Nova N800 Watch Phone Review
Is it a watch? Is it a GSM cell phone? It's both!
Making phone calls with your watch was until a few years ago only reserved for James Bond and other spies in movies and comic books. But miniaturization has finally come to the point where it is feasible to put an entire cell phone, including some extras, into a wristwatch-shaped device. The very first model was the CECT F88, also sold as the ‘Telson TWC 1150’. It was a hideous and unwieldly thing, more like a regular-sized cell phone turned 90° to the left and equipped with a strap. But it was the starting point of the development of ever shrinking devices. I wouldn't say we have reached the point yet where these devices have become both elegant and practical, but we're coming closer. In May 2008, we were already close enough for me to get one and test it out.
I discovered these gadgets merely by accident. I was looking for a simple headset on eBay when I found a peculiar-looking thing amidst the search results. Named ‘G108’, it looked a lot like the communicator from the graphic novel “The Time Trap” from the Belgian Mortimer & Blake series: a disc-shaped device that could be flipped open to reveal a tiny monitor and a key pad. To my surprise, it proved to be a fully functional GSM phone. I'm a sucker for gadgets, so I immediately started doing some research. After a while I had made a round-up of about every existing model. I won't repeat the entire evaluation procedure here which I used to pick the overall best one, but the N800 was the winner. Main selling points are the detachability from its wristband and seemingly good battery life (which was more like an educated guess because all sellers give a different estimate for this).
You can buy these things at various places, like specialized online shops (you could try the ads at the bottom of this page if they are relevant). However, if you're willing to dig through eBay for a while, you can get them cheaper. 10 years ago you'd have thought that these gadgets would originate from Japan, but times appear to have changed. All these watch phones come from China. It seems that China is following a similar evolution as Japan a few decades ago: they're moving from simply copying designs to actually designing their own, and they're getting better at it. I showed this watch phone to a Japanese guy and he was actually surprised. Although similar devices do exist in Japan, e.g. the Wristomo, they don't seem to evolve or become popular as fast as their Chinese counterparts. Don't fall asleep, Japan! Mind that GSM is not used in Japan, so we'll never see a Japanese GSM watch.
It has to be said, the Nova N800 is a clone from a Korean watch phone, the Hyundai W100, which was also one of the first of this type. But, the W100 is actually built by CECT, which is a Chinese company after all.
So I went for a seller in Hong Kong on eBay. The transaction was smooth and the net total was USD200, or €133, a reasonable price for a cell phone. For this, I got:
- The actual watch phone
- A spare battery
- A wall charger (which offers a USB power socket)
- A wired headset
- A Bluetooth headset
- 512MB MicroSD card
For its size, this thing packs an impressive amount of features. The most important are:
- Tri-band GSM: at least, this is what the seller claimed. I haven't been able yet to test if it really has the third band because I haven't left Europe since buying it. Early models were only dual-band.
- LCD Touch screen, 1.4", 128x160 pixels: the basic features like calling use onscreen buttons that are large enough to press with your fingernails. For the smaller buttons, a tiny telescopic stylus is mounted into the strap. There are 6 additional regular buttons to the side of the screen too.
- Camera: an imprint on the top says “1.3MPixels”, but as I suspected, the camera has only a 640x480 resolution. Not that a higher resolution would have any use considering the quality of the ‘lens’. The pictures it takes are usable to capture an impression of a scene, but not much more.
- Handwriting recognition: yes indeed, you can write characters on the display with the stylus and they will be converted to text, if you follow a more or less standard style of writing. This is useful for text messages, but I have found the tiny on-screen keyboard to be much faster.
- MicroSD card slot: supports up to 2GB. A 512MB card was pre-installed.
- MP3 music playback and MP4 movie playback. That's right, you can watch movies on the tiny screen. Not recommended for watching an entire movie, but fun nonetheless. Unsurprisingly, the only times I use the video feature is when I want to show to people that the Nova can play videos.
- Bluetooth: both for connecting to a bluetooth headset, and for transferring data.
- Detachable wristband: this may seem like a minor feature, but it was a conditio sine qua non for me to buy this thing at all. Only a small fraction of these wristphones can be detached from their wristband. The others require you to either carry a bluetooth headset all the time, or put your arm in a very uncomfortable position while calling. I don't want to lug around an extra device: that's just what I want to avoid with this integrated gadget. And I don't want to look as if I'm testing deodorant every time I make a call. I will come back to this issue in the conclusion.
Of course, the main reason why I bought this thing was that I am a sucker for gadgets and I simply had to try it even if I could find various reasons why it would be worthless. But, I couldn't find any major issues, and to be honest, I still haven't. I have been using this gizmo for a few months now, and it has proven to be surprisingly practical. The nice thing is that detaching it from the wristband turns it into a regular tiny phone that can be carried in your pocket. But, most of the time I do wear it as a watch.
One of the main issues with any cell phone is battery life, or autonomy. Online stores claim values between 80 and 120 hours for standby, and up to 3 hours talk time. When I started using this gadget, 80 hours seemed realistic. After a few months of use, I did a more rigorous test by not charging it until it shut itself off. The phone was mostly in standby during this experiment, although I did make a few calls, took a few pictures, and activated the display often to check the time. Surprise: I got 140 hours of standby time, not bad at all! My proper treatment of the batteries probably helped: avoid discharging them completely, never leave them in a discharged state and cycle both batteries on a regular basis by swapping them every (few) week(s). The nice thing is that if you have the spare battery charged and within reach, you can double the autonomy. Charging the battery is done through the USB cable, which you can either plug into the wall charger or any available USB port on a PC. The USB port is a standard mini-usb, but unfortunately the pinout seems to be non-standard. If you try to charge it using another mini-USB cable, the device shuts down.
This gadget aspires to be both a watch and a cell phone, but despite the fact that is most closely resembles a watch, it by far works best as a phone. The problem with the watch part, is that it has an LCD display which drains power when turned on, so it goes into power save after a dozen seconds. This means that to see the time, you need to push a button, which is unpractical. There should be a way to make these devices behave like a proper watch when in stand-by. As a phone however, it's surprisingly practical. When it rings, I just press the release buttons to detach it from the wrist, and it becomes a regular phone. The speaker sounds good and none of the people on the other end have complained about the quality of the microphone. When the call is finished, I just press the thing back on its wrist strap. No digging inside pockets or backpacks, making a call is pretty much instantaneous. It also has a vibrating alarm, which you really can't miss. The first time I tried it, I had a mild sensation of getting an electric shock :)
Watching a movie trailer in ‘full-screen’. Unfortunately it seems impossible to route the sound through the bluetooth headphones, so the tinny speaker is the only option here.
People often mock the "Made in China" brand for low quality, but this device is surprisingly well-built. Again, people also mocked the "Made in Japan" label decades ago, but nobody will do this today. The same will probably happen with China. Because using warranty for this kind of thing would be a hassle anyway, I voided it by taking the device apart to see how it's built. Again, it looks pretty well built even on the inside. I had to use both considerable force and care while opening the case whose halves fit together very neatly, so this thing won't fall apart by itself and could probably take a beating. The circuit and soldering look clean, the only stain are some visible fingerprints on metal shielding parts. The camera is amazingly small, a cube of about 5mm, so given this knowledge, the less-than-stellar pictures it takes are not too bad.
As for the software part, it has a similar “not top-of-the-line, but pretty good nevertheless” feel. There are no annoying delays, even the handwriting recognition is fast enough to be usable. There are only a few obvious bugs, like the inability to put the cursor back after the last character in text messages sometimes, and the “MR” button in the calculator which will abort any pending operation (making the memory function nearly useless). The world clock is also quirky to say the least. The English translation of all menus is surprisingly good, even the English in the manual is amazingly devoid of the typical “Engrish”. People who still think China will keep on churning out junk with bad English manuals might want to review their opinion.
Update 2009/08/25: I've had the N800 for 15 months now, and it still works perfectly. There are only two notable glitches: one of the pushbuttons initially required much more force to operate than the others (but this problem has solved itself), and very occasionally it seems to ‘reboot’ spontaneously (as if the phone turns off and on again without needing to re-enter the PIN code). Then again, the expensive major-brand phone of a friend also does this, apparently it's a popular bug amongst phone manufacturers.
There is also an annoying bug in the WAP browser. Thanks to Microsoft, some websites use a non-standard “X-Content-Type-Options” HTTP header to avoid one of the gazillion bugs in Internet Explorer. Unfortunately the browser in the Nova mistakes this header for an “X-Content-Type” header and refuses to load the page. This makes for instance every Google webpage unusable.
The best way to summarize the Nova N800 is by reviewing its pros versus its cons.
- You can replace your watch, cell phone and camera with a single tiny device that can be worn on your wrist, and which can hold up to 2GB of data as well.
- Detachable wristband makes this thing perfectly usable as a phone without having to lug a (bluetooth) headset around.
- Making phone calls is quick and easy, you won't miss a call because you need to dig up your phone in your pockets or backpack. The vibration alarm makes it pretty much impossible to miss a call either.
- Lighter than many watches: only 80 grams.
- You can take a (lousy) picture of anything within about 3 seconds.
- It may be light, but it's still bulky. The case is 2cm thick at its thickest point, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to wear under a shirt. This is by far the largest drawback of this device.
- One needs to press a button and wait a few seconds to see the time, making this a very lousy watch.
- Battery life is OK, but a full week stand-by would be more like it.
- The micro-USB cable is non-standard. You need to lug around the device-specific cable everywhere to charge the battery.
- The screen is pretty small, especially compared to the overall size of the device.
- The software has some minor bugs which will most likely never be fixed because it's extremely unlikely that firmware updates will ever be released for devices like these.
My advice to manufacturers...
I believe gadgets like this have the potential to become popular, but not as they are now. If you work at CECT, LG, Samsung or any other company that considers designing watch phones, and are in any way involved in manufacturing these things, take some advice in consideration from someone who has actually used such a gadget (i.e., me). When showing this watch phone to my friends, each of them, without even thinking thoroughly about it, came up with a few reasons why they wouldn't want to buy one. The 3 same reasons always return. Reason 1: the current watch phones are still way too thick and therefore also mostly ugly. They make the wearer look like a nerd. Reason 2: battery life is mediocre: even the cheapest regular cell phone has a longer autonomy than the 3 days most of these things offer. Reason 3: despite the large size of the entire device, the screen itself is too small.
Most of my friends also wondered how to make a call. They believe that you either have to make very uncomfortable manoeuvres, open the strap to take off the phone, or have to lug a headset around. It's only when I show that the N800 can be instantly detached and used as a regular phone that they say “well, that's clever”. So it won't suffice to make these phones thinner, prettier, more power efficient and with a comfortably large screen. The reason why people want to buy a gadget like this, is because they want to combine several different devices into one single device. They don't want to replace their watch + cell phone with a watch + headset. Requiring the user to use a headset is a no-no: the often overlooked feature of being able to easily use the watch like a normal telephone is a must!
It's not just the fact that carrying around a bluetooth headset nullifies the advantage of embedding a phone into a wristwatch. It's also that the headset is yet another battery-powered device that can run out of power and break at the most undesirable moments. Worse, most bluetooth headsets have no instantly visible accurate battery level indicator. The indicator is mostly limited to an alert that says your next phone call might be aborted halfway through. I consider batteries a necessary evil and I always strive to minimize the number of batteries that I need to take care of.
A good old wired headset is not a solution either. Just think of the horrible ritual of untangling the wires of your iPod earphones whenever you have dug them up from your pockets or backpack. Now, add a time limit of about 10 seconds to avoid missing a call, and remember that the headset doesn't ring nor vibrate, hence is not that easy to find. I hope I'm making my point clear that every phone should first of all be usable as a phone.
The ideal watch phone should look like this (I now have another page with an updated version of this list):
- Easily usable as a phone without any external headsets. This does not necessarily mean that it must be detachable from the wristband, although that's probably the fastest and most user-friendly way to switch between ‘watch mode’ and ‘phone mode’. The disadvantage is that such mechanism will add at least 1mm to the overall thickness. A good alternative is a strap that can be opened very quickly, but this must be well thought-out to avoid the risk of it opening at the most undesirable moments. Needless to say, a good loudspeaker and microphone must be built-in (I'm not implying here I don't care about Bluetooth support, in fact I expect any phone nowadays to have Bluetooth for audio/data transfer).
- Thin and elegant. It should look like an actual watch, not like a heart rate monitor. All people whom I've shown the Nova N800 to and who wouldn't want to buy it, said it was way too thick, and they are completely right. The entire device should not be much thicker than 10mm at any point. Most current watch phones are huge hideous lumps of plastic, metal and/or tasteless bling-bling.
- Shows the time continuously while in stand-by. Really, I hate having to push a button and wait 2 seconds to see the time on what is supposed to be a wristwatch! An easy but less desirable way to do this, is with a small separate efficient display. The better solution is to show the time in large digits or analogue hands on the main display. It might suffice to show the time in high contrast on a regular LCD, with the power-hungry backlight disabled in stand-by. If not, the display will need to use a very efficient technology like OLED or E-Ink. E-ink is pretty much ideal for a device like this: in clock mode, the display only needs a refresh every minute. I know, E-Ink is slow and monochrome, but trust me: nobody will use a watch-sized device for anything that desperately needs a high frame rate or colour. The iPhone's size is about the lower limit for that, and nobody wants to wear an iPhone on their wrist. E-ink lacks the ability to use a backlight, however. An alternative is to use a regular LCD display with a second transparent low-power display layer on top.
- Touch-screen display which covers the entire surface of the device, such that the display is as large as the necessarily small device allows. No bulky edges or bezels! A few buttons are OK, if they are at the sides.
- All basic functions on the display can be controlled without a stylus: no tiny buttons for calling, browsing addresses or entering the PIN code. Fast and easy handwriting recognition could obliterate the need for a stylus altogether even for writing text messages.
- Long battery life: a full week of stand-by time or more would be great. Charging must be possible using a standard mini-usb cable.
- Water resistant, not necessarily so that one can swim with it, but it should at least be able to survive a bike ride through a rain shower.
Mind that “a camera”, “the ability to play movies” and even a colour screen are not in this list. Those are fun additions, but I wouldn't hesitate to buy a model that's thin and elegant without camera or MP4, in favor of a bulky one with those extras. The same goes for an expansion card slot: it's nice, but if the device can be made thinner and waterproof by either omitting any expansion slot or putting it under the battery, by all means do it!
That very first watch phone I ever saw, the disc-shaped flip-open phone that goes under names like G108 and M350, was a close contender for the N800 in my round-up. It does fit two of my requirements not found on most or all other models: it is detachable and currently is the only wristphone with a small permanent OLED time display on the lid. But, it's way too bulky.
Update 2009/08: the LG and Samsung watch phones
So, after a long wait, LG finally released their much touted GD910 watch phone. And surprisingly, Samsung also unveiled their S9910 watch phone at approximately the same time, even though most people thought they had abandoned the idea. Now, with two watch phones available from major companies, let's go over my list of requirements again:
- Easily detachable from the wrist(band)? Nope. Sorry, but if I didn't make it clear enough: this is a strict condition. I might as well just buy a small regular phone and carry that around instead of a Bluetooth headset, it will be less cumbersome. Due to the lack of this feature I won't buy the LG nor the Samsung watch phone unless they would cost less than $50 (but as you'll see below, that's pretty far away from reality). I know, it's not easy to implement properly, but why would that stop any of these two major innovative companies? I'm not saying it must work like the Nova N800. If Samsung or LG can come up with their own unique system that allows to remove the phone from one's wrist in less than one second without risking the strap to open at all the wrong times, I might be so overjoyed that I'll buy two phones at once and put one in a blender.
- Thin? Well, the LG is 14mm thick which is not too bad, but the Samsung is 12mm which is perfect. Elegant? Yes, we're finally getting there. Both the GD910 and S9910 look good. Keep these looks and make it detachable with the same overall thickness or less, and then we're talking.
- Shows the time continuously: judging from the videos I've seen, it appears the LG does. Apparently it uses the main LCD with the backlight disabled, or maybe even a dual layer LCD. That's cool, if it's true. For the Samsung however I can't find any information on this, but judging from the photos I can find, the display is just black in stand-by.
- Large touch-screen: on the LG, the ratio of screen vs. overall size is still borderline (pun intended) but the Samsung comes pretty close to what I expect.
- No tiny on-screen buttons: looks OK, as there isn't even an included stylus on either model.
- Battery life: for the LG, a not-so-impressive 2 hours of talk time is mentioned in a video. But if I can believe the same source, it has a whopping 240 hours of standby. If that's standby with continuous time display, that's impressive. For the Samsung, actual standby and talk times are suspiciously impossible to find at this time.
- Water resistant: most sources claim the LG is water-resistant. Well done. For the Samsung however this is unclear.
Now, there's one thing that is not in my list, although it's important too, and that is: price. And there's some real bad news on that front: the Samsung is, at about €500, very expensive for its limited feature set and the LG is outrageously expensive at about €900. The LG has more features though, so the price per feature is probably similar. But at this time I'd rather buy 5 Chinese watch phones for the price of one Samsung, chances are that at least one of them will be rather good.
If both the LG and Samsung would be more reasonably priced and I wouldn't mind fumbling with the strap to answer a call, I'd probably buy the LG. Its thickness is borderline, but it's quad-band while the Samsung is just yesteryear's dual-band, it's certainly water resistant while the Samsung might not be, it (probably) shows the time continuously as a watch should while the Samsung probably doesn't, and it certainly has an impressive standby time while the Samsung's seems rather mediocre. In one review I found a figure of 4 days, my Nova does better.
So although there are still some major hurdles for me to replace my trusty Nova with an offering from a less obscure brand, it's definitely going in the right direction. I hope more companies soon start releasing gadgets like this, so there's actual competition. The first company that can build a thin, stylish watch phone that is at least triple band, allows to answer calls without a BT headset or making uncomfortable gestures, is water resistant, has good autonomy and last but not least, is reasonably priced, will earn some profit through me. Judging from online forums and comments, such watch phone will sell like hotcakes. Until then, I'll stick with my admittedly bulky but otherwise pretty OK Nova N800.
Update 2009/11: CECT W968
Another interesting GSM watch from CECT has hit the market, the W968, aka ‘Galactus’. It scores very well on the design front: it looks like a regular stainless steel watch of pretty good build quality. It's still bulky though with a thickness of 17mm, and not detachable from the strap. The actual screen area is rather small and this makes the phone awkward to control, as evidenced by the demo videos I've seen. Even though it looks like it could withstand some water, I have found explicit warnings that it is not water-resistant. So no worthy replacement for my Nova either, but certainly another step in the right direction.
Update 2010/06: S9910 clone
I expected this, I was only unsure how long it would take: the Chinese have come with a clone of one of the major brand watch phones. The Samsung S9110 is the victim, and it is even sold under the same model number, sometimes even with a fake ‘SVMSUNG’ logo. It does look promising: even though it's not an exact copy of the S9110, it has a very similar design and the same screen, but for a fraction of the price. The screen is large with minimal borders, and it is only 13mm thick. As usual, specs vary between sellers, but it appears to be quad-band and to have the same battery life as the Nova N800. It even has a compass (not that I care). It looks pretty good, aside from an ugly large “Fashion” logo on the front. I couldn't resist ordering one, even though it does not meet my basic easy-to-remove-from-wrist requirement. After a tortuous experience with customs and taxes, it arrived two months late. You can read the review here.
Update 2010/10: Phone with built-in BT earpiece
The Chinese have come up with a new clever idea to improve convenience when answering calls. A new model named ‘Royale’ features a tiny BlueTooth earpiece that is stored inside the watch. Answering a call amounts to taking out the earpiece and sticking it in your ear. I have serious doubts about how practical this really is, but at least it shows they're trying to innovate.
Update 2012/11: Nova N588
A ‘new’ model has been released under the Nova name and it is very similar to the N800. It is obviously nothing else than the same design and hardware with some minor tweaks. The front surface is now flat with glass-like buttons and it is available in a choice of multiple colours (some more dubious than others), but otherwise it looks the same and the screenshots from the interface look identical to what I remember from my Nova N800. It seems the Chinese are still not inclined or capable to innovate on the hardware and software front, they only keep on churning out the same devices in different housings.
A good place for information on the latest new watch phone models and good deals for buying them, is Joe's Tech Review.