I’ve been a gadget geek since I was around 7 or 8 years old and got my first calculator watch. This “nerd” watch, as some people call it, was my first foray into multi-function devices and advanced personal technology. This was followed by watches that played games, were powered by solar cells, and held all my friends’ phone numbers.
Even my latest watch had to have some sort of techie gimmick to it. It’s a good ol’ digital Casio watch that also has analog hands. If that’s not enough, it would also sync to the atomic clock in Colorado to ensure it was always accurate. This simple watch has been on my wrist for years now and I haven’t really had the itch to get something new until recently when more and more companies are starting to release interesting wearable gadgets like Motorola’s MotoActv, the Pebble, the Nike+ FuelBand, and the WIMM One.
Sony’s Second Try
Among that group of manufacturers toying with the idea of wearable tech is Sony. They started with their universally panned LiveView watch. This watch was not a commercial success by any means but showed that Sony was starting to think about how to integrate watches and mobile.
Even with the slow start, Sony climbed right back on and released the Sony SmartWatch. In this second iteration, does Sony up the ante enough to have a hit? I recently decided to plunk down the cash ($118 from Expansys during a special they were having) and see for myself.
Hit the break for my review of Sony’s latest SmartWatch.
Look & Feel
Right out of the box the look of the SmartWatch is elegant. It’s simply a rounded square of glass with one button, and the back is a plastic spring-loaded clip which allows you to clip the watch on to a backpack, lapel, or watchband. As much as I hate to say it, the SmartWatch is very reminiscent of Apple’s iPod Nano. Hmmmm.
The screen is a bit of a disappointment to be honest. The resolution seems fairly low and you can see the pixels if you look close. Responsiveness seems to be a bit of a mixed bag. It’s usually fine but sometimes it seems to lag a bit and miss my touches. My feeling is that this occurs when the Bluetooth connection is shaky.
Which brings me to my next point.
The way the SmartWatch works is by connecting to your Android phone through Bluetooth. The phone runs Sony’s LiveView software which you use to configure your watch (more on the software later). The first time you turn on the watch, it goes into pairing mode. From your phone you have to go into your Bluetooth settings and select the SmartWatch to pair it. Seems easy enough.
Except it didn’t quite work out that way. First, the pairing actually worked but it was unstable. It would connect for a second, then disconnect, then reconnect, etc. I unpaired it and reset the watch and tried again. This time it seemed to work a little metter and I got a popup window on my phone telling me there was a firmware update for the watch and to click OK to update.
I clicked OK and the watch would disconnect during the firmware transfer from the phone to the watch. I’d reconnect by turning Bluetooth off and back on and try again with the same results. I couldn’t get the upgrade to transfer because the Bluetooth connection would inevitably drop. I had no choice but to simply keep trying and hoping for the best. Then one time out of sheer luck, it finished! Phew. Finally.
The firmware update helped with the connectivity issues and made it much more stable, but it’s still not 100%. Every once in a while, for no reason at all, the watch disconnects from the phone (it vibrates three times fast when it loses a connection, so you’ll know). It usually reconnects after a few tries and stays stable again for hours. It’s hit or miss.
I am using the SmartWatch with my HTC Evo 3D, and Sony says it should work with most Android phones but can’t be certain it works well on every one. For me, the connectivity is just fair. For others, it may be 100%. Your mileage may vary.
The first thing you need to install on your phone is the Sony LiveWare Manager. This is where you configure all the apps for the watch. Since the watch is essentially useless without your phone, you will be using LiveWare Manager a lot during the initial setup. The idea is that the watch is basically just a window to your phone and can send remote commands through to perform actions on your phone.
For example, by downloading the Weather SmartPhone app through the LiveWare Manager, you now have an icon on your watch that launches the local weather. The settings for the weather are all set in LiveWare Manager, and the app on the phone pulls the data. The watch app simply displays that data.
Watch Apps and Widgets
Most apps have the option of being displayed as a widget on the watch. The SmartWatch has a row of widgets you can get to by swiping left/right. Swiping up/down switches between the row of widgets and the row of apps intalled in LiveView Manager. Displaying an app as a widget means you don’t have to launch the app from your watch, you can just swipe to that widget on your watch and see the latest synced data. The order of the apps and widgets can be changed in LiveView Manager.
There aren’t all that many apps for the SmartWatch available yet. Some of my favorites include Phonebook, Music Player, Calendar Reminder, Twitter, Facebook, Gmail Notifier, and VFinder.
VFinder is interesting in that it allows your watch to display the video feed from the camera on your phone. Swiping up on your watch takes a picture. Cool concept but not terribly useful for every day situations. But it makes a good demo to show off to your friends.
The SmartWatch accepts touches, swipes, and two-finger taps. Swipe left/right to move between screens, swipe up/down to switch between widgets or apps, and touch with two fingers together to go back. This scheme works well, but the two-finger taps to go back takes a little getting used to. Many times, it won’t register both fingers and it performs a single tap. I’ve realized that it works better if I do a pinch closed gesture instead.
This is a watch. It should do that better than it does anything else. To that degree, the SmartWatch does well. Its default screen when turned on is a digital clock with the time and date. To get to the apps and widgets you have to touch the clock. To get back to the clock you have to do the two-finger back gesture described above as many times as necessary to get back to the clock.
What would be nice is if the SmartWatch had multiple clock formats and skins to choose from. The default digital clock is the only option. There is at least one clock widget in the Play Store that can give you some different clock faces, but I have yet to find anything that compelling. Also, the default clock remains the same, this is just a widget you can swipe to.
- Great looks, not too thick.
- Elegant in its simplicity.
- It vibrates when alerts, calls, texts, or other notifications are received.
- Comes with a black watchband and an adapter to use on any watchband. Colorful watchbands are also available from Sony.
- Battery lasts at least 2 or 3 days.
- You can send a call to voicemail with a tap.
- You can send pre-canned text messages to specific recipients right from the watch.
- LiveWare Manager is a good centralized location for setting up the watch. no need to work on the watch’s small screen to set things up.
- Extensible architecture for apps and widgets could be promising if developers start making cool apps and widgets.
- By far the top negative thing about the watch for me is the spotty Bluetooth connectivity. Keep in mind that I have only tested this on my HTC Evo 3D and it may work much more solidly on other devices. I’ve read other reviews that mention it’s solid on their phones.
- Screen sensitivity seems a bit off. Sometimes I have to touch twice before the touch is acknowledged. Some of this could have to do with the spotty Bluetooth since the watch tends to freeze a bit during connection handshakes. But the two-finger touch gesture always seems more reliable as a pinch.
- Not many apps yet. Hopefully this will get better over time, but I think I have 95% of the free SmartWatch apps installed already and I only have 21 apps installed.
- Watch is useless without a phone. Sure, the time will stay set if you get disconnected, but if you reboot the watch, it loses everything and needs to be synced up again with a phone.
- Gone are the days of simply glancing at your wrist to get the time. You have to hit the button to turn the screen on to see the time. I understand this is a battery saving technique, but it would be nice to have some sort of low power mode where the time is always visible.
- General bugginess and crashing. Sometimes launching an app crashes the watch and it reboots itself. Or worse yet, it will freeze and you have to manually reboot it by holding down the power button. This is still a work in progress. Future firmware updates could stabilize things, as could updates to specific misbehaving apps.
Well, with everything I’ve had to say about the Sony SmartWatch, you might think it’s not very smart at all. To a degree, I would agree with you. There’s really no smarts on the watch itself. All the heavy lifting is done by your phone. And with the occasional crash and unreliable Bluetooth, it does sometimes feel like it’s a beta product.
But am I happy with it? Well, for me, I’d generally say yes. It’s a step in the right direction and perfect for gadget freaks and early adopters like me to play around with. I would have to say, however, that it’s not ready for prime time mainstream use. Too many little glitches for a “normal” person to put up with.
I’m glad I took advantage of the deal Expansys had on the watch for $118 shipped. Now it’s back up to $148.99, which I think is really a bit too high for a watch that’s not fully baked yet.
My bottom line: Gadget freaks and early adopters only.
Check out more pictures in the gallery below.