Sony SmartWatch hands-on: Not perfect, but shows promise

The new $149.99 Sony SmartWatch is one of the most compelling Android-powered wearable devices yet. Find out how it fared in our first test-drive.

The Sony SmartWatch aims to be the perfect companion to Android smartphones. Sarah Tew/CNET

The Sony SmartWatch first made an appearance at CES in January and from the moment I learned of its existence I had high hopes for the gadget. I've secretly been a fan of intelligent, wearable computing devices starting way back when Microsoft's SPOT (Smart Personal Object Technology) watches hit the scene a decade ago.

Of course those products had major flaws and then I was often the butt of biting jokes and cruel guffaws when my test watch ran out of juice midday or failed to connect to its FM radio network -- good times for sure.

Well guess what, haters, the smart watch is back and with a vengeance. A slew of new devices including the Sony SmartWatch will be landing on store shelves this year. From the Motorola Motoactv to the WIMM Watch , this latest crop of totable tech take advantage of hardware SPOT engineers could only have dreamed of such as color touch screens, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, accelerometers, and Android.


Daring design
Unlike the heavier and bulkier 1.2-ounce Motorola Motoactv, the 0.55-ounce square-shaped Sony SmartWatch is very portable. Measuring 1.42 inches tall by 1.42 inches wide and 0.3 inch thick, the SmartWatch is more in line with Apple's pint-size iPod Nano (1.5 inches by 1.6 inches by 0.35 inch, 0.7 ounce).

The tiny SmartWatch also sports handsome style accents such as silver metallic edges that are smoothly rounded. A minuscule 1.3-inch OLED screen takes up the entire front face and displays data in a low 128-by-128-pixel resolution. Even so, colors on the watch's screen are vibrant and the clock's digital digits glow in an attractive white hue. One big drawback I have is that the display washes out in even modest sunlight, making the SmartWatch hard to read outdoors. That's the opposite experience I had with the Motorola Motoactive, which automatically flips its display to black and white for better visibility outside.

The Sony SmartWatch with its chrome-like trim and colored wristbands is one elegant device.

The back of the device is softly rounded and coated in a glossy white surface. Also 'round back is the SmartWatch's flat spring-loaded clip you can use for pinning to clothes or its wristband. Sony also sells a metal watch adapter for attaching the gadget to standard bands from other watches. While the SmartWatch comes with a conservative black band, you can buy five other more eye-catching colors for $19.99 each. I found the rubber construction of the bands surprisingly comfortable. Their stretchy feel offers just enough grip without pinching skin and flex slightly to slip into buckling position easier than a traditional leather strap would.

Measuring just 1.42 inches tall by 1.42 inches high by 0.3 inch thick, the Sony SmartWatch is extremely small. It weighs 0.55 ounce and is easy to wear. Sarah Tew/CNET

Phone remote control
Sony makes a lot of boasts when touting the SmartWatch's capabilities. Essentially this device is a fancy remote control for Android smartphones that just happens to also have a clock. In a sober work meeting and your cell begins to buzz with an incoming call? No problem, the SmartWatch's Phonebook and Missed Call app will let you see who's calling, send to voice mail, reply with a canned text message like "Busy. I'll call you back," or even answer provided there's a headset lodged in your ear. The gizmo will also allow users to check e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter ported from your handset.

To set up the Sony SmartWatch you simply download the Sony LiveWare 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 as you would any ordinary Bluetooth accessory with the Android settings menu.

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

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

Besides the main clock screen, swiping a finger from right to left will cycle through 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, ranging from text messaging, calendar, missed calls, Facebook, the music player, Twitter, extra clock faces, to the weather.

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

First impressions
As you can imagine, the Sony SmartWatch's dreamy list of features had me salivating to take it for a spin. My experience in reality, though, was a bit of a rude awakening, and I could get only the basic features of the advanced mobile gadget operational. Setting up the SmartWatch on three handsets, (Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc, and Sony Ericsson Active) was relatively simple and I had the watch up and running in a matter of minutes. Downloading the software was easy going, too, but the problems started when I tried to use most of the Sony SmartWatch's apps.

Any attempt I made to open applications caused the SmartWatch to unceremoniously reboot, lose Bluetooth connection, then reconnect. For example I could play music stored on my phone via the watch's screen but when I tapped the display to pull up buttons for adjusting the volume, the device consistently crashed. The same annoying behavior occurred when I tapped the weather widget or launched the phonebook app from within the app tray. I had no problems with the Facebook, Twitter or messaging apps, though. The SmartWatch even performed the same freakout when it detected an incoming call.

So far, battery life hasn't been stellar, either, with the device getting anywhere from 2 days to 6 hours on a full charge. That certainly doesn't match Sony's claimed longevity of 4 days. To be fair, the issues I encountered are quite possibly due to my SmartWatch review unit running early firmware or even incompatibility with the latest LiveWare software living in the Google Play store. Whatever the cause, I hesitate to recommend the Sony SmartWatch until I get a crack at an actual retail device that hopefully is more stable. Check back soon for a full review.

 

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