There’s a point where you wonder where ubiquitous computing is really heading, and whether wearable devices like smartwatches are really what’s going to take us. Screens on our glasses? Vibrating magnets on every limb?
The dream of a “smart” wristwatch has been kicking around since the days of the Microsoft SPOT and Fossil Palm watches. And even further back than that: take Dick Tracy and “Get Smart,” and the dream of a radio on your wrist. The Martian Passport Watch is that type of device; it taps right into that retro-future fantasy, and it isn’t ashamed to flaunt it.
The Martian Passport doesn't have a headphone jack or store music like an iPod Nano with a wristband. It doesn’t have a touch screen. It doesn’t measure your footsteps or heart rate, or give you health advice like any number of watches like the Nike FuelBand.
The Martian Passport has an analog watch-face that looks like it escaped from a spy movie in the 1960s. However, it also has a one-line OLED display at the bottom, too, and a multicolor LED notification light, but those stay nearly invisible. There's also a microphone and speaker crammed in there, along with real, old-fashioned physical buttons on the sides. What does it do? The Martian screens phone calls and messages. It has Bluetooth and a Micro-USB port. It makes calls. It connects with Siri or Android Voice. It's your wearable microphone for any voice services. It’s the modern-day two-way radio wristwatch that comic-book-reading kids always dreamed of.
But does that childhood dream make sense in a real 21st-century adult life?
The look: Paging Secret Agent 1962
I wore an iPod Nano on my wrist for over a year, and I did it because I loved the idea of wearable watch-tech. Its limited uses -- music and radio playback -- were outweighed by the style it imparted. Watches are fashion statements. So are glasses. I know that. I can tell time on my phone. The Martian Passport knows that, too.
The Kickstarter-assisted Martian comes in three different designs, but the one we got the opportunity to test is the Passport model. It comes in both black and white, and with various wristbands in silicone and leather. Martian makes two other models: the circular Victory and the candy-colored G2G. The G2G costs $249, but the Victory and Passport are both $299.
The Passport has a stainless-steel case and clasp, and an antiscratch glass crystal face, with a gray plastic resin plate on the back. It’s thick, but looks legitimately stylish. In person, it feels and looks even better than photos suggest. The attention to quality shows, and it impressed me, even though I thought the watch-fetishist in me would be disappointed. It matches up well against a Fossil-type aesthetic.
The Passport felt comfortable on my somewhat thick wrist; the silicone band was soft and snug. The quartz analog watch has no second hand, but it’s easy to read. The big right-hand knob handles the time-setting duties.
Two buttons on the left, however, are for the higher-tech stuff. The top button initiates Bluetooth pairing and answers/ends calls or starts voice-activated services.
If no one was paying attention, the Martian Passport wouldn’t stand out as a “smartwatch.” And in that sense, it’s the most successfully designed smartwatch I’ve ever seen.
How it works: Bluetooth and patience
Bluetooth 4.0 is the Martian’s magic glue. Pairing to a phone is an easy enough affair (hold top button down, wait for blue light, pair away). Continuously staying connected via Bluetooth 4.0 over the course of a week or so didn't wear down my iPhone 5’s battery on a daily basis as much as I expected. But, keep in mind that not every has Bluetooth 4.0; for example, anything earlier than the iPhone 4S lacks it, and that could mean a bigger battery drain.
The Martian works with Android phones supporting Voice Command, the iPad 2 and later, iPod Touch fourth-gen and later, and iPhone 3GS and later. For pre-Siri iOS devices, the Martian taps into voice control.
On iOS, the Dick Tracy magic happens by patching in the services of Siri. On Android, it works similarly with Android’s voice activation. You can use Siri hands-free on iOS by using a headset or other Bluetooth device, but it does feel cooler, and more magical, using an old-school push-button watch. It wows onlookers. But the problem, at least when it comes to Siri, is that Siri isn’t always meant for totally eyes-free use. Many search results and services end up being shown on the iPhone display. Asking for the weather, for instance, won’t always get Siri to speak the temperature out loud.
When you connect by pressing the Martian’s top button, you’re really just starting up Siri. But, on a phone, it feels more like the futuristic virtual assistant of rocket-age fever dreams. But you have to love voice. Voice is your only real tool of interaction.
I found voice activation via Siri to be most useful for setting a quick phone alarm, starting a phone call by looking up a contact, asking for the weather, checking on appointments, finding a local pizza place to call. Your imagination may turn up other uses.
You won’t want to converse for too long; it could get tedious, between Siri’s conversational quirks, the position of the noise-canceling microphone, and the sometimes hard-to-hear volume level on the Passport’s integrated speaker -- not to mention the odds that you’ll annoy someone nearby by talking out loud to your watch. Brevity is key.