Does a more advanced smartwatch make for a better smartwatch? We considered the Samsung Galaxy Gear to be a barrier-pushing watch, with features like a camera, voice dictation, and phone calls. But then again, it's also only compatible with one phone at launch. Sony's newest SmartWatch, meanwhile, falls into the keep it simple, keep it compatible camp. Are rock-solid notifications and Android-wide compatibility enough? Let Gizmag try to help you answer that, as we review the Sony SmartWatch 2.
Less is more?
In many ways, Sony's SmartWatch 2 (SW2) is like taking the Pebble smartwatch, removing its open-source SDK, and giving it a color touchscreen. Like the Pebble, it lacks smartphone-like features like a camera, microphone, and speaker, which means it will never have any of the Galaxy Gear's more eye-catching features. Sony opted instead for the most basic of smartwatch hardware feature sets.
The biggest perk that the SW2 offers is compatibility. While the Galaxy Gear only plays nicely with one phone at launch (with support for several more Samsung Galaxy phones coming soon), the Sony watch is compatible with most recent Android handsets. As long as it runs Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (released in late 2011) or higher, then the SW2 will work with it. The iPhone, however, is a no-go; Pebble is still the only significant option there.
Setting up the SmartWatch 2 is a breeze. It has an NFC chip living inside, so if you have an NFC-compatible phone, all you have to do is tap the back of the watch against the back of the phone. This will prompt you to download the required Sony Smart Connect and Smartwatch 2 companion apps. Tap the watch against the phone, tap a few confirmation buttons on your screen, and you're all set.
Phones without NFC capabilities don't have to work too much harder, but their owners will need to search for the Play Store apps manually.
The SmartWatch 2 isn't ridiculously thick or bulky. It has a depth of 9 mm. It feels fairly comfortable on the wrist, but, at least with the default band, we preferred the feel of both the Galaxy Gear and Pebble. The silicone strap version we tested (it's also sold with a stainless steel band) weighs 123 g (the watch face weighs 48 g), and we thought the strap looked and felt very cheap.
Even if you agree with us that the default silicone band feels subpar, there are options. That's because another feature the SW2 has in common with Pebble is that you can customize its band. If you want to go with something bolder like leather, bright colors, or, hell, 18k gold, then you can swap its default band for any standard 24 mm watch strap. There's also that variation with the metallic band, but we didn't test that version.
The watch's face features a button on the side, which, from a distance, resembles a classic watch's winder. When you touch it, though, it feels more like extremely cheap plastic. Pressing this button turns on the backlight and wakes/sleeps the device. Three capacitive menu keys (back, home, menu) also sit below the screen, which do exactly what you'd expect them to do while navigating the SW2's barebones UI.
The SmartWatch 2's screen isn't the sharpest, and your eyes will definitely notice its pixels. The screen has 220 x 176 resolution spread out over 1.6 inches, which comes out to 176 pixels per inch. The screen is a transreflective LCD, so when lighting is adequate, its display merely uses contrast from the reflected light, rather than its own backlight. When the lights go down, though, you can still easily view the screen by pressing that side button to ignite the backlight.
Notifications ... and not much else
The SW2 falls into what we'd call the notification terminal class of smartwatches. After setting it up, the watch will give you a subtle vibration when a new notification comes in (at least from a select group of apps). You can scroll through complete text messages, and see the first few lines of emails. Unfortunately, though, in the Gmail app, only a couple of sentences typically make it onto the watch before getting cut off. After reading a notification, you can go back to the corresponding app's icon to re-read them.
The SW2 has a much narrower focus than something like the Galaxy Gear has. But then again, the SmartWatch 2 is, at least right now, a bit more versatile at delivering those notifications. That's because the SW2's notifications don't just work with calls, text messages, calendar events, and emails from the stock email app, but it also adds apps like Gmail, Twitter, and Facebook to the list. You'll just need to install separate (free) plugin apps from the Play Store and grant them the necessary permissions.
SMS messaging notifications work much better than the Gmail integration. Not only do you get to read each full message, but you can also scan your entire messaging inbox at any time. Of the three big watches we've reviewed – the Pebble, Galaxy Gear, and the SW2 – the SmartWatch 2 is the only one that lets you browse your entire SMS inbox. It's a nice touch, and one we hope those watches add soon via software updates.
If you walk around wearing a Bluetooth headset, then the SW2 can also allow you to answer or reject the call from the watch, picking it up right on the headset. But we wouldn't consider this a selling feature, especially when compared to the Galaxy Gear's native call-handling abilities.
The SmartWatch 2 also syncs with the Runtastic Android app to serve as a basic fitness tracker, though it's worth noting that your phone is still the device that's tracking your workout, including the expected battery drain. The SW2 just shows you the data in that convenient, glanceable spot on your wrist.
The SW2 also lets you access your phone's music controls (that seems to be a standard on the current batch of smartwatches), and there's a plugin that lets you browse your phone's image gallery too. Unfortunately, though, the watch's crappy resolution makes this a less than spectacular experience.
Water resistance, battery life
The SmartWatch 2 has an IP57 water and dust resistance rating, meaning it can sit in one meter (3.3 ft.) of water for 30 minutes without going kaput. And indeed, we tested the smartwatch by dunking it in a glass of water, and saw no ill effects afterwards. In the realm of smartphones, Sony has taken water resistance more seriously than any other manufacturer, so we weren't surprised to see the company's smartwatch live up to that billing.
Sony advertises three to four days of battery life with typical use. Based on our testing, we'd say that's a solid estimate. It's nice not to have to charge every night, but you'll probably want to plug in its included microUSB cable once every two or three nights, just to be safe.
There isn't anything particularly new or cutting-edge about the Sony SmartWatch 2. It's notifications, it's wrist-based fitness tracking data, and it's music controls. And you can take it underwater and extend its battery life for days while doing those things.
The overall package sounds solid enough on paper, but we weren't particularly smitten with the experience of using Sony's new watch. If you own an Android phone and are looking for an easy and convenient way to get notifications, then the SW2 is one of several solid options. Just know that you aren't getting much more than that. You also might want to be prepared to invest in a smarter-looking band than the included rubber one, and prepare your eyes for a very pixelated-looking display.
The Sony SmartWatch 2 is already available in Europe for £149 (or £169 for the metallic wristband version). Sony hasn't yet announced any US release date or pricing info.
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