You’ve probably heard about this vision of computing before: Someday, all of our phones, tablets and computers will be replaced by a single “hub” device, which we can use to beam information to a constellation of dumb screens.
We’ve seen a few stabs at this concept already, but a new effort called the Neptune Duo is the first to involve a smartwatch. And it sounds totally impractical.
Here’s how it’s supposed to work: The cuff-like watch houses all the necessary computing power (including a quad-core chip, 64GB of storage and 3G/4G connectivity), while the phone in your pocket is nothing but a dumb terminal. Tap them against each other, and the phone (or “Pocket Screen”) becomes a full Android handset, powered entirely by the watch.
Why this matters: The Duo brings to mind past efforts like the Motorola Atrix phone, which could dock into a laptop shell to provide a full desktop browser, and the Asus Padfones that dock into larger tablet displays. Tech vendors continue to think this is a great idea, yet none of them have gotten over inherent technical hurdles, nor have they provided a strong argument for why this is a better way to do things. Neptune’s Duo is perhaps the most futuristic take, but it also seems like the hardest to pull off.
Now’s a good time to point out that Neptune hasn’t actually shown a working product. It has a snazzy teaser video, but the fine print notes that all the on-screen images are simulated, and that the slick product designs on Neptune’s website are subject to change.
And frankly, it’ll be shocking if the Neptune Duo doesn’t come out looking a lot different from its product renderings. Neptune’s promised tech specs go far beyond anything we’ve seen in a smartwatch so far—including chunkier ones like the Samsung Gear S—which means the company has either pulled off a technological miracle or isn’t being forthcoming about the real-world design.
Why overpromise? Perhaps it’s because Neptune is using a crowdfunded model for the Duo, requiring non-refundable pre-orders if you want to save any money off the $798 sticker price. You can reserve a Duo for free and cancel anytime, but if you want the maximum $300 discount, you’ll have to pony up $498 right now. It’s easier to bank that money with impressive aspirational renderings than clunky prototypes.
Even if the Neptune Duo is delivered as promised in its estimated late 2015 timeframe, there’s a bigger problem: The actual benefits of consolidating to a single hub device are minimal at best. Neptune says you don’t have to worry about losing your data if you misplace the Pocket Screen, but that concern has been largely eliminated by cloud storage and built-in remote lock/wipe tools. And while it may be slightly cheaper to have a smart hub device surrounded by dumb screens, Neptune’s $800 asking price for the watch and Pocket Screen isn’t a huge savings over a proper phone and watch.
Meanwhile, the smartwatch hub brings its own compromises. For the phone to be of any use, the watch needs to be in reach, which could be a hassle in all kinds of situations. And while Neptune says you could get “a few days of normal usage” on a charge, that only happens if you periodically top-up the watch’s 1,000 mAh battery by plugging it into the Pocket Screen, which has its own 2,800 mAh pack. This kind of device dependency creates at least as many problems as it solves.
Perhaps an idea like the Neptune Duo will make sense some day, if we can’t keep up with Moore’s Law anymore, battery life stops being a major concern, and people stop inventing powerful new apps to justify faster processors and more storage. For now, the Duo seems like a leap into a future that doesn’t yet exist, without even a trace of evidence that it would actually work.