​Breitling’s new connected watch: Hands-on with the Exospace B55

This is the year that real watchmakers are making smartwatches. TAG Heuer, Fossil and now Breitling, too. The Breitling Expospace B55, however, is a “connected watch,” which means it’s a traditional watch with additional smartwatch-like connected notifications. No, this watch doesn’t run Android Wear. Unlike TAG and Fossil’s smartwatch entries, this is a real chronograph watch with added digital benefits. It’s a trend that’s growing: connected Swiss fitness watches are already here.

We first saw this watch back at the Baselworld watch show in March, but the Exospace B55 is finally here: and it costs $8,900. Suddenly, the Apple Watch seems affordable.

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The Breitling Exospace B55 is, according to Breitling, a watch that’s specifically designed for aviation professionals, with actual watch adjustments that can be made from the phone (time-setting, timezone adjustments, and alarms). It doesn’t have an accelerometer to track fitness, but it can receive smartwatch notifications that show on its two basic digital displays, showing notifications of emails, SMS and WhatsApp messages, incoming phone calls, and calendar appointments.

This type of watch-plus-notification tech has actually been around for years (Casio has had several G-Shock models that have experimented with it), but this is a high-end Swiss luxury watch that’s adopting the experiment.

“For us, using this technology was pure logic,” Breitling Vice President Jean Paul Girardin told CNET regarding the watch’s development. “The key word “functionality” is very important, as well as precision…in 1995, we had the Breitling Emergency. It was equipped with a distress transmitter to communicate with a satellite. We didn’t call it a smartwatch yet.” Girardin was quick to remind me that all the features of the Exospace B55 were designed to be functional to a particular purpose, rather than simply added on.

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I got to try the watch on briefly at Breitling’s boutique in Manhattan, and the black titanium case with rubber straps cuts a clean, attractive profile. This is a real watch. And yet, it has a rechargeable battery inside that runs its smart features. A magnetic charge cable powers the watch for two months at a time. The rotating bezel doesn’t serve a smart function: it’s purely for timekeeping purposes. Internally, a Bluetooth low-energy module keeps it connected with phone notifications. Would I buy one? Well, that’s besides the point. But it’s worth noting that this $8,900 watch is a fair bit more expensive than TAG Heuer’s $1,500 Android Wear debut.

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The Exospace B55 pairs with a connected app on the iPhone, which can be used to sync lap times recorded on the watch, or to set certain watch functions. This is a traditionalist’s approach to smart tech: I barely had a chance to test the features for myself.

As smartwatches keep evolving and higher-end watches strive to find ways to compete with high-tech alternatives, this hybrid idea will be seen more frequently. Having a good-looking premium watch that also folds a few smart parts into the equation, and still feels analog, might bridge the gap better than shoving a smartwatch into a fancy case. Traditional watch manufacturers will have to decide whether it’s best to help design a smartwatch, make a traditional-meets-connected watch, or forgo any sort of smart stuff whatsoever.

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