Update: Sony have released the elephant (keep reading), firmware patch on 19th February 2014 has fixed the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth connection issues.
I reviewed the Sony Smartwatch last year when I picked one up after months of deciding whether to take a gamble or not. Three days after it arrived, Sony announced the Smartwatch 2, and being someone who struggles to not buy new tech, I kept my eye on the price and waited until a nice sale discount before upgrading. So was I right to upgrade after only 6 months? And is the new version as better, as good as, or worse than the original?
The first thing I have to address is the elephant in the room. I’ve been wanting it to walk out of its own accord over the last two weeks, but it’s stubbornly taken up residence next to the TV and is now demanding we feed it peanuts. The elephant in this instance is, sadly, the own goal Sony have managed with their Android 4.3 update. The latest update for the flagship phones stops Wi-Fi and the Smartwatch 2 working at together. I discovered this after 4 hours of cursing my router and accusing my phone of breaking, then switched the Smartwatch off only to find everything connecting beautifully. I’ve scoured the Sony forums and been relieved I’m not the only one affected, and that it’s a number of bluetooth devices that have this problem. The issue will be fixed in the next update according to Sony, though whether that’s a 4.3 change or the update to KitKat 4.4 is unknown. Here’s hoping it’s not long and that I can use all the features to full effect soon. With that out of the way let’s focus on the device itself and what it can do.
There’s obviously more focus this time for the Smartwatch to follow the Xperia phone form design, a chunk of solid black glass and plastic with rounded edges and metal buttons (don’t sue them Apple!), but also treat it more like a jewellery piece than just wearable tech. The packaging is a nicely presented watch box and the device itself is no longer a clip-on screen, it comes with a full watch strap, and generally looks more like a time piece. It was a pleasant surprise even though I knew what was coming. The setup is also much easier, just turn on your NFC, touch the watch to the phone, and done. Maybe it’s because I had the software already installed from the previous device, but the whole pairing and initial setup only took about 15 seconds, including initialisation of the watch. Pretty impressive. There’s real effort gone in to make it more user friendly.
In operation the thing I immediately noticed is the watch display. The watch face is on display all the time, you don’t have to tap/shake/button press to find out if it’s gin o’clock, and it’s cleverly done by using an inverse display that draws little power. A press of the side button lights the clock up, and another press or a tap of the home key gets you into the menus. I did attempt to get it working by tapping the face a lot, expecting it to work like the first one, but it doesn’t and I kind of miss that feature. However, there’s plenty it does do that makes up for it.
The display is a higher resolution than before and still full colour, and has no issue displaying reasonable looking pictures, albeit on a small screen. Swiping left and right is more responsive, as is recognising taps in the various sectors of the screen. The original Smartwatch went for really only having touch recognition in the four corners of the display, and you had to be deliberate with your actions. You still have to be quite deliberate (probably because there’s a higher chance of accidentally knocking and swiping), but it’s more like a distinct 12 square grid that responds to your fingers. The improved display means everything looks a lot nicer and more like a “smart” watch, and there are even built in watch functions like an alarm (vibrate only), timer and stopwatch, as well as a torch option to use the lit up display, and the obligatory different face options. This means you don’t have to maintain a constant connection to your phone to keep using it as a watch.
For adding your own apps it’s as simple as picking the shortcut to a search in the Google Play store in the configuration section on the phone and selecting what you want. There are over 250 at the moment, but maybe only 50 that you’d actually consider installing for use. Sony seem to have gone down the route of providing the absolute basics for phone function, call answering, text and email notification, and left everything else up to app developers and hobbyists after they released the source code and SDK for free. This might in the long run be the best approach because it’ll give us a lot of variety, but in the short term it feels a little limiting. There are a couple of apps I’ve found essential: WatchIt! for notifications because the inbuilt ones only cover basic info, this allows you to receive notifications from any installed app; and Toggles which controls all the phone connectivity options, and has been very useful for activating and deactivating mobile data in the absence of a working Wi-Fi signal. The Smartwatch 2 also comes with a RunKeeper activation code for the pro version, so if you are in the mind to keep track of all your fitness activity and share with everyone you know on G+/Facebook/Twitter, then you can at no extra cost.
In terms of functionality, most is the same as before but expanded upon. Call rejection now has the option to send a text message which can be customised so you can pick an appropriate response. The same is there for the text messages too, and having more than one default reply is an improved feature, and means I’ve got one set for Andy all the time (“This is Matt’s watch telling you he’s busy. Chump.”). The send message options are also there for the missed call log too, which means if you’re slow at picking up whilst someone is ringing you can do it later. You can instigate calls, take photos from the phone, stream RSS feeds, and use GPS, all the things you’d want to be able to do remotely, or when you can’t hold your phone directly. Music control is available too, but I can’t figure out how to change album, so this seems a bit redundant, and it is odd because it was something easily done on the older model. However, connect to a Bluetooth headset or speaker at the same time and you’ve got the ultimate hands free control of your devices. It shouldn’t be underestimated how good that feels (especially if you’re a geek like me).
What about the style? It definitely looks and feels better than the first model. It’s a larger face size, but not necessarily bigger than most watches. It’s reasonably thin so that it fits comfortably under shirt cuffs, and it’s not heavy either. The silicone strap version means it doesn’t slide around, and also doesn’t sweat up, but it’s a dust magnet. You’re not stuck with that though, change it to whatever is best for you. I like the form, it’s water and dust resistant, the screen doesn’t get smudged easily, and the charging slot is hidden behind a discreet cover. Speaking of power, it’s a standard micro USB so there’s only one cable needed to charge this and most phones, plus the battery life is pretty good. Switching it off on a night I’ve been getting 7 days use from it between charges, though once the Wi-Fi issue is fixed I guess I’ll be checking it more and that’ll bring the battery life down.
Ultimately, is the Smartwatch 2 worth it? Despite the cock up with the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth conflict, this is a very nice device, and when it’s working properly I’ll be much happier. I was obviously disappointed that it wouldn’t function exactly as I wanted from the beginning, but validation came when I was in a meeting with a colleague and rejected a nuisance call. This prompted a five minute discussion about how useful it was and how she wanted one too. It made me realise that this type of wearable tech is starting to become higher profile and will likely be adopted by many of us over the coming years. There’s lots of room for improvement, and I’m confident that the support will continue, but the key thing is making them appear fashionable to break into the jewellery market and push them into the mainstream. This also opens up the question of where these devices are going in the future, and when we’ll see the first that actually replaces your phone completely; it’s not a big step considering technology progress to shrink the phone down in size and run all outputs through a bluetooth headset, doing away with a handset all together.