Time and again we’ve heard the same story: wearables are the next big thing in personal technology. Everyone will have wearables attached to their bodies in the next few years. And so on and so forth. But despite all of these predictions and the intense interest in wearable technology, we still don’t have a great smartwatch. The Pebble is too nerdy and toylike for most people; the Galaxy Gear is far too expensive and limited; and the litany of crowdfunded no-name manufacturers have yet to actually produce a compelling option.
Despite its flaws, I’m a big fan of my Pebble. It’s far from perfect, but it manages to keep me notified of incoming messages, emails, Twitter alerts, and more without forcing me to dig my phone out of my pocket. So when Sony announced the SmartWatch 2, an update to last year’s SmartWatch that brings a refined design and the promise of advanced capabilities, I was quite excited.
Last year’s SmartWatch was a disappointment. Clumsy, unintuitive, and just plain not good-looking, you had to be a real dyed-in-the-wool wearable connoisseur to even consider dropping the $149.99 Sony charged. This year’s SmartWatch 2 is even more expensive â it starts at $199.99 with a rubber band ($50 more than the Pebble) — but Sony claims that it’s learned a lot in the 18 months or so since the first iteration launched. The SmartWatch 2 has a larger display, improved design, updated interface, and other enhancements that Sony claims make it the smartwatch to beat.
The Pebble is nerdy because it’s the Pebble. But Sony is the mainstream, everyone knows the Sony brand. Can Sony make a smartwatch for the mainstream?
The most striking thing about the SmartWatch 2 is just how nice it looks compared to the herd of ugly, inelegant smartwatches we’ve become accustomed to. The SmartWatch 2 looks like a smaller version of Sony’s Xperia Z smartphone, with square corners, jewel-like finishes, and a prominent, round silver power button on the side. That power button is the only physical button on the watch, and it’s right where you would typically find the crown on an analog watch.
Along with the power button, the SmartWatch 2 has a new 1.6-inch transflective LCD touchscreen and soft keys that mimic Android’s back, home, and menu functions. Like many of Sony’s mobile devices, the new screen has poor viewing angles (though it is visible outdoors or in bright light), and its 220 x 176 resolution reveals jagged edges and visible pixels on every screen. It’s always on, making it easy to quickly check the time, and the new feature addresses one of the biggest complaints we had with the first SmartWatch (and still have with Samsung’s Galaxy Gear). In dim light, you’ll want to turn the backlight on to read it, and the only way to do that is by pressing the power button on the side. I longed for a flick gesture to wake the backlight when I wanted to just check the time and didn’t want to use two hands; it’s also not yet possible to adjust how long the backlight stays on, and the three-second default is painstakingly short.
The SmartWatch 2 is larger than its predecessor, but it’s significantly smaller and lighter than the Galaxy Gear. It’s about 1.6 inches square and weighs 1.63 ounces, compared to the Gear’s 2.6 ounces and the Pebble’s featherweight 1.34 ounces. It’s not much larger than the average men’s watch, and wasn’t uncomfortable for me to wear, but if you have smaller wrists you might find it to be bulky.
It’s IP57 rated for water resistance, so you can submerge it in water or wear it in the shower without worrying about it — just make sure the port cover is closed before you get the watch wet.
I tested the SmartWatch 2 with the included rubber watchband, but Sony is also offering it with a metal band, which looks nice though it has limited adjustability. The rubber band is pretty comfortable as rubber watch-bands go, but since the SmartWatch 2 supports standard 24mm watch bands, you can swap it out pretty easily (Sony is offering a variety of colors and leather options, but third-party bands work as well).
Sony managed to solve a lot of things with the SmartWatch 2’s design: it’s actually an attractive watch that you can wear without looking like a complete geek. The display, which is arguably the most important facet of the device, is a bit of a disappointment and Sony needs to improve upon it. But Sony seems to be moving quickly in the right direction. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the software.
Diversions and distractions
Last year’s SmartWatch had a basic but unintuitive interface. This time around, Sony has revamped the UI to mimic Android, right on down to the capacitive buttons below the screen. It’s not Android, but you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking it was, and that’s exactly what Sony is going for.
Once you have paired the SmartWatch 2 with your Android phone (any Android 4.0 device will do the trick, but iOS is not supported at all) you need to download Sony’s Smart Connect app from the Play Store. Smart Connect handles all of your SmartWatch settings and notifications and lets you install third-party apps on the device. Sony says there are over 300 apps for the SmartWatch available, with over half of them optimized specifically for the SmartWatch 2’s larger display. There are official apps for Twitter, Facebook, and Gmail notifications, as well as controlling your smartphone’s camera right from your wrist. Then there are many third-party apps for a variety of functions, including device authentication (using the presence of the SmartWatch 2 to unlock your phone), Wi-Fi and Bluetooth toggles, battery meters, and timers.
Setting up all of your apps from your smartphone can be a bit of a chore — the Smart Connect app isn’t very intuitive and it looks like it was designed back in the days of Android 2.3 and forgotten about — but once setup is done you can more or less forget about it. I didn’t notice any connection issues with the SmartWatch on a few different devices. If you walk too far away from your phone, the Bluetooth range will be exhausted and the watch will disconnect, but that’s entirely normal, and the SmartWatch 2 reconnects without issue when you’re back in range.
The real value of any smartwatch is the ability for it to notify you without requiring you to look at your smartphone. The SmartWatch 2 can receive email, social network, text message, and calendar notifications via its default apps, and third-party apps can send many more types of notifications. The only problem is that these notifications aren’t very good — Twitter notifications are severely delayed, for instance, and I can’t do anything to the emails that buzz my wrist all day long. I can’t delete them, I can’t archive them, I can’t even mark them as read from the Smartwatch. I can see the sender, subject, and a few lines of the message, so it’s better than the Gear, which simply says “look at your smartphone for an email.” Additionally, the notifications don’t sync between my phone and the watch â if I clear it from one, it will still be on the other the next time I look at it, forcing me to deal with the notification twice. The whole notification system is still incomplete and there is a lot more that Sony can do here.
The Android familiarity of the SmartWatch 2’s interface extends through to the pull-down notification shade and swipeable home screens, which house six app icons a piece, sorted either alphabetically or by how often you use them. Every app icon mimics the corresponding app on Android, so Facebook looks like Facebook, Gmail looks like Gmail, and Twitter looks like Twitter. I get why Sony chose to do this — everyone that would be interested in this device already knows how to use a smartphone, right?
But while it may feel like the SmartWatch has its own version of Android, it still relies very much on your smartphone and Sony’s Smart Connect app. On its own, the SmartWatch 2 isn’t very smart: it can tell the time, be used as a stopwatch, and be used as an alarm. But that’s about it. You can reject incoming calls from the SmartWatch (if you have a Sony smartphone, you can answer them, though the SmartWatch does not have a microphone or speaker) and you can send pre-defined replies to text messages without having to touch your phone.
Unlike on the Pebble, Sony doesn’t even let third-party apps change the default clock face. If you don’t like the five analog or digital watch faces Sony provides, tough luck. Sony tells me that more watch faces will be added in the future, but there aren’t any plans to open them up to third-party developers.
Days at a time
The SmartWatch 2’s interface isn’t very responsive — swiping through the screens is often laggy and choppy and opening the various apps can be frustratingly slow. Often I would get frustrated with the SmartWatch’s slow response and just dig my phone out of my pocket to read the notification, thus defeating the purpose of wearing the SmartWatch. Changing tracks with the built-in music controls is also a chore, to the point where I would just skip to the next track on my phone, bypassing the SmartWatch altogether.
One of the hallmarks of a good smartwatch is long battery life — between charging my smartphone, tablet, and laptop every day or two, the last thing I want to have to charge often is my watch. The Pebble does a good job at this — it can last up to five days or so on a charge — while the Galaxy Gear requires you to charge it daily, a non-starter. The SmartWatch 2 lands somewhere in the middle: Sony claims about three to four days between charges and my experience lines up with that. It could certainly be better, but it wasn’t a deal breaker for me. Sony also makes it easy to charge the SmartWatch over Micro USB — the same cable that I use to charge my smartphone can now charge my smartwatch. That’s a major convenience for the SmartWatch 2 that the Pebble and the Galaxy Gear don’t match.
A successful smartwatch needs to have three things done right: a set of functions that people want; have those functions actually work; and have a compelling design that doesn’t scream “I’m wearing a computer on my wrist.” The SmartWatch 2 hits on the design part, but it misses on the other two.
Sony’s made a lot of headway with the SmartWatch 2 – it’s categorically better than its predecessor and better than any smartwatch Sony has ever released. But it’s still a number of steps away from being something that everyday people can wear, use, and enjoy. The hardware is greatly improved, and the design is probably the best of any smartwatch you can get. But the display is a bit of a letdown and the clumsy interface and difficult set up are frustrating and more than the average person is likely to put up with. Compound that with the notification system that doesn’t quite work and there’s very little reason for me to recommend a SmartWatch 2 over a Pebble to anyone. It’s the same story as many of Sony’s mobile devices: good hardware is let down by frustrating and clumsy software.
Most people still shouldn’t spend their money on a smartwatch – the market just isn’t mature enough and there are still too many compromises you have to make in order to work one into your life. But if you are intent on buying a smartwatch today and not waiting for better options that will surely be coming, you can do better than the Sony SmartWatch 2.