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

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.

Sony SmartWatch 2
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.

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.

Sony SmartWatch 2
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.

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.