How the Neptune Pine plans to be the first smartwatch that does it all
6th Dec 2013 | 22:05
The Pine smartwatch is large, but mighty capable
While there are a growing number of smartwatches that act as an extension of smartphones, there still isn't anything that's truly smart about a watch quite yet.
Neptune, a self-labeled "innovative" electronics company founded in 2012 out of Montreal, is out to create the world's first smartphone-replacing timepiece. It's device is called Neptune Pine, and it aims to put other smartwatches to shame.
The creation of 19-year-old Simon Tian, Pine is more akin to a miniature smartphone than phone-tied watch. It's packed with a beefed up 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 dual-core Cortex processor and can make phone calls thanks to a quad-band GSM Radio and support for 3G HSPA+ and WCDMA networks.
The watch comes equipped with a rather large 2.4-inch, 320 x 240 QVGA resolution screen. Compared to devices like the Samsung Galaxy Gear (1.63-inch screen), Sony SmartWatch 2 (1.6-inch screen), or Pebble (1.26-inch screen), Pine takes up more wrist real estate than the competition.
Beyond a gobbling size difference, Pine does away with the need to tether smartwatch to smartphone - though you can still connect to the latter - as it wants to be "the only device you'll ever need."
The idea of a standalone, do-it-all smartwatch is a tantalizing one, and Pine has already caught a windstorm of attention on Kickstarter, where the project has racked in an impressive $514,108 CAD (about $482,123/£295,418/AU$530,666) since its campaign launched on November 19.
To get the lowdown on what makes the Pine smartwatch tick we recently spoke with Neptune's Chief Technology Officer Aaron Wilkins, who also demoed the "first true smartwatch" over a video call.
A standalone device
For the most part, smartwatches and other wearables have functioned as extensions of smartphones for things like viewing notifications and tracking users health and not as wholly independent mechanisms unto themselves.
Wilkins said Neptune's goal is to move past device dependence with Pine.
"When we first started looking at the technology, we realized a standalone and independent device was within reach. We want to have a device that can stand on its own and we felt it was important that it was not useless without your phone nearby."
The company's smartwatch group has been working on Pine for a just over a year, going through several iterations and form factors to test all its components. "Really the biggest hurdle for us was actually the antenna and getting it to work on a smaller device," Wilkins explained.
Underneath the screen is basically every part you'd find in a smartphone, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, a micro-SIM card slot, accelerometer paired with a three-axis gyroscope, and GPS. A 5MP rear camera and VGA front-facing camera, each packing built-in flash, are also packed within.
In a video on its Kickstarter page, Wilkins claimed the Pine is the only smartwatch to allow for video chats thanks to the VGA camera.
The Pine Smartwatch snaps onto a wristband but it can also be used in hand like an over-sized Tamagotchi or GoPro-sized camera. To round out the whole package, the device comes running 16GB or 32GB of storage and Android Jelly Bean 4.1.2.
"The big thing was making sure everything works while still being able to get the right apps to work on our device," Wilkins said. "Many of the other devices on the market, they need apps to be custom tailored with that individual device and we wanted to avoid that."
Bigger than a smartwatch
At first glance the Pine Smartwatch is obviously going to be a bit large for a wrist-worn device, but Wilkins said it was absolutely necessary to go that big, at least to start.
"We tested a lot of different screens and we found this was the smallest screen we could have that still had a usable QWERTY keyboard," the CTO expounded. "More than just an extension of the phone, we had to be able to enter data into it, and anything smaller than 2.4 inches was too small when we would press more than two or three buttons."
Meanwhile, Wilkins said Neptune was able to put Android on a smartwatch-sized screen simply because the 320 x 240 resolution was already supported by the OS.
"Obviously we made a lot of UI tweaks to make it work smoothly and comfortably on a smaller screen," he said. "But there's actually a lot of older Android phones that have the same resolution as us, so there was very little modification besides making it more usable and changing the size of the buttons."
Over our video call, Wilkins demonstrated how Pine could upload Facebook, check email, play a game of Angry Birds Rio and switch between apps almost seamlessly.
"It can completely replace your phone, but we know people aren't ready to give up their phones yet so we have a really good tethering app, so [Pine] will also work as a tethered device for your notifications, text messages, email, and you can answer calls from it.
"We want people to get the device without having to choose between this or their iPhone, and adopt it to fit in whatever equipment setup they have already."
Pine, by the way, offers tethering for both iOS and Android.
Complications and future advancements
The Pine smartwatch could be revolutionary but it's not without drawbacks. One very important point to note is it only supports up to 3G speeds. Wilkins explained the speed ceiling is really due to a limitation of components.
"The reason we don't have 4G was when we were looking at antenna considerations, the 4G space requirements were a little out of our range," he said. "It would have just made it too big and we're pushing the limits on this at the moment to fit 3G GSM and enough space that the antenna and board don't interfere with each other."
"We're about at the size limit and still we've had to overcome a lot of technical barriers to have it working smoothly and pass FCC regulations so you don't have to worry about dropped calls or any antenna inefficiencies."
Moving forward, the Neptune team is still tweaking Pine to reduce the size and refine the user experience. On top of this, they hope to improve the battery life from eight hours of talk time and 120 hours on standby. That said, Wilkins also sees a lot of emerging technologies on the horizon for the next generation Pine device.
"There's a few new technologies we're looking at like flexible OLED and things like this that are just coming into production. Obviously a bunch of different low-energy technologies let us extend our battery life and there's a lot of other cool technology we're looking at for next-gen."
The roadmap to reality
The Pine smartwatch has already garnered enough support on Kickstarter to raise well over its initial $100,000 CAD goal. Combine that with the 2,007 backers, 1,839 of which have actually pre-ordered a Pine, and it seems like the smartwatch stands a good chance of making it out the door.
By January, Neptune expects to produce at least 2,500 Pine units to be shipped throughout the US and Canada, plus international orders sent worldwide for an additional $15 (about £9/AU$15). However, Neptune stated that Pine has only met regulatory requirements for Canada, the United States, China, India, and the European Union.
The Neptune Pine smartwatch is up for pre-orders starting at $215 (about £131/AU$237) for the 16GB model and $262 (about £159/AU$289) with double the storage. When the Pine comes to its full retail launch in 2014, it will be available starting at $314 (about £192/AU$347).
While even the most popular Kickstarter campaigns have fizzled before their products make it to backers, Wilkins said he is 100% confident that Neptune will be ship Pine by the end of next month.
"We're most of the way through tooling and setting up our assembly line. It's really just getting the funds for the materials, but we have working devices and overcome all the major technical challenges to it."