New Balance's running smartwatch is all about little tweaks

Designed in partnership with Intel, the smartwatch features thoughtful improvements to the usual Android Wear template.

New Balance's running smartwatch is all about little tweaks

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Daniel Cooper
Daniel Cooper|@danielwcooper|January 6, 2017 3:27 PM

At last year's CES Intel and New Balance announced that they would team up to develop a sports-focused smartwatch. One day shy of a year later, and the pair revealed it to the world with significantly less fanfare than before. Intel's press conference was all about VR, leaving all talk of wearables to a press release that crossed the wire before the event even kicked off. So what does that mean for the New Balance RunIQ?

Gallery: Intel & New Balance RunIQ | 11 Photos


It's a pretty neat-looking device -- certainly not out of place alongside other chunky running watches from other brands like Garmin with its 1.39-inch AMOLED display and fat bezels. If there's one thing that is disappointing, however, it's how chintzy the plastic device feels, betraying its intention as a rugged piece of running gear.

It's also something of a mutt, with the fingerprints of four companies all over its DNA. Intel, for instance, used its hardware know-how to build the device itself while New Balance shaped its style and overall branding. Google obviously created Android Wear -- the first generation of the software, rather than version 2.0 -- and Strava is providing native access to its social network for runners. It's worth adding that this device is aimed squarely at marathoners and their ilk, with all the features geared toward slightly more serious athletes.

One of the reasons the watch is shipping before the arrival of Google's redesigned watch OS is that Intel is confident it's done enough to stand apart from the crowd. Intel VP Dr. Jerry Bautista explained that his engineers have spent a long time tweaking the power management of the software for better battery life. One of the other innovations he's proud of is ensuring that the display will always show the time, if not the rest of the UI.

New Balance, meanwhile, polled users to find out that runners apparently hate touching their watch's display during a run. So, the company insisted that there be physical controls on either side of the crown for one-touch lap times. As an added benefit, this allows runners to use the device even while wearing gloves. After all, if you're running in the Pacific Northwest in January, you don't want to have to expose your fingers to the elements.

Another neat tweak that Intel is proud of is the raised curve that surrounds the optical heart rate monitor on the underside of the case. It apparently encourages the skin on your wrist to push up into the space immediately around the optical sensor. That way, you get less light interference and a better, more accurate heart rate track than you would with other devices.

If Intel is to be believed, this is the best implementation of an Android Wear running watch, as the fitness features are mostly custom. The running app, which is Strava-branded, has been totally rewritten from the ground up for better performance and to be used without a smartphone. Once you've used your phone to pair the watch to your account, the device will then independently sync your stats whenever you hit WiFi.

One thing the device is lacking is a better music function, mostly because Intel and New Balance held off on altering the software. Knowing that Android Wear 2 will open up implementation beyond Google Play Music users, the two companies chose to wait for the update before making meaningful changes there. Speaking of which, the device will get an over-the-air update to the latest OS, but not before Intel has had chance to tweak it where necessary.

We'll reserve judgment on if the litany of small tweaks set the RunIQ ahead of other Android Wear devices in the same category. But while we wait to review the device, you can pre-order the watch for delivery on February 1st. Oh, and if you notice, we have images of a cool gold-and-gray model -- an alternative to the stock all-black edition. It's a limited paint job of just 1,500 that will be available on a first-come, first-served basis when the device hits stores.

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New Balance's running smartwatch is all about little tweaks