Review of the Swatch Paparazzi MSN Direct (SPOT) Watch

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 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.
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.)