The Swatch Paparazzi is a refreshing and welcome addition to the existing line of MSN Direct watches. It’s not that the existing models from Suunto, Fossil and Tissot are lacking — in fact, I think they range from good (Fossil) to better (Suunto) to amazing (Tissot) — but the Swatch Paparazzi brings a hipper and more urban feel to a line of watches which thus far tend to be associated with, at best, business men, but more typically, geeks. Plus, the Paparazzi has put Swatch back on my radar screen from which it has been conspicuously absent since about middle school. Not only am I wearing the Swatch Paparazzi on my wrist right now as I type, but I’m loving it, and not looking forward to the inevitable moment when I must put it away and move on.
Before I continue with the review, I want to mention that I had initially planned to review the watch and the MSN Direct service separately, however I have since decided to combine the reviews into one since, as is the case with any well integrated hardware and software, the two are largely inextricable. Still, I will dedicated a section of this review wholly to the MSD Direct service which should be relevant to any MSN Direct watch.
Features of the Swatch Paparazzi MSN Direct include:
- Customizable watch faces. As with all MSN Direct watches, choose the face that best suites your mood or situation. Try pressing the enter button (middle button on the right-hand side) while viewing your favorite watch face. While arbitrarily pushing buttons to see what might happen, I discovered that some of faces can have a couple of different modes. If the face does not support multiple modes, it will let you know by beeping at you.
- Stopwatch (chronograph). I discovered that the Paparazzi supports up to 99 splits. Although hundredth of seconds are not displayed after the first ten seconds (to preserve battery life, I assume), they are recorded and displayed once time has been stopped. I found the stopwatch will go up to 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds before flipping.
- Two fully customizable alarms. By fully customizable, I mean either alarm can be configured to sound every day, on one specific day of the week (every Monday, for instance, to make sure you remember to go back to work), or on any specified date. I love this feature, and find it extremely useful. It’s a great way to remind yourself of something without bothering with your PDA. The backlight flashes in addition to the audible alarm, in case you turned the sound on your watch off in order to avoid being rude in a movie or at a wedding (though if you did, you need to get your priorities straight!).
- Countdown timer. No digital watch is fully complete without one, in my opinion. The range is from one second to 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds. Backlight flashes in addition to audible alarm.
- Calendar. Of course you get the date, but the Paparazzi (along with all MSN Direct watches) also gives you a full calendar. This is another feature I absolutely love. Check out the Paparazzi photo gallery to see it in action, but basically, you get a full seven-column calendar which you can scroll backward and forward. No more counting on your fingers and toes trying to figure out whether your birthday falls on a weekend this year.
- Wireless time calibration. All MSN Direct watches are calibrated through the MSN Direct network (via FM radio signal), whether you have subscribed to the MSN Direct service or not. If you’re the type of person who is perpetually late, don’t worry — you can even configure a +5, +10, or +15 minute offset to make sure you’re always on time or a tad early.
- Free wireless content. The Swatch Paparazzi receives a limited amount of content from the MSN Direct network even if you don’t active the watch. Free content includes entertainment news (specific to your current geographic region), general news headlines, and local weather conditions. You will find the Paparazzi to be fairly feature-rich before ever giving Microsoft your credit card number. almost like Juju Film
- MSN Direct Service. The MSN Direct service takes your wireless content to the next level. Although it’s a very decent watch without the service, adding MSN Direct gets you the ability to install new watch faces, synchronize appointments with Outlook, and to receive surprisingly detailed news, messages, weather information, stock quotes, sports scores, horoscopes, movie information, “diversions,” and lottery numbers. (More on the MSN Direct service, and each individual channel, below.)
- Internet Time. Internet Time is to time what the metric system is to measurement. The downside is that it only seems to be supported by Swatch. More on Internet Time below.
- Water resistant. Only to 3 ATM, though (3 BAR, 30 meters, or 100 feet). My recommendation would be to try to keep this watch as dry as possible. Don’t worry about getting caught in a rain storm, but don’t wear it while swimming the English Channel or diving for sunken treasure, either.
- Rechargeable battery. Don’t panic. This isn’t as bad as it sounds. If you’re as much of a gadget freak as I am, right now you’re thinking that you need another charger in your life like you need a tax audit, but it’s really not that bad. It’s small, light, portable, and after a two hour charge, your watch will be good to go for between four and five days, depending on its configuration. I think I could actually squeeze six days out of it if I really wanted to, but there’s no sense in trying to set a world record, especially if it could mean having to be disconnected until you can get back to home base. I know a watch charger is just one more thing you have to remember to pack (and re-pack after the security personnel at the airport remove it from your bag), but it’s better than keeping a hefty supply of hearing aid batteries on hand (remember the Timex Messengers?).
- Separate power for radio receiver. That’s the most elegant way I could think of to say that you can toggle the watch’s ability to receive FM signals independent of the watch’s main power, making it kosher for in-flight use.
- Settings. I’m not sure this qualifies as an actual feature, but I think it’s worth mentioning. The Paparazzi (and all MSN Direct watches) have a very cool settings/configuration screen more reminiscent of a PDA than a watch.
What Exactly is MSN Direct
Let me start this section by making sure that I have thoroughly debunked the misconception that this watch is useless without paying a monthly subscription fee. Not true at all. The Paparazzi is very feature-rich right out of the box, however the free data the watch receives is really just a taste of what is possible with the MSN Direct service (and, presumably, Microsoft will be adding additional channels in the future). Whether MSN Direct channels are actually of any use to you is another question, but the data is definitely there for the taking. (Or, at least, for the purchasing.) Should you decide to active the watch, the process is quick and simple, consisting of entering the identification number of your watch into a web interface at the MSN Direct site along with payment information, configuring the watch through a very well done web application, then waiting for the watch to be activated, and for all your content to be transmitted. Activation only took about an hour in my case, but it was several hours before all the content had fully downloaded. I recommend watching the Star Wars Trilogy while you wait in order to keep yourself from obsessively monitoring its progress. Don’t attempt anything like work or I guarantee you will be completely distracted.
Here are all the channels currently available to MSN Direct subscribers:
- Additional watch faces. The Paparazzi came with five watch faces, and I was able to download two more out of a possible seven after subscribing to MSN Direct. The two faces I use most would not have been available to me without subscribing (no coincidence, I’m sure). You can also use any channel as a watch face, as well. When a channel is left idle, it will start scrolling through its data, and a little bar with the time, date, and signal strength indicator will slide down and sit at the top of the face.
- Glance. The Glance “channel” is basically a configurable slide show of other MSN Direct channels. The idea is that just by glancing at your watch, you can quickly digest vital pieces of information. This doesn’t work for me since I’m the type who would rather go through all the news headlines or stock indices when I have a sufficient block of time, but I suppose for some, it makes sense.
- Messages. Receive “instant” messages from MSN Messenger. Why is “instant” in quotes? You have to wait for the message to be routed to the radio tower, and for your watch to receive it via FM radio transmission. Needless to say, it’s not instant, however the messages do receive a high data priority, and do tend to be delivered in a very reasonable amount of time. I don’t use MSN Messenger (I’m already packing a wireless AIM client), so this feature is lost on me, however if I did, I’d be all over it. And no, you can’t send instant messages from the watch — just receive them. You probably wouldn’t want to see how big the watch would have to be in order to be able to transmit FM signals as well as receive them.
- Weather. Get current conditions, and three day forecasts. Very nice. You can add up to 10 additional cities around the world to monitor (called “My Cities”), and current conditions for 110 North American and 75 international cities are always available. Weather heads can now safely step away from their TVs.
- News. Great channel. Get several different types of news (business, headline, international, technology, sports, entertainment, weather, local, and health) from several different configurable sources. You can also opt to receive news alerts which means you will receive messages as important events unfold. The watch can receive and display a surprising amount of data within a fairly intuitive interface. For instance, one of the top stories on my watch right now (split across six “screens”) is “Iraqi government declares 60-day state of emergency; U.S. forces seize small section of rebel-held territory in Fallujah. The Iraqi government declared 6 days of emergency rule throughout most of the country Sunday, and U.S. troops seized a small section of territory in Fallujah ahead of an expected all-out assault on the guerrilla sanctuary.” Not a bad piece of information, considering I’m reading it off my watch.
- Stocks. If you’re a stock junkie, this is a great channel, though don’t depend on it when investing your life savings since you can’t really be sure when the data was last updated. I generally use it to get an idea of what the market is doing, which is good enough for me. You can add up to 15 symbols to the stock channel to watch, and view trends over the last week on a slick little chart.
- Calendar. Although you get the calendar itself for free, subscribing to MSN Direct allows you to synchronize Outlook appointments (and reminders) with your watch. I don’t use Outlook, but if I did, this feature alone would be worth the price of admission. I think this is an extremely useful and innovative feature (I don’t even use it, and it’s one of my favorites). If you use this feature and/or receive MSN Messenger messages on your watch, and you are a traveler, be sure to let the MSN Direct service know through your online account where you’re going to be so it knows where to broadcast your data. You can enter up to five different permanent travel locations, so if you tend to haunt the same five (or fewer) cities, once you set it up, you can forget it.
- Daily Diversions. Word of the day, quote of the day, born on this day, and this day in history. The current quote of the day is “It is better not to express what one means than to express what one does not mean.” I find this channel pretty useless, but I could see some value during a long commute or mind-numbing meeting. Or perhaps if you’re looking for something seemingly profound to say to a cute girl at the next table.
- Lottery. If you’re addicted to the lotto, you will become addicted to this channel. If not, you probably won’t find it of much use. What would be a really cool feature is if the Lottery Channel could give you the winning numbers for upcoming drawings, but as it stands, you can only get numbers for drawings in the past.
- Sports. The sports channel seems to be pretty intelligently designed in order to optimize the space on your watch. It is first broken down into sports (baseball, basketball, and football), and then by league (college football, men’s college basketball, MLB, NBA, NFL, WNBA, and women’s college basketball), and lastly, by team. If you follow a lot of teams, I would imagine it would take some time to configure, but at least you’re not wasting valuable watch space on teams you don’t care about. If I were a sports fanatic, I’d be all over this channel, and hence, this watch.
- Horoscopes. I guess you’re either into this stuff, or you’re not. I’m not. But just for fun, today’s prediction is, “Indulge in romantic activities. Light candles; cast a spell.” Sure thing.
- Movies. The newest addition to the MSN Direct channel lineup, and one of my favorites. Pick your city, then add the exact theaters you frequent (up to 10). All three of my favorite theaters were there, and from the looks of it, yours should be there, as well. Never be without movie titles and show times again.
So bottom line: is it worth it to subscribe to the MSN Direct service? That’s a decision you’ll have to make after evaluating the MSN Direct channels for yourself, and how a device like this might fit into your daily routine. You can get everything but the ability to receive instant messages from MSN Messenger and the ability to synchronize with Outlook for $40 per year. Add $20 for MSN Messenger and Outlook integration for a total of $60 for everything for a year. What does that work out to monthly? Skip one trip to Starbucks each month, and you’ve pretty much got it covered. (Not sure if that says more about MSN Direct or Starbucks, but currently, I’m addicted to both.)
The Watch Itself
Check out the photo gallery to get a good feel for the Paparazzi in action. I’m the first to admit that it isn’t exactly a subtle or overly elegant watch (especially the red and orange models), though it’s not as bad as it could be. I know I have completely perverted standards when it comes to watch sizes, but I find it within the bounds of acceptable, though be prepared to receive a certain amount of heckling from your friends if they are not as geeky as you are. Everyone expects to see something different and/or outlandish on my wrist, so I can get away with more than most people, but the average Joe or Jane may need to be prepared to defend themselves against snickers and jeers from snobby associates.
If Nicolas Hayek (CEO of Swatch) or Bill Gates were reading this right now, they would probably be disappointed. The Paparazzi was always intended to be cool, not geeky. Cool watches have names like “Paparazzi” while geeky watches have names like “DataReceptor HK-3842.” Allow me to address this issue head-on. The coolness of the Paparazzi will likely be dictated by context. On me, it’s a tad geeky because I provide a somewhat geeky backdrop. And whenever anyone asks about the watch, I make the mistake of gushing about its technical merits rather than my ability to find out about hot new club openings in real-time. The bottom line is that if you are cool, the watch will be cool. If you are geeky, sorry, but the Paparazzi will probably not make you any cooler. If you’re thinking of getting one, you might want to go all out and choose the orange or red models as they have a trendier, hipper feel to them. I made the mistake of going for the black model which I have since learned seems to say, “I don’t want anyone to notice how geeky my watch is” which, of course, draws peoples’ attention right to it.
I tested the Paparazzi in San Francisco, Washington DC, and New Orleans, and it worked flawlessly in all three cities. On my way to New Orleans, the watch even adjusted to the new time before we landed. (Should I have turned the radio receiver off along with all my other electronic devices? If you work for the FAA, drop me a line and let me know.) The backlight on the watch is fantastic. The effect is difficult to describe, but basically it makes everything dark glow bright green, and everything that would normally be light turn dark. And it doesn’t just turn off like some lower-end backlights are content to do. It actually fades out for more of a Macintosh-like experience (sorry for the analogy, Bill).
If you’re familiar with the business of watches, you might have figured out by now that the Paparazzi has a big brother by the name of High T. The High T (actually, my favorite MSN Direct watch, though unfortunately, I don’t actually own one yet) is made by Tissot which is a luxury brand owned by Swatch Group (Hamilton and Omega, among others, are also worthy siblings). I bring this up because the High T and the Paparazzi clearly share some technology. The backlight is very similar if not identical on both watches, and the Paparazzi user manual was obviously derived from the Tissots’ as it inadvertently mentions things like the touch screen which is a feature of the High T, not the Paparazzi.
The High T is a brilliant watch, offering very innovative features like a touch screen (tap the sapphire crystal to change modes rather than having to push buttons), and a vibrating alert. The High T retails for $725, however, while the Paparazzi goes for a much more reasonable $150. If money were not a consideration, the High T would actually be my first choice and my #1 recommendation, but until I receive a complimentary unit to review, I’m sticking with the Paparazzi.
One more feature of the Paparazzi that is worth pointing out is the Internet Time function. Internet Time is Swatch’s attempt to modernize time by getting rid of messy and confusing time zones and seemingly arbitrary and old fashioned units. The idea is that a day is divided up into 1000 “beats” starting from midnight in Biel, Switzerland (home of Swatch). Each beat is 1 minute and 26.4 seconds which puts noon at exactly 500 beats (expressed as @500). Midnight, therefore, is @000 beats. Internet Time is the same all over the world, so you never have to worry about trying to calculate local times by adding or subtracting offsets from GMT. So at this particular moment, it’s @297 all over world, not just on the east coast of the US. I like standardization, however the problem is the lack of context. Although I know it’s @297 all over the world, I don’t know what that means to anyone else in the world. In standard time, it’s 1:10 a.m. here, but what does @297 mean in Japan? Is everyone asleep, or busy commuting to or home from work? Cool idea, but you probably don’t want to start telling people to report for a meeting in 5 beats any time soon.
What I like about the Swatch Paparazzi:
- Good interface. Swatch can’t really take all the credit for this since I believe the user interface was designed by Microsoft, but who cares who gets the credit. The point is that it’s good. The watch has a plethora of features, however everything seems easily and quickly accessible and configurable. Details like being able to move forward or backward by increments of five when holding down buttons makes the experience feel polished.
- Great button feel. The buttons on the Paparazzi feel great. In fact, ironically enough, they feel significantly better than they look. I think they tend to look cheap and plasticy (which, of course, they are), however they feel stiff and sound and solid, but not so stiff that they are uncomfortable to use (unless you record 99 splits with the stopwatch, at which point the tip of your thumb will start to feel it).
- Great standard watch features. Even with no wireless capabilities whatsoever, the Paparazzi would offer much more than your standard digital watch. I love associating dates with alarms, and being able to look at an actual calendar grid right on my wrist. And, of course, you have to have the countdown timer.
- Automatic time calibration. I’m big into accuracy, and I love the fact that the Paparazzi calibrates itself using a signal containing data from an atomic clock. And I love the fact that the time zone adjusts automatically. I know Internet Time makes time zones obsolete, but until the rest of the world is ready to do away with them, it’s nice to have a watch that makes them easier to deal with.
- Customizable watch faces. I actually find myself using different faces in different circumstances. When I’m traveling, the face that displays two analogue faces side-by-side with the time from two different time zones (the Paparazzi typically sets the default time zone automatically, but allows you to configure a secondary time zone) is perfect. If I’m doing something more active and need to be able to see the time at a quick glance, I’ll opt for face with large digital numbers.
- MSN Direct. I like it. For me, it’s worth the $3.33 per month. It’s not worth it for everyone, though, so make your own decision.
What I don’t like about the Paparazzi:
- Watch face limitations. While I love the idea of customizable watch faces, I wish I had more options, and I wish they weren’t related to the watch itself. In other words, I would like to have the option of using any watch face ever created for any MSN Direct watch. And the ultimate feature would be the ability to create my own.
- No vibrating alarm. I know, I’m supposed to purchase the Tissot High T if I want a vibrating alarm, but even my old Timex Messenger had a very effective silent mode. Vibrating alarms make more sense on watches than cell phones (at least in the sense that the vibration is easier to detect), but it’s a very rare feature on watches. I would love to be able to put my Paparazzi into silent mode during meetings and movies.
- The band. I’m not a big fan of the band. It’s thick and stiff, and refuses to change its highly unnatural contour no matter how long I wear the watch. It’s like memory wire, only rubber. It’s usually tight enough against the sides of my wrist to leave marks, but so loose underneath that I can easily slip a finger between the bottom of my wrist and the band’s buckle. I was also surprised to find that I needed to get it sized. Take your Paparazzi to anyplace that sells Tissots, and they should be able to trim it down for you. (If they tell you they can’t, tell them to use the same piece of equipment they would use on a Tissot High T.)
- Documentation. Although I’m not usually a fan of documentation (opting instead experimentation), I’m certain many others will need more explanation than what is available in the Quick Start guide in the box and the downloadable PDF. I think it would be cool to sell Paparazzis with CDs or DVDs containing visual tutorials. (Of course, given a choice, I’d rather the price be kept down.)
If you’re curious about the MSN Direct family of watches, the Swatch Paparazzi is a pretty good model to experiment with. Although it’s not the absolute cheapest, it’s still very affordable, and the free wireless content can give you a taste of what it’s like to have a connected device strapped to your wrist before you actually make Microsoft $40 or $60 richer. The Paparazzi’s are full featured, fun, and affordable, and may be the first of the MSN Direct family capable of finally bringing this type of technology to the hip and urban masses.
By Christian Cantrell