Smartwatches have been a bit dorky in the past, let's be honest, but in the last year especially they've enjoyed a renaissance. The Apple Watch has changed a lot of minds who never thought they'd ever buy one; one upswing of that is that Google's smartwatch platform is enjoying some time in the sun. So, may I present to you, one of the best Android Wear smartwatches you can buy right now -- the metal-clad, super-bright, super-sporty Sony SmartWatch 3 Stainless Steel
What Is It?
- Display: 1.6in, 320x320 pixel
- CPU: Quad-core ARM A7, 1.2GHz
- RAM: 512MB
- Storage: 4GB
- Battery: 420mA
- Weight: 45g
I'll be honest. There's a reason I put that strikethrough in the intro paragraph. Every time I think of the $399 SmartWatch 3's full name I accidentally call it the Sony SmartWatch 3 Stainless Steel Edition in my head. That's because it's the stainless steel version of the regular SmartWatch 3, which has a rubberised strap and is $100 cheaper.
The SmartWatch 3 and its Stainless Steel variant are Android Wear smartwatches, using the operating system designed by Google, debuted in Australia on the LG G Watch, now at version 5.0.2 to suit any Android 4.3+ smartphone you want to pair it to. I tested the SmartWatch 3 on both a Sony Xperia Z3 and a Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge, both of which were running Android 5.0 Lollipop.
The SmartWatch 3 Stainless Steel is a beautiful piece of hardware. It's incredibly sturdy, with a slightly curved glass face over its 1.6-inch 320x320 pixel square transflective LCD screen, a moderately-sized black bezel around that and satin-finish steel surround around that. That same steel finish extends around the integrated multi-link watchband and its hidden butterfly clasp, although the lowermost link is polished to a reflective finish with the Sony logo emblazoned in its centre.
There's a single port on the SmartWatch 3, and that's the microUSB charging connector hidden away underneath the watch's body and protected from dust and sweat with a rubberised integrated plug. Charging the SmartWatch 3 is a bit fiddly, to be fair, but it means you don't have to carry a bespoke charger when you travel -- just use your smartphone's. Beyond that, there's a single button on the watch's right side that can wake or snooze its always-on screen or provide a shortcut straight to settings.
What's It Good At?
The SmartWatch 3 Stainless Steel from Sony is interesting because it's one of the only Android Wear smartwatches out there with an integrated GPS module. That GPS works with a few apps like Google's MyTracks and (my personal fitness favourite) RunKeeper to track your activity and location even while you're away from your smartphone -- so you don't need to bring it running. Considering that RunKeeper will send its collated fitness data straight into Google Fit, and therefore show you a more complete measure of your daily exercise, the SmartWatch 3 is literally the perfect tool for both jobs. It's just as accurate as a smartphone is, too.
That integrated GPS module and running/walking/cycling measure sitting right there on your wrist works an absolute treat when you're also using the SmartWatch 3's internal 2.6-odd usable GB of memory to store offline music. When you do so, you can pair your Bluetooth headphones directly to the SmartWatch 3, and listen to music while you work out, with all that motion tracked while your phone is sitting safely at home. This is exactly what Android Wear should have included straight out of the box, and it's great to see it available on Sony's top of the line SmartWatch.
The SmartWatch 3 Stainless Steel also has NFC and Wi-Fi. Android Wear's latest update -- literally 12 hours ago -- includes support for Wi-Fi, and allows your SmartWatch 3 to receive notifications whenever it is connected to Wi-Fi and your phone is connected to a data network (whether that be the same Wi-Fi, different Wi-Fi, or 3G or 4G). This works exactly like Apple's iMessage Hand-Off, and it's a great idea. I'm unsure whether any Android Wear watch apart from the SmartWatch 3 supports Wi-Fi, but it's unlikely.
It's also just a particularly gorgeous device to wear on your wrist, and comfortable at the same time. The Stainless Steel's satin finish is lovely, and alongside the Moto 360 it definitely sits up there as one of the most attractive Android Wear watches you can buy. The SmartWatch 3 feels super-sturdy and I feel like it'll last a very long time. The screen is incredibly bright for a small panel when it needs to be, and Sony's ambient sensor means it can react to changing light conditions to conserve power.
What's It Not Good At?
For the most part, the Sony SmartWatch 3's battery life is pretty darn good. It's more than good enough to last a full and busy day full of notifications and time-checking and regular Android Wear use; it's enough to last two days if you mute it when you don't need it. It's enough to last five days if you're especially careful. But if you start using that GPS and Bluetooth and music playback, it'll last maybe three hours at most. That's enough for my longest weekend bike ride, but your mileage may literally vary.
One thing that the SmartWatch 3 does not have is an integrated heart rate sensor. You can't measure your heart rate either actively or passively on Sony's top of the line smartwatch. That feels like an omission, but to be absolutely honest with you it's not one that bothers me in the slightest. It's not a feature that I've used more than once or twice in any other Android Wear smartwatch or even serious fitness trackers. If you really want it, though, you'll have to look elsewhere.
Should You Buy It?
Android Wear has evolved a lot since the original LG G Watch and the first release of the Moto 360. And it has evolved in a good way, too; the amount of apps that support cards, the variety of phone-syncing features, and the onboard features like GPS tracking and Google Play Music temporary storage, have all been widened and implemented in recent months. Android Wear was a little hesistant to start with, but it's genuinely useful now.
And it's hard to argue that the $399 SmartWatch 3 Stainless Steel isn't the best Android Wear watch out there, at least for the time being. That addition of a GPS chipset inside the SmartWatch 3 massively improves its utility when you're away from the phone, and means it's every bit as capable a fitness device as the Garmins and Adidas miCoaches of this world. The size and heft isn't an issue as long as you have the watchband fitted correctly.
It's also very good looking, for a square watch. It's Sony's rough equivalent to the Apple Watch, and that's not only because it has that stainless steel band -- y'know, the kind you'll have to spend a few hundred dollars more to get at the Apple Store. It's well made, and it has a beautiful display that works very well indoors and outdoors thanks to a smart ambient light sensor and a very high maximum brightness. As smartwatches go, it's a highly specced one.
If you don't like the Apple Watch, and you have an Android phone -- at least until Apple approves Google's Android Wear for iOS, which continues to be rumoured as imminent, although that depends on Apple not delaying the approvals process for whatever reason -- then the Sony SmartWatch 3 is a great choice and is possibly the best choice for a computer that lives on your wrist and accompanies the computer in your pocket.
Update: By popular demand, here's a entirely unscientific comparison of the screens of the Apple Watch and the SmartWatch 3. Both set to full brightness, although the Apple Watch is a little bit fingerprinty.