Sony was the first large company to release a smartwatch, when it debuted the Sony LiveView back in 2010, and was still ahead of its time when it launched the Sony SmartWatch in 2012. Both of those devices provided color screens and a variety of alerts from your phone, but each suffered from small flaws. Now that competitors like Samsung have started competing for wrist dominance, Sony's back with the SmartWatch 2 -- and it looks like the third time's a charm. Though it doesn't make calls or snap photos, the $199 SmartWatch 2 delivers detailed updates and a wide ecosystem of apps in an attractive, water-resistant package, but is it a must-have mobile companion or a nice-to-have gadget?
With its rectangular, black, aluminum body; chrome-colored, aluminum power button; and side accents and glossy bezel, the Sony SmartWatch 2 is the classiest-looking smartwatch we've tested, matching the elegant design of high-end phones like the Xperia Z. Unlike the Samsung Galaxy Gear and the Pebble Watch, both of which use proprietary chargers that are easy to use, the SmartWatch 2 has a standard microUSB power port, quietly tucked away behind a black port cover on its left side.
Also unlike the Galaxy Gear, which builds key components into its nonremovable band, the SmartWatch 2 uses a standard 24mm band, which you can replace with any third-party watch band or one of Sony's $20 colorful replacements. The watch is sold with either a black resin band or a metal band (at Best Buy only). We found the black band extremely comfortable and easy to adjust, unlike the hard Gear band, but we prefer the bold color of Sony's aqua or purple replacement bands.
At 1.6 x 1.6 x 0.35 inches and just 1.7 ounces, the SmartWatch 2 is a lot smaller and lighter than the 2.2 x 1.4 x 0.43-inch, 2.6-ounce Galaxy Gear. However, the 2 x 1.2 x 0.4-inch, 1.35-ounce Pebble is a bit lighter (though longer).
Sony claims that the SmartWatch 2 can survive up to 30 minutes submerged in up to 3 feet of water, and our tests show that the watch can spend time under water without sustaining damage. When we dropped the SmartWatch 2 in a vase with 1 foot of water, its screen stayed lit, and it remained Bluetooth-connected to our smartphone, even showing a notification on the home screen. However, the device did not change screen modes under water: It would not go to sleep when we dropped it with the home screen showing, and it would not wake up to alert us when showing the watch face. Unless you're a scuba diver, however, you probably don't care if the watch runs well underwater, as long as it survives. The Pebble can also work under water, but Samsung makes no such claim with the Galaxy Gear.
The 1.6-inch, 220 x 176-pixel touch screen on the SmartWatch 2 isn't quite as sharp as the 320 x 320 Samsung Galaxy Gear, but provides vibrant and colorful images. Sony claims that the 262,000-color panel is visible in sunlight, and indeed, we were able to see the screen very clearly when we tested it outdoors, though it was slightly overcast.
Unlike other full-color watches that turn their screens off to save power, the Sony SmartWatch 2 has a transflective display that goes into a low-energy gray-scale mode and shows the watch face when it's asleep. So, if you want to just see the time, there's no need to hit the power button .
Sadly, the watch goes to sleep after only 15 seconds of inactivity, which made it difficult for us to read emails if we weren't actively tapping on the screen. The Galaxy Gear allows you to change its screen timeout, but the SmartWatch 2 does not.
Installation and Setup
Like most smartwatches today, the Sony SmartWatch 2 can't do much without being connected to your smartphone. Fortunately, the watch will work with any phone that has Android 4.0 or above. (We tested it with a Galaxy Note 3.)
Setup was a breeze, as we tapped the back of the watch against our NFC-enabled phone and watched as the phone took us to the Google Play store to download Sony's Smart Connect software. After the software installed, we tapped the watch again, and it paired automatically without a single prompt from the phone. Users without NFC can pair their phone with the watch manually using Bluetooth.
Smart Connect Control
With the Smart Connect app installed and the watch paired, a watch icon lives permanently in your phone's notification bar, with the icon changing to show whether or not you are currently connected. When you pull down the notification drawer and tap on the watch icon there (it never goes away), the software takes you to a list of the apps installed on your phone. You can also get there by launching the Smart Connect app.
From the Smart Connect control panel, you can either search for new apps or change the settings on installed apps, controlling everything from the frequency of Facebook alerts to whose tweets appear on your watch. Smart Connect also has a list of recommended apps, which include the SMS messaging app, phone dialer and email app .
The Samsung Gear manager, which controls the Galaxy Gear, also allows you to install apps, change the watch face and control which apps can generate a notification on the watch. However, Samsung's app also lets you assign an app shortcut to double-tapping the power button, and it has a Find My Gear feature that sets off an alarm on the watch to help you locate it.
Though the SmartWatch 2 uses its own proprietary operating system, its UI looks and feels an awful lot like Android. Like many Android devices, the bottom bezel has capacitive buttons for back, home and menu. Hitting the home button takes you to a home screen with Sony wallpaper and shortcut icons for six apps. As you move right to left, you move to other home screens with more shortcuts. Hitting the menu button allows you to sort the shortcuts either alphabetically or by most frequently used. Hitting the back button doesn't do anything when you're on the home screen but will take you back a step from within any app.
At the top of the home screens, there's a status bar that looks a lot like those you'll find on an Android phone. It shows the time, Bluetooth connectivity and battery level. Pulling down the status bar shows a notification drawer with all your most recent alerts. There's also a built-in app called New Events that lets you scroll through all your recent alerts.
The SmartWatch 2 also has an on-watch settings menu that allows you to turn vibration on or off, set an unlock pin, adjust the screen brightness or change the watch face. The watch comes with only five faces: One face just shows the time in numerals, while the other four have an analog look with hour and minute hands.
Unfortunately, there's no option to load third-party watch faces, and none of the faces show anything more than the time. Because the face stays visible and tells the time even when the watch is asleep, we would have liked to see other information there, such as the weather, date or number of unread emails.
As you walk around throughout the day, the SmartWatch 2 remains tethered to your phone via Bluetooth, but its screen remains in gray-scale mode, showing the face. However, when you receive an alert of any kind, the watch will wake up and show you the alert on screen for a little more than 5 seconds, vibrating on your wrist if you have vibrations enabled.
Because the watch doesn't make sounds, if you have vibrations disabled, you'll only know you have an alert if you're actively staring at the device during the few seconds when the notification appears. Disappointingly, there is also no way to change the notification duration. You can always see your recent notifications by pulling down the drawer from the watch home screen.
Each app that provides notifications has its own settings. Sony's Facebook and Twitter alert apps allow you to select not only what types of events generate an alert (direct messages only or news updates), but also which friends' posts generate alerts. However, if you don't allow alerts from a particular friend, you won't see his or her updates on the watch at all. Unfortunately, the Gmail and Touchdown (for Exchange mail) apps do not allow you to choose alerts by sender, which means you either get alerted about all your email or none.
When opening an alert, the amount of content you can read on the watch depends on the app. The Twitter app will show you full tweets, and the Facebook app will show entire updates, but neither displays images or videos that are embedded in the updates. The Gmail app cuts off emails after a few lines, but Sony said a fix for this issue is coming in an update. Gmail also does not show attached images, but it does show the profile pic for each sender. When we received a text message with a JPG attached, the JPG displayed on the SmartWatch 2. While Pebble also shows a lot of information from each service, the Galaxy Gear does not show Gmail or Facebook messages, instead directing you to open them on your phone.
Unlike the Galaxy Gear, which allows you to reply to emails from the phone by using your voice, the Sony SmartWatch 2 does not provide any means for replying to emails or social networking messages because it doesn't have a microphone for accepting voice commands. There's also no way to fit a keyboard onto the 1.6-inch screen. However, Sony's messaging and call apps allow you to send canned responses from the watch -- such as "Where are you?" or "What are you up to?" -- either in response to a text message or a call you reject. You can also craft your own canned replies within the apps' settings menu on your phone.
While the Pebble watch has about 100 apps and the Galaxy Gear has about 60, the Sony SmartWatch 2 has an ecosystem of more than 300 apps available. When you search for watch apps using Smart Connect, you can choose to see only apps that are optimized for the SmartWatch 2 or those that work on both watches.
Sony says that nonoptimized apps will not fill the whole screen. In our testing, we didn't see a graphical difference between the two types of apps , but noted that some of the nonoptimized apps seemed a bit buggy. Calculator app Quick Calc, which was not optimized, was very sluggish and froze on us.
Sony divides SmartWatch apps into 11 categories, ranging from Music and Audio to Communications and Fitness. Though Sony provides a list of the categories, when you tap on one, you are transported to the Google Play store to download the apps.
While there are more apps available on the SmartWatch 2 than on the Gear or the Pebble, few are really helpful. Most, like the card games and camera monitor, are somewhat useful, though others, like the $2.99 app that just shows a "Knight Rider" animation, are downright useless.
The games apps are mostly card games, such as Poker and Blackjack, along with Tic-Tac-Toe and Sudoku. The communications category contains a wide variety of apps, including some phone dialers and the Twitter and Facebook apps. We found the Accuweather app fairly useful but wish it detected our location rather than forcing us to choose a city.
The lifestyle category contains a cocktails app and a number of language-learning apps. The Spanish app only contained a few common phrases rather than a comprehensive dictionary. By contrast, the Galaxy Gear has the CamDictionary app, which lets you photograph foreign-language text and have it translated.
The photography category contains a few useful apps for controlling your camera, including Sony Smart Camera, which allowed us to shoot photos and video on our phone by tapping some buttons on the watch. The Watcher app turned our phone into a security camera, which we could view through the watch. Because the phone and the SmartWatch 2 connect over Bluetooth, which is much slower than Wi-Fi, the camera previews lagged quite a bit.
While the Pebble has an RSS reader and even a copy of the Bible available, the SmartWatch 2 doesn't have much in the way of reading material. We appreciated the effort behind WebBrowser, an app that lets you browse the Web from the watch, but it was extremely slow and laggy with Web graphics and jagged text.
The SmartWatch 2 also has a few interesting tools available, including SmartWatch File Explorer, which allows you to browse the folders on your phone and even open image files, a sound meter and a compass. The watch comes preloaded with a Flashlight app and a timer .
Like most smartwatches today, the Sony SmartWatch 2 needs to be paired with your phone to make use of most of its features. However, some functions -- such as the time, alarm, timer and flashlight -- still work even when not paired with the phone . Any data that you already downloaded in notifications -- Twitter messages, for example -- is also still visible when the watch is offline.
One of the most intriguing uses for the Sony SmartWatch 2 is as a remote control for music players on the phone. You can skip tracks and pause playback, which comes in handy when you're wearing headphones or if your phone is across the room or connected to a Bluetooth speaker.
Though there are more than a dozen apps listed in the SmartWatch 2, most of the major music services are left out, with only Spotify, Sony's Music Unlimited Service and local music files supported . We found both the Spotify and Sony Music Unlimited apps attractive but minimally useful, as they allowed us to skip songs on an existing playlist or radio station and showed album covers for each track, but did not let us conduct a search, change playlists or perform any more serious functions. Music Player On and NRG player did little more than allow us to play, pause and move forward or back a track on our locally stored MP3s, and in both apps, there was significant lag when we tried to change songs. None of these apps enabled us to jog through tracks on other music services such as Rhapsody and Slacker.
The Sony SmartWatch 2 has a couple of apps that help you keep track of your exercise regimen. Runtastic Pro, which normally costs $4.99 but is free when you purchase the silicon-band version of the watch, allows you to see how far you've run and how many calories you've burned on your wrist while the app keeps track of more details on your phone. WalkMate is another free app that just tracks your steps.
Sony claims that the SmartWatch 2 can last 3 or more days on a charge, and the company is not exaggerating. In our tests, we were able to use the watch Friday, Saturday and Sunday without running out of juice. The SmartWatch 2 also did not appear to have an adverse effect on our phone's battery life, as the Galaxy Note 3 we tested it with lasted all day long. The Galaxy Gear, in comparison, is rated for a full day of use.
Like the Pebble, the Sony SmartWatch 2 is more about reading what's on your phone than interacting with it. Though it doesn't have a camera, speakers or microphone, this wrist companion provides detailed alerts for your email, Gmail, Facebook, SMS messages, calendar appointments and other functions. However, after several days of constant use, the SmartWatch 2 just didn't feel like an indispensible part of our mobile life, and unlike the Gear, it wasn't even full-featured enough for us to play with it when we were bored.
We found the barrage of notifications sometimes distracting, and wished that we had the ability to both view our social feeds without being alerted and to restrict email notifications only to certain senders. Better and more complex apps, such as newsreaders and additional radio services (Pandora , Slacker), would make the SmartWatch 2 more useful.
Users looking for a similar passive watch experience for less money may want to consider the Pebble, which costs $149 and works with iPhones as well as Android, but has a gray-scale screen without touch. Those who own a Galaxy Note 3 or other compatible Samsung might consider splurging $300 for the Galaxy Gear, which allows you to issue voice commands and take pictures from your wrist. However, if you're looking for a stylish wrist companion that serves as a second screen for your Android phone, the SmartWatch 2 is a compelling choice.