Sony was already an experienced veteran of the smartwatch market when Android Wear was announced. Of course, I don't mean that they were experienced selling them—oh, goodness no. Sony sure did make smartwatches, though. When asked if there would be an Android Wear device in Sony's portfolio, the company said it would continue to do its own thing. Well, that didn't last long. The SmartWatch 3 is essentially a beefed up version of Sony's past smartwatches running Android Wear, and that could make it a potent competitor in the burgeoning wearable wars.
Sony's experience making smartwatches isn't all for naught—the SmartWatch 3 has a few interesting features and quirks that make it a neat addition to the Android Wear lineup.
Sony SmartWatch 3 Specs
- Display: 1.6-inch Transflective TFT LCD, 320x320
- Battery: 420mAh
- Storage: 4GB
- Processor: Broadcom BCM23550, 1.2GHz Quad-core ARM Cortex A7
- Dimensions: 36mm x 10mm x 51mm
- Weight: Watch core – 38g, Strap – 36g
- Sensors: Ambient Light, Accelerometer, Magnetometer, Gyroscope, GPS
- Protection: IP68
- Extras: NFC and WiFi (not yet functional)
- Excellent battery life
- Comfortable strap with nice clasp
- Smooth performance
- Understated look (some might say boring)
- Transflective screen is sharp and readable outdoors
- Ambient light sensor
- Ready for the future of Wear with GPS, NFC, and WiFi
- Transflective screen not readable in dark while in ambient mode
- Colors on screen are slightly yellow-ish
- Boring look (some might say understated)
- Stiff button
- Strap collects dust
- Non-standard straps
- No heart rate sensor
Design And Internals
The SmartWatch 3 is an unimposing device, but I'll tell you right now, it doesn't come off very well in photos. It's becoming a trend with many Android Wear devices, actually. They tend to look nicer in person than they do in pictures. I always thought the SW3 looked a little dopey, but in real life it just sort of blends in. When wearing the Moto 360 (and to a lesser extent the G Watch R), you're sure to see eyes lingering on your watch, and the more bold among your fellow humans will ask questions about the crazy screen strapped to your wrist.
By comparison, the SmartWatch 3 goes unnoticed. It looks like any number of fitness trackers and similar accessories that have come out in recent years, so everyone assumes that's what it is. That said, my review unit has the black silicone band, which makes it a little less noticeable still. Sony's watch doesn't use standard watch bands, and I don't mean like they don't fit well, or you need special tools to swap bands. The watch body itself snaps into the silicone bands, which you buy from Sony. There will be a number of colors available, but Sony's store only has a few listed right now. The company also says the "core" of the watch could be plugged into other things, though it has not offered any examples.
Left to right: G Watch R, Moto 360, SmartWatch 3
The upshot of the band design is that it actually makes the watch look like a single cohesive piece of tech. Many other smartwatches look bolted onto their bands, but not this one. That's a little odd considering it completely detaches from the band, but it's in there pretty solidly. The SmartWatch 3 has a button on the right, but it's not terribly pleasant to use. The button is embedded in the silicone surround, and actually depresses a smaller button on the side of the watch body. It's stiff and has almost no travel or feedback. I'm often not sure if I've pressed it.
The band is quite comfortable most of the time, to the point that I forget I'm wearing it. However, silicone tends to get rather sticky and gross if you're sweating at all. It also attracts a lot of dust and bits of flotsam. The clasp Sony went with is great, though. It's a folding mechanism that you slide up and down the band to adjust, then swing it closed. It snaps in securely and is nicely low-profile. My only concern is that you might be able to catch the release on something and pop the clasp open. The band is a single piece, though, so it won't fall off right away.
Note the dust picked up by the band
On the protection front, the SmartWatch 3 is IP68 rated. That's a little different than most of the other Android Wear devices, which are IP67. The SW3 is dust-proof and water-resistant up to 1.5 meters for 30 minutes. It's basically just safe at half a meter deeper than IP67 watches.
On the back of the watch you might expect to find a heart rate sensor. After all, it's a sporty little watch. Strangely, Sony didn't equip the Smartwatch 3 with one. It's not a huge deal to me personally, but it's a really odd decision. To make up for that somewhat, there's an ambient light sensor on the face of the watch. Okay, so no heart rate sensor, but the back does have something interesting. Toward one end is a rubber port cover which hides a standard microUSB. This is the first Android Wear device to have a standard charging port. The Moto 360 uses Qi, which is almost as good, but it's a little picky about certain pads. With a microUSB port you can juice up the SmartWatch 3 almost anywhere. Just pull back the cover and jam the plug in. It isn't the most elegant charging method—there's no dock or cradle, so it just sort of lies there on its side. Still, I consider this a win.
Sony decided to incorporate a few hardware features in the SW3 that won't be fully utilized until the next version of Android Wear rolls out. There's GPS, which technically works right now, but is not well-supported by apps. It also has an NFC chip that currently can only launch the Android Wear app on your phone. Then there's the WiFi module that does nothing right now. It's a watch equipped for the future.
One of the things that sets the SmartWatch 3 apart is the transflective LCD display. When the watch is awake, it looks like any other 1.6-inch LCD. In sleep mode, it becomes a transflective monochrome display. That means you can use the SmartWatch 3 outdoors and it actually gets more visible in direct sunlight (the image at the top is in bright direct sunlight). It doesn't use any backlight in this mode, so the ambient setting is very power efficient. The only thing it does is update the time, though some watch faces aren't quite prepared for the monochrome UI and tend to look a little busted. The catch is that you can't see the watch face in ambient mode in a dark environment (remember, no backlight). You'll have to wake it up so see what's going on.
Ambient mode indoors, medium light
You only get the full effect of the SW3's 320x320 resolution in standard LCD mode. It behaves and looks like the screens on other Android Wear devices, but there's a distinctly warm, almost yellow hue to the image. It's really only noticeable on white backgrounds, but you will notice it. The colors are overall more muted than standard LCDs, but I suppose that's the price you pay for being able to read it outside.
I am of the opinion that round watches are cooler and generally look nicer, but there's something to be said for a square screen. Content is just framed better and the UI is easier to use. On a round watch you always have to drag lists toward the center so you can read a whole line, but not so on a square watch. The Smartwatch 3 might not have the best looking screen, but it's not bad and the transflective technology is a great feature.
This is one of the big questions with wearable devices, isn't it? You already have a phone to charge every night, why deal with juicing up a watch too? The Moto 360, while a stunning piece of hardware, had battery life that was just okay. And it was really only acceptable without ambient mode. If you ignore everything else, the SmartWatch 3 crushes the 360 and most other Android Wear devices right now.
Before we get into specifics, let's remember that battery life is a highly personal thing. The way I use a smartwatch could vary greatly from the way you use it. Case in point, my average day of use is probably heavier than most people. I get a ton of emails each day, along with chat notifications, weather updates, frequent app installs, and all sort of other stuff that wakes the watch from slumber. Even with this barrage of content and ambient mode enabled, the SmartWatch 3 can eke out a bit more than two days of life. If you don't get as many messages as I do, I think well over 48 hours is totally doable.
It helps that the SW3 has a 420mAh battery, which is the largest in a Wear device. Even the G Watch R, which has very good battery life thanks to the smaller AMOLED screen, isn't quite as good as the SmartWatch 3. There's a caveat, as there always seems to be—Android Wear is still prone to flights of fancy that can cause weird sync issues the drain the battery. That's not really Sony's fault, but it's something to know.
Software And Performance
The SmartWatch 3 runs Android Wear, meaning it's mostly identical to other Wear-powered watches. The one place OEMs are allowed to make their mark is with the watch faces, an opportunity which Sony squandered. There are only three Sony faces on the SmartWatch 3 in addition to the standard ones that come with Wear. There's a simple analog face, a large font digital face, and a weird pseudo-analog face with a digital readout and small lines that travel around the analog tick marks like tiny hands. The first two are okay, if a little boring, but that last one... Sony, why?
Okay, so the stock faces kind of stink, but Sony did build some delightful animations into them when the screen wakes up. In fact, all the animations in Android Wear are nice and snappy on the SW3. It runs atop a Broadcom Cortex-A7 chip, similar to most Wear devices, the notable exception being the Moto 360 which rocks an ancient TI OMAP chip. The point being, the SmartWatch 3 has all the horsepower needed to slice through Android Wear like butter and not drain the battery too quickly. There's no lag or hesitation when navigating the interface, and the watch reliably wakes up quickly with the twist gesture.
If you're still not sold on the whole Android Wear thing, take a glance at our past Wear reviews (Moto 360, G Watch R) where there's a lot more detail on the platform. Android Wear is about taking the strain off your phone, not creating new tasks to be done only on your wrist. Reading a quick email, responding to Hangouts messages, and getting quick, useful data is what Wear is best at. Yes, there are games and more complex apps, and the SmartWatch 3 can run them just fine. I'd actually say a square watch is better if you want to do something complicated on your wrist, as I'm sure some people do.
Is This The Watch You've Been Waiting For?
It seems like there are always a few tradeoffs with these first-generation Android Wear devices. For the SmartWatch 3, you're going to have to deal with the lack of a heart rate sensor—odd for a watch that is otherwise very fitness oriented. The design is also not what I'd call pretty. That's not to say it's bad either—it just sort of is. I suppose if you don't want people gawking at your wrist, that might be a plus. It's pretty comfortable and has a nice clasp too.
The screen is both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the Sony SmartWatch 3. The resolution is good and its outdoor performance is amazing. The transflective mode is also great for battery life. As I'm writing this, the SW3 is on pace for about two days of life on a single charge. That same feature that's great for outdoor use and battery life makes using the SmartWatch 3 in the dark a chore. There's no backlight in ambient mode, so you have to wake the watch up to see anything.
This is also the first Android Wear device to have built-in GPS, but I'm not yet aware of any apps that take advantage of it. The same is true of the WiFi and NFC modules. They don't really do anything right now, but this device is a little more future-proof than others. Is all this worth $250? Compared to other Android Wear devices, that's actually a fair price. It's less premium than the G Watch R ($300) and probably a little better than the ZenWatch ($200 – aesthetics not withstanding). It's maybe a draw with the Moto 360 (also $250), which is much more attractive, but has more mediocre performance and battery life.
The Sony SmartWatch 3 is overall a good Wear device with some very neat, distinctive features. It's worth checking out if you're in the market for a smartwatch, but just keep the tradeoffs in mind.