Smartwatch Review: The Vector Luna
There are a number of different smartwatch models available today, running a number of different platforms. The bigger fish in a small pond – Apple's Watch and the many Android Wear devices – are joined by companies such as Garmin, Fitbit and Pebble. However, there are a number of other manufacturers building and selling alternative smartwatches. Vector Watch is one such business, which was founded in 2013 with an intention to change how people use smartwatches.
Their first smartwatches – the Vector Luna and Vector Meridian – have been available since late 2015. The Vector Meridian has a squared off watchface whereas the Vector Luna uses a round watchface. Both use a similar software platform and offer compatibility with current and recent versions of the Android, iOS and Windows Phone platforms. However, the watches themselves differ in several ways from the mainstream Apple and Android devices. Let's take a look at the Vector Luna with a bias towards productivity.
The Vector Luna
In design terms, many of today's smartwatches are built around a hybrid user interface. On the one hand, customers expect to be able to glance at their watch to be able to tell the time. Smartwatches often include notifications in this way: if your watch vibrates and you look at it, it will detect this behaviour and show you the notification. However, some smartwatch designs are build to be engaged with: that is, the user is expected to interact with the device on a regular or semi-regular basis. To this effect, the smartwatch user interface has some parallels with a smartphone user interface, only on a much smaller screen. In a world where smartphone screens are getting larger, this gives smartwatch design teams some conflicting issues and we've tended to see a user interface that can trace its lineage back to a smartphone user interface on a smartwatch.
Vector's design approach with their Luna and Meridian smartwatches is different: these models are based around providing users with glanceable information from an always-on display but looking close to a conventional watch face. The Vector Luna looks less like a smartwatch and more like a digitial but conventional watch. If you want the functionality of a smartwatch without stares from strangers, the Vector Luna could be the device for you.
I've been using the Vector Luna watch for six months as normal. Although I look after my technology, I haven't babied the device: I've worn it at the gym, on long haul flights across the Atlantic and out in the rain. The device promises to give a month to a charge and for my use, this claim has been watertight. The most I've seen from a charge has been forty nine days: this is a smartwatch that doesn't tie you down with needing a daily or even weekly recharge.
In terms of features and specification, the Vector Luna is based around a low power ARM Cortex-M4 processor and a non-touchscreen, monochrome, memory-LCD type screen. The display has a backlight, which only turns on when it's dark. Memory-LCD is a similar technology to eInk in that is doesn't need much power in use, but offers a faster refresh rate. The Luna's display is also transflective – it reflects light, so you don't always need the backlight. It isn't as glamorous as the colorful, high resolution panels you'll find in an Android Wear or Apple Watch device, but these models don't give thirty days of battery life.
The Luna uses a proprietary operating system, which connects via Bluetooth LE to a smartphone and there's no Wi-Fi, speaker or microphone. It shows notifications on the screen and via a vibration. The companion software allows you to change what notifications are shown on the smartwatch and it's possible to fine tune the experience with per-app control. The Luna does not allow you to respond to a notification: you must pull out your smartphone to respond to a message or call. The device has a built-in pedometer and light sensor, the watch face is 44mm in diameter and the strap is 22mm wide. There are three buttons on the watch, which are used for control purposes.
The chassis is built from stainless steel (316L) and the watch face is covered by mineral glass; the package is water resistant to five atmospheres (or 50 meters) of cold freshwater providing it's gently immersed: one shouldn't shower or dive with the watch, use the buttons underwater or exposure to other liquids.
To create the partnership with a smartphone, you'll need Android 4.4 KitKat or higher, Apple iOS 8 or better, or at least Microsoft Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1, or later, in order to connect the device to your smartwatch.
Using The Vector Luna
We use a combination of the three buttons on the side of the Luna's chassis and the companion application to control the smartwatch. Most of the time the top and bottom buttons are used to scroll up and down and the middle button is used to select and go back.
For watchfaces, there are a number pre-installed, which can be scrolling through using the up and down buttons. There are hundreds available from the Vector Store accessible from the smartphone application. Any apps downloaded to the watch can also be scrolled through – the watch doesn't differentiate between watchfaces and applications – and the order can be changed using the companion app.
As for the style and type of watch face to use with the Luna; there are many different types available! Many are variants of the analogue face, some are digital and some are completely different. Different watch faces include space for a number of Vector Streams, more on these later, so most can be customized and adjusted depending on user preference. Most show busy times in the calendar by highlighting those hours around the watch face, which is one of the Luna's more hidden but useful productivity features.
Vector's store also contains a number of applications. These are simple affairs; examples I tried including the BBC app, which showed three headlines, and one that could simulate two dice. The Luna can easily handle these simple applications but demonstrates that this is watch with smart functions rather than a smart device that may also tell the time.
The Vector Luna is compatible with the Google Fit service, meaning you can use the device to provide Google's service with details of your activity. In terms of pedometer accuracy, I see similar results to the Fitbit line of products, but the Luna is less accurate when walking and carrying something so one cannot swing the arms.
On the Android platform, the Vector Luna connects to the device via the companion smartphone app. This synchronizes notifications between both devices: those dismissed on the smartwatch are also dismissed on the smartphone and vice-versa. Vector's software is also smart enough not to send a notification to the watch for something already showing on the screen, which also saves power on the watch too. You can switch the Luna between showing that there is a notification or providing the detail, depending on how private you want to keep things.
Regardless of the mode you use, the device vibrates when a notification arrives and shows a circle around the watch face as a visual reminder. Pushing the middle button shows the list of waiting notifications and from here you can scroll through and dismiss all as necessary. One quirk is that it is not possible to cancel viewing notifications but they do eventually time out.
Vector's Streams technology is an interesting aspect of the platform. In use, these are similar to highly configurable widgets that can be shown on the watch face. The concept behind the Stream is to show the wearer a glanceable snippet of information without ruining how the watch face looks. In practice, they can work in a similar way to an analogue watch showing the date, but with much greater flexibility.
One of my favorite watchfaces contains four user configurable Stream slots. I have my current daily step count and the date. At the time of writing I frequently travel between Dallas and the United Kingdom, so I have the Dallas time and the USD:GBP exchange rate showing. These Streams are seamlessly kept up to date by the Vector watch software. I've noticed no difference in battery life on either device since enabling more or less Streams.
You'll find Vector Streams for the date, time, step count, distance covered, calories and weather, with more available from the Vector Store such as Facebook, Luna battery, smartphone battery, currency exchange, a countdown and similar. In the past, Vector have run Streams competitions for budding developers to design new Streams for the platform. Vector Streams are a small but mighty part of the platform, necessarily limited to avoid overcomplicating the user interface but with a little planning on the part of the wearer, make the watch much more useful.
Vector Watches' ambitious plan to support three smartphone platforms increases the appeal of the device but also means that their developers have a lot of ground to cover. Fortunately, Vector have invested into their technical support team and from my experience, they are on a winner here. During my time with the Luna I contacted support about a recurring battery drain issue when paired up to my Nexus 5X smartphone. Vector's support came back very quickly with a couple of suggestions and let me know that this particular issue had been addressed in a software update due later that week.
When the update arrived, a named Vector employee emailed me to let me know. Later on, the same person followed up to make sure that everything was working as it should. This sort of care and attention is a shining example of how to look after customers!
I also discovered that the Vector Luna may be updated via a Google Chrome browser extension, which means customers who do not have a Windows or Mac machine (but instead use a Chromebook) can still update their watch software. A small but very welcome touch!
The Vector Luna has been an interesting device to wear and use, especially after time with the Motorola Moto 360. It isn't as glamorous as the Moto 360, it doesn't light up or respond when spoken to, and it doesn't need a daily recharge. Instead, it gives me an always-on display with easy-to-see, relevant and personal information to me at that moment.
Visually, it's a handsome timepiece that goes about its business without drawing attention to itself. The platform behind the hardware is refined, thoughtful and has great support.
Update: Vector Bought By Fitbit
In January 2017, Fitbit announced that it was buying Vector Watches. This unfortunately stopped all software and hardware development for the products. There will be no new Vector Watch models and no major software updates, although the development team will update the platform. New watch faces may still be designed but Vector are not accepting any new Streams: in short, customers can still change how their watch looks to a point, but cannot add any new functionality beyond some of the more ingenious watchfaces. It is possible that Fitbit will use the Vector operating system, or parts of it, in a subsequent smartwatch but at the time of writing, this is not going to surface until later in 2017.