November 24, 2014
by Ariel Adams
To fully appreciate the Michael Bastian MB Chronowing smartwatch, you need to first understand how it came to be and the three entities involved in its development and design. The ménage à trois is almost like the plot of a television show. aBlogtoWatch originally debuted the Michael Bastian MB Chronowing smartwatch here.
First is technology company Hewlett-Packard (HP). Once a massive name in software and hardware, HP (like many other “older” tech companies, such as Microsoft and IBM) has been forced to rethink or consolidate its efforts in many areas, given that current consumer trends are less about desktop computers and software sold in traditional retail environments, and more about lean, portable computing. Like many of its peers, Hewlett-Packard has attempted to “get in on” a series modern tech trends, such as mobile and internet-based software services – of course, with mixed levels of success. And like its peers, it has now put a few toes into the pool of wearable devices. So Hewlett-Packard is the software and hardware part of the equation – and perhaps the biggest stake holder. Even then, you’ll have to squint carefully to see the HP name on the rear of the watch.
Next is the consumer sales site Gilt.com, which has grown from being a flash sale website for men into a more established e-commerce platform for all things fashion. Gilt is a modern success story born of consumer demand for discounts, fast paced buying, and a perception of a cool and curated selection of items that allows guys to feel like someone is doing the shopping for them. As I understand it, Gilt was approached by HP who wanted, not only a sales partner, but a suggestion on who might design the exterior of their upcoming smartwatch user interface. The time frame to production was perhaps half a year from the time time HP decided to involve an external partner.
Gilt apparently suggested designer Michael Bastian to the folks at Hewlett-Packard. Bastian has watch design experience and was respected in the watch community. The high-end Swiss watch maker Audemars Piguet even worked with Bastian a number of times to place their timepieces on the wrists of Michael Bastian clothing collection runway models. Bastian accepted the project, and now, the three companies were set to embark on a journey that was intended to be a dream team of efforts from the three talented entities. Did they succeed?
A few days ago from writing this post, the Michael Bastian MB Chronowing watch officially went on sale available exclusively to Gilt.com members. I don’t at this time know the sales numbers, but since I was with the teams the evening before the sale began I was able to experience their excitement first hand. The energy was palpable, but so was the muted anxiety of selling a totally new type of product for them.
You have to realize that an actual decision at HP needed to be made that their smartwatch was going to be attractive. It might seem incredibly obvious to watch lovers that a timepiece needs to be good looking, but I am telling you that this was (or still is) news to a lot of engineers. So when Apple goes on about how the Apple Watch is the most personal thing they have designed, and how they need to give the consumers options to make them feel as though they are wearing something that feels individual, this is actually based in accumulated data and research that says “people like to wear stuff that looks good.” A lot of this isn’t obvious to people who produce technology that is more focused on functionality than looks.
So after HP came to the conclusion that something meant to be worn needed to look good, they needed to do their research. This, of course, involved going to Baselworld, but also investigating the larger universe of watch design. Hewlett-Packard did what Apple and others did, but I feel, in a shorter time. One of HP’s proudest things to say about the Michael Bastian MB Chronowing watch is that it is produced using parts from “actual watch suppliers” – a fact that is clear, once you look at it and put the watch on your wrist. It is perhaps the first smartwatch I’ve put on that more-or-less has a case and strap that feel indistinguishable from traditional watches in the price range. That is a good thing, so mission accomplished on that end, for sure.
Gilt and Michael Bastian weren’t only needed to help design the watch’s exterior, but also to make sure it passed muster from a fashionable perspective. What I’ve come to understand more and more is that the tech companies aren’t going to these fashion companies in order to make things that are on the cutting edge of fashion, they simply want to know that, from a visual standpoint, consumers will accept and adopt wearable tech. Something like the Michael Bastian MB Chronowing is actually a pretty good example of that. Taking style cues from a number of modern sport watches ranging from Audemars piguet and IWC to Hublot, the Michael Bastian MB Chronowing is good-looking enough to make your average consumer not consider it little more than a cool-looking digital watch.
Michael Bastian packages the Chronowing with three strap options, a changing tool, and an attractive box that looks like it would house a high-end mechanical wrist watch. In fact, if you didn’t know it was there, you might easily miss the small flap you lift to find the USB charging dock for the watch. At 44mm wide, the Michael Bastian MB Chronowing wears like a large sports watch and it has a nicely finished steel case. There is also a limited edition version with a PVD-coated black steel case, but more on that later.
Michael Bastian informed me that he was heavily inspired by the look and feel of car dashboard instruments. He liked the way many modern cars mix technology with something familiar, as they combine both analog hands and digital screens. For that reason, the Michael Bastian MB Chronowing dial has a dedicated display for the time that uses analog hands on the LCD screen. Actually, this screen sometimes shows other information as well. The rear of the watch has Michael Bastian’s “wing” logo deeply engraved into the caseback. For the most part, the quality is better than on most $350 watches. In fact, what I will say is that a lot of the tech companies producing “fashionable” smartwatches are really giving the traditional fashion watch industry a serious run for their money when it comes to quality.
The limited edition of 300 pieces version of the Michael Bastian MB Chronowing has three differences from the standard model. First, as I mentioned above, it has a black-colored case. It also comes with a single strap in black produced from alligator, and the crystal over the dial is sapphire crystal versus mineral crystal. For this you pay and extra $300 – which might seem like a lot, but is pretty reasonable, given watch industry standards. All in all, looking at the Michael Bastian MB Chronowing purely from a design perspective, for the money, is ain’t half bad looking, is pleasantly derivative, and the quality is something that will satisfy consumers familiar with watches at these price levels. So what about how it functions as a smartwatch?
Here is where things get a bit more complicated, and I want to preface that statement with some introductory thoughts. This isn’t the first or last time I am going to talk about smartwatches, and in each instance, I try to add some wisdom about the segment in general. No one is more bullish about smartwatches than I, but I am extremely realistic about where we are when it comes to the technology. I will say that, while the functionality of the Michael Bastian MB Chronowing isn’t perfect, there really isn’t much out there that is all that better. So in a sense, I feel like the Michael Bastian MB Chronowing is more-or-less really good at what it does within a technology segment that is still very much in its infancy. Like infants, while items like the Chronowing look like a smartwatch and offer the basics of smartwatch connected functionality, it just isn’t mature enough for the performance to be what it will be when it is more grown up.
Let’s begin by reminding you that the Michael Bastian MB Chronowing, like most other smartwatches, must be paired with a phone. This is done by downloading the Chronowing software to your iPhone or Android-based phone. Using Bluetooth, the software is how your phone communicates with the smartwatch device. The software is also used for some of the basic settings for the watch – and currently, the settings are very basic. You are limited to things like rearranging the sequence of screens, and indicating what types of information are available at a glance. For instance, there are world time clocks, weather information, and a stock ticker. Though, you’ll need to indicate what cities or stocks you want the watch to display/track via the app on your phone.
The software wasn’t all that ready for prime time when I was testing it. For example, in the “world time” function, I wanted it to display the time for Geneva, Switzerland. It was only able to located places with the name “Geneva” in the United States. One feature I do like is that you can disable screens altogether. Don’t want to check stocks and don’t want that screen to be one that you cycle through? You can merely disable it in the app (though it isn’t particularly obvious that you can).
One thing I would really like to see in the app functionality is the ability to have some customization in the items you see on the screen of the watch at any given time. There are bits and pieces of info on various screens that I want to see, and none that I really want as my home screen. For instance, I would like to see the time, weather prediction (with temperature), and sunset time on a single screen. It would all fit, but the watch doesn’t give me the ability to do that. At least, not yet.
While you can adjust the types of notifications you get, you can’t adjust how you get it, and you can’t read more than a few words of incoming messages. The Michael Bastian MB Chronowing smartwatch does not beep but rather vibrates when there is a new alert. That could be a call, new e-mail, or text message. The alerts are all the same, and they are all non-customizable. I get that the watch is going for simplicity, but a little customization would be nice. I always want to comment about the vibration of the watch. For whatever reason, even though the Michael Bastian MB Chronowing watch is strapped to my wrist snugly, I feel as though the vibration of the alert is a bit distant, and too easy to not feel. While the Apple Watch is months off from being released, the “taptic feedback” of their alerting system is far superior.
What I did find easy on the Michael Bastian MB Chronowing was looking at incoming messages and cycling through them. Doing so simply discards them from the counter of alerts on the smartwatch, but doesn’t affect anything on the phone itself. That means your e-mails and texts will remain “unread.” In fact, I will say that basic navigation via the three buttons on the Chronowing case is pretty good, once you understand how it works. The upper and lower buttons are mostly for scrolling through screens or messages, while the middle button is for selecting something, or being pressed down to go back or to the home screen.
Pressing down the upper button for a few seconds activates the backlight, which also temporarily switches the LCD display from a “negative display” to a positive one, for greater legibility. It is a neat trick. Speaking of legibility, the screen is legible enough for a simple monochromatic LCD display, but the smaller dial to tell the time can be tough to read. While I like the insistence on having an analog dial, it would have been nice to have more digital options or something to really enhance legibility when it comes to reading the time.
Unlike some other smartwatches, the Michael Bastian MB Chronowing doesn’t have a high-resolution color screen, and no touch functionality. While basic looking, with only 128×128 resolution, it does offer a lot more battery life than watches with bright color screens. HP says that most people will get about a week of battery life with the Michael Bastian MB Chronowing watch. Even just a few days of juice is better than what most of the competition has, which is mostly less than a day.
I think HP’s focus on these more simple smartwatch devices has some merit to it. While Google and Apple (and others) focus on very complicated devices with lovely screens, they are going to be hampered by the state of battery technology – which just isn’t up to the task yet for the most advanced types of smartwatches. These more simple types of smartwatches which focus more on basic notifications are a lot more realistic and practical to develop on, for the time being. They also might have a lot more appeal to consumers who have yet to really understand how smartwatches can be incorporated into their lives.