Sony SmartWatch 2 review

Smartwatches. There's that buzz word. These wearable tech devices are the next big thing if releases from Samsung, Pebble, Sony and more are anything to go by. Sony's SmartWatch 2 is the second attempt at the company putting out the perfect wearable device, after a disappointing first try.

But are smartwatches really and truly the next big thing, does the SmartWatch 2 change our perception of a tech that seems to be guilty of being pushed out prematurely into the world, or has Sony got it right this time around?

What's it all about?

The Sony SmartWatch 2 is designed to function as a second screen when paired with a smart device via Bluetooth, typically the phone in your pocket. You can install apps to look at incoming email, Facebook messages, tweets and the like without the need to take your phone out of your pocket.

The device can also be used to dial a call via a connected phone. But when we say dial, that's as far as it goes - you can't make any calls from the device itself, like you can the Galaxy Gear. This will only really work if you're a Bluetooth headset wearing kind of person, otherwise it is just a quick to press call on your phone.

READ: Samsung Galaxy Gear review

Sony is pretty clear and upfront about the SmartWatch 2's market position, too, and given the price point we can see where it sits: this isn't the Samsung Galaxy Gear because you can't take and receive calls on it, and without a smart device connected you can't use it as a communication device in any proper way.

Indeed, out on its own the Sony SmartWatch 2 is pretty dumb. Without a paired device connected it can show the time, act as a stopwatch, use the screen as a torch, and alert you via an alarm, but that's it. You can do most of that on almost any budget digital watch.

The premise is that when connected to your Android phone you can then start to use the power of your phone's internet connection to get snippets of information on your wrist without having to worry about taking your phone out of your pocket - something Sony says we do over a 100 times a day.

Design

Smartwatches are new turf in the gadget world. From a design perspective they're different prospects to the pricey, jewellery type of watches, and because of their newness we're still trying to work out exactly what works and what doesn't. Watches with cameras, interchangeable straps, watch faces to mimic "the real thing" and so forth. The SmartWatch 2 offers up a number of watch face options in classic and digital formats/

In the SmartWatch 2 is looks as though Sony's taken influence - whether it'd confess it or not - from watches from the likes of Diesel in terms of design. The Sony device has a large square face that's solid black, with bold silver-colour edges. It is very masculine in its approach and yet still manages to carry off some style kudos.

This isn't the bright, colourful, and noticeable - for better or worse - Pebble smartwatch, nor does it come with the more premium feel of the Galaxy Gear. That's no bad thing though, as the Sony Smartwatch 2 is £150 cheaper after all.

The watch itself features a 1.6-inch transflective screen that has been used on digital watches for some time to make them better in sunlight and easier on the eye without needing a backlight on all the time. Visually it kind of reminds us of a mini Sony Ericsson X10 strapped to the wrist.

That screen is framed by a black bezel that features a prominent Sony logo on the top and the three familiar Android shortcut soft keys on the bottom. These Android shortcuts are, annoyingly, always on the display even when not illuminated as they've been rendered into the display. And we think traditional watch wearers are likely to find both vulgar to the eyes.

The rest of the design is fairly minimalist with a micro USB hidden by a flap on the left for charging, and Sony's now standardised power button - like that found on its Xperia smartphones - on the right.

There's a pair of rubbery watch straps included in the box, which are also black, which extend wide enough to fit even the fattest of wrists. We like that there's a spare included - you can keep the spare strap kept tidied away out of the way in the otherwise empty box.

If black is no good for you then you can get different colours to spruce up the look a bit. Failing that you can use the watch with any strap you can find at any watch shop. If you want that Hello Kitty watch strap, you can have it. Sony says it's okay. Or doesn't. But it's down to you what you choose.

Making a splash?

The watch has an IP57 rating, which should mean it is protected against dust and can be kept under one metre of fresh water for up to 30 minutes. We say should, because we believe we broke our first review unit by merely getting splashed when giving the kids a bath. We can't be sure that this is the case, but it's not good. A second unit didn't seem to suffer when we tried a second time, but it's worthy of note that we had a failed device the first time around.

The SmartWatch 2's 1.6-inch screen failed to make a splash too. We found it to be poor overall, in part because the 220 x 176 pixel TFT LCD panel is low resolution. The physical size is a good size for the wrist, but it's not great for reading Facebook entries, or the first couple of lines of an email on the go.

Fonts look all blocky, while colours appear washed out. If you wear reading glasses - how do we put this delicately? - then you'll be properly stuffed.

We've also found in both devices we've tested that the moment the screen turns back to the watch face there is a really misaligned screen glitch that shows the watch face and a number of colours - it's hard to describe, but it doesn't look nice.

At first we thought it was an error with just the first SmartWatch review unit we had been sent, but we've noticed it on the second device too. It is quick and not really noticeably unless you spot it, but once you do then you can't not see it. It looks cheap and nasty.

Set-up

Aside from the lowdown of what we think of the Sony SmartWatch 2's looks, getting to that point took more effort than we'd anticipated. Frustrating is the word when it comes to setting up the SmartWatch 2. It's not a good out-of-the-box experience and we wouldn't recommend it to anyone who isn't up for a bit of tinkering and a lot of patience.

The main reason is that to get this second screen experience working with any phone - you just need Android 4.0 or above - you need to first download the Sony Connect software. Then you need to pair that with the phone, via NFC (near field communication) to make it slightly easier if your device has it, and install the relevant app you want to use on the watch from within the Sony Connect app. It's not just a case of letting Gmail know that you've added a watch to your set-up, you have to download a dedicated Gmail for SmartWatch app and then go through the login process again there, for example.

We tested the SmartWatch 2 with the new Sony Xperia Z Ultra. Out of the box it took over 45 minutes to get up and running. A couple of reboots, software updates, and angry words later and we got there - but that felt like a long time considering we know a fair lot about tech and "moving into new devices".

To add to the confusion not all apps work in the same way. Runtastic, an app which is - according to the box - a premium app you get for free, involves you having to go to the Runtastic website, creating an account, redeeming an activation code, going back to Google Play, downloading the regular app, and then somehow magically know that it will bypass the Sony Connect element and add the app to your watch. If you try and get the dedicated Sony SmartWatch app to save you time you'll be charged £4.99.

Installing and running apps

Once you have got the apps you want - there are dozens of workarounds available that Sony has highlighted in the Sony Connect app - the process works well. You control what the app does via the phone and the watch acts as the receiver.

Take Twitter for example, where you can set which notifications you receive on the SmartWatch 2, including individual accounts rather than everything en masse, or just when you are mentioned. This refining, which you only really learn about by being curious, means you can set up the watch to tell you when important things that involve you are happening and ignore the rest. Get it right and it's fantastic, buzzing you every time you've got a new mention. 

Some apps are really clever in their execution, whereas others are stupid. Gmail, for example, only lets you read a certain amount of characters in the subject line and the first three lines of the message. Facebook shows you all the text but links aren't clickable - as there is no browser.

Then there are apps that we would love, but nobody seems to have made them yet. Like a calendar offering that tells you you've have got to get moving to your next meeting, or a Google maps navigation experience that merely tells you left or right turns as you walk down the street. The SmartWatch is screaming out for Google Now. 

Even the Runtastic app hasn't really thought about what information you want when running and how to present it to you. Compared to the Nike and TomTom runner watch experiences this comes in a poor second.

READ: TomTom Runner review

You can't seem to re-order you apps either, but you can PIN protect the device, although that of course slows down your accessing of information quickly. 

Battery battering

The device has an aggressive battery-saving technology that tries to dim the screen pretty much as soon as you've started doing anything too. This also doesn't help as it washes out the colour even more.

Sony claims that the low-res screen is to save battery life, but we would have preferred the ability to see clear, non-jaggy text instead. What makes it worse is that this is jars so much against the company's excellent smartphone and television lines where screen quality is the number one selling point.

Battery life lasts for about two days we've found. More if you aren't a busy person with lots of emails, tweets and Facebook updates, but for us we've yet to get more than that in our week of wear.

So what's it good for?

It's not all bad and we can see that smartwatches will get it right, even if Sony has failed to do so here this time around. We love that Android is flexible enough for them to exist in the first place.

We also like that the SmartWatch allows you to be sneaky when checking your email when you aren't supposed to. We've been wearing the watch for over a week and we've noticed that when sat at the dinner table or watching TV we've been able to see emails come streaming in - you get a buzz every time one does and it quickly flashes up on your screen - and then quickly discard whether they need to be answered or not without looking at our phone. No need to sneakily nip off to the loo to get in those extra email checks that you'd promised the family you weren't going to do over the weekend.

The smartwatch as a device has huge potential. But all this is going to take time and synergy between companies. When third parties are on board and it's quick and easy to install all your essential apps, or even have a management system to easily ping an app from the phone to your watch, it'll become a more pleasurable experience. There's a trait here, and one we found with the Galaxy Gear just as much as with this Sony: all these companies seem to be jumping the gun. But that means the future will be positive, and that can only be a good thing for an area of tech that, by all accounts, is set to continue to grow.

Verdict

The big question: should you buy a SmartWatch 2? The £150 investment won't break the bank, so it looks to be an attractive prospect and one of only a handful in a market that promises to get busier over the coming years.

It's just that, at the moment, it's an early man's game - based on our time so far with the SmartWatch 2 it feels kind of like how Android was when it first launched five years ago: a good early attempt, but one full of issues and frustrations that, over time, will get ironed out into something greater.

To be fair to Sony it has created a device that is, at times, more accessible than the Samsung Galaxy Gear. We love the fact that you don't need a specific Sony smartphone to get the SmartWatch 2 up and running, just an Android device.

But at the same time the Sony isn't as appealing or as capable as the Samsung. And that's the thing: there are too many shortcomings with the SmartWatch 2 that we just can't get excited overall. We don't like the frustrating set-up, the lacklustre screen, the disparate consumer experience. If you can bear to live with those shortcomings - be a beta user basically and go with the ride - then you'll have fun with the device, but if you like your kit to be simple, effortless, and deliver with minimal effort on your part, you'll ultimately be disappointed.

Sony hasn't cracked it yet. If this was a first attempt then it'd be a great stab at it. Problem is this isn't - this is second generation stuff so we expected more.