just one more geek in a sea of austin techies

March 9, 2015

$35 generic or $350 Apple Watch? #GadgetGeek

UPDATE 11/1/2015: The generic U8 watch outlined in this post is now available for under $15 from some online sources. Quite a bargain!

Today Apple unveiled prices for its initial smartwatch offerings.  With the most basic model starting at $350, a common question will be, "Is it worth it for me?"  You may have interest but can't stomach the idea of spending $350 to possibly discover that you don't like using a smartwatch no matter how good it may be.

If you'd prefer to test the smartwatch waters without making a big initial investment, consider this: a touchscreen smartwatch that lets you make and receive calls, check text messages, boasts a battery life more than three times longer (estimated) than the Apple Watch but sells for only 1/10th the price.

I've recently been evaluating just such a device -- read about it below -- and the positive experience has heightened my interest in the more advanced (read: costly) smartwatch options from the likes of Samsung and Apple...

Smartwatches -- Not new, just better
Although it may seem like a new product category, so called "smart" watches have actually been around for decades.  Some might consider the mid-1970's calculator watch to be the first smartwatch. I think of the segment as being defined by an ability to store and view information -- more than just the result of calculating a lunch tip, that is.  By this standard, the precursor to today's smartwatch was the 1982 Pulsar NLC01 which featured a 24 digit memory.  That's 24 characters, total -- "limited utility" doesn't begin to describe such a sparse amount of memory.  The fact that the watch had any general-purpose data storage at all, however, essentially qualifies the NLC01 as the first wrist-based electronic organizer.

In 1983 Pulsar -- owned by Seiko -- released the Data 2000 which included much more memory and provided easy data entry via an external keyboard.  The following year Seiko premiered the first watch that could synchronize data with a PC:  the RC-1000 Wrist Terminal.

Finally, in 1985, Seiko (again) in partnership with Epson released what many would consider to be the first true smartwatch:  the RC-20 Wrist Computer.  The RC-20 contained an 8-bit Z-80 processor, offered several built-in apps and featured a touchscreen interface.  That's right -- a touchscreen!

Jump ahead a decade and we see the first watches with wireless synch ability (Timex Datalink series, 1994), the first watches to synch with a PDA and then the first watch to actually BE a modern PDA with install-able apps (Fossil Wrist PDA with PALM OS, 2003).  Finally, the late 2000's saw the advent of "modern" smart watches -- watches designed to wirelessly tether to our cell phones.

Now, a full five years after Sony released its first Bluetooth-tethered watch, Apple joins the game with the $350 Apple Watch Sport and $550 Apple Watch .  As with previous products, Apple was in no hurry to be first but, instead, timed its entry to market based on when the technology could provide a majority of the features needed for the product to succeed.

The "smartwatch life" at a fraction of the price
Will the Apple Watch finally make ubiquitous what other companies have been chasing over the past 30 years?   That's still to be seen, but in the meantime you can start playing in today's smartwatch world for $35.

What $35 gets you right now
To be perfectly honest, the watch I'm about to detail is not $35.  As of this writing it is actually $34.58.  Total.  $34.58 shipped to your door.

Despite the pricing information and a few links down below I'm not actually selling anything. 
This post is purely to share my own experience and opinions.  I do not get a commission or credit or points or anything at all if you go and buy this or any other watch.

Here's what you get:

  • U8 Plus Smartwatch (retail-boxed)
  • USB -> MicroUSB charging cable
  • USB wall charger

U8 watch features:
  • Touchscreen display (1.44 inch diameter, 240x240 pixels)
  • Integrated microphone and speaker (mono)
  • Built-in apps:
    • Answer: Receive calls through watch
    • Dialer: Make calls through watch
    • Remote: Control phone's camera(s) + remote image display
    • Music: Control playback + stream from phone to watch
    • Text: Display text messages
    • Alerts: Display phone OS alerts
    • "Find phone"
    • Vibration
    • Alarm clock
    • Stopwatch
    • Pedometer
    • Altimeter
U8 Model Variations
This watch (the U8, U8 Plus and U8 Pro) has been on the market for well over a year and there are a few different firmware releases.  Your experience can vary depending on your phone, your host app (more on that below) and the watch's firmware.  It is possible to update the firmware but I won't get into that in this post.

Although marketed as three different models, the U8 series is really just three iterations of the same watch with slight updates.  The U8 is the original but lacked support for iPhones.  The U8 Plus is the same hardware with improved iPhone support.  The U8 Pro is a waterproof version of the U8 Plus.

Note that you may run across a larger watch labeled the "U8 Pro" that has a metal body.  That is not the model I've detailed here.  If you prefer a metal body the "U10" is the comparable watch model.  In fact, the U10 has updated (nicer) graphics and a few added - though minor - features over the U8.

My U8 Experience (so far)
Currently I'm trying out the base model U8 paired with a Samsung Galaxy S4.  All watch functions work as they should with my Galaxy.  If you are using an Android-based phone and are a serious penny-pincher, the original U8 can be found for around $30 shipped.  As noted above, however, iPhone users will need to spend an extra $5 to bump up to the U8 Plus or the U8 Pro.

When you're *not* using the watch it looks good.  The case is a normal thickness -- not battery-bloated and "chunky" as some older smart watches I've reviewed.  In fact, this is the *first* inexpensive smart watch I've considered wearing on a regular basis.

The basic resin-based watchband matches the color of the watch body -- you have a choice of black, red or white -- and manages to look good despite the device's economy price. You can replace the U8 band with a standard 22mm watch band.

The U8's display remains off until you touch a button on the side.  This is pretty common for smart watches as it greatly extends battery life and -- be honest -- more than 99% of your typical day is spent *not* looking at your watch.

Depending on the firmware, the icons and watch faces will range in quality from "ok" to "bleah".  Some of the analog clock faces look decent while some of the other interfaces bely the device's general good looks.  The low-resolution display (240 by 240 pixels) is at least partly to blame for some of the cruder-looking graphics.

What could be better:
The watch has internal sensors (barometer, accelerometer, altimeter) so it would be nice to have an option to automatically activate the display when the watch is tipped up to a certain angle *or* when the touchscreen is touched - perhaps with a double-tap or a certain touch gesture.  Pressing the side-mounted button is not difficult but touching the screen would be much easier.

The case and clear display covering are both plastic.  This watch won't survive a lot of abuse but for $35 I wouldn't expect it to.  My only real concern is the plastic over the display screen -- my impression is that it might be easily scratched.  A set of tiny screen protectors would have made a nice, inexpensive accessory to bundle with this watch.

When the phone rings your watch rings as well.  The watch shows the caller's number but not the name or (if you have one) the associated photo.  You can answer the phone or answer the watch.

This is where my experience took an unexpected turn.  I have found that -- surprisingly -- I am using my watch to answer calls far more often than I would have predicted.  In fact, I've been taking calls through my watch more often than through my phone.

When you make or take calls on the watch the device becomes a tiny speakerphone. The microphone quality is quite good -- no one has complained (yet) about being able to hear me.  The speaker quality is serviceable but not great.  I have to hold my arm up Dick Tracy-style to carry on a conversation.  Which is actually cool in a dad-geeky way but not always desirable.  On the plus side, it means that - even with the speakerphone - I can still have a private conversation in any environment with a modest level of background noise.

This is where the U8 both delights and disappoints.  There is no "app store" and, therefore, no choices  regarding apps -- you get what you get.

The main item of note is that you'll need to install a "host" app on your phone. Android users are in luck as there are multiple U8-compatible apps (free and paid) to pick from in the Google Store.  Two of the better apps I've tried on the Samsung Galaxy are Mediatek SmartDevice (free) and rwatch SMARTWATCH (also free).  For me, rwatch had better camera support (both front and rear cameras) than Mediatek but Mediatek appeared to do a better job at maintaining connection to the watch.  If you don't care about the remote camera feature then Mediatek may be your better choice.

The good:

  • Remote camera support -- very cool!  The watch does not have a camera itself but it *can* control your phone's cameras.  Using the Camera app, you can activate either the front or rear phone camera, view the camera's display live via the watch and tap the watch to capture a photo on the camera.  Note that the wireless range between watch and camera is limited (Bluetooth range) and people have reported compatibility issues with some phones and/or host apps.

  • Text alerts -- Text messages can be viewed from the watch along with OS alerts.  OS alerts include app-generated alerts and you can specify which apps can send alerts via the phone's OS.  Handy touch: If you receive an alert you don't care to receive in the future (be QUIET, Clash of Clans...) you can disable that alert directly from the watch.

    Unfortunately you cannot view emails through the watch.  However, depending on the firmware, your U8 *may* have message-reading support for major international messaging apps WeChat and QQ.
  • Vibration alert -- Despite my Galaxy phone's very adequate vibration alert, sometimes the phone's position in my pocket is such that I still don't sense silent alerts.  By contrast, I always feel the vibration alerts from the U8.
  • Battery life -- THIS was unexpected.  I could quote the battery specs but you'll get a better idea from my initial U8 experience:

    I received the watch on a Tuesday, charged it up Wednesday afternoon (4:00 PM) and proceeded to learn and play with every feature.  I began wearing the watch all day/all night, testing and then re-testing features with different host apps as well as demonstrating (showing off) the watch to family, friends and coworkers.  I answered phone calls through the watch, made calls through the watch and routinely checked text messages through the watch.  Finally, around 3:00 PM Monday, the battery was drained and the watch shut itself off with a "Goodbye!" message.

    That's a full five days (119 hours!) between charges.  I had expected up to three or four days of standby power but only one to two days of battery life with regular use. The battery life rocks and the watch is recharged via standard microUSB cable -- same as my Samsung phone and my Plantronics Bluetooth earpiece -- so there is no need for me to haul around a different cable or charger.
  • Out of Range alert -- An optional "out of range" feature can be turned on that will alert you if the watch loses contact with the phone.
  • Find phone -- Make your phone ring (it's under the couch cushion, by the way...)
  • Price -- Did I mention this thing is only $35 shipped?!?

The OK:
  • Music control -- The "Music" app provides basic remote control.  This would be cool except that, when controlling music, the music is also streamed to the watch -- there is no option to simply use the watch as a remote.  Although the watch's speaker is decent for voice production it does not do a good job with music.  When playing music the volume continuously cycles up and down (between loud and soft).  Despite the music volume issue I still rate this feature as "ok" because I happen to listen to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks and the watch works fine for voice recordings.
  • Clock, stopwatch, (relative) altimeter -- The stopwatch is basic but fine.  The altimeter is a relative altimeter.  It can't tell you your actual altitude (based on sea level).  Instead, you initialize it at a certain height and it keeps track of how high or low you move from that height.  In my tests this worked but appeared to be accurate only to within a few feet.  That's probably fine for estimating relative heights in rock climbing but it's no good for small measurements.

    For the normal watch function, you have a choice of four clock faces: two analog and two digital.  The analog faces are ok but the digital faces are underwhelming.  

The Not-So-OK:

  • Non-Shortcuts -- One of the "digital" watch faces features three smartwatch icons that are, confusingly, *not* touch-enabled despite the touch display. You would expect the icons to be shortcuts to the associated apps but the icons are only for show.  This has understandably angered some buyers who had different expectations when viewing the U8 marketing photos.

  • Contact List -- Yes, you can browse your phone's contact list and initiate calls from that list.  Unfortunately there is no "inertia scroll" where you can "fling" the list with your finger and the list will continue to scroll for a while as if driven by inertia.  Because of the small display size and the lack of an inertia scroll feature, you can only move through the contact list a few names at a time.  Worse, it is a bit too easy to linger on an entry and accidentally open that contact.  Using the "back" button takes you back to -- of course -- the top of the contact list.

    Unless your social circles are limited to a total of six friends, navigating the contact list will quickly become one of your least favorite things ever.
  • No voice recorder -- Really?  No voice recorder support?!?  This would seem to be an obvious, useful (and perhaps even sought-after) feature.  The watch already supports two-way audio for phone calls -- why can't it send audio to the recording app that's already in the phone?
  • BT Notification -- If your phone/host app/watch all work then things are great.  In testing different host apps, however, I ran into instances where the watch had difficulty connecting or staying connected to the phone's BT Notification service. Most Android users report good experiences but many iPhone users have trouble finding and/or using the iOS version of BT Notification.  If you can't connect to BT Notification then your U8 experience is probably not going to be a good one.
  • Multi-LanguageThis watch supports a wide variety of languages -- hooray!
    The various language firmware files are tough to find -- boo!

    NOTE:  The manufacturer's customer-facing website is not currently up.  The web page shown (in Chinese) is a generic set of instructions from the site's hosting provider regarding FTP folders, log files and database files.

    (Guess I'll stick with my English firmware.)
  • General lack of polish -- More than anything else, the U8 is a fine example of hardware that works but lacks a polished finish from the software side of things.  If you want to take calls without digging for a phone or messing with a headset/earpiece then the U8 is quite the bargain.  For some, the low price tag may easily be justified simply by the ability to discretely check text messages (in meetings, in church, etc.)

    If, however, you want to devour every feature and push the hardware to its full potential then the U8 will be a disappointment.  (But it will be a cheap disappointment.)

The Bottom Line
For $35, the U8 is much better than expected and gives the average person an affordable way to try out a phone-call-supporting smartwatch.  The U8 would make an especially cool gift (toy) for any kid or tween (and probably any teen) who already has a smartphone but isn't already into the smartwatch scene.

I rate the U8 a "buy" if you think there are at least one or two features you'll use a lot.  For me those features are answering the phone through the watch and the silent call/text alerts.  Unfortunately there isn't too much more I find to be really compelling other than the absurdly-low price, decent physical appearance and the bragging rights you'll have over your non-smartwatch-wearing acquaintances.

Where to get it
The U8, U8 Plus and U8 Pro are available from many online retailers.  Many sellers on Amazon are currently asking too much -- you shouldn't need to pay more than $40.

If you have an interest then you should also consider the newer U10 which costs between $5 to $10 more than the U8.  The U10 has a metal body, a few added software features and updated graphics for a more refined look compared to the U8.

The retailer I recommend is  If GearBest is out then may have them for a few dollars more.  Most sellers ship directly from China.  The free shipping is also slow shipping -- in the US expect two to three weeks for arrival.


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