The latest addition to Sony's SmartWear range is the SmartBand 2, a fitness tracking band with an updated Sony Core unit - the main heart of the device which slips into the accompanying wristband - that now adds heart-rate monitoring to the party.
In a fitness market that's getting increasingly competitive - not only from a widening array of bands, trackers and sports devices, but also smartwatches - can the Sony SmartBand 2 keep its finger on the pulse, or does this sequel miss a beat?
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Sony SmartBand 2 review: Design and comfort
The SmartBand follows the same ideals in its new form as it did in the original model: you slip the Core into a wristband to allow it to track your activity during the day. Sony's Lifelog apps sits centre stage to track what you're doing with your days - but beyond step-tracking and fitness it explores wider activities, such as walking to work, listening to music, sleep and so forth.
However, the wristband has been completely redesigned in the SmartBand 2, giving it a more sophisticated buckle and softer material finish. Where the previous was coarse and more rubbery, the SmartBand 2 is softer and more supple, so nicer to wear. Rather than using press pins to secure it, there's now a dedicated buckle-type arrangement that's plenty secure, with grooves on the inside of the strap for the buckle to engage with.
It's a delicate arrangement which adds sophistication and security without it getting too bulky (although the Core is 9.5mm thick, so think of smartphone thick), but it can be a little tricky to undo. You have to tighten the wristband slightly to release the latch, fold it out the way and slip the band off. Thank goodness for fingernails, or we'd be stuck in this wearable forever.
We found it relatively easy to get a secure fit, which is important this time around, as the new Sony Core includes a heart-rate sensor which needs to sit more securely next to the skin of your wrist to work correctly.
The one downsides this tight fit brings is that the SmartBand 2 will get sweaty underneath if you're wearing it during exercise, and on the standard band there's little in way of ventilation to let moisture out from under the strap.
Thanks to the softer material it wears better than the original and is more comfortable, but because it's designed to be worn tight enough to keep that HR sensor in contact with the skin, it's not hugely comfortable to sleep in. We found that some nights it was just too much and we had to take it off. Still, we found it was slim enough overall to fit under most clothing with being too much of an irritant.
Sony SmartBand 2 review: Activity and heart-rate monitoring
As before, the Sony Core has a single button on the side. This is joined by a line of LEDs to show you status, which can be seen through the side of the strap so you can visually verify things like the tracking mode you're in. It's fairly basic compared to other trackers out there and you really need to keep an eye on your connected phone to know what your stats are. There's no read-out for your steps or anything like that, but lacking a display makes for a simpler design.
As with the previous SmartBand, the second-gen model is all about tracking your activity throughout the day. This is the job of the accelerometer that detects your movement - or lack of it.
Steps are automatically collected as you move and the SmartBand 2 also aims to automatically detect when you're doing something more energetic. This is monitored in the running section, although we found it failed to detect running very well.
We wore the SmartBand 2 on runs up to 45 minutes and were a little perturbed when it reported we'd only been running for 8 minutes. Either the Sony SmartBand 2 is a very harsh critic, or the algorithm that differentiates between walking and running needs refining.
We found that step collection was fairly accurate in counting tests, although it depends very much on your gait and what you're doing. We've mentioned that the band will collect data on how much time you've spent walking and we found this to be accurate enough too (accepting that the running was often included here).
What the SmartBand 2 doesn't offer is any sense of distance covered or change in elevation. It's very much based around movement, so in some senses it's a little more limited than some of its rivals.
The optical heart-rate sensor on board the SmartBand 2 offers two different modes: the first is an intermittent measurement that looks to keep a background track of your heart rate through the day; the second is the "heart activity" mode, which monitors more regularly for more accurate readings. Basically, if you're going for a run, you switch to this second mode using a double press of the button on the device's side. The LED display then confirms you've switched modes.
Of course, increasing the frequency of HR data collection increases battery consumption, something to also bear in mind. If you don't want to collect data in the background, you can engage Stamina mode which switches off heart-rate monitoring, but you can still then switch to heart activity mode as and when you need it.
Sony SmartBand 2 review: Stress detection and sleep monitoring
One of the new features that comes with heart-rate monitoring is stress monitoring, which works by detecting variations in heart rate. In reality, it looks at your resting heart rate and sees how elevated it is based on what you're doing. It takes a baseline from your heart rate when you're asleep - so you'll need to wear the SmartBand 2 in bed at least once.
If your heart rate remains close to that baseline when you're awake, it will say you're in a low stress state. As your heart rate rises, you'll skip through the stress levels. Advice is given about where you might perform your best - at medium stress levels - and it's a nice feature, although ultimately doesn't really offer than much more information than a glance at your heart rate.
The SmartBand 2 also offers sleep monitoring. This is something of a hit-and-miss feature on a number of devices, not only because you have to wear the thing in bed. On the original SmartBand we couldn't get it work at all. However, we found that the SmartBand 2 did a reasonable job of tracking sleep.
It divides sleep into light and deep, and the patterns it reported look like what we would expect in a normal sleep cycles. We found that going to sleep seemed accurate enough, but often it tagged on a good deal of awake time in the morning. On one occasion we managed to get up, go downstairs, feed the dog and return to bed with a cup of tea, at which point it added an extra 45 minutes of light sleep.
We also found mixed results when waking in the night. We found on occasion it would report we had been awake for an hour accurately and other times it would count that wake time as light sleep.
The long and short of it is that sleep tracking isn't an absolute measurement in this case. It's perhaps interesting for those who have no idea how long they are sleeping, as guidance or a wake-up call to tell you that, in reality, you need to be spending longer focusing on your bedtime routine.
There's also the option to have a "smart wake-up". This purportedly monitors your sleep to detect the right time for to wake you up. Rather than wrenching you out of deep sleep, it waits until you are in light sleep to wake you with the on-board vibration alert. This lets you set a timeframe that you need to get up, and it will wake you at the right time. Sadly, the vibration unit in the band seems to lack refinement: it's noisy and irritating, lacking the sort of sophistication we're becoming accustomed to from things like the Apple Watch. When we were woken by that somewhat shrill buzzing, we were promptly asked by the other person in the bed what the "bloody noise" was all about.
Sony SmartBand 2 review: Apps
There are two apps for the SmartBand 2. The first is the dedicated control app, the SmartBand 2 SWR12 app, which handles the connection and gathers the data from the band. This app also lets you check the status of your band, as well as feeding you statistics from your day.
It's also where you set things like the smart wake-up alarm as well as opt into vibration alerts for calls or messages from your phone. There's also a remote control option to let you find your phone or control music playback, using taps and button presses.
The SWR12 app only really offers a surface level insight into your activity, giving you the totals of your activity. That might be enough for some – seeing how many steps, total sleep, current heart rate or total walking and running times.
But in each section you're prompted to open Sony's other app, called Lifelog, which breaks down the data collected, displaying it in hours and rolling in a whole collection of other elements to give you a snapshot of your day. There's a timeline you can scan through which places these elements chronologically throughout the day. This will show when you were sleeping, walking, running and so on, as well as giving you the weather.
The other elements that Lifelog can include are communicating, browsing the internet, taking photos, using transport, reading, watching movies, listening to music and so on. All these elements are gathered from the device itself. So if you want to know how much time you've spent gaming, it will tell you.
Much of what Lifelog gathers is rather inconsequential, but you can turn off the elements you don't want. If you regularly take a bus and want to swap it for walking, however, Lifelog lets you visualise that and perhaps swapping that sedentary travel for a brisk walk will be all the easier for it.
But Lifelog's real fun is in examining the data gathered by the SmartBand 2 in more detail. It's here you'll see the breakdown of your sleep, when you took those steps throughout the day, as well as how your pulse behaves throughout the day. That will give you the chance to look at your routine and figure out a way to make health changes for the better, like moving from your desk at lunchtime.
Sony SmartBand 2 review: Hardware and battery life
The Sony SmartBand 2 has NFC for quick pairing with your phone, which is useful for first set-up. It uses Bluetooth for the connection and is compatible with Android and iPhone (iOS 8.2, iPhone 4S and up). We tested using Android.
The Sony Core itself is IP68 rated, so has some protection against water. There's a Micro-USB connection for charging the internal battery, which takes about 30 minutes. The battery life isn't long, however, only lasting for two days in normal mode and shortened when you use the heart activity function. It will give you 10 hours only in heart activity mode. If you're really after endurance, Stamina mode will extend its life to about five days.
So it feels like the battery life is a little on the short side, as you'll be taking the SmartBand off and separating the Core and wristband regularly to give it a charge again. Like many other wearables, it feels like it should last longer. If you're going away for the weekend, we'd suggest using Stamina mode to avoid the need to take it off and charge it.
The Sony SmartBand 2 develops on last year's offering, improving the comfort and fit and widening the range of features that it offers. It's an interesting proposition as it offers a little more than some of the basic activity trackers, without going too far into the realms of sports devices.
It is a comfortable and good-looking device to wear, although you can never be too far from your smartphone, as the band itself doesn't really give you much information in itself. It gathers the data and leaves the reporting to your phone.
When we reviewed the original SmartBand, we said that it was more life-logger than activity tracker. The activity side of things is boosted with heart-rate monitoring in the SmartBand 2, but failure to recognise when you're actually running, no integration of elevation or distance, might deter those seeking more sporty functions.
The close tie-in to the Sony Lifelog app makes the SmartBand 2 feel like a device that will allow you to gain a sense of perspective on your days, reflecting the details of your habitual existence that you might have refused to accept. If that's the motivator you need, then the Sony SmartBand 2 might be for you. However, it's in sophisticated company, from the likes of the FitBit Charge HR that's much more sporty, through to the stylish simplicity of Jawbone Up3.