Sunday, March 18, 2012

Thoughts on smartwatches and smart GPS

Smart GPS and smartwatches

Notifications on the Garmin Monterra and Approach S4

Smartwatches and wearable computers are all the rage, although no one has nailed them yet, leaving the tech to languish in the (very) early-adopter phase. And while the manufacturers (and rumored manufacturers) include the usual suspects — Google, Apple, Samsung and others  — it seems that the GPS industry may make a significant push too.

One advantage they have is that people already use their products and already have smartphones; getting you to upgrade an old device that you constantly use is a lot easier than selling you on a brand new product category. Let’s look at where the industry is now in terms of smartwatches…

Magellan Echo smartwatch

The recently introduced Magellan Echo

Magellan Echo

Magellan is the first GPS manufacturer to hit the smartwatch market with their Magellan Echo. Designed to function as a sportwatch, it doesn’t even have a GPS chipset, so it’s almost a dumb terminal for your smartphone. But it displays your stats and integrates well with lots of fitness apps.

Garmin Approach S4

Meanwhile, the forthcoming Garmin Approach S4 golf sportwatch borrows more from the traditional smartwatch playbook in that it displays iPhone text and emails on it’s screen. Unfortunately there is no word yet on Android compatibility.

Looking to the future

These early iterations give the companies a toehold in the market, a chance to see what resonates with consumers, and gives their engineers a proving grounds. I suspect this is just the first volley, with new smartwatches and  “smart GPS” models to be announced at the Consumer Electronics Show and/or Mobile World Congress. Maybe something like the Garmin venu.

Imagining a smart GPS

Not that one — I think it was DOA. No, I’m envisioning a backcountry smart GPS. Here’s one use case — I’m mountain biking, grooving on single track, when the phone in my pack chirps a notification. Do I stop, dig it out and check it? Is it something I can ignore or is it my wife with an urgent message. I would love to have notifications pop up on the GPS on my handlebars, letting me know. And how about uploading my track to Garmin Connect and Facebook at the end of the ride? Or controlling the phone’s radios, allowing me to take it out of airplane mode long enough to check for messages? And I bet many readers have wished they could download the nearest geocaches on the fly.

What do you want?

Your turn! What would you like to see in terms of features and the way a GPS could interact with your phone? What are the other use cases for this type of tech?

About Rich Owings

Rich is the owner, editor and chief bottle-washer for GPS Tracklog. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus.


  1. I’d love something like the new forerunner 620 but with the notification stuff from the S4. I have a pebble and really like it for day to day stuff. But out on a run, I vastly prefer a Garmin watch (even to the use of smartphone apps). But I’ll say, being able to see who is calling/texting out on a run/bike is awesome – helps you know if you need to stop and answer, or keep going. Goes a long way with the wife comfort factor. If whatever 910XT replacement (I’m guessing sometime next year) had notification ability, that’d be neat. But don’t see it happening.

    But, this would all depend on Garmin being a bit less bi-polar on their OS support. It’s a bit annoying how few things they support in Android. Yet, they make Android based devices. It’d really be nice to use my Oregon 650 with an Android phone….

    I think Suunto has a great opportunity here. I love the apps concept with the Ambit. Imagine if they then allowed apps to leverage data (maybe even from the web) by way of a connected Smartphone. That would be impressive.

  2. I would love to see a smarter GPS. At first glance, it might seem as if automobile GPS units have gone as far as they can go. However, if you look at bit deeper, the issue of keeping POIs current can be something of an Achilles Heel. For example, just this weekend, my wife and I were driving near Saint Paul MN and same a billboard for Duluth Trading Company. She wanted to go shop there. Since the store is new to this area, it was not listed on her Garmin Nuvi 500 even though she has the most current maps.

    The workaround, of course, was to look up their website on my smartphone, enter the street address, and drive to it. Not a huge deal and some GPS units can import things found online.

    The other issue is actual physical location of certain POIs. For example, stores in strip malls sometimes have a street address referenced from the nearest cit street. The actual location, however, can be some ways away. With memory being so inexpensive nowadays, I think the opportunity exists to add more accurate locations for things like that.

    Finally, the GPS Hunting Maps sort of inspired me to look for more details on rural addresses. Since the information is public in many areas, why not offer property ownership as an additional option? Not everybody needs or wants it, but for some applications it could be quite handy.

  3. All I’m looking for is a GPS-controlled watch that will display the day, date and time based on the location of the watch. It can be analog or digital but It should have a scratch-resistant crystal and preferably not be a big, geeky-diver-looking thing. Beyond that I really don’t care what else it does or doesn’t do.

    One other requirement: The ones I’ve seen are all (US) $2,000 and up. I can afford maybe a tenth of that price.

    Can anyone offer any suggestions? Thanks.

  4. I believe one reason holding back the support for Android on some smartwatches is the fact that several models use Bluetooth 4.0 low energy, which was available on the iPhone starting on the 4S. However on the Android side a lot of models do not include this hardware feature and even if they include it, support for this feature is added until Android version 4.3 (this is what is also holding back compatibility of the Samsung Galaxy Gear), maybe (and this is my speculation) this is preventing the release of such utilities such as Garmin Basecamp on android for use with a unit such as Garmin Fenix (also bluetooth 4 low energy)
    Android 4.3 updates for samsung galaxy s3 and s4 have been put on hold

  5. Guillermo Barron says:

    I use a Dakota 20 to navigate and record my backcountry trips. It’s very good. But it needs lots o’ heavy batteries for multiday trips.
    I also use a Garmin wrist GPS for day excursions (running, skiing, etc.). But no way to recharge in the backcountry.

    So my desire would be for a waterproof, shockproof, lightweight GPS watch with low battery use. I don’t need cell phone connectivity. Just a watch, alarm, and the ability to check my location and follow a route. It should be easy to disable the GPS function when not needed, in order to save battery life.

  6. With all the apparent emphasis on gadget apps and providing redundant information and functionality found on smart phones I feel like something is lost in the fray, accuracy and precision.

    You can either save up for a few years for a survey grade GPS that can get you within 1ft real-time or you can go with an affordable yet feature filled consumer grade unit and deal with the expected position error. There is precious little product in between.

    The Monterra was a hopeful wish early on but now that I’ve been using one it feels like an awkward tweener between my smart phone and dedicated GPS that doesn’t effectively emphasize the best of both. No no, what I’m looking and waiting for is a sub $1,000 GPS unit that focuses on field precision, accuracy, and data collection and leaves checking facebook to my smart phone.

    How many geocachers would jump on a unit that boasts 1 meter field precision? The race to offer crossover, swiss army knife functionality seems to leave out the biggest single purpose of satellite based positioning; providing the best possible data to pinpoint where the sam-heck you actually are on the planet. Garmin can’t expect to keep up with smart phone manufacturers advances in interfacing with the cyber and social media crazed world. It could however offer much better real-time accuracy which would seperate the boys (smart phones) from the men (dedicated GPS units) thereby providing the impetus to own both.

  7. I world love to have a Fenix watch for hiking and for running and the S 4 when I GO golfing in the same unit

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