The smartwatches are coming, and they're coming fast. And while the big guys like Apple and Google haven't chimed in yet, the party has definitely kicked off. Qualcomm might not be your first guess at an attendee, but it comes bearing a unique little gadget. It's not quite what you want, but it's at least a peek at what the good stuff might look like.
What Is It?
It's a smartwatch! An always-on wrist screen controlled by your phone, with notification center that will make you start feeling phantom vibrations on your arm. It's for Android people only. It's a counterpoint to the more-is-more Galaxy Gear approach; the Toq has no microphone, no speaker, no camera.
But it's also a proof of concept that just happens to be for sale. Qualcomm doesn't typically make consumer hardware on a large scale, and it's not about to start. The Toq is just the company's attempt to show other hardware makers how they can do the smartwatch thing (while using a few Qualcomm technologies). And it just happens to be for sale to anyone who wants to pick one up, though in an exceedingly limited run.
Why Does It Matter?
If smartwatches aren't actually the future, they are at least the future of product releases, at least until everyone gives up. And with every new stab at the idea that comes out, the possibilities of what these things should (and shouldn't) be are being explored by trial and error. The Toq is the purest "let's just see what happens" form of that proof-of-concept goal.
Like any good watch, the Toq is built around having a beautiful face. In this case, it's not an AMOLED or LCD like you've seen on phones, but instead Mirasol—that old Qualcomm stab at an e-ink successor that adds a splash of color without being reflective—that petered out (in tablets) last year.
The Toq is big, to the extent that it's more of a bangle than a typical watch. Its 1.55 inch rectangular screen is also particularly wide, which real contributes to a sort of "wrist communicator" feel. That sounds cool, but feels uncomfortable. Sprouting from its face is a stiff, hefty, rubberized band, which contains wiring that leads to the clasp on the back where the battery lives. The band itself has a nice, quilted sort of texture on the outside that feels grippy and pleasant. But it's definitely not "luxury." This is a gadget, not jewelry.
But luckily that heftiness means the Toq is also pretty robust, and water resistant. We didn't try swimming with it, but it holds up to even excessive splashes quite well. Like the rain or—if you're that kind of lunatic—the shower. And while the Toq doesn't boast any fitness tracker-style sensors inside and is just a dumbwatch without your phone nearby, you could totally wear it while running or working out. Just expect a sweaty wrist.
The battery clasp on the back is roughly the size of a medium-sized men's watch face on its own, but it's flatish and roundish enough as to not be particularly intrusive (unlike the Galaxy Gear's aggravatingly fat speaker clasp). In fact, I don't think it ever got in my way any more than a normal watch clasp would have.
All in all, the Toq's cohesively designed, and by no means hideous, but it's unsettlingly large. How awkward it is at any given time really depends; with a long-sleeve shirt of a complementary color it can melt away and look pretty damn natural. Between the subtle and generally not-especially-reflective Mirasol screen and solid black or white body, it doesn't quite scream "gadget!" all the time. But it needs the camouflage of a good sleeve; on a bare (and pale) arm, it sticks out like an especially sore and nerdy thumb. Like a calculator watch, but back when people wore them unironically.
The first and most common thing you'll do with any watch—smart or not—is look at its face, and the Toq's is puuurty. Unlike AMOLED or LCD screens that suffer from glare problems in direct sunlight, Mirasol basks in its glow, and the subtle, almost pastel colors the screen's capable of only get more vibrant with external light. The screen looks fantastic outside on a sunny day. Less so in a dimly lit office, but you can toggle a backlight to help ease those situations. Looking at it feels more like looking at a real watch face than looking at a screen, and that's fantastic.
Setting up notifications on Toq—the other crucial task for any smartwatch—is mercifully easy. I went through three different Nexus 5s over the course of testing the Toq (long story) but the pairing and customization process was easy enough to be almost trivial. You just pair the two devices, install an app, and choose what notifications you want sent from your pocket to your wrist. Simple. There's no using compatible apps or anything; every app is compatible. Since the Toq just slurps notifications off your phone, everything works right out of the box.
Notifications that are sent to the Toq from the phone come in the form of cards. Your phone buzzes in your pocket, your watch buzzes on your wrist. You glance at your wrist (within about 5 seconds) and the applicable card is waiting for you, and then you swipe it away or just wait for the clock to come back after a few seconds.
Sometimes these are exactly what you want at a glance—the subject and sender of an incoming email, a quick Google Hangouts message—and when this happens, it can be magical.
But other times these cards are almost maddeningly vague. Text message notifications, for instance, are rife with wasted space. Here, just look:
If you're already mid-text conversation, this kind of information is totally useless relative to the actual message being sent. Even if it's a standalone message, the preference to stylize the top corner with a little icon instead of jamming as much information on the screen as humanly possible is a serious downer. It's not as maddening as the Galaxy Gear's "1 Gmail" notifications, but it's so tantalizingly close to being useful that it's almost worse.
"Now wait," you say. "This thing has a touchscreen. Can't you just reach out to your wrist and scroll?" Yes, you can, but there's something you may not have considered, because it doesn't become completely clear until you've tried using a touchscreen smartwatch in public, or worse, when walking: scrolling on your watch feels dumb. Like, really dumb. It is not futuristic. It is dumb.
Now granted, using the Toq doesn't always demand staring at your watch and swiping away like a lunatic. The action that swaps out the watch-face and shows you the control panel is a simple, natural—but most importantly subtle—tap on the band, right beneath the screen. This takes you to your sophisticated smartwatch-y stuff like settings and music control, or shows your latest notification if you have one. Likewise, turning on the backlight is a similarly subtle doubletap above the screen, though this one can be a little too easy to cock-up and have to redo.
Inside the Toq's control hub there are all kinds of fun little things you can do, but probably won't. You can use the music app to pause and play music and adjust volume instead of using the mic and buttons you (probably) already have on your headphones. You can check the weather. You can check your stocks (sidebar: who is demanding all these stocks apps?). But perhaps best of all, you can page your phone when you can't find the damn thing. And on the rare occasion that you do need this feature, it is the best feature.
I'm admittedly a big smartwatch booster, a self-effacingly nerdy fanboy of the wrist-screen of the future. Dick Tracy wannabe. Fashion impaired. There is documentation to back this up. The Toq is the closest thing to my own personal smartwatch nirvana yet. But it's still not worth it.
The Qualcomm Toq is at its best showing you notifications on your wrist and mostly dispenses with the gimmicks. When it vibrates and lets you see that someone texted you "be there in a minute!" without you having to go dig your phone out of your pocket. You know, the promise of a smartwatch.
And the screen! The screen is fantastic. Mirasol might not be destined for tablets, but it's wonderful in a smartwatch. Being able to see your screen in the brightest light of day is a huge advantage for any device, but for a watch it's a necessity. You can bet that whatever the future of smartwatches is, it's going to have to involve screen tech like this.
What's more is that this is easy to achieve. Setup is as simple as installing an app, pairing your devices, and selecting which apps get to shunt notifications over to your phone. Better yet it forms to you; the Toq is more than happy to just show you notifications from whatever apps you use on your wrist—no need to use a special this or a special that.
The battery life is just swell. You already have to worry about charging your phone every night, so it's a relief that that Toq can go days (roughly six, in our testing) without needing a charge-up. And even when it does, the included wireless charging stand makes it as easy as just setting the thing on your dresser overnight.
The Toq really seems to get at the heart of what a smartwatch can and should be, if the all the pieces aren't there yet. Its color touchscreen and cohesive—if bulky—style is a nice improvement over something like the Pebble, but it doesn't have the more ridiculous qualities of the Galaxy Gear, like a camera or a microphone or a suite of apps.
The Toq isn't hideous, but it's still very there. In an intrusive sort of way. It's inconspicuous like a camouflaged elephant. I'm a huge nerd and (still!) keen on smartwatches, and I just couldn't quite get behind wearing it all the time.
Some notification cards are better than others, but some crucial ones—like the default SMS message one—are just not up to snuff. It might seem nit-picky, but when you're talking about a $350 device that's founded on the basic principle of providing what's admittedly a pretty extravagant convenience, there's pretty much no wiggle room for anything but "perfect." That's the downside of having a device that's open to accepting notifications from any number of apps, sure. But this can and will be done better.
Should You Buy It?
No. The Qualcomm Toq is $350. That is a lot of money for a product that isn't quite able to prove its worth. Even if the Toq was a smartwatch dream come true, with notifications that showed you everything you could ever want to know, at a glance, in a package that was stunning to behold, $350 would be a tough sell for what's decidedly an occasional convenience. So considering there ARE some hitches in the execution, and that the Toq isn't exactly a piece of wrist candy in its own right, no. This isn't a purchase you should make unless you can throw $350 away on a total lark.
The Toq is an interesting device, and one of the best showcases for Mirasol to date. Chances are you'll see shades of it in the smartwatches of the future. But it's certainly not something you'll want to shell out for right now. You can see the perfect smartwatch that's hiding inside though. Take that beautiful screen, multi-day battery life, universal notification support, whittle down the bulky body, slice the price in half (or more) and you'll see what we're heading for. And for a proof of concept, that's a success.