The gadget business has finally evolved to prioritize both substance and style, and that’s never been more evident than this year.
That’s applicable to smart speakers, which have been taking interior design more seriously, and other devices as they explore colors and shapes. But it’s especially true for the most recent spate of wearable technology.
Smartwatch-makers, in particular, almost killed the category early on by pumping out clunky products that no one wanted to wear, while others wrapped old tech with a pretty bow and tried to call it stylish. Now they and a growing category of wearables — including glasses, rings and “hearables” — are prioritizing design or making the most out of fashion partnerships.
Some items are noteworthy based on their technical merits alone, while others stand out as tangible proof of technological ambition. Either way, the following examples prove that good looks and advanced functionality can come in one package.
A pivotal step in the road to Meta’s metaverse, the high-tech Wayfarers is one of the most intriguing wearables available right now. The company and partner EssilorLuxottica set out to prove they could stuff plenty of gadgetry into a narrow space and create a device people wouldn’t hesitate to put on their faces.
Think of it as a proof of concept for their future augmented reality glasses, which Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg sees as the vital lynchpin for his virtual world.
For now, owners of Ray-Ban Stories can have fun with this unit. It’s a combination of camera and ambient headphones disguised as eyeglasses or sunglasses, like a cross between Amazon’s Echo Frames and Snapchat’s Spectacles. The arms are thicker than standard Wayfarers, but once worn, it easily passes for regular glasses — that is, apart from the LEDs that kick on during photo or video capture.
The two 5 megapixel cameras work via voice and shutter button, and given the tiny lenses, they do a decent job of capturing photos with a 105-degree field of view. By design, the device won’t post to social media automatically, preventing embarrassing accidental uploads. Videos record with sound, and the open-air audio playback for music or podcasts means users can stroll around without blocking out the world.
A note: People looking for more robust voice features may want to skip this and go for the Alexa-powered Echo Frames instead, which added more frame styles, lenses and color choices this year.
Apple Watch Series 7
• Starts at $399
The Apple Watch continues to reign as the smartwatch to beat, so it’s no surprise that the company isn’t messing with the formula much. The latest version still features a squared-off face and easy functionality with iPhones.
The Series 7 looks to upgrade the experience by enhancing the environment surrounding it. The distinction is more like polish, rather than reinvention. A wee one-millimeter bump in case size and slimmer bezels yield a display that’s 20 percent larger than the Series 6, with the curved glass making it more viewable at different angles. The range of colors goes beyond metal finishes now, too, with blue, midnight, starlight, green and (Product) Red available for the aluminum version.
People who crave new twists and cutting-edge styles may be inclined to look elsewhere. But for iPhone owners who want health metrics, alerts and other features without cross-platform headaches, the Apple Watch is hard to beat.
Apple has experienced supply chain issues that messed with stock levels, but the product itself was available at presstime. So were new strap styles from Hermés, including the Attelage Double Tour, Jumping Single Tour and Circuit H Single Tour.
Samsung Galaxy Watch4
• Starts at $249
Samsung and Google surprised the tech world earlier this year when they announced they would merge their smartwatch software platforms. Now, Galaxy Watch4 is the only device that runs it. This proposition may please people who liked the former’s hardware and intuitive usability of its Tizen software, but want the latter’s portfolio of watch apps.
On that front, the watch delivers, with easy app downloads from the Play Store. It’s also compatible with other Android phones, although it works best in tandem with Galaxy smartphones for syncing settings, alerts, data and more. The hardware, available in two versions, feels solid and well-built across the sleeker Watch 4 and the Classic version, a slightly thicker watch featuring a rotating bezel.
It’s important to note, however, that the software is still a work in progress. Glitches occasionally spring up, and health and fitness tracking could use some attention as well. The system offers data, including body fat percentage, but not much guidance on what users should do with it. For that, there are better options — including Google’s own Fitbit and its impressive Charge 5.
That may make Watch4 best for early adopters eager to experience the new Wear OS 3 and watch it evolve. Apparently, that’s a lot of people. Between the second and the third quarter of 2021, when the wearable debuted, Wear OS growth shot up from 4 percent of device shipments to 17 percent, according to Counterpoint Research.
Oura Smart Ring Gen3
• Starts at $299
Bar none, the most important aspect of Oura’s latest Smart Ring is that the elegant titanium band hardly looks like a gadget at all. That must be stated first, because the features won’t matter if disdain buries it in a drawer.
This health and wellness tracker is a bit chunky next to the style of wedding bands it mimics, but the form is positively svelte for a device packed with sensors. Some users may not mind the slight thickness, given everything it can do. Or at least will someday. Many of the new features — including workout heart rate, improved sleep accuracy and blood oxygen measurement — won’t arrive until early next year. Oura’s new $6 monthly subscription model may also irritate some people. Skip it, and the features shrink substantially to readiness, sleep, activity, ring battery, basic profiles and settings.
But what it does, it does very well. In particular, it’s an excellent sleep tracker, and like the popular Gen2, it tracks resting heart rate, heart rate variability, respiratory rate and activity, and offers a readiness score, which assesses multiple metrics to gauge if the wearer can push a few limits or take it easy. For people who menstruate, a beta feature for period predictions based on temperature fluctuations will be handy.
Stated battery life is four days to a week, though in the real world, WWD clocked roughly five days. That’s still generous compared to the day-and-a-half longevity of the Apple Watch. Even better, the Oura app issues a reminder when it needs charging that day. Otherwise, it’s rather easy to forget about, as a wearable that doesn’t call attention to itself, and that’s a plus.
No wonder celebrities like Jennifer Aniston and Kim Kardashian West are fans of the digit-friendly gizmo.
Beats Fit Pro
The industry believes growth in “hearables” will accelerate, thanks in part to the metaverse hype. This class of devices goes past garden-variety earbuds to feature fancy features like health monitoring, language translation, voice assistants, spatial audio and more.
That last item is key. Spatial or 3D audio uses head tracking to direct sound across 360 degrees, allowing the tech to make virtual environments feel even more immersive. Apple’s popular AirPods support spatial audio, but the pristine white buds with outstretched stems could use a refresh.
Look instead to an alternative from its Beats division, the Beats Fit Pro. It does everything the Apple Airpod Pro can do, but in a smaller, more discrete package that costs less and comes in four colors. Stone purple stood out as an option that’s unique without being garish.
The buds are easy to use, with buttons that are oddly satisfying instead of a hard touch surface, and they stay securely in place with fixed outer wings. Unfortunately, because the wings don’t switch out for different sizes, an ill-fit can lead to strain or discomfort for some users. But for others, the quality sound across noise canceling, ambient and spatial audio modes will be sweet music to the ears.