Introduction and display
The Puls wearable was officially announced during Dreamforce 2014, and marks yet another step into the tech sphere by musician and tech enthusiast, Will.i.am. Engineered by his i.am+ company, the “smart cuff” took almost three years to complete. It’s clearly a labor of love for the Black Eyed Peas band member.
The current, final cost for the i.amPULS device is $399 (about £258, AU$511). It was released for early adopters and developers last holiday season as part of the i.am+ company’s Make it Great program, which, according to a rep, is “an ongoing effort to source valuable opinions and insights from fashion and tech influencers across the nation.”
Notice that it’s called a smart cuff – or cuff, smartband, wrist device and wearable – but not a smartwatch. According to the i.am crowd, the Puls is not a smartwatch even though this is clearly where it lies on the gadget spectrum.
Whatever it’s called, this wearable is the last thing you should be reaching to wrap around your wrist. Here’s why you should wait for the next generation, or maybe even skip the Puls all together.
The Puls’s 1.7-inch PMOLED display is hardly anything to jump up and down about. It has the similar curved appeal of the Samsung Gear S but is a bit smaller by 0.3-inches though it looks slimmer because of the thick bezel.
The Puls also doesn’t have the best brightness setting. When maxed out, the screen is still duller than the power saver mode on all other wearables.
There aren’t any other display features that enhance the experience either. For example, you won’t find an ambient light sensor hidden on the front.
It doesn’t help that the glare from both natural and indoor lighting makes the screen difficult to see. I found myself constantly tilting the cuff’s face in order to see notifications. Even when using it to make a call or access its features, the screen had to be angled.
Design and comfort
Though fashion is a major marketing element for the Puls, the thick band just isn’t appealing. Where larger wearables have caught the attention of people for attractive displays or interesting designs, the Puls has drawn a lot of eyes for all the wrong reasons.
The band is reminiscent of an ankle bracelet at worst and a fat slap bracelet at best. I suppose my aversion towards cuff-esque jewelry doesn’t help but even the most fashion-forward person couldn’t love this device.
The strap snaps open and closes magnetically which again, really reminds me of a slap bracelet. It even sounds like one when it snaps shut. If the device isn’t turned on, it’s difficult to discern which way to put it on. Thankfully the power button on the right side of the display can serve as a handy reminder that the Puls snaps shut on top.
The power button itself is horrendous. Turning on the Puls is easy, but turning it off requires some intense muscling. At first I thought it was just my small lady hands lacking strength, but after asking several other people (both male and female) and seeing them struggle, I realized it was the button.
There is a microphone above the screen and a speaker below which you use for calls, music and alerts. Both remain well hidden and don’t detract from the overall design of the Puls, but there’s not much going on in the first place.
The band is pretty chunky in general, likely so it can fit all the internal hardware. But the Puls as a whole is still surprisingly light.
It’s also pretty large for my small wrists and didn’t fit right. Because it was so loose – like a dangling bracelet – it would slide around my arm and the screen wouldn’t display face up or even face me because it was so heavy.
I was also told by a Puls rep that there will also be other sized bands, ones that can extend for larger wrists. So far I haven’t heard about cuffs for smaller wrists.
On a more alarming note, the Puls becomes really warm after extended use. It didn’t reach uncomfortable heat levels but a wearable that can’t handle basic functions without heating up is disconcerting.
Specs, performance and interface
The Puls is powered by a dual core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor with a forked version of Android 4.1. The 1-inch-wide cuff comes with 16GB of internal storage, 1GB of RAM, Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity and GPS functionality.
It also has a pedometer, accelerometer, Siri/Cortana-like assistant called AneedA – and can make phone calls.
The capacitative touchscreen on the Puls was often jumpy, oversensitive and pretty much all over the place.
Essentially, there were moments when the screen would lag horribly and then refresh without warning. At times, the cuff’s display wouldn’t register my finger swipe so I’d have to do it multiple times. Once it did register, the screen became laggy and then overcompensated by opening up a different option I didn’t want.
Texting was the worst part of the Puls. I don’t think I was even close to mastering it after a full week of use.
The cuff employs a third-party program developed by the company Minuum. I’m not sure if it’s the Minuum keyboard that’s frustrating or the size of the keyboard, or a combination of both, but typing anything on the Puls is an absolute nightmare.
The only way I was able to send a text without constantly correcting the autocorrect was to use voice commands. However, the Puls adds a “sent by AneedA” signature which I didn’t know was added. Equally frustrating? It doesn’t seem like there’s a way to remove AneedA’s handiwork.
The Puls is completely untethered, meaning a smartphone is not needed for it to work. So far AT&T will be the only network carrier in the US while O2 in the UK will carry the cuff.
Calling is probably the best feature of the Puls. It doesn’t work as well as the Gear S but it works well enough. I was able to hear clearly with the smartband at my side, though the person on the other end said I was a little muffled.
It seems like six to eight inches is a good distance to hold the Puls from you if you’re making a phone call, though this won’t be comfortable if you plan on having a long conversation. It may be useful driving, if you have the windows rolled up and music off.
In addition to calling, AneedA is the other feature that works really well.
Developed by Nuance, the AI voice assistant pulls up info from Wolfram Alpha in about three seconds if you’re asking it general queries, like who Barack Obama is. But asking it to find coffee with the maps app takes a little longer.
It also handles all the voice dictation on Puls and was surprisingly accurate when texting.
AneedA can also take care of various tasks. It takes several steps for it to reach the final destination but eventually, it gets there. For example, I asked AneedA to message someone from the quick menu and it had to verify who it was, then ask what message I wanted to send. Calling commands were a bit quicker.
The interface of the Puls is colorful, simple and actually really pretty. In the home view, you scroll up and down to get to various apps. Each one is different and scrolling displays a colorful graphic that fills the screen.
There is no dedicated home page where you can see all the apps in one place. Once selecting an app, you can swipe right for a list of options or scroll down for a menu.
Swiping from the left side of the screen brings up a quick menu to get you back home, to the settings and to AneedA.
It’s a simple system that mirrors smartwatch interfaces because it’s intuitive and clean.
Apps and battery life
Suffice it to say, there are no apps right now for the Puls. Sure, there are the stock ones onboard the smartband – Facebook, Instagram, a Twitter-esque Whooter (formerly Twitrist), a specialized Maps app and Music but without the app store there’s not much else you can do. There’s also no fitness app at the moment, though I tried one during the unveiling at Dreamforce 2014.
Despite all the fuss during the unveiling, it’s clear that new apps like Vibe, the one that can supposedly read your emotions, aren’t ready. A SoundHound-like app is still being developed in-house as well.
A rep for i.am+ told me: “These apps are not available on our current firmware, however, we are considering some exciting new apps such as these for our future maintenance releases and updates.”
If most smartwatches and fitness trackers already have a difficult time staying alive, then the Puls has a long way to go.
I barely got a pulse after five hours of heavy usage and about eight hours with light usage (as in I left it alone without turning it off). The Moto 360 has a horrible battery life and can make it two days. The Gear S has a massive screen that glows brighter than the Puls and gets at least a day and a half after extended periods of use.
Charging the device is a confusing process, too. The prongs were made to help you discern how the charger fits into the cuff to snap shut.
But it’s not that simple. You can’t just glance at it then quickly connect the charger. It takes more than one try and then finally, the thing will close up. Considering it’ll die shortly, the Puls fortunately takes about an hour to completely juice up.
I don’t think I’ve had a more infuriating experience with a device before the Puls. It’s a brave venture but one that hasn’t been completely thought out or fully tested yet.
AneedA is like the little sister to Cortana, Siri and Google Now. It can’t do as much as the other ladies but it sure gives the good ‘ol college try, which is good enough for me.
Standalone voice calling is also the best part of the Puls. It’s what I wanted the Gear S to be and where I think other wearables should head for the best functionality.
Sorry Puls, but there’s plenty to dislike here – almost too much. The design, display, lack of apps, battery life, the worst texting experience ever … I think that’ll do.
Whenever a celebrity ventures into a space that isn’t their own, it’s difficult to take them seriously. But Will.i.am has consistently shown enough interest in tech over the years to make me believe he genuinely cares about it. Yes, many jokes can be made at his expense but a part of me remembers there’s still a team behind the figurehead trying to make the Puls work.
This doesn’t mean the Puls will be successful though. The wearables scene is quickly becoming over-saturated with people already rolling their eyes at the very mention of a “new smartwatch.” The fashion angle also probably won’t cut it for the smart cuff because, well, frankly it’s pretty ugly.
The Puls as a whole has a long, long (very long) way to go before it reaches consumer wrists. It’s the least intuitive wearable I’ve come across and the most buggy. Again, I’ll mention this is a first-gen device that likely won’t see mass production – which is good for everyone. The $399 (about £258, AU$511) price isn’t wallet friendly and the company would probably take massive losses shipping it out.
The fact that it’s a been touted as a “standalone communications device,” or untethered wearable, is perhaps the best feature about the Puls – and may keep the smart cuff alive. Now, the Puls team just needs to fix everything else.
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