24 January 2016

Martian Notifier: The Watch that Wants to be Smart

Everybody, it seems, wants to be in the wearables game - but there's not a lot of agreement on what the rules of that game actually are. You've got companies like Pebble that opt for e-paper LCDs and big friendly buttons, brands like Apple that want a square touchscreen that goes black after a few seconds, platforms like Android Wear that want you to "Be Together, Not The Same" with a variety of shapes, form factors, and features to choose from, and things like the Rufus Cuff that offer brilliant opportunities to cosplay as Leela from Futurama.

The Martian Notifier is the entry-level offering from a company that seems to think all of those options are just a little bit too smart. Instead, they offer a "genuine timepiece with smart features, rather than a miniature phone on your wrist". In other words, it's a classic analog watch with a small monochrome OLED display to show a single line of text.

Martian will sell the Notifier to you for $130 from their website but you don't have to look too hard to find it for around forty bucks. I saw it offered from Android Area for $36 and figured it was worth trying out for that price. The large price variation makes it a bit difficult to evaluate this watch fairly. There are few smartwatches worth considering in the sub-$50 range, but $130 puts it competing with Pebbles ($100 for the Classic, $150 for Time) and a lot of older Android Wear devices. For reference, my smartwatch background includes both the original Pebble and the Huawei Watch (my thoughts on how they compare), but I've also owned many "dumb" watches from Seiko, Luminox, Marathon, Casio, and others. I was hoping that the Martian Notifier would wind up somewhere in between.

I was impressed by the packaging that the Martian Notifier arrived in. Within the outer display box, the watch is encased in a quality box made of thick plastic. It's solid enough that I would feel a little bad just throwing it away, but I'm not sure it would serve much other purpose. It does, however, make it quite easy to extract the watch and accessories and easy to pack them back away if you were so inclined.

The Martian Notifier is available in three color options: white, red, and black. I opted for the black one. The watch itself is a matte black plastic accented by two chrome buttons on the left side and a chrome crown on the right. There is a polished-looking ring around the acrylic crystal of the face and a brushed-look stainless steel backplate. The thick silicon band blends smoothly with the shape of the watch and is soft and pliable to the touch. I was a bit surprised by the thickness of the Martian Notifier; at 12.7mm it sits between my trusty Huawei Watch (11.3mm) and my fallback non-smart Luminox 3051 (13.9mm). I had kind of hoped that it would be thinner, but (as mentioned) it's far from the thickest watch I've worn. Oddly, the two buttons on the left side of the watch sit closer to the backplate, the crown on the right is closer to the face, and the cover for the micro-USB charging port on the right side is the only component which seems to be centered within the watch's depth. It's not really a problem, I guess; it's just weird. Keeping with the weird, the previously-mentioned single-line OLED display occupies the bottom of the watch face (between the four- and eight-o'clock positions), but is oddly shifted to the left to make room for the the Martian "M" logo letter to appear at the roughly five-o'clock position. The face already says "Martian" on it; I would much rather have a wider display than this random M that breaks all possible symmetry. There’s also a bright multicolor LED which rests above the eight-o’clock marker (again, symmetry).

Martian says that their watches are timepieces first and foremost, and to that end the Notifier is ready to go right out of the box. The watch arrives with the crown pulled out to preserve the coin cell battery dedicated to keeping time, so a few spins of the crown are all that’s required to set the time. Once set, just depress the crown to start the watch a-ticking. The analog clock functions exactly as you would expect an analog clock to. The clock never times out, has no viewing angle limitations, is completely visible even in direct sunlight, and even has faintly-luminescent indicators on the hands for some degree of legibility in total darkness. It’s a watch, it does watch things.

Getting the smartwatch functions going takes a bit more effort, and that starts with charging the Martian’s other battery - a Lithium Polymer battery which provides an advertised 5-7 days worth of smarter functions. Charging is accomplished by means of the micro-USB port recessed behind the rubber dust cover on the right side of the watch’s body - and I do mean recessed. The port sits deep enough that Martian provides a special charging cable with an extra-long connector. I thought it a bit strange to use a standard charging port but a non-standard connector, but it is what it is. It took my Notifier about two and a half hours to reach a full charge, as indicated by the LED changing from red to green.

While the Martian Notifier should be ready to pair with an iPhone once it is fully charged, you’ll need to access the on-watch menu to enable “Android Mode” before attempting to connect it with an Android device. This is accomplished by means of the two shiny buttons on the left side of the watch - the bottom scrolls through menu options, as displayed on the OLED screen, and the top activates the selected option. I feel like operating the menu in this manner would have been much easier had the buttons been on opposite sides of the watch. At any rate, once I got through that hurdle I was able to successfully discover and pair the Notifier from my Nexus 6P, where it registers using the Input Device Bluetooth profile.

The aptly-named Martian Notifier Android app is used to configure the watch’s various options, and it also registers a notification listener for forwarding alerts to the watch. In a strong throwback to Jellybean-era “Holo” design, the Martian Notifier app consists of seven horizontally-scrolled tabbed views. Some of the tabs have obvious purposes (Alarms, Setup, Help) while others are somewhat less clear. The Alerts tab is the place to enable and configure notifications on a per-app basis, the Repeater tab provides the option of an hourly vibration to mark the slow passage of time, and the Display tab offers options for the configurable World Clock and Today’s Weather displays. The Home tab displays the watch’s connection status (along with giant buttons for toggling that status), the state of the Notification Access permission (which really only matters once, during the initial setup), a Do Not Disturb toggle (since the watch blatantly ignores Android’s built-in DND rules), an option to configure the vibrator intensity (why is this not on the Setup tab?), and a static box for dismissing any currently-alerting alarms. The app uses a persistent high-priority notification which displays the watch’s current battery level. It is easy enough to block the app from generating that notification, but be warned that the battery information is not displayed anywhere else within the app. All told, the Martian Notifier Android app is a waking nightmare, and my only solace was in the knowledge that I only really needed to launch the app once for initially configuring the watch’s settings and notifications.

On that note, aside from a few pre-defined rules, setting up the notification handler is an entirely manual per-app configuration process. In addition to simply enabling notifications for an app you are also able to set up custom Vibration Patterns for each, which consist of up to four sequences of Short/Long/Pause vibrations. In theory, this could be really handy for quickly distinguishing between notifications for different apps. In practice, however, I found that the patterns were all but useless for me: each custom pattern is preceded by a long pulse, and the vibrations at any given intensity level are sloppy and blend together anyway. Incoming alerts (or the first 120 characters of them) are scrolled across the Notifier’s 96 x 16 pixel OLED screen along with an accompanying flash of blue light from the excessively-bright notification LED. Notifications in this manner take several seconds to display; in the case of Hangouts, it’s frustratingly easy to get stuck in a minute-long backlog of constant sloppy vibrations, LED flashing, and scrolling text. And while Android Wear is kind enough to not notify my wrist of new messages when I’m actively engaged in a Hangout on my computer, the Martian just happily alerts me to every. single. message. Receiving notifications on the Huawei Watch or Pebble is a subtle nudge which doesn’t pull you out of the moment; being alerted by the Notifier is an altogether jarring and unpleasant experience. I will never complain about the Huawei Watch’s almost-too-gentle vibrator ever again. Active notifications can be dismissed by tapping on the Martian Notifier’s glass, and tapping while idle will recall the most recent notification up to five minutes after it is received. You can also display all previous notifications by pressing both buttons simultaneously and then stepping through the list using the two buttons to scroll.

The Martian Notifier app was quick to let me know that my watch needed a firmware update. Rather than performing the update directly from the app over Bluetooth, the Martian must be connected to a PC (or Mac) via the provided USB cable in order to flash the firmware update -  like a caveman. The good(?) news is that you’ll probably only ever have to do this once: the latest firmware update (10.54) was published in May 2015, and I get the impression that long term updates are not a huge priority for Martian. At any rate, the update added support for Android’s Actionable Notifications for apps like Inbox which provide interaction options within the notification. You simply tap the top button to trigger the first action (Mark as Done, in the case of Inbox) or the bottom button for the second action (Reply All). Clearly some of these actions are more useful on a wearable device than others, but it’s nice to have the capability.

Aside from notification handling, the Martian Notifier does have some other tricks - some of which are even pretty clever. Pressing the top button while the watch is idle will launch Google Voice Search on your paired phone, and that actually works surprisingly well as a remote trigger. Pressing the bottom button will scroll through a four-panel display which shows the current time in the timezone configured by the app, current battery level and connection status, today’s day and date, and today’s weather forecast (high/low temperature and precipitation prediction - nothing realtime). Pressing the bottom button twice enters the menu where you can access a few options and different modes like activating the LED as a tiny flashlight or enabling Do Not Disturb mode. The Notifier also features a remote camera mode, which ties into a camera component of the Martian Notifier app and supports both front and rear device cameras. Once in camera mode, quickly pressing the top button will immediately trigger the camera’s shutter while a long-press will set a 3-second shutter timer. Activating the Martian Notifier’s Find Phone function will max out your phone’s media volume and play a few piano notes quite loudly - definitely effective for when your phone is playing hide and seek. Last but not least in the Notifier’s bag of tricks is a Phone Leash option which will alert your watch if you wander beyond the range of your phone’s Bluetooth connection. Oddly enough, these extra features all seem to work much better than the more primary function of handling notifications.

This may be the best smartwatch that forty dollars can buy, but I certainly wouldn’t pay much more than that. I’m not even particularly wild about the Martian Notifier as a watch. It feels unnecessarily bulky (unlike the purposeful bulk of a Casio G-SHOCK) and is not especially aesthetically pleasing thanks to its apparent abhorrence for symmetry. The way it delivers notifications is functional, but quickly becomes annoying with rapid-fire messages like in the case of Hangouts. I could probably improve my experience somewhat by disabling Hangouts notifications entirely and using the Notifier only for email and other asynchronous communication, but then I would be missing out on an important set of real-time alerts. The added features like remote camera control and a dedicated Voice Search hot key are nice to have, but they’re not good enough to make me want to wear the Martian any longer than I needed to write this review.

I had hoped that this watch might be appropriate for someone like my dad who has a casual interest in technology and gadgets but doesn’t need all the bells and whistles of an Android Wear device. I honestly like my dad too much to wish this experience upon him. This could be a good cheap smartwatch to wear at times when you wouldn’t want something as nice as the Huawei Watch to get banged up. For my money, though, I’d much rather go for the Pebble Classic (currently $77 shipped from Amazon) - it handles notifications more elegantly, is more comfortable and less bulky to wear, and is infinitely expandable with apps and watchfaces. Also, its symmetry is nice.

Do you think the Martian Notifier might be a good fit for you? Since I wouldn't feel right giving it to my dad, let me know your reasoning in the comments and I might just mail you a watch!