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Michael Kors Access smartwatches' value is face deep

Engadget Engadget 6/09/2016 Cherlynn Low

© Provided by Engadget

Not gonna lie. I'm a giant smartwatch nerd, and an even bigger Michael Kors fan. So when I received the invitation to review the company's new Android Wear timepieces, I was stoked. The Michael Kors Access range falls in line with partner company Fossil Group's mission to smarten up its range of wristwatches across its brands such as Fossil (duh), Kate Spade, Emporio Armani, Diesel and Skagen. And that should only mean good things for the fashionable wearable industry. But, try as I might, I'm having a hard time staying excited about the new MK smartwatches.

Hardware

The Bradshaw and Dylan models that I received already exist as analog timepieces. In reworking them to accommodate the components that make a watch smart, Michael Kors had to make the cases bigger. The Bradshaw's face went from 36mm to 44.5mm, while the Dylan is now 46mm (previous size unknown). Both watches are also less water resistant -- dropping from being able to withstand pressure of up to 100 meters (330 feet) to just 10 meters (33 feet). Now, the timepieces can survive just rain and splashes instead of swimming and surfing.

Because of the additional components, the connected Bradshaw and Dylan are pretty heavy. The case alone (for both) weighs 51 grams (1.17 ounces). Even though that heft made me feel like I had an ankle bracelet latched onto my wrist, I still loved the style and quality of both wristbands. The straps are some of the most sturdy and premium that I've seen on a smartwatch so far, making them feel a lot more like real chronographs. And, perhaps thanks to careful craftsmanship, the fully stainless-steel Bradshaw and silicone Dylan succeed in looking classy and glamorous without crossing over into gaudy, as some wristwear is wont to do.

Inside the polished metal cases sit a Snapdragon 2100 CPU, 4GB of storage, a 360mAh battery and a variety of sensors, while a 1.5-inch face with a 320 x 290 resolution sits on top. Notably absent is a heart rate monitor on the underside that most Android wearables at this price sport.

Software

Until Android Wear 2.0 arrives, there is nothing really new to say about Google's wearable platform, which powers many of the devices we've reviewed. Although it's improved a lot in the two years since its debut, the OS is still somewhat limited in what it can do. The 2.0 update, which Michael Kors says the watches will get once Google release it publicly, brings improvements such as an onscreen keyboard, third-party complications and better iPhone support.

On the Bradshaw and Dylan, Android Wear is basically the same as it is on every other smartwatch, with the exception of the Michael Kors Access app and custom watch faces. The former lets you do two things: save your favorite watch faces and set up two looks (day and night) that will automatically change at a specific time of your choosing. Frankly, even though the auto changing of faces is nice, the whole app is incredibly basic, and I could just as easily do the same by pressing down on the home screen.

The handful of custom watch faces are slightly more interesting (and not to mention very pretty). You can tweak the Michael Kors ones by changing the background, dial and crystal colors. On some themes, you can add information to make the watch more useful at a glance. For instance, the Notes profile lets you display up to four time zone differences (as in, how many hours ahead or behind), your local time and temperature, as well as your steps progress.

In use

Here's where the Access line really falls short. On paper, everything seems decent. It's got most of the same specs as other Android Wear devices, save for the slightly smaller battery. But, that resulted in a much shorter runtime than its rivals; the Dylan went from 80 percent charged at 2:30 PM to just 35 percent by 8 PM after a few hours of heavy use. The Bradshaw lasted about the same. On average use without many notifications and interaction with the Dylan, though, it lasted slightly more than a day.

Worse than the disappointing battery life is the glitchy performance. Despite sporting capable processors, the Bradshaw and Dylan struggled to respond quickly to my commands. While the watch's microphones accurately picked up my requests most of the time, it occasionally misheard what I was saying, even in a dead quiet room. Then, when it correctly spelled out my request to remind me of an upcoming task, the Dylan never alerted me at the appointed time. It's as if I sent my reminder request into a black hole.

The Bradshaw was similarly finicky; I tried to enable brightness boost from the slide down shortcut panel, and was constantly redirected to the Settings page while the feature remained stubbornly off. Both watches were also sluggish to respond to my swipes, compared to the instant reactions I'm used to on competing Android watches. I had to swipe three or four times on average to dismiss a card.

I reported these issues to Michael Kors, who, after verifying that I had the latest software and build, sent me two other units to test out. The replacements worked better, were more responsive and didn't exhibit the abovementioned brightness boost problem. It's worth noting that they arrived with a software upgrade already installed, whereas I had to run that update on the devices I initially got. I still had trouble getting Ok Google to reliably set a reminder, though; sometimes the new Dylan buzzed at the appointed time, but more often it never alerted me.

But there are some problems that aren't as easily fixed. The watches' screens wash out when you're not looking at them straight on. And as much as I loved the chunky style of the timepieces, Michael Kors needs to make them lighter. After an hour, my (admittedly very weak) arm began to ache, and the Dylan felt like it was literally dragging me down. I had to very unwillingly take the watch off to continue typing in peace.

The competition

Pictured above: Samsung's Gear S3 Frontier and Classic.

Man, has Michael Kors got some serious competition. From its own partner company alone, the Access line has to contend with Fossil's Q Founder. That wearable is similarly chunky, but has a sharper screen for a cheaper $275. On the other end of price spectrum sits the Tag Heuer Connected, which is stupendously well-built and still manages to be lightweight. But it also costs a ridiculous $1,500.

Then, there are offerings from more traditional tech companies, like the second-gen Huawei Watch, 2015 Moto 360 and LG Watch Urbane. These have crisp displays and modest style for about the same price as the Access, but also offer onboard heart rate monitors and more software features that make their wearables more functional. For example, the Moto 360 offers Live Dials, which let you access specific apps directly from the watch face without all the excessive swiping.

Look outside the Google ecosystem, and you'll find even more contenders. If you own an iPhone, the Apple Watch is a no-brainer. It's the most seamless option for iPhones, with better messaging integration and a ton of apps you can launch from your wrist. Its squarish face may be a little, well, square, so those who want a little more style should look elsewhere.

That somewhere else might be Apple's biggest rival, Samsung, which just unveiled the Gear S3. The new wristwear features a rugged, country aesthetic that wouldn't look out of place whether on a lumberjack or an investment banker. They've got rotating bezels that makes navigating the interface much easier, and run Samsung's Tizen OS, which should offer about 10,000 apps and watchfaces than the mere 1,000 it did when the Gear S2 launched. That could give Android Wear a run for its money.

Speaking of wearable platforms that could topple Google, industry pioneer Pebble also has some solid options that are both attractive and functional. The Pebble Time Round is one of the slimmest smartwatches on the market and offers longer-lasting battery than Android Wear, Apple and Samsung devices for just $200. But it doesn't have a touchscreen, and its display is nowhere near as vibrant as the rest.

Wrapup

In the end, the Michael Kors Access line is just another option in the Android Wear market. Michael Kors might sell plenty of Access watches based on the strength of its brand alone, but it doesn't do much that's different from its competitors. Don't get me wrong: these watches are truly gorgeous, and, bugs aside, generally do what they promise. But there's nothing here that sets it apart from being yet another smartwatch that married Android Wear with a fashion house's good looks.

The thing is, it's difficult to fault Michael Kors for the functionality of the Access line -- it's limited by what Google offers in Android Wear. That means it ultimately suffers the same plight as all the fashion and horological brands out there that are struggling to deliver a decent, good-looking smartwatch. At least Michael Kors had the good sense to not charge an arm and a leg for its pieces (*cough* Tag Heuer *cough*). Besides, having another designer get in on the growing market is an encouraging sign, and I can't wait to see what (one of my favorites) Kate Spade delivers. In the meantime, I'll keep saving up for a smartwatch worth splurging on.

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