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Sony SmartWatch REVIEW

by Noah Kravitz | April 12, 2012April 12, 2012 6:00 am PST

Overview

Smartwatches have never quite caught on with consumers, and yet they continue to fascinate we on the fringes of Geek Chic. Dating back to the days of Casio’s calculator and Data Bank models, the novelty of packing computing power on our wrists has held some strange appeal to at least a few of us. As I kid I owned at least two calculator watches, not to mention a Pac-Man gaming watch with four-button “D-Pad.” Then I hit middle school, got self-consciously awkward, and bought the most conservative Swatch in the mall. But I digress.

Microsoft made a run at getting out in front of the smartwatch market back in 2004 with their ill-fated SPOT watches, and almost a full decade later the trend is threatening a comeback. Apple’s not-quite-smart iPod nano has achieved some wrist top success thanks to a small cottage industry of accessory wristbands, and a small handful of companies big and small are also throwing their hats – er, bracelets – into the fray with an array of takes on the 21st Century wrist-mounted computer.

Among the entrants is Sony, ney Sony Ericsson, who this week launches SmartWatch in the U.S. market. The successor to last year’s LiveWire Manager, the Sony SmartWatch features a 1.3-inch color OLED touchscreen, internal vibrating motor, and Bluetooth 3.0 radio packed into a lightweight, square housing backed by a spring clip that makes it easily mounted on a watch band or your clothing. Priced at $149.99, SmartWatch requires a compatible Android smartphone to bring “timely and personal information … straight to your wrist.” Think Email, Facebook and Twitter updates, Calendar notifications, and so on. Dick Tracy, meet the 21st Century, where everything flows through your cell phone.

Being the newly minted smart watch enthusiast I am, I eagerly accepted Sony’s offer to spend a few pre-launch days with SmartWatch wrapped around my wrist. How’d it go? Read on to find out…

Hardware

Not to start off on a bad foot, but … If I’m going to wear it as a watch, I don’t want to have to press a button just to see the time. I understand turning the display off to save battery life, but engineers are smart; surely they can think of a low powered way to keep the time displayed onscreen? Apparently not, as SmartWatch uses the same “press button to wake from sleep in order to see the time” system as Apple’s iPod nano. Okay then, moving on…

Sony’s SmartWatch feels pretty nice on the wrist. While the included silicon watchband (mine was grey, five other color options are available) isn’t the most luxurious watch bracelet out there, but it’s perfectly comfortable, sporty, and colorful. SmartWatch clips onto the wristband – or your clothing, for that matter – and Sony is making available an adapter for those who want to wear SmartWatch with their own choice of band.┬áThe watch itself is a 1.5-inch square, about half an inch thick when clipped to the band, and weighs a scant 0.55 oz.

SmartWatch sat a little bit high on my wrist, given the depth of the hardware, spring clip and band, but it wore perfectly well as a watch. The multitouch display and a single hardware button on the right spine serve as the device’s only controls, and there’s an ambient light sensor on the front fascia and a charging cable is included in the consumer packaging. Interacting with the watch itself was generally okay: The touch display was responsive, but the screen was a bit small for the two-fingered pinch gesture required to close out of apps and might be a wee bit small for some users to swipe around in. Then again, Sony’s likely not targeting the sort of user who’d find a 1.3-inch wristtop display constraining. Also of note, the internal vibrating motor worked quite well, alerting me in no uncertain terms of incoming events.

I’m spoiled by a never ending stream of ultra-high resolution mobile phone displays that trick my brain into thinking my eyes are seeing actual print. As such, SmartWatch’s 139 ppi resolution tricked my brain into thinking it was back in the year 2007; the grainy images and jagged text it rendered left me a bit cold. Given that its closest competitors offer richer, higher res displays, it’s hard for me to pass this off entirely as a case of my preferences grossly misaligning with market realities. To the contrary, Sony’s simply lagging behind in the race to bring quality visuals to consumers’ wrists.

Software

It’s worth mentioning up front that LiveWire Manager – the software framework that loads apps and settings onto SmartWatch – is a framework Sony is planning to use in support of gadgets beyond just a single wristwatch. But more on that in a moment.

SmartWatch’s functionality didn’t exactly wow me, either. Once I got it up and running, the watch performed as advertised. But I didn’t find myself in too many Dick Tracy-style, “Gotta get some ultra-discrete Twitter updates, stat!” situations during my week of testing, and since there’s no way to reply to messages or post status updates directly from the watch, whenever it did bring important information to my attention I immediately reached for my phone to deal with the situation. I suppose that serves the purpose of cutting down on the number of “reach for my phone” moments in the day, but for my money the convenience of not reaching for my phone is far outweighed by the utility of actually reaching for it.

Setting the watch up begins with pairing it with a compatible smartphone running Sony’s LiveWire Manager software. Sony’s posted an official list of compatible devices on the SmartWatch page, though unofficially the system should work with any phone running Android 2.1 or better. We successfully used SmartWatch with a Sony-supplied Live, as well as an HTC One S and a Motorola Droid RAZR Maxx. Buyer beware, though, as there are a few reports already of spotty compatibility with Android 4.0 ICS-equipped devices.

SmartWatch works by running apps that pull data from your smartphone via Bluetooth. Your smartphone, in turn, must be receiving data via a cellular or Wi-Fi in order for SmartWatch to update itself. When I first tested the watch, I had it paired to the Sony Live, which was connected to my home Wi-Fi network. Live and my router didn’t get along very well, and so the watch kept freaking out. Moving to a different Wi-Fi network resolved the problem, but the snafu speaks volumes to a cold reality of Sony’s system: If the link between SmartWatch, smartphone and smartphone data is broken for any reason, the watch becomes mostly useless. Bluetooth gets mucked up? Useless. Smartphone data goes out? Useless. Sony’s SmartWatch is merely a window into the soul of whatever smartphone it’s paired with; on its own, it’s not good for all that much. Though, unlike its LiveWire Manager predecessor, SmartWatch can at least tell time on its own (once it’s been initially paired).

Using the watch with both preinstalled and downloadable third party apps was an exercise in managed expectations and putting up with a few beta-level bugs. First off, everything is controlled by your phone. From setting the watch’s time and date to configuring everything from the order in which apps are displayed to what your preset Twitter replays will say, it’s all set on the smartphone. The closest you can come to tweaking any settings from your wrist is tapping the “View on Phone” button that appears rather frequently throughout SmartWatch’s UI. Next, the software isn’t 100% perfect (though what is these days?) To wit, every time I hit “Reply With: [Message]” to post a canned comment to Twitter, I was met with a “Reply Failed” update on the SmartWatch’s display. Yet at least a few of those replies made their way to Twitter. Hmm.

Beyond that, getting the most out of SmartWatch means limiting some, if not most, of your Android experience to apps that hook into Sony’s system. Not every Twitter app is compatible with SmartWatch, for instance. So if you’re a fan of Touiteur, you’re going to have to either forgo reading Tweets on your watch or use Sony’s app instead. Similarly, Gmail users can receive wrist top new mail alerts via a third party app, but SmartWatch works best with Sony’s email app.

More importantly, though, the overall experience of using SmartWatch was kind of janky. Yeah, they worked, but they never quite worked as smoothly as you’d expect from a watch. Sony’s navigation mechanism makes sense once you get used to it, but it’s not entirely intuitive. You swipe up and down to move from the Widget level to App level, and once inside of an app, you swipe left and right to jump between events, and up and down to scroll within an event. To close out of an app, you perform that two fingered pinch-to-close gesture I mentioned before. It all works, but I kept wondering where the “Menu” or “Home” icon was; frankly, the watch would be far easier to navigate if every screen had a little house icon – or even a default gesture – that would take me out of The Land of Inane Facebook Updates and directly back to the Home Screen.

The apps themselves worked okay, though when Todd and I discussed them we were both left wondering where seemingly obvious features like, “Alarm” and “Stopwatch” were hidden. Turns out they weren’t hidden at all because they don’t exist. What does exist is a remote camera viewfinder app which, while a neat tech demo, is pretty much useless. On the other hand, the remote music player control is pretty nice. And battery life lasts for at least the three to four days advertised by Sony; your phone’s going to need a charge well before SmartWatch will.

Wrap-Up

Sony’s SmartWatch disappointed me. Some of that has to do with expectations and preferences: Given SmartWatch’s positioning as a secondary display tethered to a primary device (smartphone), I view it as a luxury gadget that had better be packing high-end aesthetics, bleeding-edge wizardry, or both. While SmartWatch did what Sony said it would do, it didn’t do much for me on an emotional level. Sure, the display is readable, but in a world of 720p phones and Retina tablets, it’s also not very good. I know Apple’s iPod nano isn’t a watch, but as far as wrist top displays go, its TFT is miles ahead of Sony’s OLED. Aesthetics aside, the novelty of scrolling through Emails, tweets and updates on my watch wore off every time I wanted to reply to to something and had to reach for my phone, anyway.

But this is the bleeding edge where certain geeks value first on the block above all else. And this is also the smartphone age, where an integrated alarm clock or updated Email reader is just a firmware update away. Sony’s SmartWatch is comfortable to wear, and provides basic connectivity and an API framework just waiting for a billion dollar idea to grow out of it. If you roll with the Android Army and must have a smart watch right now, the Sony SmartWatch is a relatively cheap toy to mess around with – though odds are if you want an Android compatible smart watch right now, you’ll be more than up to the task of fiddling with WIMM One which, for only $50 more, brings a lot more to the table than Sony’s offering.

[Note: This article was updated to clarify the paragraph about the watch’s sleep/wake functionality. Thanks, Ed!]

Pros

  • Size and build quality
  • Responsive touchscreen
  • Battery life

Cons

  • Display is somewhat grainy
  • Limited selection of compatible apps
  • Unintuitive UI navigation
  • Little functionality without paired smartphone
  • No preinstalled alarm or stopwatch functionality

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Noah Kravitz

Noah Kravitz mourned the day that Star Castle was replaced in the pizza parlour he frequented as a kid. The sadness ended when he saw an older kid...

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