With Samsung's Galaxy Gear stealing headlines and Apple's iWatch continually doing the rumour rounds, the smart watch concept is becoming a very hot topic. Sony threw its own model into the ring last year with the first SmartWatch, but it didn't really impress.
It's back again with the SmartWatch 2 though, complete with a bunch of new features that Sony hopes will knock the smug smile off Samsung's face. It's got a new design that's water resistant -- although not waterproof -- and has a slightly larger 1.6-inch screen.
Like the Gear, it connects to your Android smart phone, acting as a second screen to display incoming calls and texts without making you fish out your cumbersome phone each time it vibrates. Unlike the Gear though, there's a healthy catalogue of third party apps that bring email and social network support to its little face.
With more 'smart' functions up its sleeve, the SmartWatch 2 would be a genuinely useful phone accessory, but I found its software to be so buggy and sluggish to use that it was extremely frustrating and at times wouldn't function at all.
At £150, it might be much cheaper than the Gear, but is it cheap enough to make up for the pretty awful experience it offers?
The SmartWatch is a very simply designed piece of kit, made up of a black, metal-edged square that's plonked on a rubber strap. It's a very plain design and I personally think the curved glass and brushed metal design of Samsung's Galaxy Gear is much more elegant.
Sony has made a couple of attempts to jazz it up though. The milled edging and silver button on the side add a bit of interest, but its square face is still far from stylish. If it's hoping to pair well with a sharp suit, a beautiful gown or even just a decent pair of jeans and a jacket, it's going to need a better fashion sense.
The rubber strap is comfortable and lightweight although isn't particularly breathable so it might not be a great gym buddy. It can be replaced with any standard watch strap though so you can always pop in something more appropriate.
Unlike the Galaxy Gear, the SmartWatch 2 is water resistant, allowing it to put up with a bit of light rain or a small splash when you're washing your hands. It's sadly not totally waterproof, so you will have to remember to take it off before getting into the shower in the morning. As Sony has been pushing the waterproofing tech on its excellent Xperia Z and Z1 smart phones, I really hoped it would do the same on its watch.
Sony's watch has a 1.6-inch display with a 220x176-pixel resolution. It's roughly the same size as Samsung's Gear, but the Gear has a higher 320x320-pixel resolution, which helps make on-screen text and icons look much sharper. For the basic information the SmartWatch needs to show, its resolution is adequate, but things would look undeniably better with more pixels on board.
It's bright enough to be seen under most lights though -- including our harsh CNET office lights -- and it's about as colourful as it really needs to be. Sure, Sony could have tried to pop in a vivid OLED panel, but you're hardly likely to watch movies on a screen that small, so there's no real need for that level of quality. For the basic tasks it's there for, the display is fine.
Setting up the SmartWatch 2
Things didn't begin well with the SmartWatch. It's designed to pair instantly with an NFC-enabled phone by simply tapping the two together. Trying this on my Xperia Z1 didn't seem to work though. After a few taps of nothing happening at all, the watch eventually suggested that an app was needed on my phone -- by showing a picture of the Google Play store icon, with no text to indicate exactly what to download.
After some digging around in the manual and online I realised that you need to have Sony's SmartWatch 2 app already installed on your phone. That might seem logical, but nothing in the setup suggested that this was a required step, and the NFC pairing didn't take me to the Play Store page in order to download it, leaving me to figure it out for myself. If you're new to the Android world, expect some frustration.
Once pairing is in place you can go about having a swipe around its face. You'll quickly notice that there are very few apps installed as standard. If you want to make use of any of the smart functions, you'll have to download a host of separate applications. It's definitely not ready for use straight out of the box, so you'll need to set aside some time to get everything on board before you strut out into the street.
Features and usability
The main benefit of the SmartWatch over the Galaxy Gear is the number of available apps. Rather than just handling calls and text messages, the SmartWatch 2 shows your email, plus Twitter and Facebook notifications, Calendar appointments and various other tasks -- all handled by individual apps downloadable from the Google Play store.
Finding and downloading new apps using the app on your phone is simple, and it's easy to tweak the app settings on your phone. I attacked the Galaxy Gear for calling itself a "smart watch" without really performing any smart functions -- it doesn't even have email support. The SmartWatch 2 doesn't have the same problem.
What it does have though is a whole mess of its own problems that make it a way more annoying device to live with. Crucially, I found it to be absolutely full of bugs, causing it to regularly freeze up, ignore screen taps, or randomly switch to standby while I used it.
On many occasions I found swiping between the homescreen panels to be extremely sluggish -- or I simply couldn't swipe at all -- and it would often bring up the icons of the next panel, before reverting to the previous panel. Then it would switch off again. I couldn't figure out exactly what caused it to work on some occasions, but not at all on others.
While it was fairly simple to navigate when the watch did work properly, its software issues meant that I spent most of my time unable to really do anything, leaving me extremely frustrated with the whole experience. It might be cheaper than the Gear, but £150 is still too much to pay for something that fundamentally doesn't work.
The apps themselves don't offer a particularly brilliant experience either. The Twitter app I downloaded notified me when anyone tweeted anything -- it spent most of the night vibrating on my arm until I put it in my sock drawer. You would have to dive into the app on your phone and muck around with the settings to solve this issue. The Facebook notifications app meanwhile updated too slowly to be useful.
The email and Gmail apps are handy for quickly seeing who has emailed you, but they only show a tiny preview of what's in an email, so you'll still need to look at your phone to do anything, as swiping through your inbox is a miserably sluggish affair.
The music app, in theory, lets you see your saved music as thumbnails of the album art for you to control on the watch face. This too is far from perfect. There's no way to browse your music by artist or album, only to skip back and forth between tracks, and it will only give control over music stored locally on the phone -- Spotify users will need to go back to the phone. At one point it decided that I didn't need to swipe through the whole selection of music I had on the phone, but that I should only be able to listen to Taylor Swift's I Knew You Were Trouble.
Sony reckons you can eke out around 3-4 days of what it calls "normal use" from the watch. From my own use, I'd say that's a little ambitious. If you take advantage of the smart functions to have your email coming through -- and if you have Twitter perpetually notifying you of everything anyone says -- then you shouldn't expect to get much more than a day.
You can stretch the life out more by not really using any of the smart features, but if you're going to do that, you may as well have a regular watch with a battery that'll last years.
The Sony SmartWatch 2 makes a bunch of theoretical improvements over Samsung's Galaxy Gear by giving it actual smart functions like email and social network support. It definitely has the right idea about what a smart watch should do, but the sheer volume of bugs in its software makes it frustrating to use at best and unusable at worst. The apps themselves don't really do enough to allow you to leave your phone in your pocket either.
Neither Sony's nor Samsung's attempts at watches are at all impressive. If you were able to take the apps from the SmartWatch and pair it with the smooth interface of the Gear, you might have a more useful device. As it stands, the SmartWatch needs a lot of work to make it worth even the £150 price. Right now, it's just not.