The Sony SmartWatch 2 (which costs £150 direct) lets you stay on top of email and social network updates without reaching for your phone. It's better than the ill-fated Samsung Galaxy Gear, which is a more ambitious product thanks to its camera and calling capability, but a bulky design and a considerable number of limitations make it a non-starter.
Here, Sony sticks to what it knows, refining its existing SmartWatch, improving the display, and lowering the price. The SmartWatch 2 is a fun smartphone companion for the patient tech enthusiast, but it's still not quite ready for mainstream consumers just yet, thanks to a number of bugs and a plethora of half-finished apps.
The aluminium, minimalist-style watch face measures 42 x 9 x 41mm (WxDxH). It's attached to the silicone wristband, and the whole package weighs 122 grams. The SmartWatch 2 is more comfortable to wear than the Samsung Galaxy Gear, which is bulky and very stiff. The right edge of the face contains a large, round Power/Wake button, while the left side houses a covered microUSB charger port; thankfully, it's no longer proprietary.
The 1.6in 220 x 176-pixel transflective touchscreen LCD offers 262,000 colours. It works with or without the backlight activated, so you can tell the time or check notifications at a glance without powering up the display.
The screen is readable in bright sunlight, a prospect that even the best LED-backlit display can struggle with. Below the screen are three capacitive buttons: Back, Home, and Sort, the latter of which brings up options to arrange apps either alphabetically or by favourites.
As far as looks are concerned, though, Sony may have got things right with the first SmartWatch. That model had a smaller 1.3in panel with lower 128 x 128 resolution, but it made for a more compact watch that was less obtrusive looking. The new model is thinner, which is welcome, but the face itself is pretty huge.
The SmartWatch 2 features an industry-standard 24mm-wide pin strap mount and black band. That means you can actually swap it out, not just for one of the four other colour silicone bands Sony is selling for £17 each, but for any other band that fits this size watch. Sony also offers two leather bands (in black and light brown) for £21, if you want a slightly classier looking (and feeling) strap.
Thanks to the charger port's plastic cover, the watch is dust and freshwater-resistant (IP57) at up to three metres of depth (about 10 feet) for up to 30 minutes. That means you can wear it in the shower or while washing dishes without a problem. Sony claims the SmartWatch 2 contains a more power-efficient processor than the first version of its smartwatch, and the lithium polymer battery should be good for 3 to 4 days of typical use, and up to 7 days of low usage.
The package includes the SmartWatch 2, a microUSB charging cable, and a printed instruction manual, but no AC adapter.
To get started, you'll need to download the free Smart Connect app from Google Play. It's compatible with any phone running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich or higher. That puts it way ahead of the Galaxy Gear, which only works with a handful of Samsung phones running Android 4.3. The SmartWatch 2 integrates Bluetooth 3.0 and NFC, the latter of which is used for one-step pairing.
I tested the SmartWatch 2 with a Samsung Galaxy S4 running Android 4.2.2. The first time I paired the two devices, the watch worked with NFC right away, but then froze up; it showed its home screen icons in transflective mode, but wouldn't respond to the Power switch or any touch controls. I had to hard reset the watch to get it working again.
The home screen consists of up to six icons – five are loaded by default, namely the alarm, flashlight, an event list, settings, and a timer. As you add more apps to the SmartWatch 2, it will create additional home screens you can swipe between. The top bar contains a battery life icon, a dot showing the current home screen you're on, a Bluetooth icon, and a small clock at the top right.
With the SmartWatch 2, you can check text messages, calendar events, Gmail messages, and Facebook and Twitter notifications. The watch vibrates to let you know when each notification arrives, and you can tailor notifications on a per-app basis. In fact, you can selectively turn off status updates from individual Twitter and Facebook users, which is great for toning down the number of alerts the watch receives. You can also like Facebook items or retweet in Twitter from the watch, without having to take out your phone. The SmartWatch 2 keeps a call log, and lets you control music or fitness apps remotely. It doubles as a standalone watch, alarm, timer, and (weak) flashlight, so at least it's not dead weight on your wrist if you leave the phone in another room.
Extensions and third-party apps
Sony’s device is also an actual app extension platform, and this is where the company has an advantage. The SmartWatch 2 works with more than 160 apps that are optimised for the its higher resolution display, plus more than 200 apps that carry over from the first SmartWatch but don't display in full-screen mode. (Developers are working hard, too – just during my review period, the number of SmartWatch 2-optimised apps rose from 135 to 161). You can find more apps to download in the Smart Connect app. When you install it, you'll see a watch icon appear in the top left corner of your phone's notification bar; tap it, and you'll bring up the SmartWatch 2 control panel, which lets you add new apps.
I immediately installed extensions for Gmail, Messaging, Missed Calls, Call Handling, Facebook, and Twitter. Then I went searching through the store, and was mostly disappointed. I grabbed a few freebies, like BlackJack and a lunar phase viewer. Some of the apps are single-purpose, and not particularly useful, such as toggles for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios. SmartWeather looks useful, but it's $2.50 (£1.50), so doesn’t seem that worthwhile given the extensive array of free Android weather apps for your phone. Also, it didn't work – I loaded it and saw nothing but question marks in the data fields.
Other apps serve minor but useful purposes. A sound level meter, for example, lets you point the phone's microphone at a source, and then view the result on the watch face; this actually worked fairly well. A $2.99 (£1.90) app lets you display K.I.T.T's glowing red LEDs from the Knight Rider car, except that it doesn't correspond to anything (such as audio); it's just a screensaver. The funniest thing I found was the T9 app, which gives you a numeric keypad for texting. This way you can take your £500 smartphone from 2013, pair it with your £150 smartwatch, and then text your friends like it's 2003 and you have a flip phone with a numbers-only keypad.
You can customise the watch face itself, albeit not as much as you can with the Galaxy Gear. There are just five preloaded face designs, none of which are particularly exciting, and I could only find a single additional one for download. Additionally, the brightness slider is buggy; it only has a few specific positions near the left edge, and the rest of the travel to the right does nothing.
A much bigger gripe: The watch receives notifications from Twitter, short Gmail message blurbs, and so on, but it has no idea if you've cleared them on the phone or on a desktop PC. You have to look through each one on the watch to mark it as read. I'd look at the watch after an hour and see eight old Gmail messages marked as new, long after I had read and/or archived them on my computer.
All told, the SmartWatch 2 is fun to play with, even if it's still far from perfect. I like how much you can tune and customise the various apps, but I'm also frustrated by how many features are still missing in each one. If you want a smartwatch, the Samsung Galaxy Gear does the nifty Dick Tracy-style calling trick, and it has a sharper display along with a built-in camera and camcorder. However, it costs a good £100 more than Sony’s effort (or more, depending on where you shop), and the Gear is too difficult to use and limited otherwise.
The Pebble, our current favourite smartwatch, puts up a much tougher fight, thanks to its lower price, longer battery life, stronger water resistance, and compatibility with both iOS and Android devices – although it has a monochrome display. Unless you really need a smartwatch now, you should probably wait for a break-out product to help the category take off. Unfortunately, the Sony SmartWatch 2 isn't it.