Should You Turn Your Old Watch Into a Smartwatch?

About a year ago, we wrote about a prototype of a wearable that would turn any wristwatch into a smartwatch. The Chronos disk, we reported, attaches to the back of a watch case and offers fitness tracking, notifications, and a limited number of gesture controls that will get your phone to do such things as take a picture.

I mention our prior coverage because at the time, and for a while afterward, this article was one of the most popular at Bloomberg Pursuits.

Source: Chronos

People were enchanted by the idea that they could keep a beloved watch but gain some of the most popular aspects of a smartwatch. Our writer tested a prototype and found that it did most of what it said it would do. (Since then, high-end competitors like the Montblanc E-Strap have joined the field.)

Now consumers are getting the real version of the Chronos, and I took one for a spin this week to see whether we should recommend it to you.

But first, a little about me: I am a man; I love mechanical watches; long-distance running is one of my hobbies; I own an Apple watch; and I am often late. (This is not the worst Tinder profile you’ve ever read; it’s just what you need to know going into this review.)

The Chronos Disc

Let’s start with the technology. The device is 33 mm in diameter, which means it’ll fit nicely behind the face of most contemporary round watches. It’s 3 mm thick, which is noticeable if you have a watch that’s already high. It makes your timepiece just that much more likely to catch your sleeve or pocket, although I didn’t find it to be too annoying.

The Chronos disc affixes to the back of your watch with an old-fashioned adhesive, which worked perfectly well on the sapphire caseback of my automatic Nomos Tangomat. I found it to be comfortable, and the vibrating notifications were very detectible. I don’t think I’ve missed one. The Chronos also has light alerts in seven different colors—it looks kind of cool and is subtle, but you can turn that off if you don’t need it. I didn’t find it to be very necessary.

The app includes fitness tracking and settings for various notifications.
The app includes fitness tracking and settings for various notifications. Source: Chronos; Apple

You can match your alerts to different kinds of vibrations and colors for various things, such as a long purple buzz when someone mentions you in Snapchat or two short blue buzzes when someone Venmos you. The Chronos also tracks your steps, distance traveled, and active calories through an app on your iPhone or Android. The app itself is clean and simple, yet ever-so-slightly buggy. (For instance, the materials that come with Chronos claim you can look at previous days’ fitness data, but for the life of me I couldn’t make it work. Also, it takes a few moments for the data to synchronize after you open the app—they are not continuously updated.)

Additionally, you can silence a call to your phone by tapping the watch face twice, you can take a photo when the camera app on your phone is open by doing the same, and repeated taps on the watch will eventually make your phone ring, in case you misplaced it.

There is also a media play option that triggers when you tap the crown of the watch (i.e., on the side)—and this was my first major problem with the watch. Often, when I would reach into my pocket to grab my phone, I would pull it out to discover that it was quietly playing the audiobook I’ve been listening to. (It’s a Young Adult novel, OK?)

The Chronos can fit on the back of most watches, and the brand has an app to help you make sure it fits on yours.
The Chronos can fit on the back of most watches, and the brand has an app to help you make sure it fits on yours. Source: Chronos

Eventually I figured out that when my watch would brush the edge of my pocket as my hand entered, it would trigger the Chronos media playback function. It could have been worse; it could have launched my “Jock Jams Dinner Party” mix.

Where Chronos Falls Short

And here’s where it becomes important that I’m an adult man (which you may have just briefly forgotten). My phone is almost always in my pocket or near me on a desk. It’s perpetually on vibrate, so I’m always alerted when I get a text or call or other incoming missive that I think is important enough to set an alert for. The only reason I’d want those notifications on my watch is if I can then see what the message says—or at least get a preview.

In this regard, having the Chronos can’t help but remind you constantly that you’re not wearing an Apple Watch, Android Wear, or something else with a screen. Why did I need to get this alert on my wrist?  you’ll wonder. I will have to take my phone out and look at it anyway. And if you can’t right away because you’re in a meeting, you’ll end up distracted, wondering who texted you, and then you miss what Michelle From Accounting said about the Q3 numbers.

The Chronos, attached to the back of my Nomos Tangomat.
The Chronos, attached to the back of my Nomos Tangomat. Photographer: Chris Rovzar

If you are a woman, or just a person who doesn’t generally have your phone on your body, I imagine these alerts would be more useful. Still, I suspect anyone who has worn a smartwatch with a screen will distinctly feel its absence after a few days with Chronos.

Similarly, if you’ve ever used an advanced fitness tracking device, Chronos will feel severely lacking. I primarily use my Apple Watch on long-distance runs—it tells you what your pace is, measures distance and steps and calories, and in its newest iteration can use GPS without your iPhone having to be nearby. (Full disclosure: I don’t find the Apple Watch to be essential in many other situations, but I am a fan of what it does here.)

Chronos gives you only the most basic information—no heartbeat, no reminders to stand up if you’ve been sitting too long, no elevation or route tracking. Basically, it just tells you what you already knew: that you didn’t walk around very much today and you burned only a few hundred calories. (To be fair, I’ve always thought step-counting was absurd. If you disagree, you are welcome to step your way over here and fight me.) For bikers, swimmers, or golfers, or even just a person who uses indoor cardio machines, this isn’t sufficient.

What the Chronos Does Well

If you are like me and often late for appointments, you will appreciate the calendar notifications. Again, it’s not as useful as something that will show you the appointment you need to get to in 15 minutes, but often all I need is a bit of a nudge to get going or a reminder I’ve got something coming up.

The “Find Your Phone” feature is also handy and kind of cute—my two-year-old niece got a kick out of playing with it the other day when we ran out of things to talk about, and I just started taking things off my person and handing them to her. The charge lasts at least two days, and the charger is less annoying than the magnetized Apple Watch one, which can easily slip off without notice. There are no magnets in the Chronos itself, so it should not affect your mechanical watch in any negative way, and the company assures that the charger won’t either.

If I were an Instagram celebrity who often took carefully staged selfies, or perhaps an international superspy doing spy things, I’m sure I’d appreciate the remote tap commands for the phone camera, which work quite well. And it’s nice to be able to silence your phone (or stop it from vibrating) with just a gesture while you’re receiving a call.

So Should You Get It?

If, for whatever reason, it is important for you to keep track of your steps, and pat yourself on the back at the end of the day for doing all the walking you were already going to do anyway, then by all means, splurge a bit on the Chronos. It’s not very expensive ($99.99), and you can easily program it to do only the specific things you want it to do and leave you alone the rest of the time. It can definitely help you in small ways, such as those appointment reminders.

At the end of the day, like a lot of people, I do think the key to the best smartwatch technology is that it focus in on being useful in a small number of situations. Any runner or biker I know who has a Garmin completely loves it, because it does what they want it to do and doesn’t bother them with extras. In the case of the Chronos, I’m not sure it quite meets the bar of being essential or even surprisingly useful. But it is well made and unobtrusive. I’d wait for the next generation, when add ons such as GPS get included.