mortals, helping me stand that much taller, and feel a lot less bald.

In reality, though, it's the watches with some distinctive technological allure that are likely to ding my credit card, and it really doesn't take much of a financial hit to acquire something indisputably cool. The price not only plummets, but the possible features (or complications, as they are called in the quality chronometry field) expand. While a separate stopwatch and a phases-of-the-moon dial are expensive additions in the analog world, digital timepieces can carry on board such conveniences as thermometers, altimeters, clinometers and navigational equipment for very little money. And they are usually more accurate.

Something in the Air
If you are a stickler for precise timekeeping, for instance, for as little as 70 bucks you can keep an electronic ear open for the atomic-clock signal broadcast from Fort Collins, Colorado. Under its own brand name, Casio (www.casio.com) offers over a dozen diverse styles with an automatic time synchronization feature, as well as nearly two dozen in its more upscale Oceanus line (www.oceanus-us.com). The Oceanus model, which runs $475, is solar-powered (room lighting is perfectly adequate to keep it charged), dual-time-enabled and handles up to five daily alarm settings.

Microsoft, no stranger to ambitious projects, took the concept further when it cobbled together a nationwide wireless network to pump information via its Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT) to timepieces made by select watchmakers. While they met with a less-than-stellar reception when launched at the end of 2003, SPOT watches have improved substantially, with slighter weight and depth, improved radio reception and increased battery life.

So what kinds of info do they beam to your wrist? For starters: time synchronization, as well as news blurbs, sports scores, stock prices and weather conditions. Another plus is a variety of watch face designs you can toggle between. But one of the more intriguing services is Outlook calendar synchronization: after you install a piece of software on your PC, the system sends reminders of your upcoming Outlook appointments to your wristwatch. You also get the option to receive brief text messages via the MSN Messenger service on your watch but, given the occasional gaps in coverage on the low-power network, I wouldn't rely on this for mission-critical communication.

Is any of this life-changing technology? Of course not, but it is a fun diversion. The watches (from Suunto, Fossil and Tissot) are appealingly masculine-looking, and prices for several models have dropped like a stone. Select SPOT watches from Fossil (www.fossil.com) are available online for just $59, with a free 12-month subscription to the basic wireless service. The Abacus Smart Watch 2006 model (www.abacuswatches.com, $179) comes with a battery charger that connects magnetically instead of clipping on, a very slick solution. As for wireless subscription plans, the basic service costs $39.95 a year, while the premium plan (which adds the Outlook calendar synchronization and MSN Messenger reception) goes for $59.95.

Watch Your Workout
While my idea of a good workout is a series of elbow bends at the local pub, even I'm impressed with the fitness features in today's watches.

Garmin's Forerunner 305 (www.garmin.com, $377) is a formidable training companion for runners, scrupulously monitoring and recording their every move so the information can be uploaded to a computer for detailed analysis, complete with charts. (I gather serious foot-pounding devotees love charts.) Despite its small size and light weight (just 2.7 ounces), the Forerunner carries a sophisticated and highly sensitive GPS receiver, which lets the unit track location and figure the distance run. The GPS capability also points toward waypoints in courses and even finds a return route to the starting point for lost runners. The 305 comes complete with a wireless heart rate monitor that straps across the chest. Unlike some monitors I've tried, this one is flexible, comfortable, and synchs up easily with the wrist unit to monitor target heart rate training and assess stress afterward. Garmin offers two accessories for indoor exercise: the Foot Pod ($100), which attaches to a running shoe, and the GSC-10 sensor ($60), for a bicycle. Each transmits performance data wirelessly to the watch when GPS readings aren't practical. Recorded data also link with the provided Training Center software (PC or Mac) along with two Web-based training systems, one of which can even display routes, using Google Maps.

Just for Swingers
In the movie Tin Cup, Kevin Costner's character insists that "sex and golf are the two things you can enjoy even if you're not good at them," but I still figure improving your performance in either arena is worth the effort. And while some women might find it arousing to fondle your Rolex, a watch that actually monitors your golf swing is probably a better bet for functionally improving your game.

The Suunto G6 looks and feels as if it's merely a comfortable watch, but housed inside it are three very sensitive accelerometers that track four key elements of your golf swing: tempo, rhythm, backswing length and speed. You wear the watch during practice, taking note of which combination of those stats gives you the best performance, and then strive to replicate that combo consistently. There's even a consistency-index readout to help track your progress. If you spring for the Suunto G6 Pro model ($499 versus $399 for the watch alone), you get a cable and Golf Manager software that lets you connect the watch to your PC and download your performance info for analysis. You can also upload information about the courses you play into the watch for easy reference as you stroll the fairway. In fact, you can dispense with a scorecard altogether, keep track of your foursome's progress right on the watch while you play, and download those results to your computer too.


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