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Before you get an Apple Watch, learn the basics of smartwatches

Smartwatches give you directions, tell you the weather, play music, and show you your text messages. Also, they tell time.
Smartwatches give you directions, tell you the weather, play music, and show you your text messages. Also, they tell time.

Today, Apple revealed the Apple Watch, its first-ever smartwatch. If you're like a lot of Americans, you stopped wearing a watch long ago — or maybe you never even wore one. But Apple is hoping you'll change your ways when it starts selling the Apple Watch in early 2015. Before they unleash it onto the world, here are the basics on smartwatches.

What exactly makes something a smartwatch?

A smartwatch straps to your wrist and tells time, but it also serves purposes far beyond that.

Smartwatches function as a secondary notification screens for your smartphone. That means they can tell you who's calling, alert you of a new calendar appointment, and  deliver your latest messages. So instead of pulling your phone out of your pocket to see a text, you can instead just look at your watch.

They also can play music. Watches either can control the music player on your phone or store music so you can play it back using bluetooth headphones. And they accept voice commands — Motorola's latest 360 Moto watch allows you to ask Google what today's weather is going to be like or tell it to create a calendar appointment.

In addition, today's smartwatches often track fitness, acting as pedometers and heart rate monitors. So in some ways a smartwatch acts as a phone, mp3 player, watch, and Fitbit all at once.

Are smartwatches a new idea?

Calculator watch

Ah, the good old days, when you had a calculator strapped to your wrist. (Source: eBay user s.otimelessantiques)

Not exactly. Though they feel like the wave of the future now, watches that compute in one form or another have been around for decades. Smartwatch information site points back to the Hamilton Watch Company's Pulsar, produced in 1972, as an early smartwatch. That watch stored up to 24 digits. Later Pulsar watches functioned as calculators and also allowed you to connect to a small printer, according to TechRadar.

By the 1990s and 2000s, companies were very interested in making smartwatches (though with varying degrees of success). IBM patented a wrist phone in 1993, according to market research firm Smartwatch Group, and by 2001, the company had created the Linux-based WatchPad, according to ZDNet. It was followed by a menagerie of other smartwatches like the Fossil PDA and Microsoft Spot, but the smartwatch only really started to look like what it is today — a more powerful battery, internet and phone capabilities, connections to your smartphone — in the last few years.

What makes today's smartwatches feel "new," however, is that relatively new phenomenon of tying them to the smartphone. This gives you the functionality and power of a phone without the bulk of a phone weighing down your wrist. But the challenges involve keeping that smartwatch compact but useful, as well as giving it enough battery life. As the International Business Times writes, most potential Apple Watch competitors out there can't hold a charge for more than a day.

Galaxy Gear smartwatch

Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch (Source: Getty Images)

What are some of the popular smartwatches out there?

Pebble is one well-known favorite, though you may not be that familiar with the company; that's because it's a newcomer whose first smartwatch grew popular through a Kickstarter campaign. PCMag picked two of the company's models among its five top smartwatches of 2014 in April.

Samsung has also been cranking out the smartwatches. It released six new ones in the last year alone, as Business Insider's Steve Kovach recently noted. The latest, the Gear S, has some capabilities, like GPS and a 3G internet connection, that are  not dependent on your smartphone.

Sony and Motorola have both made smartwatch news in the last few days, catching the wave as Apple promises to get far more non-techies talking about the trend. Motorola released its Moto 360 just days before Apple unveiled its watch. Despite its nifty features, the company is heavily marketing the Moto 360's round face and standard-watch looks. Sony, meanwhile, recently showed the world its SmartWatch 3, which (in a first for Sony smartwatches) will be using the Android operating system.

SmartWatch 3

Sony's SmartWatch 3 (Source: Getty Images)

What will an Apple Watch do?

First of all, the Apple Watch will either look sleek or sporty, depending on what you're looking for. It's heavily customizable, with two different watch face sizes, three styles, and a variety of straps and customizable watch faces.

In addition, Apple's health app capabilities are on prominent display with the Apple Watch. It not only tracks steps, heartbeats, and calories, but it helps you set fitness goals and reminds you when to stand up.

The Watch also will use near-field communication to use Apple's new Apple Pay system, meaning you'll be able to tap the watch to pay at some retailers. A few participating ones that were announced on Tuesday include Whole Foods and Bloomingdale's.

In addition, it has new communication capabilities, including a walkie-talkie feature (for use with other Apple Watches), the ability to draw and send pictures to friends, and even the capability to send your heartbeat to another Apple Watch-wearer.

However, it only works with an iPhone. Read more about the Apple Watch here.

Dick Tracy watch

Dick Tracy can live-tweet his adventures now. Source: Flickr/Mike Licht

Can I give up my phone?

Probably not. A lot of what most smartwatches do is let you know what's going on on your phone. The Moto 360, for example, gets updates from your Google Calendar or Gmail by connecting to your phone via Bluetooth, assuming your phone is nearby. And the Apple Watch will only be compatible with an iPhone.

You can use smartwatches, of course, if your phone isn't nearby; you just won't get email updates, and instead will be limited to offline functions (like listening to music). But the real point of smartwatches right now is to give you the added convenience of using your technology while having your hands freer.

All of that said, some companies are innovating away from this phone-dependence. Samsung's latest Gear S has both built-in GPS and standalone wireless technology, GizMag's Will Shanklin reports. "If smartwatches are eventually going to replace our smartphones, then the Gear S is a step in that direction," he writes.


A smartwatch from Pebble (Getty Images/Moment Mobile)

Will people actually buy smartwatches?

It's certainly true that the public hasn't yet proven to have a huge smartwatch appetite. Companies "are pressing ahead despite a distinct dearth of enthusiasm on the part of the gadget-buying public" for smartwatches, as Slate's Will Oremus writes.

But there's reason to think people will buy. One is that they're starting to buy into wearable technology. Moto 360 sold out in a matter of hours, according to The Verge. In addition, wearable technology like Fitbits have taken hold with customers. According to Business Insider, fitness tracker sales grew by 500 percent in the last year. That's in part because the user base was so small, but the popular wristbands, along with models by Nike and Samsung, may have laid the groundwork for more widespread wearable computer use.

Moreover, Apple has a knack for taking existing technologies and making them into must-have devices. When Apple made the iPod, it wasn't exactly an mp3 player pioneer. But shortly after, everyone was sporting the white earbuds. When Apple released the iPhone, BlackBerries already abounded. But soon the sleek rectangular phone became everyone's smartphone lust object. Tablet computers existed when the iPad was released, but soon everyone seemed to have iPad tucked into their bag or briefcase. Likewise, Apple might take the fringe phenomenon smartwatches into the mainstream.

One reason Apple's iPhone announcements dominate the news

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