Sony SmartWatch review: SmartWatch clocks in with better software

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The Good The Sony SmartWatch 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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.