Sony SmartWatch review: SmartWatch clocks in with better software

Just like an Android handset, the Sony SmartWatch has its own app tray with multiple screens that house icons for shortcuts. Sarah Tew/CNET

To set up the Sony SmartWatch, you download the Sony Smart Connect (previously calledSony LiveWare Manager) and SmartWatch Android apps from the Google Play store. If you own a current Sony Xperia handset running Android 2.1 or higher, chances are good your device has this software already loaded. With this done, you activate the SmartWatch's Bluetooth pairing mode by shutting down the watch and then pressing and holding the unit's power button (on the right side) for a few seconds. After that, you pair the SmartWatch with your phone within the Android settings menu as you would any ordinary Bluetooth accessory.

Once properly connected, the SmartWatch links to phones to act as a second screen for specially made apps running on your handset. In fact, the watch itself doesn't store any data locally, save the time. It's basically a conduit that you configure and customize via the phone. For example, you must install applications either directly through Sony Smart Connect's list of suggested apps or by searching the Google Play store.

Link phone and watch via wireless Bluetooth connection. Sarah Tew/CNET

In addition to the main clock screen, swiping a finger from right to left will cycle through screens of apps installed to run as widgets. There doesn't seem to be a limit to how many widget screens the SmartWatch will display, except for the number of widget-capable apps. The most I had running was eight: text messaging, calendar, missed calls, Facebook, the music player, Twitter, extra clock faces, and the weather.

Control your phone's music player remotely. Sarah Tew/CNET

Swiping the screen from top to bottom will eventually land you in the SmartWatch's app tray, where you can jump to apps as you do on an ordinary Android smartphone, scrolling left and right through multiple windows depending on the number of applications enabled.

Performance
As you can imagine, the Sony SmartWatch's long list of features had me eager to take it for a test-drive. My initial experience with the SmartWatch back in April was a bit of a letdown; I could get only the watch's basic features to operate. For instance, while I could view widgets, any attempt I made to open applications caused the SmartWatch to unceremoniously reboot, lose Bluetooth connection, and then reconnect. With Sony's latest refresh of the LiveWare Manager and SmartWatch software (available on May 25 and June 4, respectively), though, these issues thankfully evaporated. Even so, I still ran into unstable behavior, especially when I paired the watch with unsanctioned phones.

Now that Sony has moved to its new Smart Connect software and updated the official SmartWatch app, I found performance and stability to be greatly improved. I’m astounded to say the gadget actually feels like almost production quality -- a rare trait in the emerging smartwatch product category.

I tested the SmartWatch with two different Android handsets, the Sony Xperia T (unlocked) and the HTC One (unlocked). Setup was relatively simple and I had the watch up and running with each phone in a matter of minutes. I did have to unpair and re-pair the device when switching between phones.

With the new software installed, I had no trouble playing music stored on my phone via the watch's screen. Tapping the display when in the Music Player app pulled up buttons for adjusting the volume and skipping forward and backward through each track. Also nice is that I could control audio playback whether listening to my phone's default Android music player, Google Music, or even podcasts via Google Listen.

Change watch faces on the fly. Sarah Tew/CNET

I had no problems with the Facebook, Twitter, or messaging apps, either. The watch vibrated softly to notify me when I received texts, tweets, and e-mails. I was able to both answer and accept calls when they came through, or place them using the Phonebook app. I found this especially handy when connected to my Bluetooth headset. The SmartWatch's tiny touch screen is a little tricky to manipulate, particularly for people with big hands like mine. Accurately hitting minuscule buttons for volume or tapping icons in the application tray was tough as well.

Some timepiece screens, like the default analog and digital clocks are activated when you double-tap the watch face or press the watch button. Other watch faces such as a small digital clock and more stylish analog clock will flare into life when the SmartWatch detects movement.

If the watch loses connection with your phone, say when you walk out of your phone’s Bluetooth range, the time is still shown and will reconnect automatically when possible. Keep in mind, though, that the SmartWatch loses track completely when powered down and a linked phone is out of the picture. In fact, when this happens the gadget becomes merely a stylish but dumb hunk of plastic and metal.

New software brings six new watch faces such as this blue analog clock. Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony says the SmartWatch will run for three to four days between charges, or 14 hours of continuous runtime, and so far my experience matches this claimed battery life. You may be tempted to attach the bundled USB cable to a spare AC phone adapter to charge up the device. I strongly recommend against this and suggest linking the watch to a PC via USB port to top off its battery. That's because the SmartWatch often had trouble kicking into charge mode when connected to the multiple AC adapters I tried. I also found that watch faces, which rely on movement to turn on the device's display, can potentially have a big negative impact on run time. This is especially true if you wear your watch to bed. I definitely suggest charging the device daily as you would a cell phone.

Conclusion
Like many Android fans and gadget hounds in general, I have high hopes for the $129.99 Sony SmartWatch. Not only is the device technically ambitious, its distinctive good looks will attract attention for all the right reasons. It certainly isn't the universally compatible, uber-Android timepiece many -- including me -- were expecting. It's also a huge drawback that the device's display isn't legible in direct sunlight, a critical function of any watch. So is keeping track of time, something the product can't do reliably without a phone connection. That's something the upstart Pebble watch ($150) can tackle.

Even so, Sony's latest software updates have fixed the stability and basic connection issues I endured when I first laid hands on the device. It also looks a heck of a lot more stylish than competing smartwatch products, such as the Pebble and MetaWatch Strata Stealth. The result is an attractive and dare I say polished effort. If you can live with its flaws, large though they be, this revamped Sony SmartWatch is an intriguing smartphone accessory, especially if you can snap one up for under $100.

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    • Regional specs shown for US. AU specs are unavailable.

    • CE Product Type Bluetooth wristwatch
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