Sony SmartWatch 2 review a fair effort that still hasn't cracked it

Cast your mind back to the period between August and October 2012, and there was barely a whisper about a smartwatch round these parts. Pebble was funded and well underway, and we discovered a curious Google patent -- but that was pretty much it. In that same period one year later, you'll find nearly 40 news stories on Engadget alone. There's definitely been a climate change.

One player in this year's wrist-based technology battle is Sony's SmartWatch 2. That number appended to the end of its name lets you know that this isn't the company's first foray into this area (it's technically its third). Because it's a tech giant, then, and also one of the more established players in this market, our expectations were rather high. So, can Sony show the competition how it's done.

Sony SmartWatch 2 review

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Hardware

Watches have a tough job from the outset. Not only must they fulfill their functional purpose, but they also have an intrinsic link to style, image and fashion. A good watch must stand up to both tasks, ahem, at hand (sorry). What looks good to you, however, will largely be a matter of taste, and there are plenty of pictures here and above to let you decide if it's to your liking. What we will say, however, is that it might not fit all occasions (it's definitely not a dress watch for example), but it won't look too out of place with most smart-casual outfits. As for the design itself, well, if you're at all familiar with any of Sony's phones, you might already know what you're getting into. The Xperia DNA (that's not the name of an actual phone!) is more than a little evident here. That means a square face with rounded corners, chamfered edges and flat sides. The strap on our model is a basic rubber affair; it's practical, at best. It feels a lot softer and more comfortable than it first looks, but it's not at all jazzy. You can, however, spice things up and change it for a number of other straps, including leather and metal ones.

The watch has a 1.6-inch, sunlight-readable display (220 x 176-pixel TFT), surrounded by a moderate bezel -- the bottom of which is where you'll find three capacitive buttons. These are similar to what you might find on an Xperia phone: back, home and menu. In brief, this is how you'll interact with the watch in addition to the main touchscreen. To rate the screen on its pixel density (176 ppi, if you're interested) seems a little heavy-handed. The reality is that it's fine to look at for glancing at the time (which, incidentally, you can do without having to interact with the watch, unlike the Galaxy Gear). It's also adequate for navigating the menus, et cetera. Icons and text can look a little pixelated at times, and viewing galleries or media from the phone isn't that great. But it's acceptable for general use, and matches what you'd expect from a device like this.

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There is one more control we've yet to mention, and that's the aluminum power button on the right-hand side. As you'd expect, it switches the device on and off, but it also wakes the watch to activate the touchscreen. The only remaining hardware feature is the micro-USB port on the other edge, which is kept out of sight thanks to a sealed cover -- much like on the Xperia Z and Z1, in fact. There are more than just aesthetic reasons for having a sealed charging port: the SmartWatch 2 carries the same IP57 dust- and water-resistance rating as the Xperia Z. This technically means it's good for 30 minutes under one meter of the wet stuff, but the marketing material is a little more conservative, suggesting it should survive rain showers and splashes while washing your hands. Really, though, it's unlikely water or dust will penetrate anyway, as there's no microphone or audio jack opening. In fact, there's just Bluetooth 3.0 and NFC for communicating with the outside world. We feel that pulling out the processor details might be a little bit much for a watch, but for "thems that wants to know," it's a single-core ARM Cortex-M4, clocked at 180MHz. As for the performance, we'll be returning to that in just a moment.

Software and apps

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Most smartwatches we've seen so far lean heavily on the host phone for their actual "smarts." They often rely on a companion app for configuring the watch via your handset, and that's the case here, too. Before you even get this far, however, you'll want to get set up. Fortunately, this is a relatively simple process. A key point to mention here is that unlike Samsung's Galaxy Gear -- which only works with a limited number of devices -- Sony's SmartWatch 2 will work with any Android handset running 4.0 and above (we used it with a Galaxy Note 3). Without reading the instructions, we simply held the watch against the phone's NFC sensor, and sure enough, we were sent off to the Play Store to download the corresponding Smart Connect app. Once that was installed, we were good to go. We've read other reports saying this process went less smoothly, but we can only confirm our own painless experience. If your phone doesn't have NFC, or you prefer to get set up manually, you can of course do so. Simply grab the Smart Connect app from the Play Store, and pair devices as you would any other accessory.

Customizing the watch is also straightforward. Once you're set up, you'll see the watch symbol in the status bar of your handset; just swipe down from there and you'll be able to access the settings directly via a persistent notification. In total, there are three sections in this view, all of which relate to apps. Up top is a shortcut to search for SmartWatch apps; beneath that is a list of those you've got installed; and if you keep going down, you'll find a list of recommendations. If an installed app has configuration options, it's here that you can play around with the settings. Likewise, the app search feature can be done manually, but the shortcut drops you right into those that are optimized for the SmartWatch 2, and you can broaden that search to show all compatible apps. There's also a settings app on the watch itself, and this is where you can control some of the more practical features such as turning Bluetooth on/off, toggling vibrate, choosing watch faces, enabling or disabling some default apps, triggering master reset and so on.

Given that there's no camera or mic, we're pretty much dependent on apps to add features and functionality. The good news is that -- thanks to the backward compatibility with the previous SmartWatch's apps -- there's a generously stocked larder to choose from. The not-so-good news is that much of the selection isn't really worth getting excited about. As you scroll through apps that have been optimized for this device, you'll quickly spot some card games, a currency converter and many other offerings that are neither practical nor work well. What's even more frustrating is that a surprising number of these are paid apps, which you can't test without ponying up first. We're obviously not against ever paying for apps, but many that cost a few dollars here would be the sort of thing you'd expect to see for free if it were for a phone -- including a $2.99 Nyan cat! There are still some good apps, but beware that any boast about how there are 100 or so apps specifically optimized for the SmartWatch 2, and nearly 300 in total doesn't tell the full story.

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Naturally, notifications are key with smartwatches. Sure, you might not want to read all your email, tweets and Facebook updates on your wrist, but being able to glance at your watch and know if that beep from your pocket is worth your attention is the whole product category's raison d'être. The Gmail notifications show you the email's sender, along with a quick snippet of the text. It's usually enough information to let you know if it's something you urgently need to attend to, but if you were hoping you could scroll through the whole message, then you're out of luck. There's also an official email app from Sony that works with the default email client on Xperia phones, should that be your weapon of choice.

As for social networks? Well, this will depend on how much "noise" you want. Twitter and Facebook both have apps, and they can be a little bit spammy. On the plus side, Twitter's short-worded nature means that you'll usually get the whole message on screen. With Facebook, of course, it depends on the post. Both apps let you manage whose updates will trigger notifications, making them reasonably easy to tailor to your needs. It is worth pointing out, however, that you can't click web links in either of these apps, since there's not actually a web browser on board.

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Despite these three big hitters, there are some notable sites that don't have official apps (Google+ and Instagram, to name but two). If these happen to be your haunts of choice, then what's a smartwatch owner to do? Well, there is hope. An app called "WatchIt" lets you get notifications for pretty much anything you wish, including popular messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Line, et cetera. OK, so it's not as neat as an official app, but it's a good all-round solution for those who want an easy way to keep tabs on what's going on in their pocket/bag/digital world. It's worth noting that the vibrate alert on the watch is quite strong, so you can imagine it gets quite distracting if you have it set to shoot out a large amount of alerts.

Something related to this, is wearing the watch while driving. We've all suffered the tease of hearing our phone alert us to an incoming message while we're busy at the wheel -- and it never fails to happen when we're actually expecting news. But, if you're in slow-moving traffic and that message can be read just by twisting your wrist a little, the temptation is potentially a little too strong. This would be true in theory for any watch that has notifications, but perhaps due to the ferocity of its vibrate, we noticed it more here than when wearing, say, the Galaxy Gear.

On the flip side, perhaps, is basic call handling. As there's no speaker or mic, all you can really do is reject or answer a call from the watch face. Answering a call is really only a useful option when you're wearing a Bluetooth headset. However, when an unwelcome call springs upon you, like when you're driving or have two hands full of groceries, you can reject it swiftly.

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Our last word on notifications goes to what, at first, seemed like phantom wrist vibrations. If you walk any amount of distance away from your phone, the SmartWatch 2 lets you know it's lost connection to the phone. But, sometimes it loses connection when you're right by it, too, triggering an unexpected alert. Oh, we said just one more thing, but we meant two. The number of unread notifications for an app is shown next to the icon on the watch (as on iOS), so you have to "mark all as read" from the phone companion app, even if you glanced at them all. It seems like a minor point, but having to go back to the phone (or go in and read every email) to reset things means you either start ignoring the number, or are forever resetting. Sony, if you're reading this, perhaps we can get a basic long-press option next time? Thanks.

Performance and user experience

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The SmartWatch 2 was designed to fill a small gap in our lives: that gap between your hand and pocket/bag/purse. It's also a watch! The time-telling part is hard to fault. The display is clearly readable in daylight, even when not backlit. Just glance at your wrist and you'll see if you're late for that meeting just as easily as any other horological device -- even Samsung (which asks you push a button, or perform a gesture) didn't quite nail this part. As for general "smart" performance? It's a bit of a mixed bag. In general, the touchscreen is responsive enough. Unlike with phones, you're not expecting to wade through lots of screens and menus. Scrolling isn't as swift as you'd expect from a half-decent phone or tablet, but it's not prohibitively sluggish by any means. Taps, however, don't always register. You can find yourself poking the screen two or three times, unsure if you've missed (perhaps touching the next icon,) or if it's just not responding. This can be even more of a tease when you're actually aiming for a long-press. As there's no voice command/S Voice-type option, this is your only way of opening apps, so we'd hope it was as painless as possible.

As for those notifications (we didn't talk enough about them already, we know), they sometimes came in twice, in short succession. We'll defer to your patience on how much of an issue that is, but if you get a lot already, you don't really want any more. Additionally, there were a few other software hiccups that surprised us. Take "Smart Camera," one of the official Sony apps. It's a useful tool that lets you use the watch's display as a viewfinder/shutter button for the phone's camera. Great for taking self-portraits, or any other photo where you might not be able to trigger the phone directly. Unless it crashes frequently, occasionally freezes or is just a little bit slow to respond (as was the case for us). If this had been a third-party app, we'd put it down to bad coding.

The same goes for the official media-control app. It makes sense to be able to skip through songs and adjust the volume of music from the watch. It's just a shame that the app rarely worked well enough that we wanted to use it. Beyond general unresponsiveness, we'd often swipe to move on to another track, and it'd instead restart the same track. Repeatedly. Or display the wrong cover artwork, or hide the volume bar. It even caused the phone and watch to disconnect when we went to double-check it before writing this very paragraph. We had to restart the watch completely.

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On the bright side, we were impressed by how quickly the battery charges -- around half an hour from empty. You could almost (if you're so inclined) watch the battery percent number grow in front of your eyes. For us, real-world battery life came out to between two and three days of serious usage -- not unlike what we saw on the Galaxy Gear, which took a beating from critics about its charger dependency. At least that quick charge time means you can drip feed it at your desk with fast results. We'd wager you could get more battery life out of it if you limit the number of notifications (and therefore vibrations) it has to dole out.

We also have to hand it to Sony for keeping the user experience simple. Essentially, if you can work a touchscreen phone, you know how to use the SmartWatch 2. You can arrange the icons by name and favorites, and while there are clearly some software bugs, they seem to be app-specific, rather than endemic to the interface itself. The companion/controller app for the host phone might be basic, but it provides the access you need without getting in the way, though we would like to see the option for some of the watch settings (e.g., alarm, vibrate on, language) available on the larger screen too, just to provide an easier option.

The competition

As we alluded to in the intro, the smartwatch space is one that's really starting to heat up. That said, the category is crowded with almost as many rumored products as real ones. With word of devices from Nokia, Google and Apple in the works, there's been plenty of speculation to go around. In the here and now, however, competition comes mostly from two camps. There's the Galaxy Gear that we've mentioned several times already. At $300, it's a lot more expensive, but it does have a few unique tricks -- namely, a camera and better call handling. The other contender is Pebble, the most successful Kickstarter campaign the world has ever seen. In brief, the Pebble's strengths are its price ($150) and battery life (about a week of use) and a healthy app developer community. There are a slew of other offerings, too, that might meet your specific needs. The I'm Watch ($299) has a lot of promise, but has yet to establish its reputation. For the more fitness-oriented, Nike's new FuelBand ($149) and the Fitbit Force ($130) are both technically watches, and will be available in the next two weeks. Perhaps the dark horse is Adidas' Smart Run, which is both a sports tracker and Android watch. Again, not available until November 1st for a rather hefty $399.

Wrap-up

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At $200, the SmartWatch 2 is cheaper than its most obvious competitor, the Galaxy Gear, which costs $100 more. That's quite a difference. Of course, the Galaxy Gear has some notable hardware features that help it stand apart --namely, a camera, speaker and microphone. On the other hand, Samsung's offering is also currently limited to just a small handful of compatible phones. Also, Sony made sure the SmartWatch 2 functioned well as a proper watch -- crazy, we know.

That said, this is also a third-generation device for Sony. That's two more cracks of the whip than Samsung, yet still the software can be buggy, and the performance is not as smooth as you'd hope. And then there are the apps. A bulging library to choose from is one thing, but in reality, there aren't many more useful apps here than you'd find on Samsung's offering, which has been out for just a month. In either case, however, we'd encourage you to question your need for a smartwatch. Unlike a phone, what you want to get from a watch will differ greatly from person to person. In a vacuum, the SmartWatch 2 is a well-built product that doesn't have a wince-inducing price. It offers a reasonably good notification solution, as well as the potential for improved functionality with future apps -- though it's probably best to check what's available first. The bottom line is: If you want a bit of a "gadgety" smartphone-companion, predominantly for notifications, the SmartWatch 2 will certainly fill that role. For everyone else, the buggy software will likely become too much to tolerate, even if you're the most ardent smartwatch believer.

Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.

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Sony

Sony SmartWatch 2

Pros

  • Well-built
  • Easy to use
  • Large number of apps

Cons

  • Some software issues
  • Average battery life
Conclusion

We really wanted Sony to lead the way with the SmartWatch 2, but some buggy software and poor app choices keep this from being the de facto option.

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Sony SmartWatch 2 review: a fair effort that still hasn't cracked it