Google IO 2016 Coverage

Motorola Moto 360 Sport review: Struggling to the finish line

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Unlike many smartwatch manufacturers hitting the market with new devices, Motorola was one of the early players in the field. This means that they are on to their second generation of devices giving them some experience regarding what works and what does not work. Motorola is also in a position where they can experiment a little bit with the form factor since they have a solid product with the regular Moto 360 line. Motorola decided to do just that with the Moto 360 Sport which tries to merge their smartwatch line with the functions of an activity tracker. Along the way, Motorola added some new features like an AnyLight display and standalone GPS to make it more useful for those engaging in active pursuits. All of this is provided in a device that is selling for $299 currently, putting it at the lower end of the “premium” smartwatch market but higher than most activity trackers. Join us for a look at whether Motorola was able to produce a winner with the Moto 360 Sport.

Design

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One of the early lessons smartwatch manufacturers learned is that buyers really want to be able to customize their watches by buying straps and swapping them around. That is why you see so many smartwatch manufacturers adopting a “lug” design for their devices so consumers can use traditional watch straps with their devices. For the Moto 360 Sport, Motorola went in a different direction.

The Moto 360 Sport comes ensconced in a silicone rubber strap that wraps around the body of the watch as a single piece. This gives the device a decidedly utilitarian look. Buyers have a choice of black, white or “flame orange” when placing their order and will be stuck with that choice. The material is very flexible and soft and seems to be capable of holding up against the elements and life’s bumps. The design also gives the Moto 360 Sport some help in achieving IP67 certification for resistance to dust and water so it can handle the elements. The question remains as to long-term durability though as there does not seem to be any option for repair or replacement should the strap eventually break or be damaged.

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Some owners have noted the silicone material the strap is made from is a dust magnet. This does seem to correct itself to some extent after a couple weeks, but does not entirely go away. So fans of a meticulously clean band may not appreciate the material.

The face of the Moto 360 Sport is surrounded by a bezel that is a light gray bordering on silver color. The bezel is very lightly scored, not so much as to make a fashion statement like the knurling on a regular Moto 360 bezel, but it is just enough to keep the bezel from being described as shiny, which is probably what Motorola was shooting for.

Like the second generation Moto 360, Motorola located the push button at the two o’clock position versus the first generation’s three o’clock position. This was done to give it a more natural feel for users who need to use it.

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Similar to the rest of Motorola’s Moto smartwatches, the Moto 360 Sport has an ambient light sensor located at the bottom of the screen. This creates the infamous “flat tire” that users either hate or have a “meh” attitude towards. Although it is not very noticeable, Motorola located the microphone for voice commands and input at the eight o’clock position on the side of the device.

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On the backside of the Moto 360 Sport users will find the heart rate sensor that uses technology common to the market that monitors the flow of blood using green LED lights.

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The unit body of the Moto 360 Sport is listed as 45mm in size, which puts it slightly smaller than the larger 46mm Moto 360, but larger than the 42mm model.

Hardware

The Moto 360 Sport features a 1.37-inch (360×325) AnyLight display, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 quad-core processor, 512MB of RAM, 4GB of internal storage, a 300mAh battery, a heart rate sensor, accelerometer, barometric altimeter, ambient light sensor, gyroscope, built-in GPS, IP67 certification, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, and WiFi 802.11 b/g.

Performance

Motorola did introduce a new technology for the display called AnyLight. This hybrid display technology causes the screen to reflect light in extremely bright situations, like outside sunlight. The technology works extremely well with the screen maintaining a nice, crisp resolution when in this mode and it is very easy to read the screen.

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Inside in lower light situations, the LCD display functions well with nice brightness. One issue that occasionally crops up is some hesitancy on the part of the display to automatically shift from ambient mode to full-on mode.

Not surprisingly, given that the Moto 360 Sport shares hardware common to many smartwatches on the market right now, performance of Android Wear was smooth and in general, as expected. Screens slide out with ease with smooth transitions. The motor providing vibrations is adequate and the vibrating is noticeable enough without being annoyingly strong.

For the first couple weeks with the Moto 360 Sport, I wore it alongside my Fitbit Charge HR to see how things like step counts would compare. In general I found the Moto 360 Sport was registering slightly fewer steps in normal daily use. Over the course of a 3-mile jog, I found the Charge HR was showing the distance as slightly longer, maybe a couple tenths of a mile. Since the Moto 360 Sport has built-in GPS to help accurately measure distances and in subsequent testing that seems to match what my phone pulls down, it looks like the issue was with the Charge HR being optimistic.

As far as the heart rate monitoring, the Moto 360 Sport seems to be consistent with my Charge HR. I do not have any way to take a medical quality reading of my heart rate alongside the devices, but then I do not expect that level of accuracy. The heart rate monitors in these devices should be used as a guide and I generally only look at the data post exercise instead of trying to pull a live number to hit some target.

One issue that I ran into, along with many other owners, was the Bluetooth support for wireless headphones. The Moto 360 Sport does support a direct connection between the device and Bluetooth wireless accessories like headphones while at the same time maintaining a Bluetooth connection with your smartphone. Unfortunately, for many headphones the Moto 360 Sport would only keep a strong connection if you hold your arm steady and in front of your body. Moving your arm down to your side and introducing some movement, like when you run or walk, caused lots of skipping and in my case with one set of headphones, actual disconnects. I think I eventually solved the problem by investing in some higher quality headphones that maintained the connection, so it is unclear to me where the problem lies. When Motorola started rolling out the Marshmallow update, they indicated the problem with poor Bluetooth connections was addressed, but I have not yet been able to test this.

Another problem I ran into was an apparent conflict between Android Wear devices in the Wear app on my smartphone. To setup the Moto 360 Sport and pair it with your smartphone, you do have to install the Android Wear app. Upon doing that, the app also picked up my Google Glass as a Wear device. Initially this was not a problem, but I quickly discovered that if the watch lost the connection to the phone, like when you might move out of range, it could not re-establish a connection without a factory reset. The problem got so bad the Moto 360 Sport was unable to even complete initial setup after one of these resets. I solved that problem by unpairing my Google Glass, turning them off, and “forgetting” them in the Wear app on the smartphone. That does leave me wondering what may happen the next time I try to use my Glass though.

Battery

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With a 300mAh battery and general use for checking notifications during the day, battery life seemed to vary from 12 hours to around 18 hours. This was with Ambient Mode turned on, so one could probably squeeze some extra time if they turned that off. With such a small battery, charging via the included charger was generally quick.

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In one test that I did (where I finally fixed the headphones issue) I was running Google Play Music off the Moto 360 Sport and the GPS was running while I used the Moto Body Running app to track my run. Based on the battery drain, I estimated I could get about 2 hours of this kind of use before the battery would start throwing low battery warnings. For the runners and walkers out there, keep this in mind if you are planning to use the Moto 360 Sport during events that might last more than two hours.

As I was wrapping up my testing of the Moto 360 Sport, Motorola did push out the Marshmallow update for Android Wear. That is supposed to bring Android’s Doze functionality to smartwatches to help improve battery life. What is not clear is how that might work with a device like the Moto 360 Sport that is doubling as an activity tracker and ostensibly is always on trying to track activity and things like heart rates. In just a couple days of use, I have not noticed any appreciable change in battery life with the update, although I might be able to squeeze out 24 hours if I limit use of the smartwatch.

Finally, the Moto 360 Sport is supposed to support Qi wireless charging. Judging from comments I have seen and my own experience, this seems to be spotty at best with some Qi chargers working and others not working. For my own test, I purchased a Qi charger to keep in my car so I could charge the Moto 360 Sport during my commute (step counters know the challenge of finding inactive times to charge devices). Unfortunately, the unit I purchased does not charge the watch.

Software

One of the moves Google made with Android Wear was trying to keep manufacturers from doing much to modify the interface or how the basic system works. This brings some more consistency to the platform and it means that one Android Wear device will work essentially the same as any other device.

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In the latest Marshmallow update for Android Wear, Google included several new gestures to do things like return to the main screen or drill down into notification cards. In brief testing, these seem to work as well as the original gestures for scrolling through notifications.

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One issue I continue to have is trouble with Google Now. Sometimes it quickly recognizes the words I’m speaking and takes action. Other times, I can spend five minutes and half a dozen repeats and it still does not understand me, sometimes when I am repeating a command it recognized only a few minutes earlier. I say this is a continuing problem as I suffer the same fate when trying to use Google Now on my smartphones or even through the desktop browser. I would normally attribute this to Google’s inability to process my Southern dialect, but the fact that it works sometimes and not others is frustrating. There are also several reports floating around from other users that Motorola broke the “OK Google…” functionality when they pushed out the Marshmallow update, so a patch may be forthcoming.

As far as what Motorola has provided in terms of software, the main item is the Moto Body app and the Moto Body Running app. The Moto Body app is their take on activity tracking software, so it can provide updated information on things like daily step counts or whether you get your 30 minutes of heart activity in per day. The app will occasionally pop up during the day with reminders and encouragement which is a nice feature. The one item I do miss though, compared to my previous activity trackers, is vertical movement tracking like number of floors. This seems odd since the Moto 360 Sport includes an altimeter and GPS which should help with measuring movement up and down.

Related to the Moto Body app is the Moto Body Running app. This special purpose app is Motorola’s version of a run or walk tracking app similar to Runtastic, Strava, Runkeeper or several others on the market. It is similar in that it can keep track of your activities, including recording a map of a route using the GPS. The app will also provide users with information like pace, distance, time, and some information on things like splits. The similarities stop at the basics though as the app is not very configurable. For instance, it will vibrate during a run upon reaching a mile marker, but that cannot be changed to vibrate at certain times, like every five minutes, or for shorter distances. Since the unit supports Bluetooth headphones, I would have expected some verbal feedback to be available as well, although the screen in general works well enough to quickly glance at it. That is still a bit of pain when one is used to an app that “announce” information during an activity. Despite the limitations and basic feature set, the Moto Body Running app is what I use for recording my runs via the smartwatch.

Closing

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Motorola is marketing the Moto 360 Sport as a device for active people who want features found in an activity tracker combined with the Android Wear platform. This would give users the benefit of a smartwatch when engaged in normal daily activities and the benefit of an exercise accessory when working out. Motorola also heavily markets the Moto 360 Sport as a device that can be used standalone when doing things like running or biking so users can leave their phone behind.

The Moto 360 Sport does succeed at the being a smartwatch part of the equation, but with the state of the Android Wear platform, it would be difficult for any device not to. The screen is large enough and bright enough to get the job done and with the Snapdragon 400 processor, the device runs smoothly and as expected, although I am noticing a few hiccups since the Marshmallow update.

The problem for the Moto 360 Sport comes when shifting over to the standalone activity-oriented device mode. The traditional thinking for smartwatches is that it should serve as an extension of a user’s smartphone and not as a replacement. However, if one is going to leave their smartphone behind as Motorola is marketing this device, then the smartwatch does need to serve as a replacement for at least a few functions.

The problem I am experiencing has to do with the lack of apps and an ecosystem that supports the standalone nature of the Moto 360 Sport. Some apps out there claim to do so thanks to the Sony Smartwatch 3 preceding Motorola’s device. However, in practice it appears support for standalone GPS is something that has to be enabled per device instead of the apps just recognizing it is there. Which means the onboard GPS of the Moto 360 Sport is not really supported. Likewise, Motorola did not really build out their activity tracking apps to be able to replace other apps and those other apps are designed to function as an extension of the smartphone instead of running standalone on a smartwatch.

As noted, the Moto 360 Sport has some problems with the Bluetooth support being spotty at best with headphones. For my testing, this meant until only recently, I still had to carry my phone with me to be able to listen to music while running. Even with that issue apparently corrected, I will still be limited to what I download onto the Moto 360 Sport instead of being able to stream music, so some planning has to take place to use the smartwatch for this purpose.

Some of the apps I tested say they support Android Wear. That is true in the sense that they will provide controls that enable the smartwatch to effectively serve as a remote control for the main app running on a smartphone. Running in true standalone mode though is the exception rather than the rule. Motorola needs to encourage and maybe even help app developers work on things like enabling audio cues to run off the smartwatch instead of the phone.

Most early adopters of the Moto 360 Sport likely picked it up for the same reason I did – to have a device on their wrist that could replace their smartphone during workouts and get the benefits of Android Wear during the rest of the day. Motorola seems to have packed in the necessary features, barring addressing some issues like the Bluetooth problems, to make that happen. However, the rest of the market does not seem to be ready for this which means the dream of leaving your smartphone behind is still just a dream. If app developers do catch up to where Motorola is trying to go, I think they will have a winner with the Moto 360 Sport.

[Motorola]


About the Author: Jeff Causey

Raised in North Carolina, Jeff Causey is a chief financial officer and licensed CPA in Durham, North Carolina. Jeff has owned an HTC EVO, a Samsung Note II, and an LG G3 along with a Samsung Galaxy Tablet 10.1. He currently uses a Motorola Moto X Pure Edition and a Nexus 7 (2013). Jeff used to have a pair of Google Glass and a Moto 360 Sport in his stable of gadgets. Unfortunately, his wife and kids have all drunk the Apple Kool-Aid and have i-devices. Life at home often includes demonstrations of the superiority of his Android based devices. In his free time, Jeff is active in his church, a local MINI Cooper car club, and his daughter's soccer club. Jeff is married, has three kids, and a golden retriever.


  • schmolch

    If you are looking for a smartwatch with the capabilities of a *real* sports-watch “the Moto 360 Sport seems to be consistent with my Charge HR” is rather useless. That’s just lazy, you could at least have recorded some hr-data on a workout and show a comparison. Gotta wait for dcrainmaker’s review which will most likely show that the hr-sensor is useless.