Sometimes an excellent operating system can be made even better
Sony SmartWatch 2
This smartwatch aims to be a notification device above all else, and benefits greatly from that simple approach.
- Stylish, lightweight and comfortable
- Works with any Android 4.0 smartphone
- Reasonable 4-5 day battery life (advertises 3-4)
- Simple touchscreen interface
- Good range of notification apps available
- IP57 water resistant
- Only five watch faces available, one digital
- Can’t replace default watch faces
- No official calendar app (does show reminders)
- Micro-USB port is difficult to access
- Occasional crashes
A truly useful companion to any Android smartphone, particularly larger and less pocketable ‘phablet’ devices. A bit steep at the RRP, but a good buy in the $200-$250 range it sells for at some outlets.
Price$ 354.95 (AUD)
Though smartwatches may seem like a fad, don’t be too quick to dismiss the concept. Smartphones seemed like a fad to many, but they were based on one of the most widely adopted, tested and proven technologies on which our society is based: the telephone.
Likewise, smartwatches are based on one of the most widely adopted wearable technologies: the wristwatch, or colloquially, just ‘watch’. I say ‘one of the most’, because we can’t forget glasses: another tremendously successful wearable technology that’s only now being given a ‘smart’ revamp by the likes of Google.
That’s not to say smartwatches are anywhere near the ‘smartphone’ level of usefulness or adoption yet. In fact, I completely rubbished Sony’s first smartwatch, the MN2, when it arrived in New Zealand late last year. “Amazingly cool, but hardly the height of practicality”, I said. “2 out of 5 stars.”
Talking to a local Sony rep a year later, I reiterated my feelings on the matter. Sony’s original smartwatch was a very cool idea, but terribly flawed. Pathetic battery life, push-to-view time display, clunky interface, and worst of all, didn’t actually work as a watch unless paired to a phone. According to said rep, my issues had been solved by the newer model, the Sony SmartWatch 2. “Interesting,” I said. “I didn’t know there was a newer model.”
And so we have the Sony SmartWatch 2 – a smartwatch compatible with any Android 4 phone and which to my great surprise, really does address all the primary problems of its predecessor.
The SW2 is beautifully compact at an almost-square 42x41mm, and just 9mm thick. The body is made from black-painted aluminium, with reflective silver trim. It weighs 123 grams, which is less than my own metal-banded analogue watch.
Compactness is one of the best things the SW2 has going for it.
Most of the smartwatches we’ve seen to date are bulky, oversized affairs. That’s not automatically a bad thing – many people choose to wear huge watches, or ranges such as Casio’s G-Shock wouldn’t exist. However, large watches are a matter of preference – a fashion statement some watch-wearers would prefer to avoid. Personally I have tiny wrists, so the SW2 suits me perfectly as a ‘normal’ sized accessory.
The watch is rated IP57, dust- and water-resistant: if you get caught in the rain or fall into a pool, it’ll be fine – just don’t go swimming in it.
The SW2 is sold with one of three watchband styles: silicone rubber, which is available in yellow, cyan, purple, pink, or black; leather, available in brown or black; and metal. Unlike some competitors (Samsung Galaxy Gear, I’m looking at you), Sony’s smartwatch is compatible with any standard (spring-bar) 24mm watch band.
In New Zealand, only the black silicone-rubber strap, and metal strap, are available. Only the black silicone-rubber strap is currently available through the Sony Australia website, though we’re unsure what models may be available through other Australian retailers.
The watch face is perfectly flat, borderless glass covering a 1.6-inch capacitive touchscreen.
The previous model used an OLED display, which required a push-to-view setup due to its high power consumption. Charming at first – after all, this is how the first LED watches worked in the 1970s – but ultimately an annoyance.
The SW2 instead uses a 220x176-pixel transflective LCD – sounds fancy, but that’s the same display technology used in conventional digital watches, calculators and other common gadgets.
LCDs use minimal power themselves, with the backlight accounting for most of the power consumption. Transflective displays use reflected ambient light to illuminate the display – so they’re visible in daylight without the use of a backlight.
For night-time use, and to display the sort of high-contrast, full-colour imagery used in the SW2’s ‘smart’ interface, an LED backlight illuminates the display from behind, causing it to function like the transmissive displays used in your LCD TV, monitor or smartphone.
The SW2 constantly displays the time, just like a watch should. To turn on the backlight (i.e. to check the time in the dark), just press the single button on the right-hand side of the watch. To access the ‘smart’ interface, press the button a second time. Pressing it a third time takes you back to the low-power watch face. Simple as can be.
Samsung’s Galaxy Gear attempts to get around the time-visibility issue by lighting up the screen in response to wrist movement. When I briefly tried on the Gear, I wasn’t too impressed by that feature – I had to move my wrist into a very artificial ‘I’m looking at my watch’ posture for the screen to trigger.
Sony has the right idea here, and doesn’t sacrifice practicality for the sake of a more impressive (but ultimately no more useful) display.
Apart from the single physical button, the SW2’s interface is entirely touch-driven. That proved problematic with the previous model, which expected you to make two-finger gestures on a tiny watch screen.
The SW2 only uses simple tap and drag gestures, which all require a single fingertip. Once again, a massive improvement over the original.
The first thing you see is the watchface, so let’s start there.
There are two basic faces available – one digital and one analogue. The analogue version is available in four varieties – white-on-black and black-on-white, with or without the day of the month displayed. That gives a total of five unique watchfaces though again, the analogue ones are all essentially the same at heart.
I’d really like to have seen a much larger selection of watchfaces available. Personally, I’d have loved a digital display including the day and month. The simulated-analogue displays are nice, and a greater range of decorative analogue faces wouldn’t go amiss. However, the largest gap is digital faces – this is, after all, a digital watch. People are used to digital clocks, from their computers and smartphones. So why, I have to ask, is there only a single digital face?
In the app store (which we’ll look at later on), there are a number of replacement watchfaces available. However, there’s a nasty trick here: it’s not possible for third-party developers to actually replace the built-in watch functionality.
Aftermarket watchfaces are smartwatch apps that run actively on the backlit screen, not passively with the backlight off as the default watchfaces do. This means they consume the battery at a much greater rate, and generally rely on the same push-to-view setup that I panned the original Sony smartwatch for.
User Interface: Menus
Menus are modelled on the Android user interface, letting you swipe through a series of 3x2 icon grids in the same way that Android provides multiple homescreens.
There’s a status bar at the top of the display that shows the watch’s battery level, which page of apps you’re on, the Bluetooth connection status, and the current time. Pulling down on the status bar reveals a notification list, encapsulating the most recent notifications from all installed apps.
A scrollable version of the same event list can also be accessed via a ‘live’ icon in the grid (think Microsoft’s Live Tiles, only this one is circular) which shows the number of ‘new events’. Individual apps show their own notification lists when tapped on, if you prefer a source-by-source view (i.e. email separate to Facebook separate to Twitter).
For the SW2 to be anything more than a fancy-looking digital watch, you need to pair it with a smartphone running Android 4.0 or later. I tested it with both Sony’s own Sony Xperia Z1, and the HTC One Mini.
Pairing to Sony’s NFC-enabled smartphones is easy – tap watch to phone and you’re away. For non-Sony smartphones, you need to install two free apps from the Google Play store: Sony Smart Connect and the SmartWatch 2 app. You can then connect through the watch and Android settings in the same way you’d pair any Bluetooth device such as a headset or keyboard – or, with an NFC-enabled phone, tap to connect as you would with one of Sony’s models.
The connection is via Bluetooth 3.0, rather than the low-power Bluetooth 4.0. I’m not sure of the reasoning behind that, but it doesn’t seem to have any significant effect on the phone’s battery life while connected.
Whenever the two are paired, a persistent notification appears on the phone, which you can tap to open the SW2 settings, list of installed apps, and app store. Apps are installed to the watch, and removed from the watch, via the phone only – there’s no way to manage apps on the watch itself.
The built-in apps include alarm, countdown timer (a stopwatch is notably missing), and flashlight – which just turns the backlight on with a plain white screen. Those apps can be enabled or disabled individually from the smartwatch menu, so they can be hidden if you never use them or prefer a third-party alternative.
There are numerous official Sony apps, mostly centered around notifications – I tested the apps for mail, Gmail, calendar, missed calls, SMS messages, Facebook and Twitter. All of those apps both maintain their own notification lists, and feed into the central ‘new events’ list.
Each shows a short message preview – you can’t read entire mail messages on the watch, just the first couple of lines. When a new notification pops up, the watch vibrates subtly to let you know it’s there.
There are also informational apps such as weather, and control apps such as call handling (answer/reject). Note that you can’t actually converse via the watch – you can pick up remotely, but you still need to bring the phone to your ear, or be using a Bluetooth headset, to talk. THere are also remote control apps for media playback and the camera’s shutter, though the latter will only work on Sony Xperia phones.
One official app that should exist, but doesn’t, is a calendar. Yes, you can get calendar notifications, but there’s no way to see a monthly calendar if you’re trying to work out, say, what day of the month next Tuesday is. That may seem like a small omission, but that’s one of the most common things I use my smartphone for, and something I really would have found useful on a watch that’s dedicated to telling the time and date.
In addition to Sony’s official apps, there’s a good range of third-party apps in the store. When searching, you can filter down to apps optimised for the new SW2, or also include apps for the older, low-resolution MN2 that will also work on the new watch.
Third-party apps cover everything from GPS navigation to fitness to games – one developer even offers a mini web browser. A number of calculator apps let you simulate that geekiest of 1970s wrist accoutrements: the calculator watch.
Like any app store, quality and price vary (and don’t necessarily correspond)
Like any app store, quality and price vary (and don’t necessarily correspond). Like the rest of the Google Play store, there are ratings and reviews which I recommend you read before downloading or buying.
Sony’s previous MN2 smartwatch advertised 3-4 days of ‘typical usage’, and I experienced a disappointing 1-2 days. The SW2 advertises the same 3-4 days ‘normal usage’, and I experienced a very reasonable 4-5 days with fairly heavy use.
I receive a lot of email, which left the SW2 vibrating on my wrist several times an hour. I checked the screen every time, reading the previews, just to give the battery a real workout. I can imagine that adding in notifications for every Facebook and Twitter message would run the battery down faster, especially if you tried to read them all on the watch.
Charging is easy – it doesn’t require a special cradle like the Galaxy Gear, or a fiddly snap-on adapter like the Sony MN2. There’s a standard micro-USB port in the side, which lets you use your smartphone or tablet charger, or charge from a PC.
I will admit that I had some trouble getting the little port-cover open, as it has a waterproof seal and only a very thin cover to get leverage on. I chipped a couple of fingernails trying to get at the USB port, before working out that a pen knife or box-cutter was the only tool suitable. Even the mighty paperclip fails, far too thick to be of any help. A small issue, but a notable one.
A moment of instability
At the very end of my testing, just after photographing the SW2, I experienced a couple of crashes – first of the weather app, then the main menu. Both problems were solved by turning the watch off and then on again.
I never experienced similar problems in the full week I spent wearing the watch, nor could I reproduce the problems afterward.
The crashes coincided with the HTC One Mini running low on battery (down to 5%) and triggering its power-saving features. It may be an obscure compatibility issue with that phone, or something completely unrelated. I wouldn’t rate the SW2 down for it, as the problem was so easily solved and I couldn’t reproduce it afterward, but I did find it worth noting.
Quickly glancing at the ever-present screen was far less intrusive than taking my phone out.
Sony’s latest smartwatch aims to be a notification device above all else. No camera, no speaker, no microphone – it’s no Galaxy Gear, nor does it want to be. That simple approach results in a smart, focused and genuinely useful little piece of wearable tech.
I thought it might be intrusive, having notifications right there at my wrist, but I noticed exactly the same thing I’ve been hearing from Google Glass wearers: quickly glancing at the ever-present screen was far less intrusive than taking my phone out, unlocking it, and checking to see whether the email I’d just received was time-critical or not.
I don’t use an Android phone personally - strangely enough, I use a Windows Phone. If I were an Android user, I would be very keen to purchase my own SW2. The only thing that might hold me back would be the price.
The SW2 has an RRP of AU$354.95/NZ$350. Yes, once you do the currency conversion, it’s a fair bit cheaper in New Zealand. Odd, but I’m not complaining. That’s moot anyway, as we saw retail prices as low as AU$205/NZ$235. At those prices, I would thoroughly recommend the SW2 to any Android smartphone user.
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