Smartwatches versus regular watches. It's not exactly a debate as old as time itself, but it's one that's arisen over the last few years. On one hand, you have a section of watches which simply tell the time, while on the other you have a category which spreads its wings and delves into fitness tracking, health monitoring and music streaming – all while, yes, still giving you the time.
But for some people, the look of a full touchscreen smartwatch just isn't for them, and none of the hybrid smartwatches are quite to their taste. As feature-packed as smartwatches have quickly become, 'dumb' timepieces (as they're known) still have that sentimental value. For other people, they just want to stick with what they know.
Gooseberry is trying to bring these two worlds together with its Kickstarter-launched Smart Buckle, a attachment that upgrades your regular watch buckle to give you an insight into metrics such as your steps and sleep. It essentially acts as an implant to make your favourite dumb watch smart.
We've been living with the buckle for the past couple of weeks to discover whether the concept works in the world of smartwatches, and test the results against one of the industry's heavyweights.
Smart Buckle: Design and setup
Naturally, the number one objective of an accessory like this is discretion – and the Smart Buckle achieves it. Granted, this stainless steel design isn't as light as the buckle on the Shinola Runwell, but it's also something that feels virtually no different when on the wrist. And besides the colour not matching the gold finish on the watch itself (Smart Buckle also offers both grey and rose gold options), it doesn't stand out sitting on the underside of the wrist, either.
While it may look like a regular buckle, packed inside are the sensors which power the smarts of the device. A 3-axis gyrometer, angular velocity sensor and motion sensor are all used to calculate steps, pace, distance, calories burned and sleep patterns, with the data then shot into the companion app, which works with both iOS and Android. There are no haptics to let you know when you've got a notification on your smartphone, with a green LED (also used as a charging indicator) instead flashing every time you receive a buzz.
In terms of setting the device up, you obviously have to switch it out for your regular watch buckle. As a person with slim-to-no practical skills, seeing the tools when I opened up the box filled me with dread. But after watching an instructional video (yes, I needed this much assistance), the process was simple enough.
You'll also need to charge the device up, which is a done through the magnetic, proprietary Gooseberry charger shown above, before connecting it to your smartphone via Bluetooth through the Smart Buckle app.
The overall fit here will vary depending on which regular timepiece you're looking to pair with the Buckle, but Gooseberry says that any device with a 20mm strap should be able to work with its attachment.
Smart Buckle: In use
So the design is relatively seamless and setup is painless, but how is it on accuracy?
In a word, the Smart Buckle has been inconsistent when compared to the Fitbit Ionic. The latter is the gold standard when it comes to wrist-worn sleep trackers right now, while its step counting is usually there or thereabouts when compared to rival options from the likes of Garmin and Apple.
We've been going double-watch over the past couple of weeks to test the two against each other, and unfortunately there's been some disparity between the pair.
Let's start with step counting. As we can see below, we have three days of data in which the two devices differ greatly on how many I took. From strapping both on my wrist on Monday morning (and taking off that evening), the Ionic clocked in 8,755 steps compared to the Smart Buckle's 4,918.
(Left – Smart Buckle weekly summary; middle – Smart Buckle daily move summary; right – Fitbit weekly steps summary)
That's a large discrepancy. It's almost as if it ran out of battery and missed my walk home from work, which, in all honesty, it could have done. After all, the only way to check the level of battery is to look in the app. And while you'd usually be able to go back and check when a device was tracking by looking back on an hourly breakdown, there's no way to do this with Smart Buckle. Instead, the app gives you a barebones experience which highlights only the basic numbers.
Thankfully, things were a little closer on Tuesday, though still over 1,000 steps behind Fitbit. Meanwhile, midway through Wednesday, the Buckle was ahead of the Ionic by 500 steps. All in all, a margin of a few hundred steps is reasonable in our book, so more of Wednesday's behaviour would be encouraging.
The troubles aren't limited to the step counting, though. With sleep, the Smart Buckle is aiming to track the time you went to bed, the time you woke up, how much you spent in light sleep and, conversely, how much was in deep sleep. What we've found, though, is that the device frequently just doesn't track sleep. Let's take the week below as another example. Tuesday night was completely missed, yet tracked through the Fitbit, while Wednesday missed off the first hour of sleep – in turn leading to inaccurate results.
(Left – Fitbit sleep weekly summary; middle – Fitbit nightly summary; right – Smart Buckle weekly summary)
Since this isn't aiming to bring you the same in-depth breakdown of your night that Fitbit's Sleep Stages provides, the odd bit of difference could be tolerated. But that's on the basis that it's still tracking when you want it, which the Smart Buckle hasn't in our experience. In the week prior, it also missed off two nights of tracking sleep.
Battery life is also another consideration here. Gooseberry notes that you can expect around a week of use when using the device for around eight to 10 hours per day, which we've found to be roughly accurate. Since we've been using the device continuously, we've found the Buckle usually taps out after around three days. This is above what most smartwatches tracking around the clock can provide, and a positive here is that the Smart Buckle only takes around one hour to fully recharge.
Smart Buckle: Effective solution?
All in all, we have some mixed feelings about the Smart Buckle. After experiencing some inconsistency issues within testing, it's hard to give this a recommendation. However, the concept is something we love, and the design is something that really works here.
After spending so much time with devices and apps delving into your every metric, it's actually refreshing to use an alternative that strips things back. We only wish that things were a little more consistent.
One compliment I can pay the Smart Buckle is that I don't really feel the need to switch back to my regular buckle on my favourite non-smart watch. Hopefully, over time, we'll find the results begin to mirror the heavyweights in the business more closely.
And within that time, adding the odd tweak to the functionality – such as a notification when your battery is running low, or basic graphs on specific activity and sleep times – also wouldn't hurt.
The price was a reasonable $39 if you jumped on board during the company's campaign, with the tag now resting at $99. In time, it could prove to be a solid acquisition for those who don't want to leave their beloved dumb watch behind. However, with the tracking data currently so far out, this can't yet be considered a viable option to replace your activity tracker.
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