April 23, 2019
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Looking for a $2,500 smartwatch? Garmin’s got ‘em

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Somewhere out there, there’s a person willing to pay $2,500 for a smartwatch. Surprisingly, that individual has several high end options to choose from. And while the Garmin name doesn’t exactly scream luxury, the company does know how to build a solid smartwatch — and these ones look pretty decent to boot.

Maybe not $2,500 decent, but decent nonetheless.

The Marq GPS line puts the company in relatively rare air, with devices starting at $1,500. Asking people to spend luxury watch prices on a smartwatch is a pretty heavy lift, of course. At well over three times the cost of an Apple Watch, you’re going to want the thing to last for…well, a long time.

To make things even nichier, each watch is targeted at a very specific audience, including athletes, hikers, boating enthusiasts, pilots and race car drivers (that last one is the $2,500, mind). They all offer a specific design and feature set tailored to those categories, including faces that show off wind speed and a built-in altimeter.

Here’s Garmin on why the things are so damn expensive,

Each watch is built with titanium, which is lightweight, yet incredibly strong for high performance in all activities, and are constructed with sapphire crystal formed under extreme heat and pressure to create an extremely durable lens that’s over twice as hard as glass.

Of course, Garmin’s always been a bit of an underdog in the smartwatch wars, courtesy of devices targeted specifically at outdoors folks and athletes, so a targeted audience has always been the company’s M.O. Though even for them, $1,500 and up is almost certainly pushing it. The watches will be available later in Q2. 

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Fitbit Versa Lite review

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It’s a tricky proposition for a product launch: last year’s model, but with fewer features. But sometimes the rules of consumer electronic update cycles were made to be broken — or at the very least, a little bent.

Last year’s Versa was itself a paring down from the company’s first true smartwatch, the Ionic. In that case, things worked out great. We were…less than enthusiastic about the device when it first hit, and by all accounts, it wasn’t the sort of runaway success Fitbit was counting on to right the then tenuous ship.

But Versa arrived with fixes to some of the product’s biggest issues — name pricing and size. Fitbit’s second take on the category was a much more immediate hit. The device has propelled the company to the number two smartwatch spot here in the U.S., behind you know who. It’s precisely the success story the company needed.

The Versa Lite finds the company dropping the entry-level price point even further, down from $200 to $160. That’s less than half the price of an Apple Watch Series 4 — an extremely tempting proposition for anyone who has been eyeing a Cupertino timepiece but has ultimately been too put off by the price tag to pull the trigger.

The new device looks nearly identical to the full version, save for its loss of a couple of buttons. And really, it’s the features that the product doesn’t have that are the most important to this story. So let’s break those down.

  1. Altimeter: Meaning the Lite doesn’t know how many steps you’ve climbed.
  2. Lap Tracking: You can still swim with the Lite, but it won’t tell you how far.
  3. Fitbit Coach: Those coaching videos won’t work on the watch.
  4. Fitbit Pay: No NFC chip.
  5. Music storage.

If none of those are jumping out at you, congrats. You just saved $40, because you, my friend, are the target demographic. It feels nice to be wanted, even if it’s just by a company trying to sell you gadgets.

I’ll be honest, none of those are jumping out at me as things I would truly miss (though your mileage will almost certainly vary). The last two jump out most among the lot. They’re probably the two most important features for those interested in leaving the smartphone at home. I’ve long been convinced this is a fairly small portion of the overall market — especially when you factor out a smartwatch with built-in LTE.

In a recent interview, CEO James Park told me that the Lite is the result of conversations with the company’s user base — weighing which features are the most important and worth sacrificing in the name of keeping the price down. Even more than that, however, I think the device is a testament to Fitbit zeroing in on the Versa’s real appeal: being a low-cost alternative to Apple and Samsung wearables.

In other words, the Lite makes the most sense as a stepping stone positioned somewhere between Fitbit’s highest-end tracker and the full-fledged version. It’s a product designed for people looking to get more out of their products than the company’s monochrome wearables are capable of delivering, and, more importantly, it’s a mere $10 more than the Charge 3.

It’s frankly a tough deal to resist.

Of course, all of the complaints about the original Versa still stand (but for those that were tied to features that aren’t present). There’s no GPS, the UI is almost too simple and the app selection is still lacking.

On the last front, things will continue to improve, at least. The company has demonstrated that it’s a force to be reckoned with among the smartwatch set, so eventually there should be more marquee additions. For now, however, it still means slim pickings.

The one place that’s less true is on the fitness/wellness front, simply because Fitbit has spent years refining its own offerings. The product offers an insightful peek into movement, sleep and the like, with detailed breakdowns accessible via the app. Like a weirdo, I’ve been wearing both the Versa Lite and Apple Watch Series 4 on my wrist for a few days and found the step counts close enough to be within the margin of error.

The Versa does a good job determining the differences between running, walking and the treadmill — though I did miss the auto-tracking notification that pops up on the Apple Watch when it detects a workout. And unlike the Series 4, there’s no EKG/ECG option here — though again, pricing is a part of that. As is, frankly, the speed with which the company had to launch a smartwatch team.

The size and shape are great. A smaller version for smaller wrists would have been nice, but it’s compact enough to fit on a lot more body sizes than many of the clunky smartwatches currently crowding the market. It also looks nice, with a minimalist design that brings to mind nothing more than a squat, squircle Apple Watch with a more plasticky finish. As for the battery, that’s stated at four days. I haven’t been wearing the device that long, but I’m going on multiple days already without having to charge it up. So far, so good.

The biggest disappointment with the Lite is that it’s not the Versa 2. It’s nice to see a company like Fitbit reverse its fortunes, and the acquisitions that led to these new smartwatches are arguably the single-biggest driver.

The Ionic represented a bit of a swing and a miss, while the Versa was a solid line drive. That makes the Lite a bit of a bunt. It’s not bad. The players advance, but more than anything, it leaves you wondering what’s up next in the lineup.

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Fitbit trims the fat with the Inspire

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If nothing else, last week’s Fitbit event showed the world that the company had learned two key lessons in the past year. One: price is possibly the largest driver in the company’s recent smartwatch success — so it went even lower with the $160 Versa Lite. Two: there are just too damn many Fitbit models.

The release of the Inspire represents a culling as much as it does something new. The line includes two devices (the Inspire and the heart rate-monitoring Inspire HR), which are effectively replacing five: the Alta, Alta HR, Zip, One and Flex 2.

It’s a welcome thinning of the herd. There were enough different Fitbit models to render the company’s product line confusing for experts, let alone casual consumers who have no interest in reading the fine print. The argument can be made that there are still too many Fitbits on the market, but let’s just accept that it’s a step in the right direction.

So, why a new name? When we spoke last week, CEO James Park told me it was because the device was new enough to warrant some rebranding. I don’t entirely agree with the sentiment here, but perhaps it was, indeed, time for a fresh start.

The device is more a distillation of lessons learned from the products it’s replacing. It’s an acknowledgment that simplicity is one of the biggest appeals of the company’s trackers — it’s certainly what separates them from their smartwatches.

“Trackers are a pretty mature category at this stage,” Park told me, “so I think we’ve been able to figure out what the minimum number of SKUs is to hit all of the price points and demographics.”

Among other things, that means a device that can effectively double as a wrist-worn tracker or an old-school clip-on pedometer, depending on the accessory you choose. With a starting price of $70, it’s pretty reasonable for either option — and doubly so for those who like to switch things up.

Again, as with the Versa Lite, pricing is key here. After all, among the company’s other woes in recent years is the increasing presence of extremely cheap trackers coming from places like China. Fitbit may never be able to compete on pricing with Xiaomi’s $15 Mi Band, but, among other things, what the company brings to the table is years of focus on the space it’s help defined. That includes the result of generations of product design and app refining.

Like the Versa Lite, the Inspire is less about bringing new features to the table than it is streamlining existing offerings. I gave the device to our video producer Veanne, as my own wrists were occupied with the Versa Lite and Apple Watch 4 to A/B test the new product. Even for me there’s a limit for the number of trackers I will wear on my wrist at any given time for testing. Turns out that limit is two.

She’s been using the Inspire HR for several days now. When I asked her for feedback, she said, “I don’t have extensive notes, it’s a Fitbit.” Fair enough. That, in and of itself, is actually a pretty decent summary of what we’re dealing with here. There’s nothing groundbreaking — or really even exciting — here. But Fitbit knows how to make good trackers, and this is one.

The industrial design is, as ever, solid. The device doesn’t stray far its fellow Fitbits, which is fine. At this point in the fitness tracker lifecycle, it appears most people want a device that can blend in as much as anything. The Inspire accomplishes this with a nice line of swappable straps and a relatively small profile. Though Veanne is quick to note her “child size” wrists. “I’m the one the kids used to target during red rover.” Consider that a hot tip, in the off-chance you ever find yourself competing against the TechCrunch stuff in any school yard games.

As such, she’s taken to wearing the device upside down, with the screen facing inward. It should be noted that among the devices that the Inspire replaces devices that are, in fact, skinnier, which could ultimately prove an issue for those with smaller wrists.The ability to wear it as a clip on addresses that to some degree, but ultimately you won’t be getting the same sort of detailed feedback, including things like heart rate monitor (only available on the $100 Inspire HR, mind) won’t be measured.

It’s telling, I think, that the Inspire began life as part of the company’s newfound healthcare focus. By distilling the product to its essence, the company has made the line inherently utilitarian. The era of excitement around fitness trackers as consumer electronics may have come to a close, as companies like Fitbit see more financial windfall in teaming with corporations and healthcare provides.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing — in fact, Fitbit in banking on exactly that as for its future.

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Samsung’s very good Galaxy S10 is now on sale

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The Galaxy S10’s pre-sales were, by all accounts, quite brisk. In fact, the company ran out of the free Galaxy Buds its was bundling with the handset. That’s good news all around for Samsung, after sales for the S9 were reported to be fairly light.

For those waiting for the reviews — or simple wanting to pick one up in-store — the handsets are hitting retail today, and the company’s still offering up some extra perks. The big one is six months of free premium Spotify for “qualified purchases.” That news comes as the company announced that it will be bundling the music app on its devices.

A return to bloatware or strategic partnership in the fight against Apple? Poe-tay-toe, poe-tah-toe, I guess.

As for which purchases qualify, that will vary from region to region and carrier to carrier. There’s a LOT of fine print over here, if you’d like to see if you qualify. As it notes,

This Premium and Samsung 6 Month Trial Offer is available for a limited period only and must be redeemed before any applicable date advertised. Spotify reserves the right to modify or to earlier terminate this Premium and Samsung 6 Month Trial Offer at any time and for any reason. After such time, Spotify shall not be obligated to redeem any further attempts to take up this offer.

In addition to the S10, S10+ and S10e, the company’s new wearables, the Galaxy Watch Active and Galaxy Buds are also now available through Samsung’s site and retail channels.

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Fitbit’s Ace kids’ fitness tracker gets a sequel

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There are few things kids love more in this world than a good sequel. As such, Fitbit has returned a year after launching its children’s fitness tracker the Ace with the predictably named Ace 2.

The new version of the product has a bumper designed to protect the display from all of the things that kids throw at it on a regular basis. It’s also water-resistant up to 50 meters, so they can shower with it on or take it for a swim.

There are new colors and patterns, which bring to mind the color scheme of shows like Pee-wee’s Playhouse, coupled with animated clock faces that feature different activities that change throughout the day as activities progress. There’s a monster that grows throughout the day and a rocket ship that takes off, among others.

The Ace 2 hits retail this summer, just in time for all of that outdoor running around. It will be priced at $70.

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