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Sony literally owns the word “smartwatch” since producing one of the first wearables in 2012; the good news is that it may have finally gotten the recipe right on its third try. The SmartWatch 3 comes with Google’s Android Wear, but unlike other versions of Android Wear, offers a near-perfect hardware profile – including daylight readability, a large battery, premium build quality and a competitive price-point ranging from $200-250.
Its competitors include the Samsung Gear Live, the LG G Watch R, the G Watch, the Moto 360, and the Asus ZenWatch. Out of these, the SmartWatch 3 is the only device that nails both the hardware and software. So what makes the SmartWatch 3 a winner?
At the end of this review, we’ll be giving away our Sony SmartWatch 3 to one lucky reader; be sure to read all the review for some bonus entries!
What’s In the Box?
The Sony SmartWatch 3 includes very little in the box: a microUSB cable and the smartwatch itself, along with a manual.
Design, Aesthetics, and Specifications
The specifications of Sony’s device beat the competition. It offers the same system-on-a-chip, RAM, and internal storage as its competitors, but in all other aspects the SmartWatch 3 offers better components, with the omission of a heart-rate sensor (which is near-useless on all Android Wear products).
- System-on-a-chip: Broadcom BCM23550, single-core @ 1.2GHz
- Display: 1.6″ 320×320 transflective LCD
- Storage: 4GB internal flash memory
- RAM: 512MB RAM
- Battery: 420 mAh Li-ion
- Ports: microUSB charging port
- Wireless: GPS, NFC, and Bluetooth 4.0LE
- Sensors: Accelerometer, ambient light sensor, compass, and gyroscope
- Water and dust resistance: IP68 (good to 1.5 meters in fresh water for 30 minutes)
- Operating System: Android Wear 5.0.2 (likely to get an upgrade to 5.1)
UPDATE: Thanks to MakeUseOf user Ali for pointing out that the Smartwatch 3 uses a Broadcom SoC and not the Snapdragon 400 platform.
Judging from the specs, Sony’s design fulfils all the needs of an exercising technophile. It includes GPS for tracking runs, direct pairing with Bluetooth earpieces, and offline functionality, for use when you aren’t near a smartphone. Together these features make a brilliant device for those wanting to exercise without being tethered to an Internet connection or when they just don’t want a smartphone bouncing around in their pockets. However, contrary to early reports, the SmartWatch 3 does not include an IR emitter.
The only real weakness of the SmartWatch 3 is its less-than-optimal system-on-a-chip. The Broadcom chip includes a lot of extraneous hardware inside of it. For example, it includes four processing cores – but three of these are disabled for battery life reasons. To my knowledge, the SmartWatch 3 is the only smartwatch which uses Broadcom’s SoC. And it’s also the only Android Wear smartwatch which offers GPS, despite most watches including a non-functional GPS module.
There is one hardware feature that wasn’t fully developed: NFC. Despite including an NFC chip, users can only use NFC for pairing with a smartphone or tablet. It’s definitely convenient to pair your wearable just by tapping it against your phone, but Sony missed out on an opportunity to make mobile payments even more convenient. Also, I can confirm that NFC-enabled Bluetooth headphones cannot pair with the smartwatch through NFC. However, these issues can likely be resolved in a future update of the Android Wear operating system. I suspect at present Android Wear does not support mobile payments, so this may not be the SmartWatch’s fault.
The wrist-locking mechanism is similar to other smartwatches, like the Samsung Gear 2 Neo and the Asus ZenWatch. You first adjust the wrist strap to fit your arm. Then you pull the lever-like strap into a locked position, closing it around your wrist. The advantage of this system allows you to size the watch once and never need adjust the fit again.
The design of the SmartWatch 3 won’t turn any heads. The silicone-rubber wrist strap looks unimaginative and spartan – neither a deal-breaker. You have to purchase a proprietary replaceable band, if you don’t like the basic color of the SmartWatch 3. It also comes in white and pink. Neither replacement band looks particularly jaw-dropping. Although a metal band-variant was supposed to have launched in February, its status remains unknown.
While its design appears utilitarian and sober, the conservative design hides a secret: It includes transflective screen technology. Transflective (TF) screens first gained popularity when Mary Lou Jepsen announced Pixel Qi, which became the first LCD which married full daylight readability to low-power consumption. Unfortunately, because of minor issues with color accuracy, manufacturers were reluctant to adopt the technology. Only a handful of devices were ever produced which took advantage of its capabilities. Pixel Qi eventually went under, but the underlying concept soldiered on. To my knowledge, the SmartWatch 3 is the first consumer device to employ TF technology.
Transflective screens can jump between two kinds of operation: “Black-and-white” reflective and full color emissive. In black-and-white mode, the screen uses ambient light to illuminate its screen. Because of the way the screen positions its color filters, only the black and whites are clearly visible. The SmartWatch 3’s black-and-white coloration is actually golden in hue. When the backlight fires up, there’s a minor shift toward yellow, which is normal for a transflective display. The only real issue is its lack of a matte screen coating, but very few devices can include both matte screens for glare-resistance and a capacitive touchscreen.
In full-color mode, a backlight fires up, which results in full-color display. On the SmartWatch 3, the ambient screen uses black-and-white mode, whereas swinging your arm up switches on the backlight. I say this without hyperbole: Android Wear is a platform in which tranflective screens should be the only screen technology. Both LCD, OLED, and P-OLED screens are poor choices for a device that needs low-drain properties while remaining fully daylight readable. To date, only transflective screens offer both.
On the downside, there’s no way to switch the backlight off in bright light. In fact, in direct, bright sunlight, the backlight is barely even perceptible. The auto-brightness sensor should be able to detect direct sunlight – in which case it could switch the backlight off, saving battery life. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
I won’t bother readers with a detailed breakdown of Android Wear’s capabilities. There’s just way too many things it can do. The biggest selling point of an Android Wear device: It offers constant on-wrist access to Google Now, which is Google’s personal assistance software. It can receive a variety of commands, which includes setting timers, reminders, and more. The very first Android Wear smartwatches offered little more than a platform for Google Now. The most recent versions have become further integrated with Google’s core apps, including Google Hangouts, Google Fit, and others.
While Hangouts is indispensable to Android Wear, Google Fit is practically worthless at present. It more or less requires users to manually set any exercise that’s not walking or jogging related. And the depth of information that it provides falls short of scant:
While many of the features of Google Now won’t work unless you have a persistent Internet connection, the Sony SmartWatch 3’s design allows several key features to work, even without a smartphone or Internet connection.
Making Use of the Sony SmartWatch 3
Getting started with the SmartWatch 3 is almost exactly the same experience as with any other Android Wear device. Simply install the Android Wear app on your smartphone or tablet then initiate a Bluetooth pairing. After the pair completes, the device will begin a firmware update – make sure you’ve charged the battery first. After the firmware update completes, the smartwatch is ready for use.
However, if you have a Near-Field Communication (NFC) enabled device, you only need tap the phone against smartwatch to pair it. It’s really quite brilliant.
The key selling point of the SmartWatch 3 is how it can replace portable MP3 players and smartphones when exercising. Think of it like this: when out jogging, you don’t want to take a phone along – even with it squeezed into an armband or sport-friendly case. Unlike other smartwatches, Sony’s watch can carry your music with you and it can pair directly with a Bluetooth enabled headset. That means no more lugging unwieldy electronics along when jogging, bicycling, or hiking. The downside is that very few audio apps sync with the SmartWatch 3. Only two come to mind: Google Music and Sony’s official Walkman app.
I also recommend installing a number of other Android Wear apps before getting started. We’ve got six Android Wear apps worth installing. The most important of these is a functional app launcher. Otherwise you’ll have to dig through multiple menus in order to get to the apps that you actually want.
Should You Buy The Sony SmartWatch 3?
Considering how ignored the SmartWatch 3 has been, I wanted to do it justice. It addresses many of the hardware failings common to Android Wear devices; it’s almost a blueprint for future Android Wear products.
- Most technologically sophisticated out of all Android Wear devices
- Good price-point ($200-250)
- Large number of features (GPS, offline music, NFC)
- Great locking mechanism
- microUSB compatible
- Offline capabilities
- High quality construction
- Daylight readable
- Good (for Android Wear) battery life
- Proprietary replaceable band
- Minor yellow-shift of colors
The Sony SmartWatch 3 offers the best technology out of all smartwatches on today’s market. It also seamlessly integrates software with hardware, making it by far the best Android Wear device yet released. All of its problems are minor – at worst – and it’s both better value and more functional than its competitors. The only complaint that prospective buyers might have is that it’s not round and its design is spartan. I don’t share those same concerns. This is, simply put, the best smartwatch you can buy right now.
Unfortunately, Android Wear’s semi-polished nature and reliance on a persistent Internet connection make all Android Wear devices feel more like beta prototypes than final products. The SmartWatch 3 is no different in that respect.
The future looks bright, though. The SmartWatch 3 may even receive gesture and WiFi support in the next software update. Gesture controls would allow the activation of commands with the flick of a wrist. This could prove useful for activating remote controls or skipping songs. WiFi support would allow the device to operate independently of a smartphone, either for playing music or for using Hangouts. These features would finally make Android Wear ready for mainstream consumption.
Don’t buy it. Sony did everything right but Android Wear in general isn’t yet ready for the mainstream. If you’re dying to try out Android Wear, this is the watch for you; otherwise, wait until the Sony SmartWatch 4 comes out before throwing your money at retailers.