Casio Smart Outdoor Watch review: Android Wear climbs a mountain

GOOD STUFF
  • Extra software that’s actually useful
  • Functional, sensible design
  • Good battery life
BAD STUFF
  • Missing some obvious features
  • Expensive
  • Doesn’t look good with a suit

Casio

The trouble with smartwatches is that no one really knows what they’re for yet. Undercooked as app platforms, underperforming as fitness trackers, and underwhelming as fashion items, it’s unclear to most people why they’d want to strap a little computer to their wrist.

As a company that’s very used to getting people to strap little computers to their wrist, however, it’s perhaps not surprising that Casio has taken a different approach with its first smartwatch. The $500 Smart Outdoor Watch twists Android Wear into a new shape like no other product before it. Although it’s far from perfect, the result is the rare modern smartwatch with actual focus.

That focus is hiking, with a slew of sensors and features designed to help you scale mountains. It’s safe to say I’m not really a hiker, but I did want to test the Smart Outdoor Watch as fully as I could, so I strapped it to my wrist one recent weekend and set off to the summit of Mount Takao — a popular and reasonably non-threatening mountain just outside Tokyo.

Casio

So, about those tools, as Casio officially calls them. They include a compass, a barometer to detect air pressure, an altimeter to calculate your height, activity graphs, sunrise and sunset times, and tide charts. The basic information from all of these is viewable in the monochrome mode, but chances are you’ll be using the color screens more often.

Casio has designed several watch faces that can be customized with widgets for each tool, while there’s a dedicated Tool button that essentially quick-launches an app and lets you switch between dedicated views for each tool with repeated presses. This is useful if you need to check something while wearing gloves or in another situation where a touchscreen would be too fiddly.

THE RARE ANDROID DEVICE WITH USEFUL CUSTOM SOFTWARE

You can, of course, use any other Android Wear watch face, but the way Casio has woven sensor data into its own faces means you’re unlikely to find anything more useful. In fact, the Smart Outdoor Watch is the rare Android device where I found the manufacturer customizations to be more useful than the underlying stock software. This is particularly unusual for Android Wear, where every watch to date has featured virtually identical software beyond the faces. But Casio’s clever mix of watch faces, preloaded apps, and physical buttons makes the Smart Outdoor Watch a far simpler and more functional device to use; notifications aside, you may never need to see a stock Android Wear screen during normal hiking use.

You won’t need to use the regular Android Wear app on your phone too often after initial setup, either. Casio has developed an Android-only app called Moment Setter that handles all of the Smart Outdoor Watch’s unique functionality, letting you customize the faces and buttons. The app’s name comes from the ability to set “moments,” or notifications that alert you when you reach defined conditions on your hike — once you’ve reached a certain height, when the air pressure drops beyond a precise point, or when it gets a given time away from sunset. Other preloaded apps on the watch include Runkeeper, GPS assistant Viewranger, and a utility that lets you use your wrist as a viewfinder for Casio’s Exilim FR100 action camera.

DSCF4122All of these hiking-focused features worked as advertised, and it was fun to find my way around an unfamiliar mountain with this extra information close to hand. I wouldn’t say that any of it was essential, but the point is that Casio is playing in a well-defined category here that many hikers do find use for. And, of course, you get the slight but not insignificant benefit of Android Wear’s regular features as well.

The biggest reason I can think of not to go for this over a regular ABC watch is, predictably, battery life. But even then, I found it good for a smartwatch — it easily lasted two days of fairly heavy use, and would have dramatically better endurance if I relied on the monochrome screen mode. It might not be the best choice for long camping trips, but you’re going to need to charge your phone before you have to charge this watch.

I think the Smart Outdoor Watch is pretty good as a hiking watch. But it’s the Smart Outdoor Watch, not the the Smart Hiking Watch, and I do feel like it’s missing some features that would make it a useful product for more outdoor activities. It has a rudimentary app to help you track trekking, cycling, and fishing sessions, for instance, but this is basic distance over time stuff; there’s nothing aimed at runners, which you’d think would be a more mainstream use case. Even taking the built-in Runkeeper and Viewranger apps into account, the watch lacks a heart rate sensor and GPS capability of its own, which should have been possible for a device that costs this much. And a thermometer would have been a good addition, too, if only because there’s no way to display the temperature on any of Casio’s watch faces and jumping to the stock Android weather app is pretty jarring.

DSCF4127.0

Still, the fact that the Smart Outdoor Watch isn’t a mainstream product works to its benefit — with its laser focus on a certain type of person, I know exactly who I’d recommend it to. That’s more than I can say for a more conventional and versatile device like the Apple Watch, which I personally wear most days without using more than a tiny fraction of its functionality.

Casio deserves a lot of credit for reshaping Android Wear into an original and unique new product, something I wasn’t sure was possible. It overcomes many of the drawbacks of smartwatches while making total sense as a product in its category; if you’re in the market for a hiking watch that also works as a smartwatch, and you use an Android phone, I think you’ll be very happy with what Casio’s produced. If you’re not looking specifically for a hiking smartwatch? Maybe wait and see if Casio ever makes a G-Shock smartwatch, because this one really isn’t the sort of thing you’ll want to wear every day.

But none of that should take away from what Casio’s done here, though — its first effort at a smartwatch is the most innovative and convincing Android Wear device I’m yet to see.

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