The Kairos SSW/MSW smartwatch will be brilliant one day

Baselworld 2015: Hands on with the smartwatch we never believed would exist
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We've said in the past that the Kairos smartwatch might never come out – that its tech was too ambitious to make it to market. Well, we were wrong.

As we met Kairos on the top floor of a swanky hotel overlooking the melee of Baselworld 2015 below, the company revealed it would start to fulfil orders as early as May.

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Underneath, the Kairos watches use a traditional automatic movement, the same as you'd find in any Rolex or Tag. It's an expensive and intricate system that demands a top price – which goes some way to explain why Kairos' smartwatches cost in excess of $1,000.

Of course, there are many many versions that CEO Sam Yang promised were incredibly simple to understand. They're not, but we begin our explanation below.

The Kairos SSW/MSW smartwatch will be brilliant one day

The watches come in two skews: MSW and SSW. The MSW variant uses a Japanese movement, while the SSW opts for Swiss, and each type of watch is available in three flavours: a plain traditional watch with zero tech, a smart version with an OLED overlay on the glass, and the T-Band edition, which rejects tech within the watch itself, in favour of putting all the smarts in the strap.

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Oh, and the techy versions are available with a Dot Matrix display and a Icon Display, which are different. Simple, right?

Like understanding the line up, the process to market has not been an easy ride for Kairos. Despite raising $2m in pre-orders, the company has been beset by delays since its original Indiegogo campaign back in June 2014, and it's had to change some of the designs – much to the consternation of some vocal backers.

But now the company is on the way back. It's promising to start shipping orders from the first week of May 2015, beginning with a tentative 100 watches, before upping to 500 and 1,000 batches in the weeks after. But is it any good?

We got hands on with the Kairos smartwatch range to find out.

Kairos MSW/SSW: Design

The Kairos SSW/MSW smartwatch will be brilliant one day

From here on we're going to ignore the stock, no-tech watch completely. It's the connected tech we're interested in. All we will say though, that the Swiss movement is infinitely more intricate and beautiful, when viewed through the skeletal back.

In terms of the build of the watch, it is nearly 2cm deep (17.1mm to be precise) and it's a fair weight. Female friendly, it certainly isn't. Each version comes in three finishes, with black, chrome and gold all available.

The main choice, once you've decided between Japanese or Swiss, is whether to choose between the Dot Matrix screen tech, and the Icon Display – and that's not easy.

The Dot Matrix is a fully functioning display, which can show off full text messages and notifications, before turning off to reveal the analogue watch below. The problem is that it's only 40% translucent when powered off, which does obscure a lot of the gorgeous mechanics below. It's like looking through a tinted window.

The Kairos SSW/MSW smartwatch will be brilliant one day

The Icon Display has a series of set notifications, which light up when required. If you get a text, the appropriate icon sings out in vibrant colour from the sapphire. There's also eight alphanumeric characters in the middle, so you can get a ticker style read out of messages, albeit far from ideal.

The Icon Display is 60% translucent, making it less noticeable when turned off, and Yang revealed they'd get an 80% translucent version to market by the end of the year, but you'd be forgiven for taking that with a pinch of salt given prior form.

Offering two different experiences for one of your three skews is extremely risky for Kairos, yet it's hard to know which is best. The Dot Matrix panel really affects legibility of the watch face, yet no-one wants the compromised icon style notifications either.

Of course, you could plump for the T-Band option instead, but that's a different story altogether.

Kairos MSW/SSW: Features

The Kairos SSW/MSW smartwatch will be brilliant one day

The Kairos smartwatch is all about notifications, and the company has an impressive array of third party support. There are all the usual suspects; calls, texts and emails, for example, but there's also Facebook, WhatsApp and more.

Yang said there's no real need for an app store, and revealed that he's in talks with WeChat and other Asian services to plug them into the watch's experience.

Activity tracking is another area, and interestingly, Kairos has offloaded the responsibility onto Misfit, which is powering the sleep and fitness logging elements – much like it does on Pebble.

It's impossible to know how well this works, from the demonstration. However, we did receive a message on the watch during our time with it, and the text was easy to read and legible, and there's certainly a future in the screen overlay idea.

Kairos MSW/SSW: Release date and price

The Kairos SSW/MSW smartwatch will be brilliant one day

The first pre-orders will be fulfilled in May 2015, and it could take two months to get through the backlog.

Rounding up pricing would be too confusing for anyone to pick through without losing grip on reality, so let's just say that the price tags range from $1,139 (Japanese movement, black with icon screen) to $2,549 (Swiss movement, in gold).

Kairos MSW/SSW: Early verdict

Kairos has chosen a difficult path with its smartwatch, and it's not got everything right yet – but it's heading in an exciting direction. Overlaying analogue and digital makes a lot of sense: it leaves your watch to be a watch, and not having an always-on display saves you bucket loads of power.

While the design is frankly too chunky at present, Kairos' watches don't look out of place among the beautiful offerings here in Basel, and that's a big compliment.

However, while choice is essential for smartwatches to flourish, it feels like Kairos has gone too far, too early. Simplifying its screen tech would be good start, let alone the options of colour and connectivity.

We're looking forward to getting our hands on the finished product, when it's finally released.

TAGGED Smartwatches

How we test

James Stables


James is the co-founder of Wareable, and he has been a technology journalist for 15 years.

He started his career at Future Publishing, James became the features editor of T3 Magazine and and was a regular contributor to TechRadar – before leaving Future Publishing to found Wareable in 2014.

James has been at the helm of Wareable since 2014 and has become one of the leading experts in wearable technologies globally. He has reviewed, tested, and covered pretty much every wearable on the market, and is passionate about the evolving industry, and wearables helping people achieve healthier and happier lives.

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