04:59 PM

Smart Watch Doesn't Quite Live Up To Name

The concept behind the Abacus is pretty interesting. Information is broadcast to the watch over FM radio waves.

The original wireless Abacus Smart Watch from Fossil didn't make me sigh, "ooohh I gotta have it." For one thing, earlier versions didn't do anything that my smart phone couldn't do (including, for example, tell the time).

Plus, the thing was ugly. I mean, who but the most dedicated geek (and even then) would strap on a cheap-looking watch that resembled a urinal cake just so they could get the weather and stock quotes?

A year and a couple of product generations later, these watches are still big as wristwatches go. But the styling is edgier, though the device must necessarily be larger than most watches. And while it still doesn't make me sigh with desire, at least the features are reasonably well executed, in large part because of the simplicity of the MSN Direct service the watch uses to perform its magic.

The MSN Direct Service

The concept behind the Abacus is pretty interesting. Information is broadcast to the watch over FM radio waves. With the $40-a-year "Smart" level of service, your watch receives personalized information "channels" from the MSN Direct Web site that includes news headlines, stock quotes, movie times, sports scores, and horoscopes. The "Smart Plus" service (for an additional $20 a year) also transmits your Outlook calendar (but not your contacts) to your watch and .NET Alerts and messages from MSN Messenger (although you can't reply to the messages). To receive your Outlook appointments, you must also download and install a plug-in for Outlook to your desktop computer.

To receive the service you first register on the Web site for either the basic Smart plan or Smart Plus. When you register, you sign up for a particular geographical service area. If you need to travel or move, you must go to the site and activate the service in the area you will be going.

That's right -- before you go out of town, you have to go to your watch's Web site and make arrangements.

Since the system uses FM radio, the signal strength varies from location to location. My apartment one mile north of downtown Seattle receives a full signal while my office half a mile to the east gets no signal at all. Nor is FM radio known for its high-speed data transfer. For instance, I waited anywhere from a couple of minutes to a couple of hours to receive new information or new Outlook calendar items.

It's A Watch, Too

As a watch, the Abacus does watch-like things pretty well, such as telling the time and displaying the date. The countdown timer and stopwatch are simple enough to use. Push a button to start, push a button to stop. Conveniently, the time and date sync with an atomic clock provided by the service, as long as you are in a service area.

Despite its size, it was quite comfortable on my wrist. The clasp latches securely and didn't dig into my skin. It did, however, occasionally grab some arm hair. The strap itself is made of sturdy, think rubber with leather stitched over the outside.

The display is an easy to read one-color LED with a backlight similar to the iPod. The watch has the ability to change time-display faces, which is cute, although most of the available faces aren't anything special. There are built-in watch faces and you can download more from the MSN Direct Web site -- supposedly. I never did get this aspect of the service to work. The watch faces range from digital facsimiles of analog watches to modernistic, animated digital displays.

You navigate through the "channels" via a button in the lower-left portion of the watch. On the right side are the buttons to scroll through all of the possible watch faces to display the time. The right side also includes a middle button, which looks like a standard watch dial, although in this case, pressing it enters the current selection.

The battery lasts for about three days of regular use. To charge it back up, you simply place it on the arm of its free-standing charger. You don't need to plug it; it charges via induction just from contact with the charger. It takes a few hours to go from an empty to a full charge.

Occasionally, when I turned the watch back on after shutting it off, all of my previous settings would have been erased. If the watch was receiving a radio signal, it would sync back up within a few minutes. If it was not receiving a signal, it would not sync the time, date, or any of my personal information until I got back in service range. This meant that I had to either set everything by hand or wait until I was back in an area with a signal. In the hills of Seattle, this got pretty annoying.

So, Who Cares?

The Abacus Smart Watch is one of those things that either sings to you or that you'll laugh at. Its styling and the price suggest that it is targeted at technophiles in their early-to-mid twenties. However, much of the content provided by the MSN Direct service isn't particularly compelling for that group.

As a watch, it's stylish, if somewhat large, and MSN Direct is a simple and moderately useful service. However, all of the information also is available on many wireless phones, so it's really a matter of which form factor you prefer -- or whether you just gotta have the latest technology for its own sake.

Net-net: the watch and service are kind of fun, but I won't be sighing in desire any time soon.

Abacus Smart Watch; Fossil, $129;; MSN Direct Service ( " $40-$60/year

Sam Haskin is technology director at Fluent Communications, the Seattle office of McCann Relationship Marketing Partners Worldwide. He also is a dedicated gadget geek who drives his IT department crazy with requests to open up the network infrastructure so he can play with his new toys.

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