Sony's Android Wear-equipped SmartWatch 3 has built-in GPS for distance tracking without your phone, but it disappoints in most other ways.
Sony's previous efforts at making a smartwatch haven't exactly been successes. In fact, the SmartWatch 2 was pretty awful. Seemingly keen to learn from its mistakes, however, Sony is back with a third generation of its computerised wristwear, unsurprisingly named the SmartWatch 3.
The SmartWatch 3 has an improved design -- including better waterproofing and interchangeable straps -- and crucially, Sony has ditched its clunky and unpleasant custom interface.
It now runs Android Wear, the smartwatch software developed by Google that aims to provide a unified platform for companies like Sony, Samsung, LG and Motorola to load on to their products and allow developers to create apps that can run equally well across all devices.
The SmartWatch 3 is on sale now and costs £190 in the UK, direct from Sony, $250 in the US also from Sony, and AU$315 in Australia from Expansys.
Instead of opting for a more traditional circular watch face, like the LG G Watch R , the SmartWatch 3 has a square face. Together with the rubber strap, which meets the glass of the display, this makes it look much more like a fitness device than a regular watch. It certainly doesn't have the same luxury charm as the metal and leather G Watch R.
It's not unattractive as such, but the plain square face and black rubber strap are a little dull. It's not the sort of elegant watch you'd want to keep on while all dressed up in your best party outfit -- whereas the G Watch R remained on my wrist in my best suit at a birthday bash and didn't look at all out of place.
The flexible rubber strap is comfortable to wear, although the watch unit itself is quite chunky and a little on the heavy side. I certainly didn't want to keep it on while I slept. Part of the reason the watch is quite chunky is that there's a micro-USB port for charging built directly into it. It allows you to plug the charging cable directly into it, without needing to use a separate charging cradle, something that's required on all other Android Wear watches. This is a real bonus, as I find the cradles a massive hassle -- you need to always remember to take it with you if you're going away overnight.
A neat trick the SmartWatch 3 has up its sleeve is the ability to remove the actual watch unit from the strap. The screen pops out from its rubber surround, allowing you to change the colour and style of the strap. Although only black and bright lime-green straps are available right now, Sony tells me that different colours will become available, which should help make it look a little more uniquely yours than this bog-standard black version.
The SmartWatch 3 is totally waterproof, not just water-resistant, meaning you don't need to worry about ruining your expensive new toy when you're washing the dishes. It also means you don't have to take it off in the shower -- handy when you're cleaning off after a good workout in the gym -- although be aware that the falling water droplets will activate the touchscreen, which will accidentally pause whatever you're listening to. (Listening to podcasts in the gym shower while your phone sits in a locker may admittedly be a fairly niche use that only I will ever worry about.)
The watch face itself has a 1.6-inch square display with a 320x320-pixel resolution. That's basically the same as other watches we've seen, so it's no surprise that the screen looks about as sharp as its competitors. It's fairly bright -- although under very bright lights it can be difficult to read -- but its colours are quite weak, particularly when compared to the more vibrant LG G Watch R. Viewing angles aren't great either, meaning you have to angle it in just the right way to get an optimal view.
Colours aren't a huge problem, as you won't be watching videos or browsing images on it -- Android Wear could be in black and white and it wouldn't make much difference to functionality. The viewing angles are more of a problem, however. Given that the watch will move around on your wrist, you won't always have the best view when you bring it up to your eyeline. The display is at the very least legible, but it's generally unimpressive and it's definitely a mark against it, in comparison to the G Watch R or Samsung's Gear Live .
It comes with a selection of faces to choose from, which help customise the look of the watch, but it's not a big selection and few of them really stand out to me. They're mostly digital clocks that, while matching the sporty look of the watch itself, don't really help make it look any more elegant. The LG G Watch R has a much wider selection of faces, many of which look like they've been lifted straight off real luxury watches.
There are at least a whole bunch of third-party watch faces available in the Google Play Store, and they're easy to get on to the watch using the Android Wear app. So you can still customise it to your tastes, it's just a shame Sony hasn't put much effort in to help you on your way.
The SmartWatch 3 runs Google's Android Wear operating system for watches, which, unlike Android on smartphones, isn't skinned or tampered with by manufacturers. That means the interface is identical to other Android Wear smartwatches such as the G Watch R or Gear Live. Android Wear connects to your Android phone (and only to Android phones, it won't work with an iPhone or Windows Phone), showing information such as the weather, upcoming calendar appointments and incoming notifications, displayed as cards.
You can swipe the card left to see more information or to open the related app on your phone. Swiping right dismisses the card. Using voice commands, you can ask the watch to set a timer, ask for the weather or bring up your schedule. You're also able to dictate emails to send to contacts and make Web searches. Certain queries such as, "What is the time in New York?" will immediately give you an answer on screen, while others, such as, "How do you cook a chicken?" will bring up a list of Google search results.
The SmartWatch 3 recognised my voice easily for the most part, although certain names were sometimes misheard and you do need to speak at just the right time for it to start listening. It processes the information faster than the G Watch R, giving a smoother, quicker experience overall, with fewer technical difficulties.
Thanks to a recent update to Android Wear, you're now able to store music directly on the watch -- it has 4GB of space -- and listen to it on the go, using a pair of Bluetooth headphones. As the music is stored on the watch itself, you won't need your phone with you, which is great if you want music for jogging, but don't want a giant phablet clunking around in your pocket. It's fairly easy to set up, although it only works with tracks bought through Google Play Music for now, so if, like me, you use Spotify or other services for your music, its use will be rather limited.
The SmartWatch 3 has GPS built-in, meaning you can go running with the watch and have it track your distance much more accurately. Watches like the G Watch R, Gear Live and Moto 360 don't have their own GPS, relying instead on being tethered to your phone. As is the case with the music syncing, you're able to enjoy your run without carrying a phone in your pocket, but still benefit from distance tracking to see how well you're doing.
Not all apps can make use of the GPS tracking of the watch, however -- Sony's own LifeLog app didn't even want to play ball. The best app I found was Google's My Tracks app, which lets you easily start and stop GPS tracking using the watch alone, with the data syncing with the phone when you return. I imagine it won't be long before the major fitness apps all build GPS tracking from smartwatches into their services.
Although the GPS and music-storing functions make it great for keen joggers, it lacks a critical fitness function: a heart-rate monitor. The Moto 360 and LG G Watch R both have optical pulse monitors built in, yet both are designed with style, rather than sports as the main goal. The tech for these optical monitors isn't yet completely reliable, but they do give you another point of data for your fitness progress, so it seems an oversight on Sony's part not to include this function to make the SmartWatch 3 a fully featured health device.
Sony reckons you can squeeze at least two days of use out of the SmartWatch 3, which I think is rather on the optimistic side. If you use it very lightly, don't use any of the music syncing, don't use the GPS and don't use the always-on display mode -- which keeps a dim view of the watch face permanently on, so you can always tell the time -- you may be able to get close.
It's no use having a smartwatch if you don't use the smart functions though, and when you do, you'll really see that battery life take a hit. Using the GPS tracking, connecting to a set of Bluetooth headphones and regularly using the voice control, I could easily drain the battery in a day. With less intense use, I'd say you could average a day and a half. You'll almost certainly want to give it a charge every night -- which, sadly, is the case with most Android Wear devices. On the plus side, the built-in charging makes plugging it in less of a hassle than its competitors.
With its built-in GPS and square, rubberised design, the Sony SmartWatch 3 is clearly aimed towards fitness fanatics, rather than tech-obsessed fashionistas. It scores points for its smooth operation and built-in USB port, which means you don't need to carry a dedicated charging cradle.
It's let down by its lack of heart-rate monitor and poor quality display though, which is less vibrant and has worse viewing angles than the G Watch R and Gear Live. The plain, square design and uninspiring choice of watch faces make it much less stylish than the G Watch R, meaning it won't suit those of you looking for a smartwatch that can slip unnoticed into your office outfit or party-going glad rags.