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Digital Smart Watch works as advertised, but it's clunky

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WHEN I WAS a kid, Dick Tracy's wrist radio seemed incredibly cool. Forty-five years later, with a new digital radio watch strapped around my wrist, I should be feeling pretty cool, too. Instead, I feel silly.

That's because the first generation of Smart Watches powered by Microsoft's MSN Direct is so disappointing. They work in only one direction, and they don't deliver anything I need.

In fact, it's hard to figure out who would pay between $130 and $300 for a clunky digital timepiece that needs charging every two days, plus $59 a year for a handful of headlines, a spotty selection of stock prices, a weather forecast, and - only if you use Microsoft's Outlook or Messenger - appointment reminders and one-way instant messages.

Still, it's my job to try out new gadgets from time to time, and this has something going for it: The watch works as advertised, a rare occurrence with first-generation products. On the downside, it proves that there is a worse medium for visual information than the screen of a cell phone - the face of a wristwatch. But true gadget lovers won't care much. If you can do something digitally, why not?

I do like the underlying technology. Introduced to the buying public last month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the watch uses a scheme called MSN Direct that Microsoft established to deliver digital information over unused FM radio subcarrier frequencies in 100 cities. It's a nice niche that doesn't clutter existing wireless airwaves - give Bill Gates & Co. credit for figuring out how to use it.

Our local reception area includes a big chunk of the Baltimore-Washington corridor and upper Eastern Shore, but it doesn't extend far beyond Reisterstown in the northwest, Aberdeen in the northeast and Annapolis to the south. If you travel to another area where service is available, you'll have to make arrangements online.

My test unit was a low-end Abacus Smart Watch ($130), which sports a black, silver-framed, 1 1/4 -inch liquid crystal display and a thick, rubbery band with a metal catch on the underside that doubles as an antenna when it isn't popping open (an annoying habit). Overall, the gadget is about 20 percent larger than the old-fashioned analog watch I usually wear, but not too much heavier.

Pricier Smart Watches are available under the Fossil and Suunto labels, but extra money doesn't necessarily buy more functionality, just better looks - depending on your taste.

The first step is charging the battery for six to eight hours with an induction-based AC stand - another nifty, new technology that requires no metal contacts. Although the charger folds into a relatively compact package, you'll still have to take it along if you plan to be out-of-town for more than two days.

That done, my watch found the local FM radio signal and set its own time. For anything more than the time, you'll have to register online with MSN Direct, which means entering your watch's ID number, acquiring a Microsoft .NET Passport account, and signing up for a service plan. The choices: $9.95 a month or $59 a year in advance.

Online, MSN Direct offers a variety of options for each of its "channels": news, messages, weather, stocks and calendar.

Sources for national and international headlines include the Associated Press, Reuters, MSNBC, The Washington Post and local news from WBAL-AM.

For stock market information, MSN Direct provides the usual indexes, plus quotes on stocks you choose. This turned out to be a frustrating exercise, because the service could only deliver about half the stocks and mutual funds I requested. For example, it couldn't find Tribune Co. (which owns The Sun), or for that matter, The Washington Post, The New York Times or Gannett corporations - large media companies all.

At the moment, there's no sports score service, although Microsoft promises to add an ESPN channel soon. To get the local news and weather forecast, enter your ZIP code online.

To receive instant messages (but not send them), you'll have to set up an account with Microsoft's MSN Messenger - but if your friends use other services, such as AOL Instant Messenger, you're out of luck. Likewise, the calendar feature works only with Microsoft Outlook.

As a timepiece, the Smart Watch shines. The LCD is easy to read in normal light, and one of the five control buttons turns on a backlight when it's dark. If you don't like its choice of geeky digital readouts, you can display an old-fashioned analog face - with numbers or Roman numerals (a nice touch). As you might expect, there's also an alarm, stopwatch and lap timer. You can download a new watch face once a month if you get tired of the old look.

Of course, you can buy most of these goodies in a regular digital watch for a fraction of the price. And unfortunately, the additional features aren't that impressive. The overall interface is clunky, without a main menu to switch through channels. That means a lot of rotating through functions, news headlines, forecasts, messages, stock quotes and so forth. That takes time - so much that my wrist got tired just trying to get through the latest headlines.

All things considered, the Smart Watch delivers a certain amount of geek chic, and 60 bucks a year for the headlines and stock quote won't deter a real gadget guy. (This might be sexist, but I can't imagine anyone of the female persuasion strapping one of these clunky monsters on her wrist.)

Most wired folk can get this information from computers, wireless PDAs and cell phones - with two-way communications to boot. So the Smart Watch doesn't add a lot of value. And there isn't much value at all in a watch that will quit on you if you forget to charge it every other day.

For that reason alone, I'll go back to my old analog watch, which looks a lot better, has a nice leather strap that doesn't come loose, and works for a couple of years between batteries.

But if you like the idea of news, stocks and weather on your wrist, you can find more information at http://direct.msn. com. Or just wait for one of those annoying wristwatch ads to pop up in your Web browser. It's hard to avoid them.

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