Once upon a time Sony made a smartwatch that was really pretty bad. But Sony promised the next one would be much less bad. And so it is! In fact, the SmartWatch 2 may be the least-bad smartwatch to date. Unfortunately less bad than very bad doesn't make something good.
What Is It?
It's the sequel to last year's SmartWatch 1 (SW1). It's essentially a second screen for your Android device. It pairs with any Android phone running Android 4.0 or higher, and functions as a way to get bits of data from your phone without having to pull it out of your pocket or bag.
Why Does It Matter?
While everyone seems to be making a smartwatch, nobody has gotten it right yet. Samsung's Galaxy Gear was literally painful to wear, and the Pebble has broken hearts. There are rumours of a Google "Gem" smartwatch and an Apple iWatch, either of which may or may not be real, and smartwatches in general are a well-loved sci-fi trope that just seemed like something we'd have in the 21st century.
Sony's SW1 was well ahead of the trend, and it showed. But at least it was priced like a beta. At $150, it was affordable enough that a decent number of people would buy one out of sheer curiosity and provide feedback that Sony could go on to use to refine its wrist-friendly computer. The SW2 is the result of that refinement.
Let's start with the shallow stuff: The SW2 looks nice. Really nice, actually, and understated in a way that's a refreshing break from some of its flashier competitors. It's designed in harmony with Sony's other high-end products, like the Xperia Z and the Xperia Tablet Z. It has those same square edges, and that same silver power button. And as an added bonus, Sony has made it compatible with standard 24mm watchbands. You could either spend an additional $20 and buy a leather band from Sony, or you can swap it out with your own favourite. Coupled with the right band, the SW2 wouldn't look out of place with a tuxedo, which is impressive.
The improvements aren't just superficial; the display has also gotten a tidy update from the previous generation. The SW1 had a 1.3-inch OLED screen that came in at a very low-res 128 x 128. This year's jumps up to 1.6 inches and 220 x 176 pixels, which is better! And while 176 PPI is still tragically pixilated compared to the Galaxy Gear's super-sharp 320 x 320 (278 PPI) AMOLED screen, the SW2 isn't without its advantages. Specifically, it swapped out the AMOLED screen for a transflective LCD display, which means that it's kind of a hybrid screen that can use ambient light, or its own backlight. That means when you're walking down the street and you just want to check the time, you don't need to press any buttons to turn the screen on, you just read the screen.
Another important upgrade over last year's model is an IP57 certification. That means you can use it in up to three feet of (fresh) water for about half an hour. That's a big advantage over the Gear, which isn't rated for anything beyond a light rain. The SW2 also does away with Sony's awkward proprietary charger in favour of standard microUSB, and adds three capacitive buttons (back, home, and menu) to replace man of the SW1's awkward swipey gestures. Essentially, it echoes Android's UI, which makes sense considering that only Android users can use this watch.
What the SW2 doesn't have, unlike the Galaxy Gear, is a camera, a mic, or a speaker. And frankly, that's just fine.
Setup and Software
To use the SmartWatch you simply pair it with your Android phone. It even has NFC now, so you should be able just to tap the watch to your phone's back and you're off to the races. The first tap prompts your phone to download an app called Sony Smart Connect, which is essentially the phone's command centre for the watch. After that's installed, a second tap pairs the two devices and you're good to go. Hypothetically.
In actuality setup was a very frustrating experience. It took us no fewer than twelve attempts before everything was installed, paired, and running smoothly. Sometimes the watch would freeze, sometimes it refused to pair. We ultimately had to do two factory resets before we got it going. Inauspicious beginnings, but after the initial setup frustration we the SW2 never crashed again, possible due to a firmware update that stabilised it.
Speaking of, firmware updates are downloaded via your phone and installed automatically. You wouldn't even know your SmartWatch had upgraded its OS unless you were looking at it at the time. That's pretty handy. At the same time, we should note that the watch needs your phone to pull down any data. If the two become disconnected, you'll be able to read the bits of info you already downloaded, and you can still use the alarm or calculator, but for anything beyond that (like using Runtastic) you need your phone in your pocket.
Speaking of which, the Smart Connect app on your phone as a sort of liaison for installing apps. There are a handful of recommended apps listed, and you can also search by category. Clicking on one just takes you over to the Google Play store. There are currently more than 300 apps, and more than half of them have been optimised for the SW2 (the other half were made for the SW1's smaller screen, but they'll stretch), which puts Sony way ahead of Samsung as far as numbers go. App discovery, however, is really lousy.
Out of the box, there's just a small handful of pre-loaded apps, basic stuff like stopwatch, alarm, and calculator. But when you fire up Smart Connect there are recommended apps, which are what most people will install first. Those include hot-ticket items like Weather, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and Runtastic. So at least those aren't hard to find.
The Smart Connect app itself, though, looks like it was a high school student's mid-term project. You can't even search for an app by name! You have to cross your fingers that the developer put it in a category that makes sense, and if they didn't, you have to manually scroll through 300 apps until you find the one you're looking for.
It's not all bad news, though. The SW2 does have some important apps that the Gear lacks. Gmail is a big one, since that's what most Android users use. Or if you want to have all of your phone notifications pushed over to your phone, you can do that do, via any number of third-party notification apps which range from free to a couple of bucks (my favourite is WatchNotifier). I also like Commander, which is basically a set of toggles for your phone (you can switch mobile data on or off, or quick-start Wi-Fi hotspotting), and the watch comes with a complimentary Pro version of Runtastic. Using the SW2 to peek at my pace and skip tracks in the music player while running was my favourite use case, though the music control app doesn't pull track data or album art, so you're flipping blind.
Unfortunately a lot of those 300 apps are redundant. Or bad. Even the best of them -- even the preloaded bunch -- look a bit amateur. There's something about the watch's UI that screams "feature phone." It's dated and chintzy. The Galaxy Gear interface has its issues, but at least it looks polished.
For starters, the SW2 no more uncomfortable than a standard watch, which is a huge relief after the Gear. The band is flexible and it doesn't feel overly heavy. You still might want to take it off if you rest your wrists on your keyboard when you type, though.
Since it makes no sounds, any new notification is accompanied by a vibration, and a pretty strong one, too. It makes for a reliable silent alarm, should you want to get up without waking your bedmate. It can also get annoying quickly as your Gmail (or Facebook or Twitter) notifications pile up. You can switch off vibration, but I found myself more often just taking the whole watch off when I didn't want to deal with it.
A lot of the settings within apps are controlled via the apps on your phone, which sounds inconvenient but is ultimately a good thing. Trying to accomplish more than a simple task on the SmartWatch 2 tends to get pretty frustrating pretty quickly. For starters there's a ton of lag throughout the entire UI and across all of the apps. Then add in that the touchscreen tends to miss taps. That combination means you never know if you need to tap again or just wait a bit longer. Put all that on a tiny screen that can't display much information, and give it tinier buttons which are hard to hit. What you're left with is a recipe for unhappiness.
While the SW2 certainly has its failings as far as an every-day superwatch goes, consider this: a decent GPS running watch typically costs about the same (or a lot more) and is generally speaking less capable. Not only can you get all of the stats you need from Runtastic on your wrist, like you would with a normal GPS watch, but you have all of the advantages of phone connectivity. That means the audio-coaching plays clearly in your ear. You can pair it with a heart rate monitor. You can listen to your music, and control said music from your wrist.
The major downside is that you need to bring your phone with you while you run, but it's certainly better than digging it out of your pocket to tweak something while you're trying to keep a steady pace. Really, running with the SW2 is the one instance where I actually loved having it. I would enjoy it even more if there were a way to keep your stats on the screen using the transflective setting, so you don't have to grope after that tiny button when you want to peek at your time/distance/pace/etc.
There are times when the SW2 is convenient. Getting a call, email, or text you're going to ignore means simply looking at your watch and moving on, rather than digging out your phone, turning it on, unlocking it, looking, and then turning it off and putting it back. A shortcut for skipping tracks in the music player is great, as is viewing your workout stats as you go. The Twitter app is pretty decent. It lets you favourite or retweet right from the watch.
It's great that the SW2 is waterproof and that it uses a standard microUSB cable to charge. It's also very handy that you don't have to hit any buttons to simply see the time of day. The silent alarm feature is nice, and battery life lived up to Sony's claims of three to four days of normal use. Oh, and of course, we like that it can pair with almost any Android phone (the Galaxy Gear only pairs with the very latest from Samsung).
It's almost never more convenient to use this watch than it is to simply pull out your smartphone, except in the few instances mentioned above. The UI is unwieldy and unresponsive, and while we like that we can see it in bright daylight, the screen's low resolution makes it look pretty crappy.
App discovery is a nightmare, and the ones you can find frequently don't do all that much. Setup was fraught with errors and crashes (though your milage may vary). Apps like Gmail only show the first few lines of the email (though Sony told us it's going to be bumped to 200 lines in an upcoming update). Apps like GPS Map2 -- which shows you a readable map of exactly where you are -- could be really convenient if there was any power in the watch. Instead, it's impossible to scroll around and orient yourself. In many apps, if you click on a notification it doesn't really show you anything, so you have to pull out your phone anyway, which ultimately defeats the whole purpose, doesn't it? Lastly, it costs $50 more than last year's version, which was itself overpriced for its capabilities.
Should You Buy It?
No. This isn't the smartwatch you were looking for. Sorry. It may still be out there, looming in the distant future, but that day has most definitely not come. Right now, this $200 device is just a toy that will ultimately waste more time than it will save. We might give it the nod over the Galaxy Gear just for being cheaper, more comfortable, and having more apps, but really, that's not saying much. Tuck your cash under your mattress and save it for a better tomorrow. [Sony]
Sony SmartWatch 2
• Network: Bluetooth • OS: Android (modified) • Screen: 1.6-inch 220 x 176 transflective LCD (176 PPI) • Camera: None • Weight: 122.5g • Price: $199.95