Smartwatches are everywhere at the moment, and the trend for intelligent wearables shows no signs of slowing, with Google's Android Wear system hitting the market on multiple timepieces and Apple's preparing its own iOS-based effort for next year.
Japanese tech giant Casio joined the party a couple of years ago with its Bluetooth-enabled GB-6900AA, but its approach has been a little different to the norm. Its smartwatches still look like watches, with the "smart" features playing second fiddle to aesthetics, ruggedness and battery life. The G-Shock GBA-400 takes this to the next level by stripping away features like notifications and fitness monitors and focuses solely on a single task: controlling the music player on your phone.
What is It?
A rugged watch with the ability to control the music player on your Android or iOS handset over a low-power Bluetooth link.
Who's it For?
People who find smartwatches too dainty or needlessly distracting for everyday use, but still like the idea of being able to control elements of the phone without having to actually extract it from their pocket.
While the Android Wear range has brought with it a couple of unusual designs in the form of the Moto 360 and LG G Watch R, most modern smartwatches tend to confirm to a fairly rigid template: a square design dominated by a large screen. These devices have basic waterproof properties but can hardly be described as resilient items; they pick up marks and scratches very easily, and with all of the smartwatches we've tested, we found ourselves fearful of bashing them against walls or scuffing them during regular daily activities.
Taking that into account, the G-Shock GBA-400 is a refreshing alternative: a timepiece built to take on life's hardships clad in a sturdy plastic casing which not only repels bumps and marks, but is also shock, dust- and water-resistant to a depth of 200 metres.
To the casual observer, GBA-400 looks like any other G-Shock product. The biggest deviation from the norm is the large rotating dial on the right-hand side, which is used to toggle the volume or switch between music tracks. There's no touchscreen – obviously – and other functions are assigned to three of the five physical buttons located on the edges of the watch face (the fourth and fifth buttons illuminate the dial and turn on Bluetooth respectively).
The face itself features an analogue dial along with two digital LCD displays to show the date, time and – where applicable – other information, such as the song you're currently listening to on your phone. There's also a rotating disc sandwiched in-between the two LCD displays, which indicates whether the Bluetooth feature is on or off; it turns around when you toggle the setting and looks incredibly cool, but serves no other real purpose.
Casio's previous Bluetooth watches have had a pretty sketchy track record when it comes to performance. The first model – the G-Shock GB-6900AA – initially only worked with iOS, and even when Android support was introduced, the watch would often drop its Bluetooth connection or fail to recognise the phone entirely. Thankfully, Casio has ironed out all of these irksome issues with the GBA-400, and we were able to pair the watch with our Nexus 5 without any issues.
Creating the link requires the official Casio G-Shock application, and this is complemented by a separate G'Mix app for controlling music. G'Mix is essentially another music playback app on your phone which boasts an equaliser and the ability to engage SoundHound on your handset to "listen" and discover the name of any song you happen to hear when you're out and about. It's a solid effort, but it doesn't currently allow access to your Google Music cloud library, should you have one; you can only access tracks stored on the phone itself. We personally found it was best to ignore the G'Mix app entirely and simply configure the watch to control your phone's native music player. Once you've done this, the dial on the side controls the volume while the other buttons perform functions such as next track, previous track and play/stop. Your current track is displayed on the uppermost LCD screen.
Casio states that the GBA-400's battery is good for around two years, which sounds very impressive indeed when compared to other smartwatches, some of which require charging every few days. In reality, this lifespan can only really be achieved by aggressively managing the watch's connection time. For example, the watch will, by default, automatically disable its Bluetooth connection if it isn't used for an hour. This then requires you to manually enable the connection again by pressing a button on the left-hand side. It sounds like a pain, but because the GBA-400 only really needs to be linked when you're listening to music, it makes sense to only have it connected during these periods - for all other times, you can turn it off and conserve the battery.
You might assume that a smartwatch which can't display notifications, show you who is calling or take down voice commands is next to useless, but we found that the GBA-400's drastically curtailed feature set was something of a blessing. Obviously this may vary depending on your personal preference, but we've always found that music control is the most-used feature on other smartwatches we've used, and therefore we barely missed the fact that email, text and call alerts weren't getting through. If you've already embraced the wearable revolution you may not fully agree, however.
Irrespective of whether or not you think Casio's latest Bluetooth-powered effort is smart enough, there's no denying that the GBA-400 looks a lot better than most other smartwatches, primarily because it doesn't look like a smartwatch at all. It looks just like any other G-Shock, and for fashion-conscious individuals that could be a much bigger selling point than whether or not you can digest emails or track your total steps for the day.
And then there's that battery life. While Casio's boast of a two-year stamina might be a little extreme if you intend to use the Bluetooth connection on a daily basis, it's still a massive, massive improvement over rival wearables, the best of which – the Pebble – can last around five days before needing a charge.
While a strict focus on music control is understandable, previous Casio smartwatches - such as the GB-6900AA and GB-6900B - have boasted the ability to receive notifications from your phone. We can appreciate the move to simplify the functionality of the GBA-400, but it would have been nice to at least have the option to switch on email or text alerts.
It seems odd that Casio would remove functions that were present in past models; as it stands, the watch can only be used to control your music, synchronise its time via your smartphone or cause your phone to emit a sound so you can find it should it become lost. But the makers of a third-party Android application known as Bluewatcher are aiming to augment its feature list if possible, so the GBA-400 might get a little smarter in the future.
The only other real complaint we have is that the LED illuminator isn't powerful enough to totally light up the face of the watch in dark conditions, which seems to defeat the object.
Should You Buy It?
If your idea of a smartwatch is a device which can mirror much of the functionality of your phone, then the Casio G-Shock GBA-400 will surely come as something of a disappointment. It can't display notifications or alert you of incoming calls, and it won't track the number of steps you've taken or allow you to create calendar appointments with nothing but your voice. It's a smartwatch that actually isn't as smart as many will like.
But therein lies its strength: by focusing on one function (and a pretty essential one, at that) the GBA-400 aims to be a decent watch first and foremost. With so many other wearables failing due to fiddly interfaces and dismal battery life, Casio's effort takes a different approach; it looks like a watch, acts like a watch and doesn't require constant charging, yet it offers something a standard watch could never hope to. It's therefore better suited to those who like their timepieces to be fashionable and sturdy, and fancy a little bit more functionality – but not so much that the device on their wrist starts to become too complicated.
Thanks to WatchShop.com for supplying the unit used in this review.