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Hands on: Neptune Duo

Neptune wants to smarten your watch and dumb down your phone

The Neptune Duo aims to invert the roles, making a smartphone subordinate to a smartwatch, which is an interesting shift in roles.

Smartwatches are blooming, but they aren’t always pretty. They may turn a few heads, but they’re still poor fashion statements. Neptune, a startup based in Montreal, Canada, did not impress us with its titanic Pine smartwatch, but the company isn’t done. It’s unveiling not just a new product, but also a paradigm shift in what the watch should be. The new Neptune Duo is a smartwatch that’s actually two devices.

When you buy the Duo, you’ll get a smartwatch (Hub) and what appears to be a smartphone (Pocket). The Hub smartwatch sports a reimagined design, taking aesthetic elements of bracelets and fitness bands, while changing the relationship with the smartphone. The other is the Pocket, a dummy companion device that looks like a smartphone, but is little more than a screen. In short, the Hub calls the shots as a master, while the Pocket follows the lead as a slave.

Master and slave

The Hub is designed to be a standalone device — a smartphone replacement, in effect. It’s going to have all the trappings of any handset, ranging from 64GB of onboard storage, LTE connectivity, quad-core processor, various sensors, Wi-Fi, GPS, NFC, Bluetooth and run the latest version of Android 5.0 Lollipop. It might seem like a fool’s errand to try and replicate a complete 5- or 6-inch user experience onto a watch with a 2.4-inch curved display, which is why this product is ultimately a dance between the watch and the dummy Pocket screen that will come bundled with it.

Neptune Duo 6

Ted Kritsonis/Digital Trends

Digital Trends met with Neptune founder and CEO, Simon Tian, and he acknowledged that the pocket screen would be required for more detailed tasks. Responding to a text with a few words is fine on the watch because he says you can just write out the words on the Hub’s screen with a fingertip. A more detailed message will require the pocket screen, which will essentially just be a dummy slab handset running on Android as well. Since the most important components are in the watch, the pocket screen is merely handling tasks better suited for more real estate.

This product is ultimately a dance between the Hub watch and the dummy Pocket screen that will come bundled with it.

None of this would be possible if it wasn’t for the way the Hub is designed. It looks like a cross between a fashion bracelet and a communicator a superhero might wear in a comic book. Tian noted that a big problem with current smartwatch designs is that they cram everything into the watch face, which he believes is a waste of resources and real estate. Thus, the band itself houses some components as well, namely the 1,000mAh battery. He wasn’t able to rate battery life, but noted that smartphone screens consume “roughly half” the battery life. The power consumption of the chip in the watch is also said to be a “fraction” of a smartphone, though he wasn’t able to quantify that with numbers. A cable will be included that allows users to charge the Hub by using the Pocket and its 2,800mAh battery.

With the exception of flexible grooves on either side of the band, there isn’t much give to the Hub, based on the non-working prototype I tried on. In fact, you basically have to put it on or take it off from a 90-degree angle above the wrist. The set form factor means there’s nothing to replace here, unlike other smartwatches and fitness bands where bands can be swapped out. Tian did confirm that different models and colors will likely come out after the first model comes to market in black in late 2015.

There are slivers at the end of both bands acting as heart rate monitors. The screen technology Neptune will actually go with is yet to be determined, though OLED or E-Ink are possibilities. There doesn’t appear to be a headphone jack of any kind on the unit, so listening to music and phone calls will require Bluetooth headsets or headphones, but it is going to have a built-in speaker.

Because it’s not yet finished, we weren’t shown a working unit so we could see how this new master-slave connected duality actually works and feels like, but the prototype form factor is certainly a different take on what others are doing in the smartwatch space. How well the battery will perform with all the components under the hood running will also help determine its fate.

This is also one of only a few smartwatches that will run on a full version of Android (not Android Wear), albeit with modifications for the smaller display. However, on the Pocket (dummy phone), Tian says Android 5.0 Lollipop will look and feel much the same as any other smartphone, though it won’t have the same level of performance under the hood.

Conclusion

Neptune is essentially putting the smartwatch in the role of the smartphone vis-à-vis a laptop. A phone is great for many tasks, but if you’re going to write a novel or handle a complicated document, you still have to reach for your laptop to take care of it. The Duo aims to make your smartphone, well, not so smart anymore. In this scenario, it’s little more than a utility support device, which is an interesting shift in role for something that seems so indispensable today. If a smartphone is a very personal device, Tian argues the smartwatch is even more so.

But the proof is in the pudding, and so far, only the vision is clear. Those interested in reserving a Duo can do so now, ranging from zero down and $800 at launch to $500 down and zero extra at launch. Tian says pre-orders will be filled by the end of the year, and retail distribution should follow from there, but wasn’t able to offer specifics beyond that.

Highs

  • Unique design
  • Smartwatch runs the show
  • Full version of Android
  • Solid components and big battery
  • Heart-rate monitor

Lows

  • Unclear what kind of screen it will have
  • Inverting device roles could be a bad idea
  • Battery life is questionable
  • Pocket screen still required for certain tasks