To build the initial hardware for its new MSN Direct service, Microsoft partnered with timepiece manufacturers Suunto and Fossil. Of the four smart watches Fossil is making for the launch, the least expensive is the $129 Abacus AU4000, a fairly attractive, high-tech gadget that will definitely get you some attention if you strap it on your wrist. But the device--one of the first to employ Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT)--does suffer from a couple of design flaws.
The receiving antenna of Suunto's $299 N3 surrounds the watch face like a frame, but the AU4000's is embedded in the plastic wristband, where the flat, slim strip of metal has a propensity to get somewhat twisted and bent over time. Furthermore, the band's metal clasp mechanism is hard to open and can be downright uncomfortable, particularly for those with smaller wrists. A Microsoft spokesperson did say that the Fossil's antenna is more receptive than the Suunto's, but we didn't notice a major difference in our tests.
Your subscription to MSN Direct, which costs $10 a month or $59 a year, lets you sign up for as many as 12 channels. You can receive various types of news abstracts, which consist basically of a headline and a summary sentence. Current selections include general news; business, technology, and sports reports; and up-to-the-minute weather updates. Eventually, Microsoft will add more options, including sports scores from ESPN. This Abacus can also display a week's worth of Outlook Calendar appointments, and your friends can send you instant messages via MSN Messenger 6.0, though you can't respond. Additionally, the watch has a lap timer, programmable alarms, and a clock for a second time zone.
All in all, we had no major complaints about the watch's interface. Getting accustomed to it took a few days, but we liked how the Abacus can change its faces; it stores up to 12, and you can opt to have a new face sent to the device each month. Integration with Outlook Calendar was also good, but the instant messages were sluggish, taking around 30 minutes to arrive.
As for MSN Direct, which is available in many metropolitan areas, it also suffered a few hiccups. That said, Web setup was fairly simple, and we did manage to pick up service in Las Vegas when we roamed out of our local area (New York) on a business trip. Hopefully, Microsoft will smooth out the glitches in time.
Battery life wasn't terrible, but you'll have to recharge about every four days, and the provided desktop charger, a stand with a power adapter, is somewhat bulky. The watch slips onto the unit and charges itself on contact--no cable connection required. Such frequent recharging is sort of a pain, but it's the price you pay for being cutting-edge.
As we said in our review of the Suunto N3, we're not sure whether consumers will be willing to pay for MSN Direct--on top of their cell phone service--when some might argue that it isn't truly compelling in its present form. But if you're a gadget lover, you'll find that this Abacus always tells perfect time and gives you convenient and quick on-the-go access to a smattering of useful info. The AU4000 stores more watch faces than the N3, and the Suunto, like Fossil's snazzier step-up models, is costlier. But we do recommend that you try on the Abacus before you buy--for some, the discomfort of the band will be a deal-breaker.