Someone asked me a few weeks ago why anyone would need a smartwatch. After all, everything you need is on the phone: why not just pull it out of your pocket or purse? That's a good argument, and to that I said that like the Oculus Rift, you don't know what you're missing until you actually experience it. The Oculus Rift will change the gaming scene much like the first GPUs did back in the 1990s. Smartwatches are trying to change the scene by the way we interact with our data, although it's really not that apparent until you actually have one on your wrist.
Sony allowed me to play around with its Smartwatch 2 for the last several weeks, and I even wore the device during AMD's APU13 summit last month. This is my very first smartwatch, so I can't personally compare it to the previous model or Samsung's Galaxy Gear for that matter, but what I can say is that this new smartwatch solution isn't locked to specific phones, but rather works on most phones with Android 4.0 or later. The previous model, according to Sony, was limited to only a number of Xperia handsets.
That said, I'm coming at this hands-on with the perspective of a newbie: someone, like most consumers, who has never laid eyes upon a smartwatch before. Of course, the ultimate question is this: Why do you even need a smartwatch? You don't really, but Sony's solution makes checking email and accepting calls that much more convenient, making your busy day that much easier to handle. This is a luxury at $199 USD rather than a necessity, but it's also hard to live without once you've become accustomed to all that visually available data on your arm.
The good news is that Sony didn't throw a bunch of tech together to create a watch that looks similar to the old calculator watches of the 1980s. The company knows this device will be worn for most occasions on a day to day basis, and has created a smartphone accessory with lots of style. The device itself measures 1.675 inches square and .375 inches tall, sporting rounded corners, black glass, black sides and a polished silver bezel outlining the watch face. A lone circular power button resides on the right side, allowing users to power up/down the device and wake it from sleep. Complimenting this elegant device is a black silicone wristband that's extremely comfortable to wear around the clock.
The watch face itself consists of an etched Sony logo at the top, the three standard Android buttons at the bottom (Back, Home and Menu), and the 1.6 inch transflective LCD touchscreen. Normally, this screen remains black except for the actual watch face/numbers that reflect local light with a gold hue. Press the button on the side, and the screen lights up to illuminate the numbers. Press the button and touch the Home button, and the screen kicks on to render the main Smartwatch 2 interface; just pretend it's an Android phone and you're good to go. Holding the button down either turns off the device or turns it back on.
Setting It Up
Setting up the smartwatch was actually rather easy. Since I don't own a Sony Xperia phone, I was required to first download and install the Sony Smartwatch SW2 app, which acts like a driver for the following Sony SmartConnect app that actually manages the smartwatch. This app could be considered as the command center for the watch, allowing users to change settings, add and manage applications. This app also reminds me of Nvidia's Tegra Zone, which will list applications loaded on Google Play that are optimized for the Tegra chips. This app does the same thing, but lists apps developed specifically for the SmartWatch collection of devices, both the previous and the current.
Out of the box, Sony's SmartWatch 2 packs apps for Gmail, Facebook and Twitter along with apps for call handling (answer, reject, mute, volume handling), SMS/MMS retrieval, other email, viewing pictures stored on the phone in a slideshow, calendar and music handling. I also managed to install a poker game, a Magic 8 Ball, Smart Note, Runtastic Pro, Solitaire, a Spanish dictionary and several others. These MUST be installed on the phone rather than on the watch directly, which is unfortunate given how many Android devices have very little storage capacity. That said, a good rule of thumb will be to have at least 16 GB of default storage for all apps, including those installed especially for SmartWatch 2.
Software and Apps
To set up specific apps, users must first tap on Smart Connect, and tap on the "edit settings" option listed under the SmartWatch 2. Here all installed applications are listed. To set up Gmail, simply tap on the Gmail listing and select the appropriate account. All emails then appear within the Gmail app listed on the SmartWatch. Users can tap on this app, tap on an email and read it. They can also hit the Menu button, choose the phone icon, and watch the email open on the connected phone. You can't respond to emails directly on the watch; that's what the smartphone command seems to be for. However, emails listed on the watch can be marked as read and the history cleared directly from the Smart Connect app.
Because Twitter can get more insane the more people you follow, SmartWatch 2 users can choose what tweets can appear on the watch. Typically, when something arrives such as tweets, Facebook messages and Gmails, the watch will vibrate. You don't want it vibrating all day, trust me (read: annoying). Twitter users can turn off the entire timeline, or simply choose specific people they want appearing on the watch screen. Users can also elect to turn off mentions and direct messages, or just disable Twitter altogether.
The Messaging app is rather neat in that SmartWatch wearers can actually respond to messages. Generic texts include "Where are you?," "What are you up to?," "Urgent! Reply to me ASAP!," and a number of others. To respond, simply tap on the Menu button within the message, hit the message icon, and then scroll through the pre-written messages to find the appropriate response. Users can add even more message templates – and delete the current ones – by tapping on the Messaging listing in Smart Connect, tapping on Message templates, and hitting the Plus or Trashcan icons. Users can also respond to texts by hitting the smartphone icon within the message to pull up the message on the phone, or the rotary phone icon for placing a return call.
Runs Linux, but Not the Android Kind
According to Sony, the Smartwatch 2 does not run Android, but a version of Linux. The screen itself has a resolution of 220 x 176, which isn't bad considering the size of the transflective LCD display. For normal usage, the watch has a battery life of three to four days (around seven days in low usage scenarios). One of the big side effects I noticed with this device is that even though the watch battery may live for a long while, the phone does not. That's because a Bluetooth connection stays active, pumping data across the air if, for instance, the watch is set to receive every tweet under the sun, or users simply receive a lot of emails. During AMD's developer summit, I actually had to turn Bluetooth off on my phone just so that there was enough juice for my DROID RAZR HD to take pictures and perform as a phone.
Sony also claims that this watch is water resistant against rain showers, splashes and whatnot. To protect the inputs, a "plug" not only hides the microUSD port on the side of the watch, but prevents water from getting into the port. The watch also sports Bluetooth 3.0, which has a range of 30 feet. The Bluetooth connection can actually be rather comical. If the watch is on your arm and you wander away from the source smartphone, eventually the watch will "buzz" several times, alerting the user that he/she has moved out of range. Once you get back within range, the watch will buzz a few times again. Also worth noting is that apps that were installed via the smartphone are grayed out, meaning they can't be used until the watch and phone re-establish their current love connection.
To be honest, I will hate to see Sony's Smartwatch 2 return home. The gadget has become a part of my everyday life. Of course, no tears will be shed, but no simple watch will ever take its place either. I grew accustomed to checking my wrist to see the latest text from my wife, to see the latest emails storming my inbox, and to see all the chatter on Twitter. I grew accustomed to using the watch as a calculator, as a Spanish translator, and as a tiny little game machine. Most importantly, I'm going to miss the ability to see my daily consumption parked on my arm rather than having to pull out a phone or tablet to get the latest message.
So really, honestly, do you need a smartwatch? More importantly, do you need Sony's Smartwatch 2? The company has developed an awesome gadget, and will only get better with the third, fourth, fifth generations and beyond. You don't need a smartwatch right now, but they're damned convenient, and I'm all about convenience in my busy, hectic life. Hopefully, my wife is reading this and knows exactly what to get me for Christmas (grin).
Still, is the Sony Smartwatch 2 worth $199 this holiday season? I think so.