After years of developing smartphones and tablets, the consumer tech industry players now turns to wearable smart devices to expand the market capitalisation. Until recently, smartwatches only appeal to the early adopters because they are made by unknown brands, like Pebble, and not widely available in many countries over the shelf, including Singapore.
But this has changed since last quarter of 2013. The biggest consumer brands - Sony and Samsung - have both launched smartwatches and available for retail purchase in Singapore. I have both smartwatches for review and here's a review on the Sony SW2 (the Samsung Gear will be published in a few days time).
Sony SW2 Specs
The Sony SmartWatch 2 is the second iteration of the original SmartWatch that was not available in Singapore. Putting the predecessor aside, the new SW2 supports any Android smartphone running OS 4.0 and above, and this opens up to a lot of potential consumers. The SW2 is extremely lightweight and understated, and does not look like a geek device at all, until someone sees you interacting with the touch screen. The watch strap uses standard 24mm strap and is IP57 weather resistant. A covered micro USB port lets you charge the device within an hour, and there is just one hardware button similar to the current Xperia design.
To get the Sony SW2 paired to an Android device, the easiest way is to do it via NFC. Turn on NFC on your Android smartphone, tap both devices where the NFC chip is located, and the smartphone should immediately redirect to Google Play store to install the Smart Connect app. Once installed, it will then proceed to install the SmartWatch 2 app. This is the app needed to install any SW2 mini-apps. For a start, the SW2 does not have any apps pre-installed, but the Android SmartWatch 2 app will display a list of recommended mini-apps on the screen to encourage you to install manually. Once the app is installed via the SmartWatch 2 app, it will automatically sync to the SW2.
Apps recommended by SW2:
Call handling (answer, reject, mute, volume handling), Call log, Missed call notification, SMS/MMS, Email, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Music remote extension/music handling, Calendar, Weather, Runtastic, Viewfinder
Depending on the device, some Sony-recommended mini-apps might not work, and this is understandable, given there are so many Android phone brands who use their own custom apps. For instance, the Smart Camera mini-app does not work on the HTC Butterfly S, while the Email mini-app does not work on the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. If you want full compatibility, you should use an Xperia smartphone.
On-screen, there are 3 soft buttons below the touch screen - back, home and menu - just like Android. During standby, the watch face is constantly visible even without backlight. One press on the power button will turn on the backlight to let you see the watch face in the dark. Another press will open up the "home screen" which looks just like Android: a status bar on top and a 3x2 icon page. Swipe left and right to access the other pages, swipe down for notification list, tap "menu" button for context options, "back" button to go back to previous screen, or "home" button to jump right back to the main homescreen. Any Android user will be able to operate the SW2 within minutes.
In most cases, when you are reading a particular event (e.g. calendar appointment, SMS, Gmail), the context menu on the SW2 has an option to open the same event from your smartphone. This allows instant response on the event from your smartphone instead of having to navigate to the event again.
Other than the hardware power button, there is no other connectors on the SW2, nor is there a mic or speaker. As such, you cannot connect any headphones or make hands-free calls via the SW2. It also does not have any audible notifications except for vibration. The SW2 works best if you have a Bluetooth headset, then you can make calls without touching your smartphone.
The SW2 has a 220x176 pixel 1.6-inch colour screen. The resolution and images appear pixelated, the fonts, icons and images are not quite pretty. Compared to Samsung Gear, the SW2 screen certainly looks inferior and unimpressive. However, I am able to accept that because I value the functionality more than the screen quality.
Like all smart devices, the functional capabilities are limited only by the available apps. It would therefore be unfair to comment whether the SW2 apps are good or not. But thanks to the pre-existence of the original Sony SmartWatch, there are a lot more mini-apps for download, though many are chargeable. As long as you can find apps, anything is possible with the SW2, including, map navigation, fitness tracking (Runtastic PRO comes free with the purchase of the SW2 at launch).
If you were to install the recommended apps like Gmail, Messaging, Missed Call, Calendar, the SW2 will receive notifications instantaneously whenever there are new events. I find this tremendously helpful when I am busy, say while driving or while in an active discussion. These events will appear on the screen briefly as the SW2 vibrates, so I just look at the SW2 where the event will appear. If it was something important, I could tap the screen to read more, open the context menu to take further action, either call back, open the event on my smartphone or to reply SMS. Replying SMS or missed call is limited by templates that you can define from the SmartWatch 2 app: there is no way to compose a message from the 1.6-inch screen of the SW2!
Some apps store the notification events on the SW2 while some reads live data from the smartphone. For instance, Calendar will access live data so you can actually review calendar events over many days. As you scroll, the SW2 will load new data. For apps that store events, a small issue is that I am unable to clear these events directly from the SW2. It has to be done via the smartphone. These apps include: Missed Calls, Gmail, Twitter, Facebook.
My favourite app is "WatchIt!", a free app that allows you to configure any notification to appear on the SW2. This alone makes SW2 so much more useful, since the primary function of a smartwatch is to notify you of events on your smartphone. And interestingly, I can clear my WatchIt notification list, which means this is a feature that is not difficult to implement. I do hope the Sony-recommended apps could do just that.
There are other apps that basically demonstrate the potential of smartwatches, but otherwise I don't find them particularly useful.
The Music app lets you scroll and play music tracks remotely on your smartphone, but it is not easy to navigate: the view is limited to the cover art and you cannot choose to search music tracks or folders. You might want to look elsewhere for third-party apps.
The Smart Camera app displays a live view of your smartphone camera, and you can remotely trigger the shutter, but I find it extremely laggy.
The Slideshow app lets you playback images in your smartphone on the SW2 as a slideshow, but the experience is marred by the low-resolution display.
The Call app lets you search contacts, make calls via the keypad, but again it would be more efficient to seach contacts and dial a caller directly from the smartphone - unless you are using a Bluetooth headset, with which you can use the SW2 to make calls without touching your smartphone.
The Twitter and Facebook apps displays only the latest 30 notifications on the SW2, and even if you scroll to the end of the 30 events, you cannot read more. You can also set update intervals but live notification is not an option. Anyway, I don't find these social apps useful to display on the SW2. If required, I could use WatchIt! to push notifications of my social apps, including Instagram, Line, WeChat, anything!
To me, other features like reading social feeds or browsing phone contents or playing games are not important, because nothing beats grabbing your phone and consume the content. You cannot expect a smartwatch to possess the same functionality as the smartphone, and SW2 does not pretend to be one.
Occasionally, the apps that require live connections might not work properly, and could cause the smartphone or smartwatch apps to crash. These apps include the Calendar, Music, Smart Camera.
Above all the functionality, the SW2 has a long battery life. It lasts me about 3 days of normal office usage - mileage varies depending on the intensiveness. If you don't use it that often, I reckon it can last up to a week. Amazingly, the SW2 has no observable impact on the battery drain of the smartphone.
Sony SW2: Verdict
How useful is a smartwatch like Sony SW2? If you always have your smartphone with you all the time, then a smartwatch is definitely redundant, and in some cases, annoying. But if you leave your smartphone in your bag or frequently out-of-sight, or if you work in a noisy environment, or when you are in the gym, and if you are paranoid about missing any incoming notifications, then a smartwatch is the solution. The smartwatch experience works best with a Bluetooth headset.
What I like about the SW2 is that it is unobtrusive, feels and looks like a normal digital watch, and displays the time without having to press any buttons to wake up the screen. I'm not going lie and proclaim that the SW2 is a classy timepiece, but I'm sure in time to come (no pun intended), with a sizable market, Sony will come up with design variants to meet the demanding consumers.
P.S. Comparing with Samsung Gear
I will be comparing the Sony SW2 with the Samsung Gear. Which one do I prefer? Watch for the upcoming post!
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