To build the initial hardware for its new MSN Direct service, Microsoft partnered with Fossil and Suunto, a Finnish timepiece maker. Since Suunto is known for its sports and diving watches, it's not surprising that its $299 N3 smart watch--one of the first to employ Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT)--has an athletic design and is water-resistant to 100 meters.
Though definitely on the large side, the N3 is lightweight, and we found its elastomer band far more comfortable and easier to unfasten than the clasp band on Fossil's Abacus AU4000, though that watch is less expensive at $129. Each model has a built-in receiving antenna: the AU4000's is part of the band, while the N3's encircles the scratch-resistant glass face like a frame. A Microsoft spokesperson said that the Suunto's antenna isn't quite as receptive as the Fossil's, but we didn't notice a major difference in our tests.
When you subscribe to MSN Direct, which costs $10 a month or $59 a year, you sign up for a variety of channels. You then receive news abstracts, which consist basically of a headline and a summary sentence. Current selections include general news; reports on business, technology, and sports; and up-to-the-minute weather updates. Eventually, Microsoft will add more choices, such as sports scores from ESPN, but you're limited to 12 channels overall. People can also send you instant messages via MSN Messenger 6.0, but you can't respond. Additionally, the N3 can display two days' worth of Outlook Calendar appointments, and the watch provides an interval timer, programmable alarms, and a clock for a second time zone.
All in all, we had no major complaints about the Suunto's interface. Getting accustomed to it took a few days, but we liked how the N3 can change its faces; it stores up to six, and you can opt to have a new face sent to the watch 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 over time.
Battery life wasn't terrible; you'll have to recharge about every four days. That's sort of a pain, but it's the price you pay for being cutting-edge. You recharge via either the included power adapter or the USB port on your PC (sorry, no Mac drivers); the N3 comes with a USB cable and a clothespin-type clip that attaches to the watch.
Yes, the N3 would be cooler with a color LCD. And no, we're not sure if consumers will be willing to pay for MSN Direct--on top of their cell phone service--when some might say that it isn't truly compelling in its present form. But if you're a gadget lover with some money to burn, you'll find that this is a well-designed, durable watch that always tells perfect time and gives you convenient and quick on-the-go access to a smattering of useful info. Compared with Fossil's models, this Suunto is more expensive and stores fewer faces, but we prefer its design. Overall, the N3 is arguably the best of the initial batch of watches supporting MSN Direct.