Featured Review: Vector Luna Smartwatch

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Introduction

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The Vector Watch business was founded in 2013 with a vision to change how people use smart watches and other wearable devices. Vector Watch currently manufacturer two smartwatch designs, the Vector Meridian and the Vector Luna. The Meridian has a squared off watch face whereas the Luna, which we're reviewing here, has a round watch face design. Both models are compatible with modern Android, iOS and Windows Phone smartphone operating systems.

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Vector have designed their Luna and Meridian smartwatches around providing users with glanceable information built upon the aesthetics of a conventional watch face. Vector have produced a smartwatch that to many eyes doesn't look like a smartwatch, and for many people this is exactly what they are looking for. It doesn't draw attention to itself in the way that many competitor devices do.
In order to review and test the Vector Luna, I used the watch as normal over two months. That meant going to work, the gym, the bar and flying halfway around the world. For the majority of the time I paired it up to my LG Google Nexus 5X. During my time, the Luna was updated from software version 1.6 to 1.8 via 1.7 and the Nexus 5X was updated from Android 6.0 Marshmallow to Android 7.0 Nougat.

If you are looking for the tl;dr for the Vector Luna smartwatch, here it is: the Luna smartwatch combines exceptional battery life with some well implemented, thought out features but sacrifices the pretty display and user interaction. It's a smartwatch for somebody who wants an easy to read timepiece but also likes the idea of not having to pull out a smartphone every time an email arrives, but accepts that in order to respond to a notification, that 'phone does need to be used.

Specification

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The Vector Luna uses a non-touchscreen, monochrome, memory-LCD type screen, which has a quoted resolution of 240px. Under this, the Luna is based on a ARM Cortex-M4 processor. Vector don't quote the RAM or internal storage of the watch and as it uses a bespoke platform, these numbers would be meaningless anyway. Vector do, however, quote the battery life at thirty days. This benchmark is based on the device receiving two hundred notifications every day. There's onboard Bluetooth Low Energy for connectivity, a pedometer and ambient light sensor too. The watch face is 44mm in diameter, which is a typical size for a gentleman's smartwatch in 2016. The strap is 22mm wide.

Vector Watches' own internal software platform is compatible with Android 4.4 KitKat or higher. It's also compatible with at least version Apple iOS 8 and Microsoft Windows Phone 8.1 update 1. The chassis is constructed of stainless steel (316L) and mineral glass. It's water resistant to five atmospheres, 50 meters, of cold freshwater. This comes with a caveat: there are certain things that one mustn't do involving liquid and the watch. It may be gently immersed into cold freshwater, but showering and diving, especially in saltwater, are off the menu.

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Design & Hardware

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The Vector Luna as tested has a black body and a black stainless steel bracelet strap complete with a butterfly clasp. Looks are a matter of personal preference and I found the black Luna polarized opinion. Some people thought it looked a very handsome timepiece and others simply didn't like it. Luckily, there are a number of different finishes available for both the Luna and the strap is easily changed as well. Vector sell silica, steel bracelet and leather straps. The price varies according to the design chosen: as tested costs £419 here in the United Kingdom whereas the silver colored stainless steel model sells for £249.

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The three buttons are nothing exceptional; they have a slightly soft feel about them and are not to be used when the watch is underwater as this would compromise the waterproofing.

The watch has a relatively large bezel around the face, which contains the VECTOR logo at the bottom of the watch face. On the back there's a four pin magnetic charger attachment; in terms of size the watch is similar to most other round faced smartwatch devices, such as the Huawei Watch. It looks more like a watch than a smartwatch thanks to the always-on display; the display does not illuminate unless there's a reason for it to. More on this later.

Display

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The Vector Luna smartwatch's memory LCD is an always on, backlit display panel, which requires a tiny amount of current to display an image on the screen – considerably less power than the LCD or OLED panels you'll find on the majority of smartwatches. One of the disadvantages of low power display panels is that they suffer from a sluggish refresh rate and this is at least partially true of the Luna: very occasionally, you might spot the watch draw on-screen objects. In my time with the Vector Luna, I only noticed this a few times and after the software update to 1.8, it seemed to disappear. Vector have included some visual flourish throughout the interface via animations.

As well as only requiring a miniscule amount of current to display information, the Luna's memory LCD panel has another significant advantage: it's transflective, that is, any light reaching the display is bounced back towards the outside. This means the device can be used without the backlight in even dim lighting conditions, but when it gets too dark this will kick in to keep things visible. The Luna will illuminate the screen if you tilt the watch towards your face and it's dark and this was correct more often than not – but the Vector Luna is smarter than simply triggering the backlight, as it will only illuminate the display if it thinks you are awake. Over time the device learns when you are usually asleep and won't illuminate the watchface during these times: you can let the device know you are awake by clicking on a button. If you glance at the display immediately after a notification has arrived, the watch can flick to show you this and if it's dark, will also illuminate the display.

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Now that we've established that the Luna's display uses minimal power despite being permanently on, it's time to talk about the disadvantages of the panel. Firstly, the panel is not as high resolution as many other smartphones or smartwatches and you can see jagged edges along what would normally look like straight lines. Second, it is not a touchscreen: there's no way to interact with the device using the screen, everything must be done via the three buttons on the side. There's no color, either: it's possible to show images depending on the watch face, but the Luna's display is not designed for imagery. If you're going to show off the Luna, it won't be by the dazzling display.

Is the display an issue? If one considers the Luna to be a traditional watch that includes additional features, then no it doesn't. If you've used a smartwatch before and been frustrated by the battery running out towards the end of the day, it may be an acceptable compromise. If, however, you want to view pictures on your wrist then the Vector Luna is probably not the smartwatch for you.

Software & User Interface

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With the Vector Luna lacking a touchscreen, all input into the watch itself uses a combination of the three hardware buttons, either pushed, held down individually or with another button. The device comes with a small number of watchfaces but hundreds more are available from the store accessible from the companion application. You can switch between the display watchface – and any applications connected to the device – using the top and bottom buttons on the device. The order of watchfaces and applications can be changed using the companion application by dragging these around. In the course of daily used, I found myself using one or two watchfaces but would switch things up from time to time.

One of the Luna's quirks is that there is no "Settings" option anywhere in the device. You can find one in the Vector Store, or hold the middle and top button down for six seconds to reveal this. However, the number of settings is limited – there's no "do not disturb" mode to prevent the device from illuminating the display, but you can set the smartwatch not to do this when your calendar shows you are in a meeting, or manually from the Vector Luna app. There's no flight mode or off button anywhere on the device: it seems that Bluetooth LE is permanently on.

Watch faces themselves are simple and offer minimal interaction; the selection of watchfaces that ship with the device may be deleted and many more added offering a range of features. Some of these faces are variants of a typical analogue watch face and these also have a calendar bar around the outside of the dial showing when you have appointments, which is a neat trick. A number show different digital watch faces and some contain a logo or an image. Some both look artistic and contain useful information, such as the daylight face showing here. Most can display one or more of Vector's Streams; more on these later.

The Vector Watch platform can also run applications, but these do not sit behind a separate app launcher. Instead, these are presented as a watchface. All of the applications I downloaded have a home screen showing the application name and the time. To launch the application, hit the middle button. The BBC application shows the three latest headlines but doesn't offer any additional functionality above and beyond this – you can't read the underlying article or present it on your smartwatch display as you can with the Android Wear platform. The Roll the Dice application rolls a pair of dice (2D6 for the old school gamers out there) and gives a re-roll and a back option. These are simple applications and you probably won't be spending long on them, but highlight that the Vector Luna is a watch with smart functions rather than a smart device that may also tell the time.

When it comes to handling notifications, the Vector Luna connects to the host smartphone via the Vector mobile application. For the Android platform, this hooks into the Android notification system and the software can pass through all notifications to the smartwatch, or you can customize what you are notified about. Notifications dismissed on the smartwatch are passed through to the smartphone, and vice-versa, so you aren't having to deal with the same thing twice and the Vector software is clever enough not to send the same notification to the watch if the notification appears on the Android device whilst you are using it. This is a small but welcome feature – there's no point in the watch letting me know of an incoming call or message if I'm using my device and see the drop down toast notification.

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When a notification arrives, the Luna can either show the notification contents or simply advise that there is a notification. The device vibrates on the wrist for both options, but if the notification content option is enabled it shows a circle around the watch face and pushing the middle button shows the list of waiting notifications plus detail. I did find that Google Hangouts would occasionally not clear up its own notifications from the Luna, especially if I was having a messaging conversation on my tablet and my smartwatch was keeping up with the conversation: sometimes the Luna would show me half a dozen waiting notifications, which were snippets from the conversation. However, I've experienced a similar issue with Google Hangouts on other devices before and I'm inclined to believe this is an issue with Hangouts and not the Vector Luna. Other notifications worked perfectly.

The Vector Luna is unable to interact with notifications beyond dismissing them, and once you've viewed the notification on the watch your only choice is to either let the screen time out or dismiss the notification. The Luna shows you what the notification is but if it's an email you need to reply to, you'll need to pull your smartphone out. If it's a text message, you cannot reply, not even using quick reply options. This might be something that Vector implement in a future update. Dismissing a notification does not mark the incoming email, text or Hangouts message as read, simply that you have dealt with the notification.

Finally, the Vector software contains a basic activity and fitness logging suite. The device logs steps and if you are having a lazy day, it will prompt you to go for a walk. The fitness software integrates with Google Fit. In terms of accuracy, I found the device to report a similar number of steps compared with the Fitbit Flex activity tracker – it tended to underreport the Fitbit's count by a consistent five percent.

Vector Streams

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I mentioned above that most watchfaces are customizable with space for one or more Vector Streams. To describe the Vector Stream, this is something similar to a widget for a watch face. Vector's concept for the Stream is that it will provide users with a glanceable snippet of information without ruining how the watch face looks. In practice, there is a small amount of user-training required, but after a few days a Stream added to a watch face greatly increases how useful it is. In one of the examples showing here, there is a simply numeric Stream showing at the bottom of the watch face. This is the USD:GBP exchange rate, which is silently and automatically kept up to date by the Vector watch software. This stream can show what it is, it will scroll through the USD:GBP Exchange Rate text, but after those few days I don't need the text showing and I am happy with simply the exchange rate.

There are a number of included Streams with the Luna watch, such as the date, time, step count, distance covered, calories burned and weather. However, there are also many Streams available for download to add third party functionality to the watch such as Facebook, Luna battery, smartwatch battery, currency exchange, a countdown and similar. Vector are also running a Streams competition for budding developers to design new Streams for the platform.

Streams are one of the more flexible and powerful features of the Vector platform and they work in a similar way to widgets on an Android homescreen: they provide a frequently updated window of information and show considerable potential, but are necessarily limited in the amount of information that they show in order not to clutter up the watchface interface.

Battery Life

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Battery life is one of the Vector Luna's key strengths. The company claim that the watch has a battery life of thirty days with small print that this is if the customer receives 200 notifications a day. I carefully screen the notifications my smartphone receives and usually don't receive 200 notifications a day, so I found the battery life to be better than Vector's claim: I managed over forty days to a single charge! The Vector platform has many power saving optimizations, which means that day by day, not all notifications will arrive on your Luna from your smartphone and this will help the battery life.

There are some changes that can be made to the device setup in order to improve battery life, such as disabling displaying the seconds hand of the device. Minimal use of the backlight also helps, but the device does not need the backlight on for very long. As it happens my personal preference is for a watch without the second hand so I disable this feature, which will have a small power saving benefit; I also found that five seconds is long enough to check the time or whatever notification was showing. Regardless of what streams I was using, how many steps I walked, how early or late I started and finished my day, the Luna never dropped more than 3% of battery a day.

The Luna's power efficiency means that the risk is very much not the device running out of power, but of the charger cable being lost! Recharging uses the magnetic proprietary cable and the device takes close to two hours to full recharge quickly from a Chromebook's 500 mA USB port. Thirty minutes on the charger was enough to put the battery from 15% to 55%, so in today's age of manufacturers boasting about fast charge times, Vector could say thirty minutes on a charger should give twelve days of use!

Performance

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There are a small number of ways to assess the Luna Watch's performance. One is in how quickly the device receives notifications, which here depends on a combination of the watch itself, the connected smartphone and of course the companion application. Here, the Luna receives notifications a fraction of a second behind the host smartwatch: typically, as soon as the notification LED was illuminating, the watch was vibrating on my wrist.

Another way to assess performance is how smoothly the watch works when switching between applications and watchfaces. Here, the watch performs as well as the memory LCD screen can refresh and has a number of animations and visual flourish embedded into the operating system. The Luna is very consistent too; there are no noticeable slowdowns using the watch. I did find the backlight would occasionally not illuminate on the 1.6 software version but this intermittent issue was cleared up on the later updates. I had no stability issues with the watch restarting, and when I manually rebooted the device, it restarts in a under five seconds.

Applications used on the device also worked great – the Music app quickly switched music tracks playing on my watch and consistently worked reliably. I did find that the Luna's Bluetooth connection range was less than some other Bluetooth accessories and the update to the Vector 1.7 software coincided almost to the day with my Nexus 5X receiving an update to Android 7.0 Nougat, which introduced a reconnection issue. Vector quickly release a hotfix to resolve the connection issue but in any event, the error was caused by a new software version on the smartphone. During my testing, I didn't change the default Android device power management settings for the application, which meant it might have been put to sleep by Android's "Doze" power management feature.

Software Support

 

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The Vector Watch platform supports the Apple iOS, Google Android and Microsoft Windows platforms from hardware that looks more like a watch than a smartwatch. As such, it has a broad amount of appeal for a large number of potential customers using different hardware platforms and at different levels of ability. Vector's technical support has the difficult challenge of helping customers on three different handset platforms with what is a much more sophisticated hardware device than a simple mechanical watch and it should be an important factor when deciding a smartwatch to buy. Fortunately, Vector hit the jackpot here.

As with most other current wearable products, the Vector Luna communicates to the outside world via a partnership with a smartphone and an installed application on that 'phone. Vector's Android application is functional and elegant, with many different settings but these are easy to navigate.

During the review period, I had cause to contact Vector support about a persistent battery drain on my Nexus 5X when using the Luna running software version 1.6. The support contacts quickly came back to me with a suggested fix. When this worked, the team followed up the case a few hours later to make sure that things were still working as they should, which is a nice touch. The following day the issue reoccurred and my call was escalated to the second line team, who provided me with a more detailed explanation, a workaround and let me know a new software update for the watch and companion application was due in the next few days and this was one of the issues that it corrected.

When the update to 1.7 arrived, the team let me know. At this point, however, my Nexus 5X would not update the Luna watch. Not to worry; the support team advised me that the Vector Luna can have the software updated by connecting it to a desktop or laptop computer via a Google Chrome extension. Vector's Chrome extension works great on a Chromebook, which allows customers to update the device software without using a Mac or Windows machine. It's a small touch but one that shows the company is very mindful that many people are migrating to a mobile or lightweight computing platform.

As I've written above, there was an issue between the LG Nexus 5X and the Vector Luna whereby the connection would drop – this happened after the Nexus 5X was updated to Android 7.0 Nougat and Vector rapidly fixed the issue. Following the upgrade to Android 7.0 Nougat, Vector was the first developer to release a fix for a software application that did not work exactly as intended on the new version of Android.

Conclusion

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The Vector Luna represents a different take on a smartwatch compared with an Android Wear or even Apple Watch product. This doesn't necessarily make it a better or worse platform. The Vector Luna isn't interactive when dealing with notifications and it doesn't have a brightly illuminated full colour screen, nor can you look like an extra from a science fiction show by talking to your wrist. Instead, the Luna offers a traditional looking and well made watch design together with a good blend of features. Vector design the software and hardware of the Vector and this shows with impressive attention to detail. This is a product for the customer who wants the advantages of an innocuous looking wristwatch incorporating subtle wrist mounted notifications, or perhaps somebody who would find a smartwatch a useful accessory but doesn't want the fuss of having to recharge it every night or stares from other people when using their watch.

Despite the lack of attention grabbing features – or because of this – the Vector Luna is a great example of a smartwatch that does exactly what it needs to in a quiet, efficient way. The platform is well supported and feels suitably evolved, stable and mature. Special mention should be made of Vector's software and support teams: customer service is vital and can make or break a product, especially when the issues are resolved as promised. Recommended.

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Senior Staff Writer

I grew up with 8-bit computers and moved into PDAs in my professional life, using a number of devices from early Windows CE clamshells and later. Today, my main devices are a Nexus 5X, a Sony Xperia Z Tablet and a coffee cup.

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