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Sony SmartWatch review: SmartWatch clocks in with better software

Powered by Android, the Sony SmartWatch had plenty of bugs when it first launched. Refreshed with new software, the device now feels almost ready for prime time.

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Brian Bennett
bb-ces
Brian Bennett Former Senior writer
Brian Bennett is a former senior writer for the home and outdoor section at CNET.
8 min read

Editors' note: Sony has recently equipped the SmartWatch with fresh software. This review has been updated to reflect these changes.

sony_smartwatch_hand.jpg
6.6

Sony SmartWatch

The Good

The <b>Sony SmartWatch</b> draws the eye with its sleek, stylish looks. It also offers a wide range of wireless functions notifications, call handling, and music control made possible by a Bluetooth smartphone connection.

The Bad

The Sony SmartWatch needs an Android smartphone connection to function or even keep the time, it isn't compatible with iOS, and its display can't be read in sunlight. It needs to be charged daily.

The Bottom Line

The Sony SmartWatch enters the realm of usability thanks to recent software updates, but it's still more smartphone accessory than solid standalone timepiece.

Since the days of pocket watches, wearable timepieces have had a strong pull for gadget lovers. Watches are extremely personal devices and can be powerful fashion statements, functional or not; attractively crafted, technologically sophisticated timekeepers have their own special allure. Sony's $129.99 SmartWatch is no exception. Powered by Android software, this high-tech ticker promises a lot in the way of features and functionality. Now thanks to a fresh influx of software, the flashy gizmo feels like less of a cantankerous gizmo and more like an alluring smartphone accessory.


The Sony SmartWatch up close (pictures)

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Design
Unlike the heavier and bulkier 1.2-ounce Motorola MotoActv and 1.92-ounce MetaWatch Strata Stealth, the square, 0.55-ounce Sony SmartWatch is easily portable. Measuring 1.42 inches tall by 1.42 inches wide and 0.3 inch thick, the SmartWatch is more in line with Apple's pint-size iPod Nano (1.5 inches by 1.6 inches by 0.35 inch, 0.7 ounce).

Measuring just 1.42 inches tall by 1.42 inches high by 0.3 inch thick, the Sony SmartWatch is extremely small. Sarah Tew/CNET

The tiny SmartWatch also sports handsome visual accents such as silver-metallic edges that are smoothly rounded. In my opinion, its attractive looks set it apart from more-geeky devices such as the Strata Stealth, Wimm One, and even streamlined Pebble. In a nutshell, this is a watch I'd be proud to wear in public, which is tough to say about most smartwatches I've used, save for the Martian Passport.

A minuscule 1.3-inch OLED screen takes up the entire front face and displays data in a low 128-by-128-pixel resolution. Even so, colors on the watch's screen are vibrant, and the digits glow an attractive white. One big drawback is that the display washes out in even modest sunlight, making the SmartWatch hard to read outdoors. I feel that's an unforgivable flaw for any watch (let alone one costing $149) since most people spend at least part of their day in the sun. By contrast, this is the opposite of the experience I had with the MotoActv, which automatically flips its display to black-and-white for better visibility outside. The Pebble, with its e-ink-style LCD is also a cinch to read indoors and outside in direct sunlight.

Sony SmartWatch
Like other watch-style gadgets, the Sony SmartWatch can be clipped to clothing or to its wristband. Sarah Tew/CNET

The back of the device is softly rounded, with a glossy white surface coating. On the back is a flat, spring-loaded clip, which you can use to pin the SmartWatch to clothes or to its wristband. Sony also sells a metal watch adapter for attaching the gadget to standard bands from other watches. While the SmartWatch comes with a conservative black band, you can buy five other more eye-catching colors for $19.99 each. I found the rubber construction of the bands surprisingly comfortable. Their stretchy feel offers just enough grip without pinching skin and flexes slightly to slip into buckling position more easily than a traditional leather strap would.

Features
Sony makes a lot of boasts when touting the SmartWatch's capabilities. Before I describe them, though, you should know this product is mostly a Sony accessory. That's a huge bummer, since it was initially billed as a universal Android device able to operate with a wide range of phones and other mobile gadgets. In fact, Sony's own Web site brazenly claims "If you have an Android smartphone, [the SmartWatch] is the perfect accessory."

To be clear, the SmartWatch is officially compatible with only a handful of Android phones. These include products from competing manufacturers as well as Sony's current Xperia line of smartphones. Notable on the short list of officially approved devices are the Samsung Galaxy S3, the Motorola Droid Razr (and perhaps the Droid Razr Maxx), along with HTC's One X, One S, and One V handsets. Sony does claim it updates the list periodically, so be sure to check its site for any changes.

The SmartWatch's promised capabilities are many. Essentially this device is a fancy remote control for Android smartphones that just happens to also have a clock. In a sober work meeting and your cell begins to buzz with an incoming call? No problem; the SmartWatch's Phonebook and Missed Call app will let you see who's calling, send it to voice mail, or even answer the call provided there's a headset lodged in your ear.

The app is also supposed to let you reply with a canned text message like, "Busy. I'll call you back." In practice, though, I could never get this feature to work. Another caveat is that the SmartWatch will only let you accept incoming calls when connected to Sony Xperia phones, not when using Android handsets from other manufacturers. The gizmo will, however, let you check e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter ported from your handset.

Thanks to a recent SmartWatch app update (1.3.28) and SmartWatch firmware (version 0.1.B.1.0), which rolled out March 14, 2013, the device now features six additional watch faces. Adding up to a total of 10, these virtual clocks range from spartan analog timepieces and clean digital readouts to abstract faces that tell time in almost inscrutable graphics.

Just like an Android handset, the Sony SmartWatch has its own app tray with multiple screens that house icons for shortcuts. Sarah Tew/CNET

To set up the Sony SmartWatch, you download the Sony Smart Connect (previously calledSony LiveWare Manager) and SmartWatch Android apps from the Google Play store. If you own a current Sony Xperia handset running Android 2.1 or higher, chances are good your device has this software already loaded. With this done, you activate the SmartWatch's Bluetooth pairing mode by shutting down the watch and then pressing and holding the unit's power button (on the right side) for a few seconds. After that, you pair the SmartWatch with your phone within the Android settings menu as you would any ordinary Bluetooth accessory.

Once properly connected, the SmartWatch links to phones to act as a second screen for specially made apps running on your handset. In fact, the watch itself doesn't store any data locally, save the time. It's basically a conduit that you configure and customize via the phone. For example, you must install applications either directly through Sony Smart Connect's list of suggested apps or by searching the Google Play store.

Link phone and watch via wireless Bluetooth connection. Sarah Tew/CNET

In addition to the main clock screen, swiping a finger from right to left will cycle through screens of apps installed to run as widgets. There doesn't seem to be a limit to how many widget screens the SmartWatch will display, except for the number of widget-capable apps. The most I had running was eight: text messaging, calendar, missed calls, Facebook, the music player, Twitter, extra clock faces, and the weather.

Control your phone's music player remotely. Sarah Tew/CNET

Swiping the screen from top to bottom will eventually land you in the SmartWatch's app tray, where you can jump to apps as you do on an ordinary Android smartphone, scrolling left and right through multiple windows depending on the number of applications enabled.

Performance
As you can imagine, the Sony SmartWatch's long list of features had me eager to take it for a test-drive. My initial experience with the SmartWatch back in April was a bit of a letdown; I could get only the watch's basic features to operate. For instance, while I could view widgets, any attempt I made to open applications caused the SmartWatch to unceremoniously reboot, lose Bluetooth connection, and then reconnect. With Sony's latest refresh of the LiveWare Manager and SmartWatch software (available on May 25 and June 4, respectively), though, these issues thankfully evaporated. Even so, I still ran into unstable behavior, especially when I paired the watch with unsanctioned phones.

Now that Sony has moved to its new Smart Connect software and updated the official SmartWatch app, I found performance and stability to be greatly improved. I'm astounded to say the gadget actually feels like almost production quality -- a rare trait in the emerging smartwatch product category.

I tested the SmartWatch with two different Android handsets, the Sony Xperia T (unlocked) and the HTC One (unlocked). Setup was relatively simple and I had the watch up and running with each phone in a matter of minutes. I did have to unpair and re-pair the device when switching between phones.

With the new software installed, I had no trouble playing music stored on my phone via the watch's screen. Tapping the display when in the Music Player app pulled up buttons for adjusting the volume and skipping forward and backward through each track. Also nice is that I could control audio playback whether listening to my phone's default Android music player, Google Music, or even podcasts via Google Listen.

Change watch faces on the fly. Sarah Tew/CNET

I had no problems with the Facebook, Twitter, or messaging apps, either. The watch vibrated softly to notify me when I received texts, tweets, and e-mails. I was able to both answer and accept calls when they came through, or place them using the Phonebook app. I found this especially handy when connected to my Bluetooth headset. The SmartWatch's tiny touch screen is a little tricky to manipulate, particularly for people with big hands like mine. Accurately hitting minuscule buttons for volume or tapping icons in the application tray was tough as well.

Some timepiece screens, like the default analog and digital clocks are activated when you double-tap the watch face or press the watch button. Other watch faces such as a small digital clock and more stylish analog clock will flare into life when the SmartWatch detects movement.

If the watch loses connection with your phone, say when you walk out of your phone's Bluetooth range, the time is still shown and will reconnect automatically when possible. Keep in mind, though, that the SmartWatch loses track completely when powered down and a linked phone is out of the picture. In fact, when this happens the gadget becomes merely a stylish but dumb hunk of plastic and metal.

New software brings six new watch faces such as this blue analog clock. Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony says the SmartWatch will run for three to four days between charges, or 14 hours of continuous runtime, and so far my experience matches this claimed battery life. You may be tempted to attach the bundled USB cable to a spare AC phone adapter to charge up the device. I strongly recommend against this and suggest linking the watch to a PC via USB port to top off its battery. That's because the SmartWatch often had trouble kicking into charge mode when connected to the multiple AC adapters I tried. I also found that watch faces, which rely on movement to turn on the device's display, can potentially have a big negative impact on run time. This is especially true if you wear your watch to bed. I definitely suggest charging the device daily as you would a cell phone.

Conclusion
Like many Android fans and gadget hounds in general, I have high hopes for the $129.99 Sony SmartWatch. Not only is the device technically ambitious, its distinctive good looks will attract attention for all the right reasons. It certainly isn't the universally compatible, uber-Android timepiece many -- including me -- were expecting. It's also a huge drawback that the device's display isn't legible in direct sunlight, a critical function of any watch. So is keeping track of time, something the product can't do reliably without a phone connection. That's something the upstart Pebble watch ($150) can tackle.

Even so, Sony's latest software updates have fixed the stability and basic connection issues I endured when I first laid hands on the device. It also looks a heck of a lot more stylish than competing smartwatch products, such as the Pebble and MetaWatch Strata Stealth. The result is an attractive and dare I say polished effort. If you can live with its flaws, large though they be, this revamped Sony SmartWatch is an intriguing smartphone accessory, especially if you can snap one up for under $100.

sony_smartwatch_hand.jpg
6.6

Sony SmartWatch

Score Breakdown

Style 7Features 6Ease of use 7
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