(Pocket-lint) - Sony isn't a new player in the world of wearables, it was one of the first companies to kick a ball in the field of smartwatches with its aptly named but ultimately underwhelming SmartWatch back in 2012.
The Sony SmartBand Talk, codename SWR30, is a pared-down experience of that, offering less functionality than a smartwatch but more features than your typical activity tracker. This wrist-worn fitness tracker uses an E ink display (like an Amazon Kindle eBook reader) to alert you to notifications happening on your Android smartphone, as well as enable you to make and receive calls from your wrist. There's even voice control, hence the Talk moniker.
With Sony's dominance in the world of smartwatches still not hitting the mark, does this lesser featured smartband make the cut in its second-generation form? We've been living with the SmartBand Talk for a few weeks to see whether it does enough to create a desirable category of its own.
The Sony SmartBand Talk is a great looking device with a simple design. You get nothing fancy, no fuss, no metal trims or premium materials at this £120 price point, but rather than that going against the device, it works in its favour.
It's streamlined. Every single detail, apart from the buttons on the right-hand side of the screen, sit flush to the body and each part of the design seamlessly integrates without so much as a slight bump. Its curved shape is beautiful and when you look at the SmartBand Talk closely, you can see the level of consideration that went into its design. Put simply, it just works.
The E Ink display sits to the front - which is an always-on monochrome panel, so no colour here - and is surrounded by a plastic bezel that is a little larger than we would like it to be. There is a silver plastic volume rocker to the right, breaking up the all-black appearance, along with a smaller button for changing what is shown on the screen.
On the left hand side there's a Micro-USB connection covered by a black flap and two similar flaps on the underside to conceal the charging port. These flaps are fiddly to undo, especially the smaller Micro-USB one, but as they contribute to making the SmartBand Talk IP68 waterproof we can forgive them for verging on the inconvenient.
When it comes to the strap you'll find the same flexible, textured rubber finish as the original Sony SmartBand, along with the same two-pin fastening mechanism. The Talk is secured to your wrist by popping these pins through openings on the band, giving you flexibility when it comes to fitting it to your wrist. There are two general sizes of the products available, comprising small/medium and medium/large, and after trying it out on all the members of the Pocket-lint team, we would recommend the smaller for ladies and the larger for men as a general consensus.
It's a lightweight, comfortable device that sits pleasantly on the wrist and is barely noticeable when you are wearing it. We have criticised the two-pin fastening format in the past, as we found it insecure on the Samsung Galaxy Gear Fit, for example, but in the instance of Sony it works much better.
The scale is one of the SmartBand Talk's best attributes, as at 23.5mm wide, 9mm thick and weighing just 24g, it's slimmer, lighter and more subtle to wear than the Galaxy Gear. However it lacks the far better Super AMOLED display and heart-rate monitor of the Samsung.
Sony has opted for an E Ink display on the SmartBand Talk, which is its biggest point of difference compared to the company's other wearables. Indeed it is the first wearable device to offer this kind of display. That's great for the benefit of its low power-consumption, but also means no colour, which looks somewhat drab in a device of this type.
The 1.4-inch display features a resolution of 320 x 320 pixels (192ppi) and you can opt to have white text on black or vice versa using the accompanying app, with the black-on-white looking less like a mini Kindle strapped to the wrist. It's easy to sync the device to the app using Bluetooth, via one-touch NFC (near field communication) if your smartphone has it.
We had no problems reading any of the information on the screen when light was good but as there's no illumination (the case with all E Ink panels), it was hard to see in low-light conditions. The slow refresh rate also means the SmartBand Talk suffers the same fate as other E Ink devices when it comes to ghosting - where you see a slight residue of the previous image after making an on-screen change. This was less of a problem with the black text on white than the other way round, but still not entirely absent.
It also takes a little while to get used to the lack of touchscreen on the SmartBand Talk. As we've used lots of other wearables, we often found ourselves trying to swipe up and down on the display out of habit - but this gets you nowhere. Eventually the button operation for changing apps becomes familiar, even if it's not the speediest way to navigate.
A hard press on the E Ink display will bring you to a screen with more information, or allow you to call the one person you have set up as your "Favourite", but when we say a hard press, we mean really hard. You'll know it's registered when the SmartBand Talk vibrates but it took us a couple of tries on numerous occasions, which was frustrating at times.
When you setup the SmartBand Talk, the associated smartphone app will ask your preference when it comes to text orientation but, should you change your mind, this can be adjusted easily in the settings.
The Talk feature
Clear from its name, the SmartBand Talk's flagship feature is its voice-control feature and the power to enable you to receive calls on your wrist, while your smartphone remains happily in your bag or pocket. The same small button used to switch between apps on the display can answer or end a call.
The only problem is, this button doesn't also have the ability to make you invisible so people don't stare at you while you have a conversation with your wrist. It's hardly socially acceptable and remains questionable whether it is actually a necessary feature to be able to do this.
For those eager for this feature, the speaker and microphone combination on the SmartBand Talk are actually very good. Conversations are perfectly clear and the volume, adjusted on the right hand side of the display as we mentioned previously, is ample. We didn't have any issues hearing the person on the other end of the line, nor did any of the people close by. Put it this way: you don't want to be answering any private calls in public places as you aren't the only one that will hear what is being said.
Your Android smartphone treats the SmartBand Talk as it would any other Bluetooth headset. This is unfortunately one of its downfalls as it means if you have headphones in and you accept an incoming call using the SmartBand Talk, the conversation will happen through your wrist rather than get transferred automatically to your headphones. If you were able to answer on your wrist and then talk through a mic mounted on the headphones, for example, it would be less embarrassing in public and mean no need to touch your smartphone at all.
Along with receiving calls, the accompanying SmartBand Talk app gives you the option to add one person from your contacts list as your "Favourite", which consequently allows you to call them - but only them, as you can't add more than one contact. The contact was simple to change so if you were likely to talk to a particular person on a particular day, you could change it accordingly to suit.
As it stands, the talk feature wasn't something we were keen to use regularly. Quick conversations or conversations in the car were fine, but anything longer than "the train gets in at 6pm" were just not practical when out and about.
Like the Favourite app, there is also a Voice Control app which is supposed to allow you to complete various tasks by talking to it. You still need to get to the app using the side button and then have to press the screen (hard, as ever) for the device to register that you want to command it to do something. After this, you can speak a command to the SmartBand Talk and ask what the time is, tell it to make a phone call or ask what the weather is like - but it is nowhere near as simple as the "Ok Google" approach of Google Now on Android Wear.
While the Voice Control app means you can use SmartBand Talk to make phone calls to more than just the person you have added as a Favourite, it is quite a tedious process and it doesn't work flawlessly either. We found it either took a while to register that you had spoken to it at all or it didn't understand what you had said. Looking at the homescreen for the time and getting your phone out of your bag to make a phone call is certainly faster for now.
Notifications is one area the SmartBand Talk executes well - but there's still room for improvement. Aside from the incoming call alert, where your wrist is buzzed with lots of enthusiasm no matter who is calling, it will also vibrate for incoming emails, calendar events, messages, and app alerts from Facebook, WhatsApp and the like. If you don't wish to receive notifications from certain apps then the accompanying Android app can be used to toggle your selections on and off.
You can read a notification by pressing extra hard on it when it comes through on screen. However, there's no method to respond, even with a pre-programmed standard message, and like the Gear Fit you can't read the entire message either. If a number of emails come through at once, you can't read individual ones which can be annoying, but you can see the name of the sender and part of the subject so you'll know if there is something you need to address urgently and then go digging around for your phone.
For individual notifications, such as one email or message, it can only be read if you catch it as it flashes up, which is where the Talk is different to the likes of the Samsung Gear Fit and other rival devices. This could be seen as a good or a bad thing, depending on what it is you want from this device - we like that notifications disappear a couple of seconds after coming through, rather then being greeted by a backlog of them every time.
Don't think of the SmartBand Talk as a smartwatch where notifications can be read in full 10 minutes after arrival - that's not the case. However, if you want a device that flags notifications but doesn't always put them in your face, or irritate you with numbers of unread emails or messages you have, then the SmartBand Talk works well for at-a-glance real-time notifications.
Activity tracking and Lifelog
The SmartBand Talk comes with a plethora of sensors under its small hood, including an accelerometer for step tracking and an altimeter for gauging altitude. Despite this, it's limited in its approach when it comes to activity tracking, especially if you compare it to specialist devices such as the Jawbone Up or Withings Pulse.
As you would expect, the SmartBand Talk counts your steps and does this without you having to do anything (except connect it to your phone). The Activity Tracking app is pre-installed on the device, along with a few others, and it tells you how many steps you've taken, how long you have walked for and, if applicable, how long you have run for that day.
Hit midnight and that information will all vanish, turning the attention to the next day's activities, unless you have setup the Sony Lifelog app. If you're new to this app, it not only allows you to set goals and see your activity data, but it also does what it says on the tin - logs your life.
How many calories you have burned, how long you were browsing for, how long you were on board transport - you name it and Lifelog is recording it. It's almost scary stuff, but useful for those who want a detailed account of how they spent their day.
The default step goal is 7500, which you can change within the Lifelog app, and the SmartBand Talk shows your progress using a circle with a figure in the middle on its home screen. Once you reach a goal, you'll get a rosette and the SmartBand Talk buzzes. It almost feels like it is applauding you, which is encouraging, although we found it underestimated our steps a little compared to the Withings Pulse we had on at the same time.
For the hardcore fitness fanatics out there seeking an activity tracker that will give you the works when it comes to data, the SmartBand Talk probably isn't the one for you. It does the basics and the basics only. Without GPS on board, even the casual jogger would probably be better suited using their phone to track a run. If you just want to know how many steps you have walked in a day or how long you walked for, however, then the SmartBand Talk does a fine job.
The SmartBand Talk comes with a 70mAh battery which Sony claims will give you up to three days of usage and one hour of talk time. That's a mere third of the Samsung Gear Fit's 210mAh capacity though, and we see no reason why Sony couldn't have crammed more in on this front for truly inspiring battery life per charge.
Of course the E Ink display's low-power consumption certainly helps longevity, but the SmartBand Talk's ongoing power is very much dependent on how much information you have coming through it. With this kind of display we would have expected at least five days of use.
If you receive a continuous stream of calls, numerous emails and lots of messages throughout the day, you will struggle to get the three days of use. For the average user, however, you should just about manage it. The calls element does run the battery down, as you would expect, so that's worth bearing in mind if you need it to last until the end of the third day.
Overall the SmartBand Talk is better than some of its rivals when it comes to battery life, but you'll have to accept the monotone E Ink screen as a potential compromise. And we can't shake the feeling that Sony could have been much further ahead in this department.
The Sony SmartBand Talk SWR30 is beautifully designed, comfortable to wear and succeeds on its namesake's aim to enable calls on your wrist too. But it doesn't quite thrill in any one department.
For many that E Ink display, given its Kindle-like monochrome form, will be a compromise in terms of appearance, nor does its presence bolster battery life to exceptional levels. The display is clear and delivers a sharp image, but it's difficult to see in low-light conditions and we found ourselves missing the colour and brightness from similar devices that we've used in the past.
Activity tracking is also basic, although the Sony Lifelog app helps make this area more advanced, but if detailed monitoring of sports activities is your primary need then there are more advanced dedicated devices out there.
On the smartwatch-like side of things the SmartBand Talk also doesn't live up to its full potential. Notifications lack any way to reply to a message or email and the extra-hard tap of the screen required to read a notification in the first place is frustrating. That said you'll still know what is coming through to your phone when the SmartBand Talk buzzes on your wrist, which is useful.
Overall, the Sony SmartBand Talk does everything well enough but just doesn't excel in any one area. It sits in the middle ground between smartband and smartwatch, with the end result feeling equally middling rather than a category to rave about. Unless, that is, taking calls on your wrist is a must-have feature that you're desperately seeking.