I love watches and technology, so I was thrilled to hear about the creation of a “horological smart watch” base by the Swiss watchmaking industry. One of the first examples of this new breed is the just-released Mondaine Helvetica Smart. I purchased one of these watches, the limited-edition “1 of 1957” variety, and have had a chance to evaluate it both as a watch and a gadget.
Since this is my gadget blog, this review focuses mainly on the core question: As a gadget, how smart is this new “Smart” watch? If you’re interested in reading about it as a watch in detail, I recommend that you head over to Grail Watch and read my post there, How Good Is the Mondaine Helvetica Smart Watch?
MotionX and the MMT Swiss Horological Smartwatch Base
Understanding the Mondaine Helvetica Smart watch requires some context. Let’s start with the elephant in the room: After years of anticipation, Apple announced their Watch in September 2014. Previous attempts at creating a viable and desirable smart watch proved massive disappointments, but Apple has the luxury credibility and commitment to get it right. The Apple Watch is a remarkable thing – a full wrist computer, complete with a gorgeous color display and a variety of connectivity and interaction methods.
After some humorous posturing and hand-wringing, a few players in the established Swiss watch industry decided to have a go at creating their own smartwatches. First to announce was TAG Heuer, who promised a competing wrist computer, complete with Intel power and Android Wear software. This watch is now out, and it’s pretty much a standard Android Wear watch in a nice TAG Heuer case. Ho hum.
Mostly overlooked due to all the Apple Watch mania was the creation of a new Swiss company, MMT (Manufacture Modules Technologies), by Peter Stas of entry-lux Swiss watchmaker Frederique Constant/Alpina and Philippe Kahn of Fullpower and MotionX. As the name implies1, MMT is to provide a base movement for Swiss smart watches. In addition to Stas’ two brands, Mondaine signed up to use the MMT movement in their new Helvetica line.2
Introducing the Mondaine Helvetica Smart
Mondaine can be thought of as the most patriotic of Swiss watch companies. Their existing Official Swiss Railways Watch line was created to celebrate the iconic Swiss Federal Railway clock and is sold at museums around the world. Similarly, the new Helvetica line celebrates the iconic Swiss font that is the face of international companies and signage everywhere. The Helvetica watch case evokes the numeral 1 of the namesake font, and it is featured in the numbers and letters on the face.
Like the similar Frederique Constant and Alpina watches, the Mondaine Helvetica Smart is unusual in that its smart features are decidedly low-key. There are only a few giveaways that this isn’t a typical Swiss quartz movement:
- The sub-dial at 6:00 shows activity status with one hand; the other is for the date
- There is no seconds hand, presumably to conserve power
- What looks like a crown is actually a single-button interface to activate Bluetooth communication and switch between watch functions
Apart from these differences, the Helvetica has a very clean, contemporary look. It’s a large watch at 44 mm in diameter, and quite thick as well, but not unusually so. The case is a stylish and unique design, with the “Helvetica” lugs a standout feature. From the Seiko-like beveled bezel around a flat crystal, it is tapered down to the wrist. The strap and buckle are high-quality pieces, if not especially luxurious.
Smart Watches and Smarter Watches
In the exploding world of smartwatches, it is important to make a distinction between types:
- Activity bands feature motion sensors but rudimentary displays and infrequent connectivity generally allow them much longer battery life (e.g. Fitbit, Jawbone Up, MMT)
- Integrated smartwatches feature continual connectivity with a smartphone, active displays, sensors, and greater compute power but short battery life (e.g. Apple Watch, Android Wear, Pebble)
- Standalone smartwatches are still rare but do not require a tethered phone for their signature features
In this taxonomy, the Mondaine Helvetica Smart is an activity band, not a true competitor to the Apple Watch or TAG Heuer Carrera Connected. But the trade-off is eye-opening: Where Apple Watch users have to resort to amusing tricks to approximate 24-hour use, the Mondaine will last up to 2 years on the integrated battery. And the time, date, and activity status are always at the ready, no annoying wrist flip required. Many may find that this is all the smartwatch they want or need.
Considering the Mondaine Helvetica as a Smart Watch
The MMT module is really quite simple. A motion sensor detects walking, sitting, and sleeping using the same MotionX algorithm familiar to Fitbit users. This is recorded internally and transmitted on demand via Bluetooth to an app running on an iOS or Android smartphone. The simple sub-dial display gives goal progress at a glance and can be toggled manually between activity and sleep. The module can also beep to suggest activity or to tweak waking time, but I quickly disabled these annoying chirps.
This simple structure means the MMT module very little power. A user could theoretically wear the watch 24×7 and never worry about battery life, only connecting when they wanted to check their activity status on the smartphone app. The integrated goal display hand means that there really isn’t any need to connect to the app on a daily basis.
Note that sleep tracking requires manual toggling as well, a function I would have liked to have handled better. The module will detect sleep and waking automatically, but it’s not nearly sensitive enough: It takes 250 steps before coming out of sleep mode, potentially off by hours on slow Sunday mornings! Avoiding this requires the user to hold the crown button to manually tell the watch to switch modes.
The occasional nature of connectivity proved a bit troublesome as well. The watch will automatically adjust to time zones when traveling, since it synchronizes to the smartphone’s time, but this must be manually initiated with the app open. It’s one more thing to remember when traveling, and nowhere near as friendly as the dual timezone function on some mechanical watches like my Nomos Tangomat GMT.
There’s also a question of cost. The Mondaine Helvetica Smart sells for $950, and the Frederique Constant and Alpina models are even more expensive. This is much more expensive than a steel Apple Watch, not to mention the bargain-basement Android alternatives. It is a nice watch, and real Swiss watches often sell for much more, but many potential buyers will be priced out of the market by that substantial price. And if your price band reaches $1k, it probably also includes the TAG Heuer Carrera Connected smartwatch.
The ideal buyer of a MMT-powered smartwatch is someone who wants activity tracking but is put off by the idea of wearing a little power-hungry computer on their wrist. They would choose the Mondaine Helvetica Smart because of its style, the connection to the iconic Swiss typeface, and the overall Swiss provenance. It’s for those who dislike the complex and “in your face” Apple Watch but don’t want an ugly rubber activity tracking band.
But the Mondaine falls short in materials and construction, whether compared to like-priced Swiss or Japanese mechanical watches (Tissot, Maurice Lacroix, Seiko Premier) or the Apple Watch. It’s good but not great in just about every respect. And Mondaine/MMT has been slow to update their app with additional functionality, including better integration with HealthKit. This does not bode well.
Although nicely constructed, attractive, and incredibly strong on battery life, I cannot recommend MMT-powered Swiss smart watches. They’re expensive for what is essentially a glorified fitness band, and the quality of construction and finish isn’t up to the standard of a $1k Swiss watch. An Apple Watch is a better value, more functional and cheaper even in steel, and the TAG Heuer offers more cachet and functionality for only a bit more money.