Fitbit Surge and Microsoft Band: New wearables point toward the future

The Fitbit Surge and Microsoft Band could threaten the Apple Watch’s position at the top of the smartwatch totem pole.

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No, the name of this blog—TechWatch—does not refer to an obsession with smartwatches. It only seems that way because wearable technology is currently enjoying its moment in the sun. Companies large and small keep releasing new devices that finally seem ready to deliver on the some of the promises of fitness trackers and smartwatches.

Two new entries in particular seem to push the envelope toward devices that real people might actually buy and wear in large numbers.

I’ve gone on record predicting that the heavily hyped Apple Watch won’t be that mainstream device, at least not at first. I think the Apple Watch is big, ugly, and obtrusive, and works only with other Apple devices.

But I have high hopes for a couple of innovative devices that take different approaches to figuring out what type of device and technology it makes sense to put on your wrist. The Fitbit Surge and Microsoft Band couldn't look more different, but they both sport designs and functionality that blur the line between fitness trackers and smartwatches in clever ways that should help make wearable computing more accessible to many people.

A fitness tracker that looks like a watch

Basically, you could think of the Fitbit Surge as a high-end fitness tracker that looks like a smartwatch, while the Microsoft Band is an entry-level smartwatch in the shape of a fitness tracker.

First, the new Fitbit.

Unlike the company’s other fitness trackers, the Fitbit Surge actually looks more like a traditional watch than most smartwatches do. It’s got a square face and an integrated band just like a real watch, and the display is meant to be read on top of the wrist just like a watch.

That said, it’s got the functions of a high-end fitness tracker, like independent GPS tracking (no smartphone required), optical heart rate monitor, an accelerometer, gyroscope, altimeter, compass, and ambient light sensor. Smartwatch-style features include displaying text messages and music selections, as well as a silent alarm. Like the Apple Watch, the Fitbit Surge isn't due to ship until next year, but it's unlikely to boast software as sophisticated as Apple's entry. On the other hand, it costs just $250 – a lot for a fitness tracker, but $100 less than the cheapest "Sport" model of the Apple Watch.

A smartwatch in the shape of fitness band

By contrast, the Microsoft Band, a surprise announcement last week, packs a great deal of smartphone functionality into a fitness-band form factor. In addition to Microsoft Health fitness tracking functions, it offers text and email previews, calendar info, incoming call info, social media updates, weather and finance data, and more. The Band works with iOS and Android, but when paired with Windows Phone it integrates with Microsoft's Cortana voice assistant for additional functionality.

Microsoft has made a smart move here – by not trying to look like a smartwatch, the Band won’t be judged by smartwatch standards, in terms of functionality or aesthetics.

Ultimately, it's those aesthetics that will determine the success or failure of these devices. The Surge isn't available yet, and the specs on the Fitbit website don't indicate how thick the wedge-shaped device really is (that's a bit of a red flag; thickness totally matters to the aesthetic acceptance of a smartwatch).

Meanwhile, initial reviews of the Microsoft Band complain that despite the band design, it's still "clunky" and "awkward" to wear. Many are suggesting that it's really meant to be worn with the display side underneath the wrist, not on top like a traditional watch. That's OK for a fitness band, but kind of a disappointment for a smartwatch.

So while these devices represent significant advances, they may still be not quite good enough to break through. For wearables to succeed in the mass market or to hold any potential for use in business and enterprise settings, they really do need to be sleek, unobtrusive, and attractive as well as functional and easy to use.

The Microsoft Band and Fitbit Surge may not take us all the way to wearable technology nirvana, but at least they do point out a couple of different ways to get there.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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