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

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The Good The Sony SmartWatch 2 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.

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6.5 Overall
  • Style 7
  • Features 7
  • Ease of use 6

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.