Traditionally, watches are simply wrist instruments that tell us the time. But Microsoft has taken on the Herculean task of convincing watch wearers that telling time is but a drop in the ocean compared to the functionality of the MSN Smart Watch.

With heavy-duty watchmakers such as Suunto and Fossil developing the hardware, Microsoft has laid the foundation for a new generation of wearable devices that let you pull up—right on your wrist—the latest news headlines, sports results, stock market quotes, calendar reminders, and even instant messages.I should begin by saying that none of this is for free. The MSN Smart Watch retails for $129 to $299 (depending on the model) and comes with a $9.99 per month charge (or $59 annual fee) to access the services.

MSN Direct applications are the same regardless of the watch style or manufacturer. Thus, whether you pay $129 or $299, you get the same functionality throughout the range. The displays are somewhat different: The fonts on the Suunto watch reflect its sporting nature, whereas the Dick Tracy-inspired Fossil watch has a cartoon/comic book feel.

Features

MSN Instant Messenger (Receive only)
Using your Microsoft Passport account and MSN Direct, you can choose to receive instant messages from people on your Friends list. Although the watch has only receive functionality (lack of keyboard prevents typing!), it’s a very useful feature—similar to a pager.

Watch
The watch face is interchangeable with the push of a button. The watch comes with five separate styles and one additional downloadable face. The choices of watch face give you the ability to simply display the time, time and date, local and international time, battery power, and a nice, traditional graphical display.

Chronograph
If you participate in sports, the chronograph is good for measuring lap times, splits, and so on. I found the large display perfect for refereeing my son's soccer game! Although the Fossil watches are “splash-proof” (meaning they can withstand a little rain), the Suunto N3 is fully waterproof—up to 300 feet.

News Headlines
MSN Direct has worked hard to get quality content providers available to subscribers. You get to choose as many as 10 news sources from a formidable list of providers, including MSNBC, AP, Reuters, Washington Post, and your local news provider—in my case, the Rocky Mountain News.

Sports News/Results
ESPN provides the latest sports news and results. Currently, the available channels are limited to MLB, NBA, WNBA, and Men’s & Women’s College Basketball. I hope that NHL, NFL and other major sports channels will be added as the new seasons begin. The device's memory (512KB) lets you choose as many as five teams per sport or league. While sitting in the Pepsi Center, home of the Denver Nuggets, I noticed a 5-minute delay between the actual score appearing on the boards to the score beaming to the watch—not bad!

Stock Market Ticker
You can monitor as many as 15 stocks with the MSN Smart Watch. The provided data gives the current stock price, the percent up or down, and a cool graph that shows the trend for the past 5 days.

Weather
Possibly my favorite application on the watch, the Weather feature is fully customizable, letting you choose your local city, North American Cities (100+), and International Cities (70+)—including my home town of Manchester, England. Details sent to the watch include the current temperature, conditions, UV index, wind chill/direction, barometric pressure, humidity, and sunrise/sunset. A 3-day forecast is also available.

Calendar (Microsoft Outlook only)
Using a 100KB downloadable application, I was able to create entries in my Microsoft Outlook calendar at home and have them sent to the watch—ideal for appointments, directions, and reminders from my wife! (I use Lotus Notes in the office, and the watch is incompatible with Notes.)

Glance
Leaving the watch in Glance mode, the news, sports, stock, and weather information are randomly displayed on the screen, changing every 15 seconds or so.

Additional Channels
Additional channels include Daily Diversions (which offers fun trivia and facts from around the world), Horoscopes (which lets you see what the stars have in store for you), and Lottery (which delivers the latest Lottery numbers and prize values).

Display
Both the Suunto and Fossil watches have clear, readable displays. The backlight on the Fossil is a nice clean white, whereas the Suunto offers a green backlight that's very Matrixy! The fonts for the headlines are easy to read, and with a quick press of a button, you can make the font smaller, allowing more text per "page." Scrolling through stories is a simple task—all the watches have the same configuration: light button, two scroll buttons (up/down), Enter button, and Select button.

Get the Info Flowing
Microsoft claims that setup takes about 10 minutes and asks that you wait up to 12 hours for all the information to be sent to the watch. In my test, setup confirmation took about 5 minutes, and I had to wait only 1 hour for all the information to begin flowing! The watch requires an initial charge of 4 to 6 hours. On the Suunto watch, you simply attach a clamp-like device to the watch and plug it into your PC via USB. The Fossil watch rests on a cool-looking charger. Having used the watch for a couple weeks, I can safely say that the charge holds for about 5 days, then requires a recharge.

I've visited several cities over the past couple weeks, including Los Angeles and New York. Coverage remained terrific. Microsoft has included a feature that lets you add calendar entries into MSN Direct, indicating where in the United States you'll be. You then receive local information and weather for that city on the dates you selected—a very nice touch.

Minor Complaint
I have just one complaint, and having checked through the MSN Direct community pages, it seems to be a common complaint: The alarm is too quiet. I can barely hear it! When I'm in the office and it beeps to let me know about an appointment, I can just about hear it. However, if I wanted to use it to wake me up in the morning, I'd snore right through it!

Tech Companion
If you're looking for color graphics and rich media, stick with a PDA. If, however, you're looking for a highly portable device capable of delivering small amounts of useful information, the MSN Smart Watch is the perfect companion. By the way, both watches looked great on my wrists. I have several rugged watches and they're my preferred style. But if you're looking for a dress watch to fit beneath the sleeve of your Hugo Boss suit, or if you're female, try one on before you buy. You'll either love or hate the form factor!

Check out the MSN Smart Watch in action.