Since the days of pocket watches, wearable timepieces have had a strong pull for gadget lovers. Watches are extremely personal devices and can be powerful fashion statements, functional or not; attractively crafted, technologically sophisticated timekeepers have their own special allure. Sony's SmartWatch is no exception. Powered by Android software, this high-tech ticker promises a lot in the way of features and functionality. Now thanks to a fresh influx of software, the flashy gizmo feels like less of a cantankerous gizmo and more like an alluring smartphone accessory.
Unlike the heavier and bulkier Motorola MotoActv and MetaWatch Strata Stealth, the square, 15-gram Sony SmartWatch is easily portable. Measuring 36x36x8mm, the SmartWatch is more in line with Apple's pint-size iPod Nano.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The tiny SmartWatch also sports handsome visual accents, such as silver-metallic edges that are smoothly rounded. In our opinion, its attractive looks set it apart from more-geeky devices, such as the Strata Stealth, Wimm One and even streamlined Pebble. In a nutshell, this is a watch we'd be proud to wear in public, which is tough to say about most smart watches we've used, save for the Martian Passport.
A minuscule 1.3-inch OLED screen takes up the entire front face and displays data in a low 128x128-pixel resolution. Even so, colours on the watch's screen are vibrant, and the digits glow an attractive white. One big drawback is that the display washes out in even modest sunlight, making the SmartWatch hard to read outdoors. We feel that's an unforgivable flaw for any watch (let alone one costing AU$134.95), since most people spend at least part of their day in the sun. By contrast, this is the opposite of the experience we had with the MotoActv, which automatically flips its display to black and white for better visibility outside. The Pebble, with its E Ink-style LCD is also a cinch to read indoors and outside in direct sunlight.
The back of the device is softly rounded, with a glossy white surface coating. On the back is a flat, spring-loaded clip, which you can use to pin the SmartWatch to clothes or to its wristband. Sony also sells a metal watch adapter for attaching the gadget to standard bands from other watches. While the SmartWatch comes with a conservative black band, you can buy five other more eye-catching colours. We found the rubber construction of the bands to be surprisingly comfortable. Their stretchy feel offers just enough grip without pinching skin, and flexes slightly to slip into buckling position more easily than a traditional leather strap would.
Sony makes a lot of boasts when touting the SmartWatch's capabilities. Before we describe them, though, you should know that this product is mostly a Sony accessory. That's a huge bummer, since it was initially billed as a universal Android device able to operate with a wide range of phones and other mobile gadgets. In fact, Sony's own website brazenly claims, "If you have an Android smartphone, [the SmartWatch] is the perfect accessory."
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
To be clear, the SmartWatch is officially compatible with only a handful of Android phones. These include products from competing manufacturers, as well as Sony's current Xperia line of smartphones. Notable on the shortlist of officially approved devices are the Samsung Galaxy S3, the Motorola Droid Razr (and perhaps the Droid Razr Maxx), along with HTC's One X, One S and One V handsets. Sony does claim that it updates the list periodically, so be sure to check its site for any changes.
The SmartWatch's promised capabilities are many. Essentially, this device is a fancy remote control for Android smartphones, which just happens to also have a clock. In a sober work meeting where your mobile phone begins to buzz with an incoming call? No problem; the SmartWatch's Phonebook and Missed Call app will let you see who's calling, send it to voice mail or even answer the call, provided there's a headset lodged in your ear.
The app is also supposed to let you reply with a canned text message like, "Busy. I'll call you back." In practice, though, we could never get this feature to work. Another caveat is that the SmartWatch will only let you accept incoming calls when connected to Sony Xperia phones, not when using Android handsets from other manufacturers. The gizmo will, however, let you check email, Facebook and Twitter ported from your handset.
Thanks to a recent SmartWatch app update (1.3.28) and SmartWatch firmware (version 0.1.B.1.0), which rolled out on 14 March 2013, the device now features six additional watch faces. Adding up to a total of 10, these virtual clocks range from Spartan analogue timepieces and clean digital readouts to abstract faces that tell time in almost inscrutable graphics.
Just like an Android handset, the Sony SmartWatch has its own app tray with multiple screens that house icons for shortcuts. (Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
To set up the Sony SmartWatch, you download the Sony Smart Connect (previously calledSony LiveWare Manager) and SmartWatch Android apps from the Google Play store. If you own a current Sony Xperia handset running Android 2.1 or higher, chances are good your device has this software already loaded. With this done, you activate the SmartWatch's Bluetooth pairing mode by shutting down the watch and then pressing and holding the unit's power button (on the right side) for a few seconds. After that, you pair the SmartWatch with your phone within the Android settings menu as you would any ordinary Bluetooth accessory.
Once properly connected, the SmartWatch links to phones to act as a second screen for specially made apps running on your handset. In fact, the watch itself doesn't store any data locally, save the time. It's basically a conduit that you configure and customise via the phone. For example, you must install applications either directly through Sony Smart Connect's list of suggested apps or by searching the Google Play store.
Link phone and watch via wireless Bluetooth connection. (Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
In addition to the main clock screen, swiping a finger from right to left will cycle through screens of apps installed to run as widgets. There doesn't seem to be a limit to how many widget screens the SmartWatch will display, except for the number of widget-capable apps. The most we had running was eight: text messaging, calendar, missed calls, Facebook, the music player, Twitter, extra clock faces and the weather.
Swiping the screen from top to bottom will eventually land you in the SmartWatch's app tray, where you can jump to apps as you do on an ordinary Android smartphone, scrolling left and right through multiple windows, depending on the number of applications enabled.
As you can imagine, the Sony SmartWatch's long list of features had us eager to take it for a test-drive. Our initial experience with the SmartWatch back in April was a bit of a letdown; we could get only the watch's basic features to operate. For instance, while we could view widgets, any attempt we made to open applications caused the SmartWatch to unceremoniously reboot, lose Bluetooth connection and then reconnect. With Sony's latest refresh of the LiveWare Manager and SmartWatch software (available on 25 May and 4 June, respectively), though, these issues thankfully evaporated. Even so, we still ran into unstable behaviour, especially when we paired the watch with unsanctioned phones.
Now that Sony has moved to its new Smart Connect software and updated the official SmartWatch app, we found performance and stability to be greatly improved. We're astounded to say that the gadget actually feels like almost production quality — a rare trait in the emerging smart watch product category.
We tested the SmartWatch with two different Android handsets: the Sony Xperia T (unlocked) and the HTC One (unlocked). Set-up was relatively simple, and we had the watch up and running with each phone in a matter of minutes. We did have to un-pair and re-pair the device when switching between phones.
With the new software installed, we had no trouble playing music stored on our phone via the watch's screen. Tapping the display when in the Music Player app pulled up buttons for adjusting the volume and skipping forward and backward through each track. Also nice is that we could control audio playback whether listening to our phone's default Android music player, Google Music or even podcasts via Google Listen.
We had no problems with the Facebook, Twitter or messaging apps, either. The watch vibrated softly to notify us when we received texts, tweets and emails. We were able to both answer and accept calls when they came through, or place them using the Phonebook app. We found this to be especially handy when connected to our Bluetooth headset. The SmartWatch's tiny touchscreen is a little tricky to manipulate, particularly for people with big hands like ours. Accurately hitting minuscule buttons for volume or tapping icons in the application tray was tough, as well.
Some timepiece screens, like the default analogue and digital clocks are activated when you double tap the watch face or press the watch button. Other watch faces, such as a small digital clock and more stylish analogue clock, will flare into life when the SmartWatch detects movement.
If the watch loses connection with your phone, say when you walk out of your phone's Bluetooth range, the time is still shown and will reconnect automatically when possible. Keep in mind, though, that the SmartWatch loses track completely when powered down, and a linked phone is out of the picture. In fact, when this happens, the gadget becomes merely a stylish but dumb hunk of plastic and metal.
Sony said the SmartWatch will run for three to four days between charges, or 14 hours of continuous runtime, and so far our experience matches this claimed battery life. You may be tempted to attach the bundled USB cable to a spare AC phone adapter to charge up the device. We strongly recommend against this, and suggest linking the watch to a PC via USB port to top off its battery. That's because the SmartWatch often had trouble kicking into charge mode when connected to the multiple AC adapters we tried. We also found that watch faces, which rely on movement to turn on the device's display, can potentially have a big negative impact on run time. This is especially true if you wear your watch to bed. We definitely suggest charging the device daily as you would a mobile phone.
Like many Android fans and gadget hounds in general, we have high hopes for the Sony SmartWatch. Not only is the device technically ambitious, its distinctive good looks will attract attention for all the right reasons. It certainly isn't the universally compatible, uber-Android timepiece that many — including us — were expecting. It's also a huge drawback that the device's display isn't legible in direct sunlight, a critical function of any watch. So is keeping track of time, something the product can't do reliably without a phone connection. That's something the upstart Pebble watch can tackle.
Even so, Sony's latest software updates have fixed the stability and basic connection issues we endured when we first laid hands on the device. It also looks a heck of a lot more stylish than competing smart watch products, such as the Pebble and MetaWatch Strata Stealth. The result is an attractive and dare I say polished effort. If you can live with its flaws, large though they be, this revamped Sony SmartWatch is an intriguing smartphone accessory, especially if you can snap one up for under AU$100.