Sony's SmartWatch 2 strives to outdo its rivals

/ Updated: 22 October 2013 6:21 pm BST
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With its Galaxy Gear, Samsung certainly isn't the only consumer heavyweight to throw down a shiny smartwatch to the masses. Sony has also just dropped the SmartWatch 2, a follow-up to its first intelligent time piece. Taking to heart the experience gained from crafting the original Sony SmartWatch, and hopefully some of its stumbles, too, this refreshed product will be the company's best wearable tech effort yet.

Not only does the SmartWatch 2 boast a bigger, brighter screen, but the gizmo is now water-resistant and built to support a wide range of Android smartphones out of the gate, a skill the Galaxy Gear has yet to match. Compared with the Gear, the SmartWatch 2 benefits from a greater number of applications available for download directly through the Google Play as well. And priced at $199.95, the SmartWatch 2 is $100 less than Samsung's creation ($299), which alone makes it a tempting proposition.

Of course to compete with Samsung's much-hyped watch, for which the main problem is handsome hardware hampered by ineffective software, Sony's revamped device will need to seriously impress. Otherwise it doesn't stand a chance of igniting any real customer tech lust. Now compound this with a new squad of popular fitness gadgets muscling into smartwatch territory, specifically the Fitbit Force and Nike FuelBand SE, and you begin to see why Sony will have to bring its wearable A game.

Sony SmartWatch 2
Is the Sony SmartWatch 2 a worthy competitor? Andrew Hoyle/CNET UK

Design
Back when I reviewed the first SmartWatch from Sony, I was struck by its compact size and attractive styling, especially when stacked up against the competition. At the time, the smattering of high-tech watches that vied for space on your wrist were clunky and cantankerous devices at best.

For instance, the MetaWatch Strata Stealth came with a screen so reflective it was almost dangerous to read outdoors in strong sunlight. The unfortunately named I'm Watch was very heavy and massive, and sported gaudy company logos on its wristband. Another product, from startup Wimm, the Wimm One, was so unpolished designwise, it felt like a prototype rather than a true piece of consumer electronics.

I liked the SmartWatch's soft, rubbery silicone wrist strap, which I could wear all day in comfort. Sony took the trouble to sell multiple colors of its watchbands, too, including striking hues such as white, blue, and an almost electric salmon.

Sony plans to give the SmartWatch 2 even more flair, offering a selection of seven different band options. Indeed you'll be able to choose from five hues of the silicone strap (yellow, pink, turquoise, purple, black) and even leather bands in black and light brown.

The SmartWatch 2's square housing also echoes the device maker's current design language you'll find in its Xperia smartphones and tablets. With jet-black and glossy surfaces, and angular lines framed with chrome highlights, there's no doubt this watch is a close sibling to the Xperia Z1 and Z Ultra. There's even a circular silver power button on the SmartWatch 2's right edge, a prominent Xperia phone feature.

Physically, the SmartWatch 2 is slightly larger and heavier than the original. However, I doubt the difference is noticeable -- at 23.5g (0.83 ounce), I bet you'll barely feel the 8g difference over the first SmartWatch. The Gear, though, tips the scales at a much heftier 73.8 grams (2.6 ounces). Of course the SmartWatch 2 lacks the Gear's built-in speaker, microphone, and camera.

That said, other products such as the Fitbit Force and Nike FueBand SE are even more compact and lightweight, yet also display the time.

Display
Packing a 1.6-inch display with a 220x176-pixel resolution, the Sony SmartWatch 2's LCD screen is larger than its predecessor (1.3-inch, 128x128 pixels). Most importantly, the new screen should be readable in direct sunlight, an issue the original SmartWatch suffered from -- and a huge oversight in a watch of any sort.

Still, I have say that the Samsung Galaxy Gear's curved OLED, which is both bright and extremely saturated, is downright sexier. The Gear's screen is also sharper, with a 320x320-pixel resolution (1.6-inch).

Features
Any smartwatch worth its salt should perform one primary function above all else, and that is to act as a handy second screen for your smartphone. The whole premise of this kind of gadget's usefulness is to allow users to dismiss useless phone notifications and only grab their handset when absolutely necessary.

If my experience with the previous SmartWatch is any indication, Sony has a chance of achieving what only the Pebble has (at least partially) achieved. The SmartWatch took a few software updates to reach the pinnacle of its abilities, and stability for that matter. Once it did, however, the product essentially operated as advertised.

With the SmartWatch linked to not just my Sony smartphone but other Android devices, I was able to receive alerts for texts, calls, and social-media updates right on my wrist. The SmartWatch 2 looks to have the same sort of communication capabilities, and like Sony's prior device is designed to support practically any Android handset. Essentially if your phone runs Android version 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich or higher, you should be covered.

Additionally, the SmartWatch 2 can control your phone's music player, so you won't have to fish out your mobile device from bags or pockets when changing the volume or skipping to the next track.

A new capability Sony has added to the SmartWatch 2 is NFC circuitry. NFC hardware is designed to let the watch pair with compatible devices quickly, merely by tapping it briefly against the handset. After this, the SmartWatch 2 should link up with phones via its wireless Bluetooth connection.

As I said before, the SmartWatch 2 doesn't flaunt a digital camera and video recorder. If you're set on strapping these kind of capabilities to your wrist, you'll have to splurge on the Galaxy Gear.

Outlook
I really believe the SmartWatch 2 could be a winner, at least in purely utilitarian terms. Not only is Sony's latest timepiece capable (at least on paper) of pushing phone-based notifications to a small but glance-able screen, it's also compatible with many Android phones. Add to this mix the SmartWatch 2's lower $199.95 price, and you can color me intrigued.

That said, the $149.99 Pebble Watch tackles all of the same notification features as the SmartWatch 2 (works with iPhones, too) for less dough -- but with a black-and-white display and cheap plastic construction. On the other side of the coin, the pricey $299 Galaxy Gear flaunts excellent build quality (for a smartwatch). Its primary failings are official compatibility with only the Galaxy Note 3, and useless notifications.

For the SmartWatch 2 to succeed, Sony will have to prove that its new gadget is more dependable and ultimately of greater use to mobile phone owners than its rivals. My colleagues over at CNET UK have already determined that isn't the case. Worse for Sony is that the SmartWatch 2 doesn't merely compete against other high-tech yet traditional tickers. The SmartWatch 2 is now under threat from a new breed of fitness wearables, namely the Fitbit Force and Nike FuelBand SE. I mean, why carry two gizmos when one will do the trick? Is the SmartWatch 2 doomed before it even arrives in the US in bulk? I'll personally withhold judgement until this slick little gizmo lands in my own hands.

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