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Sony SmartWatch 2 review: Better, but still not the best

The $199 Sony SmartWatch 2 pushes Android alerts to your wrist, screens calls, and isn't afraid of spills.

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Brian Bennett
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Brian Bennett

Senior writer

Brian Bennett is a senior writer for the home and outdoor section at CNET. He reviews a wide range of household and smart-home products. These include everything from cordless and robot vacuum cleaners to fire pits, grills and coffee makers. An NYC native, Brian now resides in bucolic Louisville, Kentucky where he rides longboards downhill in his free time.

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8 min read

Sony follows up on its first stab at minting a smart timepiece with the SmartWatch 2. Priced at $199, this gadget is a serious attempt at fixing many of the original SmartWatch's failings. Now flaunting a clean, modern design, water-resistant construction, and a better screen, the SmartWatch 2 has plenty of tricks up its sleeve. Costing $100 less than the troubled Samsung Galaxy Gear, yet more capable, Sony's latest wearable creation is a compelling Android companion.

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6.5

Sony SmartWatch 2

The Good

The <b>Sony SmartWatch 2</b> screens phone alerts, Gmail, and call info in real time. The device also has a modern, water-resistant design that's compatible with standard watch bands.

The Bad

The Sony SmartWatch 2 is tricky to set up on non-Sony phones. The watch has a small clock face selection, short battery life, and a quirky music player app. There's no iOS support.

The Bottom Line

With its ability to push Android notifications to your wrist, the Sony SmartWatch 2 is more useful than Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, but the Pebble is still the best smartwatch deal around.

Even so, the device's compatibility with non-Sony phones could be better, its battery life longer, and quirks less annoying. You also don't get iOS support and the selection of clock faces is far smaller than you'd expect for a watch. That's why I still recommend the $149 powerful Pebble as the wisest smartwatch choice.

Sony's SmartWatch 2: A better high-tech ticker (pictures)

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Design
Even more than a phone, a watch is a personal fashion statement. Strapped to your wrist for much of the day, watches must complement various articles of clothing as well, everything from buttoned-down suits and ties to casual jeans and T-shirts. That makes designing an aesthetically compelling smartwatch a risky endeavor, even for a consumer electronics giant like Sony.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the SmartWatch 2 is unattractive -- far from it. A glossy black slab of glass, metal, and plastic, the timepiece definitely flaunts a certain amount of minimalist style. As a matter of fact, I think the SmartWatch 2 looks classier than Samsung's Galaxy Gear. Having a watch camera is very slick, but a bulbous lens protruding from your wrist is definitely school on a Saturday, if you know what I mean.

Made to complement Sony's Xperia smartphones, the square and flat device has a big, circular power button on its right side. Sarah Tew/CNET

The device's polished silver bezel, which rings its screen, provides a touch of sophistication, too. Even so, with a large, flat display and prominent Sony logo above it, there's no hiding that the SmartWatch 2 is high-tech gadget first and pret-a-porter accessory second.

Three standard Android keys cut in symbols for Back, Home, and Menu, which sit below the screen, and also drive home that the SmartWatch 2 is really a mobile computer, not a mere watch. Additionally, the devices' boxy design language, complete with big circular power button on its right edge, fits right into Sony's current Xperia line of handsets. Indeed, if you place the watch next to the Xperia Z or Z1, it's easy to see that they're close cousins.

The SmartWatch 2 buckles like a regular time piece and is comfortable enough to wear all day. Sarah Tew/CNET

Like its predecessor, the original Sony SmartWatch, Sony chose to equip basic versions of the SmartWatch 2 with a silicone wristband. Echoing my experience with the first Sony device, I found the SmartWatch 2's strap both soft and comfortable to wear around the clock. If you're looking to stand out from the crowd, though, the stock SmartWatch 2's rather plain black band won't fit the bill.

Sony Smartwatch 2
On the left side is a Micro-USB port for charging the device's battery hidden under a soft waterproof plug. Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony sells a wide range of add-on straps for the gadget; silicone bands come in yellow, pink, purple, and turquoise, and you can also purchase leather straps in both black and brown. Additionally, if you're willing to spend a little extra, a premium version of the SmartWatch 2 sports an all-metal strap, though in a sober black. I like how the SmartWatch 2 is built to accept standard watch bands from ordinary timepieces. Simply pull out the pins to swap in wristbands from old tickers you might have gathering dust around the house.

Display
I wasn't wowed by the SmartWatch 2's screen. Measuring 1.6 inches across the device's LCD certainly is big. After using the Galaxy Gear, however, which boasts a sharper 320x320-pixel resolution (same 1.6-inch size), and OLED technology that produces vibrant colors with lusciously dark blacks, the SmartWatch 2's display (220x176 pixels) looks drab and lifeless by comparison.

Sony SmartWatch 2
The Sony SmartWatch 2's screen is big, can be seen outdoors, but doesn't blow me away. Sarah Tew/CNET

The gentle curve of the Gear's screen also makes for more comfortable finger swiping as opposed to the traditional flat and angular cut of the SmartWatch 2's display. Even so, I can't stress how much this new screen is an improvement over the first Sony SmartWatch's screen. Unlike its predecessor, whose OLED screen washed out completely under strong sunshine, the SmartWatch 2's transflective LCD lets light through to remain easily readable outdoors.

Notifications
In my view, the primary purpose of a smartwatch is to push important alerts to your wrist so you can mess with your phone less and have more time to actually live your life. To this end, the Sony SmartWatch 2 will funnel updates from Twitter, Facebook, along with Gmail messages to your wrist as they hit your handset. Not only will the device display a notification on its screen with a brief summary of message contents, the watch haptically buzzes, too.

Sony SmartWatch 2
Check e-mail, texts, and other alerts right from the SmartWatch 2's screen. Sarah Tew/CNET

I especially appreciate that you can dial down when the SmartWatch 2 leaps into action, particularly regarding Twitter and Facebook. For instance, I was able to have the device tell me when I received direct Twitter and Facebook messages, not buzz maddeningly whenever contacts updated their status.

Unfortunately, Gmail alerts aren't that selective, and the SmartWatch 2 will ping whenever e-mails arrive. And if you get anywhere near the amount of e-mail I do, your wrist will be vibrating constantly. Another disappointment is that you have to use the SmartWatch e-mail app to access non-Gmail messages, as well. While that may be fine by itself, Sony's e-mail software is only compatible with Sony Xperia smartphones. So, if you plan on using the SmartWatch 2 to keep on top of Outlook-based messages using an Android device that's not made by Sony, you're in for a big letdown. Sure, Sony's compatibility with non-Sony products has never been stellar, but that's no excuse.

Sony Smartwatch 2
The SmartWatch 2's flat display makes for less comfy swiping than a curved screen would. Sarah Tew/CNET

That said, the Galaxy Gear is even less capable. It won't grab Twitter or Facebook notifications from your phone, or support non-Samsung handsets for that matter. And while the Gear can warn you when Gmail alerts occur, it won't provide info beyond the fact that they exist.

Phone alerts and other features
In addition to social media and e-mail, the SmartWatch 2 has to power to act as a second screen for incoming phone calls and text messages. When your handset rings, the SmartWatch 2 displays the calling number plus any associated contact information if it happens to live in your address book.

Be advised, though, that the device does not allow you to answer phone calls from the watch itself. Rather you have the choice of accepting or rejecting voice communication based on who's trying to reach you. Of course, it's hard to knock Sony for this since it's really a limitation specific to many Android phones, not exactly the watch itself. For example, the Pebble Watch lets users answer calls as they occur but only through iPhones, not when linked to Android devices.

To be clear, the products that come with both internal microphones and speakers, namely the Galaxy Gear and Martian Passport, have this Android ability, since they can technically operate as Bluetooth headsets.

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Respond to incoming calls with canned text messages. Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony does let users of the SmartWatch 2 respond to phone calls with a selection of canned text messages. Some of the options include, "I'm busy at the moment, I'll call you back later" and "I'm on my way home." You can create your own custom responses, however, via the Call Handling mobile app.

The line between fitness trackers and smartwatches seems to blur more each day, and the Sony SmartWatch 2 is no exception to this trend. Indeed, Sony has partnered with exercise app developer Runtastic to offer SmartWatch 2 owners the pro version of the Runtastic application for free. Don't get too excited, since this software won't transform the SmartWatch 2 into a 24-hour pedometer like the Fitbit Force or Nike FuelBand SE. Runtastic is meant to manually log workout periods, not to automatically compile a complete portrait of your overall activity.

Sony SmartWatch 2
The SmartWatch 2 runs plenty of mobile apps like an Android phone. Sarah Tew/CNET

Those looking for a wide range of watch faces won't be thrilled by the SmartWatch 2's paltry selection. The gadget just comes with five basic clocks to choose from. You can download other faces, but sadly they're treated as widgets, which the SmartWatch closes abruptly when its Bluetooth connection is lost.

Performance
After using the Sony SmartWatch 2 during my trial period, I was pleasantly surprised by how much it actually could do. Did the device help me to cut down on how many times I pounced on my handheld throughout the day? Astonishingly, the answer is yes. Not only was I able to view important texts, tweets, and calls from my wrist, but also I was able to ignore low-priority messages, too. I also can say that there's a peculiar pleasure in reading phone alerts in the shower, no matter how perverse it may sound.

Unfortunately, as many a smartwatch before it, the SmartWatch 2 isn't a joy to get up and running. Sony brags that its new wrist gadget is "the perfect Android wireless accessory," but in my experience that's only true if you're using a recent Xperia smartphone.

For example, the SmartWatch 2 features NFC for painless Bluetooth pairing. Ideally, all you have to do is tap the device's back (powered down) against your phone running Android 4.0 or higher. Once done, the watch will power up and direct your handset to the Google Play store to download the Sony Smart Connect app. Bumping devices together once more further instructs your phone to install the SmartWatch 2 application for a simple wireless connection.

Yet, all this failed to happen when I used the SmartWatch 2 with a Samsung Galaxy Note 3. I had to find all the necessary software, download, install, then pair the devices manually. What's more, I had to take the necessary step of rebooting the watch a few times for the pairing process to initiate properly. So while it did work eventually, it wasn't nearly as easy as when I used a Sony Xperia TL as my test phone.

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Using the Smartwatch 2's music player app was quirky at best. Sarah Tew/CNET

Other annoying issues I ran into was the watch's Music Player. Unfortunately, the software meant to command a phone's audio app couldn't decide which music player to control. At times it was able to fully operate the Note 3's generic Samsung music player from the watch's tiny screen. On other occasions, flipping through tracks on the watch display would cause the phone's separate Google Play music app to fire up and begin playing random tracks. I couldn't find a logical pattern for the quirk. There is a setting for choosing either "generic" or "automatic" for the default audio software within the Smartwatch Music Player app (on the phone), but that language is far from clear and didn't seem to make a difference.

Battery life for the SmartWatch 2 is not as long as Sony says it is, which is three to four days with "typical usage." I found that I had to charge the gadget up every 24 hours or so with Bluetooth and notifications switched on. The watch does power up quickly, reaching full capacity in about 30 minutes.

Conclusion
Odd behavior and manual Bluetooth setup notwithstanding, I found the $199 Sony SmartWatch 2 to be one of the best wearable ticker experiences I've had in a long while. I admit, in a new product category like this that's fraught with glitches, stumbles, and downright lemons, that's not saying much. But the SmartWatch 2 is more stable and usable than its predecessor, the original Sony SmartWatch. You actually can read it outdoors and it doesn't lock up or reboot randomly.

It also represents the second best high-tech timepiece that's out there. Unlike the pricey $299 Samsung Galaxy Gear, which doesn't provide social media or true Gmail notifications, the SmartWatch 2 tackles that plus works (in theory) with any Android phone running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich or later. Still, at the most affordable price of $149, the Pebble watch remains the best bargain of all. For $50 less, the Pebble has longer battery life, more watch faces, plus it connects to iPhones, too.

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6.5

Sony SmartWatch 2

Score Breakdown

Style 7Features 7Ease of use 6
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