It's a turbulent time to be a smartwatch.
Turbulent in an interesting way, like the years we spent experimenting with chains on our jeans, purple hair and pretending to enjoy jazz music. Or like the wacky, pre-iPhone age of no-rules phone design, when every handset seemed to have a built-in pico projector, a mirrored screen like Nokia's 7280 lipstick phone or a loudspeaker/scrollwheel shell like Bang & Olufen's Serene.
We haven't really decided what we want smartwatches to be yet. Do we want wristwear that makes calls and snaps pictures just like your phone? Probably not. Do we want smartwatches with Mario watchfaces that last a week on one charge like the Pebble? Yes please.
Sony's latest entry into tech's wrist wars, the SmartWatch 2, plays it safe as a simple second screen with a sensible $288 pricetag and compatibility with all Android phones. So far, so much better than the Galaxy Gear. But does it have what it takes to take up valuable wrist space? We've just spent 192 hours glued to the Sony SmartWatch 2 to find out.
It's a mini Xperia Z
For such a boundary-pushing slice of kit, the SmartWatch 2 doesn't make the most impactful first impression. In fact, it looks a bit route-one. Its square aluminium and plastic watchface, Sony logo, capacitive buttons and silver power button on the right-hand edge help to keep it in line with Sony's Xperia design DNA. Our sample is the Active version, which comes with a black silicone strap, but leather variants and a silver-faced version are also available.
At 122.5g it's light, comfortable and less auspicious than the Galaxy Gear – you might get through cringey small talk before someone comments on your piece of time-focused gadgetry. By cramming in a 1.6in LCD touchscreen, it makes excellent use of the limited space available too.
The lack of any other physical buttons on the SmartWatch gives it a sleeker design, but in use we prefer the Pebble's old-school 'real' buttons on either side. With its big bezels and monochrome non-touch screen, the Pebble is already a bit old-school, but its big, physical buttons save time when skipping tracks or getting rid of notifications.
To use Sony's three capacitive home, back and app re-ordering buttons, you have to tilt the SmartWatch towards you, power on the screen then tap. We think Pebble has the right idea.
Just don't add water
Remember those steamy showers we took with the Xperia Z, Z1 and Xperia Tablet Z? Well, the SmartWatch 2 isn't invited to that particular party. When the microUSB flap is covered, it is splashproof and IP57 water resistant, which means it's fine in the rain and for splashing Ragu around in the kitchen.
But - and it's a big but - it ain't waterproof. Step away from that snorkelling gear. Sony's list of what the SmartWatch 2 isn't suitable for includes showers, baths (does London rain count as a bath?), swimming, diving and fishing. Thus, we haven't submerged the SW2 in any containers of water as we know exactly what will happen.
Splashproofing is a bonus over the non-water resistant Gear, but the Pebble can handle depths of up to 50m, and it has a magnetic USB charging cable to avoid the need for a port cover. In this regard, it's just the better thought-out device.
Processor: not specified
Display: 1.6in 220x176 LCD Touchscreen
Connectitivity: Bluetooth 3.0, NFC, microUSB
Memory: not specified
Dimensions: 41.6mm x 41.1mm x 9mm
Weight: 122.5g including silicon strap
Battery: 3-4 days normal use, 5-6 days light use
Setting up the SmartWatch 2 is painless – just turn the watch on, flip the Bluetooth switch on your Android phone (it's compatible with all of them, though no love for iOS) and then scan for Bluetooth devices on your phone and pair. If your 'droid has NFC you can also tap to pair.
The free Smart Connect app from Google Play is where all the action happens. If you have a big-screened Sony like the Z Ultra, this might be familiar: it's where you control paired Bluetooth headphones, headsets, speakers and wearables. Select the SmartWatch 2 to edit to alter settings and download compatible apps.
2004 wants its screen back
It's been a while since we gazed upon a 220x176 colour screen, but the SmartWatch 2's touchscreen boasts a respectable 176ppi given its 1.6in span. That's not a patch on Samsung's glorious 278ppi Galaxy Gear screen, mind you, so icons, text and yes, the time, will all look a bit fuzzy and jagged to nerd eyes. It's easy to forgive, considering the price difference: $288 to the Sammy's $488.
Straight on, colours are vibrant and it's a clear, bright display. Fingerprints blight it, though, and viewing angles aren't great either: if you tilt the watchface away from your body, it starts to look like an overexposed photo.
Outdoors, the low-power mode provides a neat, subdued watchface that's easy to read in direct sunlight too. We still think the less colourful but gloriously readable Pebble display has the SmartWatch 2's beat in most usage scenarios.
Genuinely smart skills
With a mini icon grid reminiscent of smartphone homescreens, the SmartWatch 2 is easy to navigate. Unlike the Galaxy Gear, you won't find yourself scrolling round and round the full screen icons trying to find the pedometer.
When your phone is MIA, all you can do with the SW2 is read notifications that have already synced, set alarms, use the torchlight (don't bother with this) and, of course, check the time.
But when your smartphone gets involved, the SmartWatch 2 is the most informative wearable we've tested so far. Once you've downloaded the right apps (see boxout below), the buzz, tilt 'n' check routine when you get an email will become second nature.
The Pebble is faster (texts somehow appear on the watch before they do on your phone), but the Sony ups the ante by allowing you to scroll through previous notifications by swiping downwards at any time (on the Pebble they disappear into the ether at a button press), and is shows more information on one screen. For example, your WhatsApp message is displayed in its entirety, not just who sent it and the name of the group.
However, there's lots of room for improvement. We'd like icons on the Facebook app to show what's a message sent to us and what's just a status update. Maybe we have blathering friends, but email previews are so short as to be basically useless. And Twitter needs more settings, so we can get a buzz for interactions and mentions but not tweets by the 8,000 people we follow.
Speaking of apps, there's about 110 to peruse right now: a pretty impressive selection from the insanely useful to the wacky. That's less than Sony's promised 400, but more than is available for the Galaxy Gear at time of writing.
1. WatchIt! Ignore the SmartWatch apps asking for your money to sync with WhatsApp. Get WatchIt! for free and it will show any notifications that pop up as banners on your phone including WhatsApp, Google+ and Hangouts chat. Before it will work, it requires turning on access for the app in your smartphone's accessibility settings.
2. Endomondo The SmartWatch 2 is not a standalone GPS running watch, but glancing at it during a jog does save time as you can keep your phone in your pocket, cutting the faff. We used it with Endomondo, as it's a reliable, feature-heavy app and service, and the SW2's display shows time, distance, mph and heart rate (if you pay for this). Sony offers a 14-day free trial to Runtastic Pro Gold ($6.99 app) with an activation code in the pack of the SmartWatch 2 active edition.
3. GPS Maps for SmartWatch Now we're talking. It relies on your smartphone's GPS but if you're cycling, motorbiking or just moving your legs really fast this is a great, free app. It's a little slow but it zooms in and out (via the corner controls) easily enough and marks your location with a red arrow.
4. Slideshow Pebble's no good for viewing photos but the Sony is with its bright, clear images. We'd like to be able to navigate our phone's gallery to find individual snaps, but for now, we'll make do with a slideshow of recent photos – including what your mates have sent you on WhatsApp. So, you know, be careful.
5. Calendar reminder One of the SmartWatch apps we glanced at the most. It's simple enough and we really did use it in meetings when it would have been rude to unlock our phone and swipe to the calendar widget. Smartwatch win.
6. WebBrowser Hey, you've just bought a smartwatch. You want some gimmicks. This is pretty slow to load, has a painfully old-school Nokia-style keyboard layout and is juddery to scroll. But you can Google stuff on your watch if you really want, and freak non-techy friends out with your wrist computer.
Power Up (Thumbs Down)
Ah, it was all going so well: the apps, the notifications. But the SmartWatch 2 requires plenty of patience: patience we just don't have. First up, the Bluetooth connection often drops out – but since that's the case for all the smartwatches we've been wearing lately, it's not a deal-breaker.
The glitches, however, almost are. Icons greying out, the homescreen going into low power mode for no reason, a line of static-style, multi-coloured pixels appearing, a lack of responsiveness when scrolling and swiping. This is when the Pebble's lack of touchscreen starts to look very appealing.
And why have the notifications disappeared to be replaced by blank Jan 01 bars, Sony? The Pebble's just told us we have a meeting in five minutes while you have been busily crashing and burning. The Endomondo app, as much as we liked it, was one of the biggest culprits for causing the SW2 to go into meltdown, and not even longpressing the power button saves it.
It took a few days for our SmartWatch 2 unit to get into this state of disrepair, but with only about 20 apps on there and with plenty of rejuicing/recuperating time, we hoped for better. If Sony can update the SmartWatch 2's software to make the experience of using it plain sailing, it'll earn at least one more star.
Sensible battery life
What a relief to find that when the SW2 buzzes to say it's down to 15% battery, you can simply grab a microUSB cable to recharge. The port is covered with a small flap on the left-hand edge of the watch body. Compared with the Galaxy Gear's bespoke charging cradle, this is fantastic news.
Battery life is much better than the Gear too – we charged it three times in the space of just over a week, but we reckon when we're not testing it, twice a week will suffice. Longevity-wise it sits smack bang in the middle of the Galaxy Gear (1-2 days max) and the saintly Pebble, which lasted all week on a single charge.
As a concept, Sony's SmartWatch 2 seems to tread a fine line between the simple (like the Pebble) and the overblown and tricksy (like the Galaxy Gear). The design is solid, if a little drab-retro for our liking, the screen is a useful size and battery life is good enough to keep us using the device. It focuses on being a second screen to your super-capable Android phone, and doesn't try to replicate what it can do. That's to be applauded.
But in order to adorn millions of wrists, it needs to at least approach the reliability of a real watch, and it needs a few more useful apps. The basics such as Spotify would be nice, but it'd be better still if Sony pushed the boat out with something that allowed you to use its NFC to make mobile payments.
Right now, the most reliable smartwatch (as well as being the cheapest, longest-lasting, easiest to read outdoors and actually waterproof) is still the Pebble. But if you want an LCD screen, the best third-party smartwatch app store and simple charging, the SmartWatch 2 is just about worth your patience.