At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2015, smartwatches were unsurprisingly a dominating area of new products from both establishes companies and ones new to the game. Garmin looks to be leading the pack with an unprecedented array of new smartwatches ranging from the top-of-the-line Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire and Epix, to the various "Vivo" products (vivofit 2, vivosmart, vivoactive) that are wearable activity tracking and notification bracelets. More on those in a bit.
An initial inspection of what was debuted in terms of smartwatches at CES 2015 doesn't actually show huge amounts of technological innovation, but rather a great focus on fitness wearables and products that people who are even remotely design conscious want to wear. One lesson that brands are learning is that wearables that merely serve as phone notification devices aren't extremely interesting. Having said that, companies are still including phone notification functions into even their most simple products. More so, whether you want a wearable device to sit next to your watch or in place of a traditional watch - companies have you covered. Garmin's line up also focuses on men as well as women. The message for me is that Garmin knows it has strength in the smartwatch market, but still has no idea what products will stick with consumers.
Having said that, Garmin is no novice to wearable devices. The company's Forerunner GPS watches have been around since before the "smartwatch" term was invented, and in many ways, they were producing connected sport watches competing with other companies who never seemed to understand that the data a watch collected (or displayed) should be shared with other devices, etc... For 2015, Garmin has improved its range, while adding more options for people who don't want to be seen wearing a bulky GPS watch. Also, they don't all have GPS features, of course.
Everyone is still chasing what the Apple Watch might mean to the market when it is released later in 2015. For me, that means the smartwatch as a product will not "mature" into an established segment that consumers fully understand until 2016 or 2017. Right now, the smartwatch market is still trying to not only establish itself, but make sense to consumers. Investors as well as budget allocators inside big companies seem to be sold on the future of the smartwatch, and so now, companies need to produce families of products that appeal to more than just niche consumers - like those interested in particular sports or the promise of activity tracking health benefits.
In the scheme of niche appeal, fitness-themed devices are pretty mainstream. Enough people like having watches that offer information while engaging in certain sports (running, cycling, hiking, etc...), and still more like the idea of fitness tracking watches that can help motivate them to work out in the first place. Note that while these are related types of products, they are very different. For 2015, Garmin has released some of each, as well as products that blend the lines.
I am not going to discuss all of what Garmin released in the wearable segment at CES 2015 because frankly there is so much product diversity, I don't understand it all myself. Perhaps that is because Garmin is following the Apple "many choices for many people" lead with the many Garmin vivofit 2 watches, as well as their Garmin vivofit 2 Style collection pieces. Here you have not one or two models, but almost 20 versions that contain the same hardware but different colors or exteriors. These are just activity trackers, and you can move up a bit to the Garmin vivosmart that includes phone notifications as well. All of these are budget priced at under $200 - at least most of them are. They are interesting, but not where my main attention is right now.
Garmin vivoactive - the affordable fitness smartwatch
It isn't particularly sexy, but the Garmin vivoactive is one of the most promising mainstream consumer smartwatches of CES 2015. From a design perspective it still looks like a blocky case on a strap in a stale colored black (white is available as well), but from a hardware perspective, it really packs a lot of punch with activity tracking sensors, precision GLONASS GPS, and of course, Bluetooth 4.0 to connect to your phone. The slew of features which builds on years of Garmin experience in the Garmin vivoactive is about trying to combine three things; a phone notification smartwatch, a fitness tracking watch with dedicated software that can connect to Garmin Connect and does things like tracking steps, movement, sleep, etc., as well as dedicated sport features specialized for activities such as swimming, running cycling, and golfing. The Garmin vivoactive also has an optional heart rate monitor that goes around your torso. Garmin even claims it is durable enough to swim with - which is more than the Apple Watch can claim at launch.
The Garmin vivoactive watch is more fitness watch than smartwatch, but it does combine both sets of features with a colorful touchscreen display in a way that is more mainstream friendly than anything I've seen yet. Without a full review of the Garmin vivoactive, it will be difficult to say just how well it works, but it is interesting to see what Garmin is doing. Again - no new serious technology here, but rather an attempt to cleverly arrange elements and features in ways that appeal to consumers and make the best out of existing technology. Price for the Garmin vivoactive is $249 - $299.
Garmin epix - the mapping and hiking sports watch with apps
At more than double the price of the vivoactive and other "vivo" collection watches, the Garmin epix is the hiking and adventure watch of the 21st century - at least that is what Garmin is going for with this feature packed "ultimate training" watch that combines a lot of the interesting GPS mapping tools Garmin is known for with ABC sensors (altimeter, barometer, and compass), smartwatch notifications, and the ability to use the Garmin Connect IQ app store - which can dramatically alter the functionality and utility of the watch.
With a more durable (and actually pretty cool) design than the Garmin vivoactive, the Garmin Epix also adds to the fitness activity functions. Garmin does not suggest the Garmin epix is a daily wear watch, but rather for serious outdoor adventure or sport - but you could wear it daily, sure. The Garmin epix contains a GLONASS GPS and a slew of hardware and software designed for basic activity tracking or for data nerds who want to improve their running, cycling, skiing, swimming, and hiking.
What you need to understand about the Garmin epix over, say, a smartphone is that it has built in detailed mapping features. The 8 gigs of internal memory come loaded with either worldwide or US-only maps and topographical data. I am not sure if this includes detailed street maps as well. The idea is that you have full mapping functionality in places were your mobile phone would not be able to get a connection and use maps data from, say, Google.
With that said, the Garmin epix is still a smartwatch in the sense that it offers phone notification information and the ability to do simple things like control your phone's music player, etc... What ups the ante for the Garmin epix is really the Garmin Connect IQ app support which can offer cosmetic enhancements like new watch faces as well as additional widgets and data fields. The Garmin epix also sports a color touchscreen - but also has pushers on the sides of the case. This should prove to be a very interesting outdoors watch for a lot of people - with some interesting smartwatch features and an app store. Price of the Garmin epix is $549 - $599.
Garmin fenix 3 - the best sports smartwatch to date?
Garmin figured out long ago that consumers like having the option between round and square screens on their watches. The Garmin fenix collection gets its third iteration with the 2015 Garmin fenix 3, just one year after the Garmin fenix 2. The Garmin fenix 3 is a lot more than a simple upgrade to the Garmin fenix 2 because it adds a lot of features that open the GPS sports watch series up to a whole new category of consumer. For the first time, a Garmin fenix collection timepiece is also a "smartwatch," with the major phone connectivity features people seem to expect. Garmin doesn't expect Garmin fenix 3 owners to rely on the watch as a second phone screen, but has attempted to design it as a true daily wear watch.
What is different about the Garmin fenix 3 over the Garmin epix aside from design is the lack of mapping features, but the addition of a larger "Chroma" color display that Garmin claims is good enough to be read in direct sunlight. It doesn't have a touch screen, but that is probably not a deal breaker. In a lot of ways, the Garmin fenix 3 is like the Garmin epix with a lot of activity features, GPS, an altimeter, barometer, and compass, smartwatch connectivity, as well as the ability to download apps the Garmin Connect IQ app store. What does John Biggs like about the Garmin fenix 3? As someone I know is interested in fitness wearables and sports watches, John is mostly interested in the fact that Garmin may have finally designed a watch you "can wear with a suit."
That means you have a fully featured top-of-the-line Garmin GPS fitness watch with an attractive case, available with a steel bracelet, as well as a model with an available sapphire crystal in the Garmin fenix 3 Sapphire. Pre-loaded and available widgets and watch faces make the Garmin fenix 3 look a lot more elegant, and the durable design offers 100 meters of water resistance. Battery life for the Garmin fenix 3 (similar to the Garmin epix) can last from just 16 hours with GPS on to about 3 months if used just as a watch. Figure a few days of battery life to a week with most people's use (Garmin says, "20 hours of active usage").
Will the Garmin fenix 3 be the "killer smartwatch of 2015?" I don't think so. But it might be the Casio ProTrek killer of 2015 until Casio responds with their own stuff. It is true, however, that the Garmin fenix 3 does cost about 40% more than the typical ProTrek. With that said, serious outdoors-types or those seeking the ultimate training tools are not known for penny pinching their gear. Casio does, however, have a long and better track record of making comfortable watches you want to wear all the time. Having said that, if successful, the Garmin fenix 3 might make features such as GPS connectivity, apps, and smartwatch notification features part of what consumers expect in sports smartwatches moving forward. Price for the Garmin fenix 3 will be $499 - $549.