Sony isn’t new to the wearable world, but its latest attempt is a tad puzzling, bringing sensors to a very small gadget with no sense of why you should buy it over everything else.
What is it?
It’s not hard to work out where the next massive market will be for gadget makers, and now that we’re all a little obsessed with our fitness levels, some more than others, it’s clear that fitness trackers are going to be big business.
You can see them from the typical fitness specific players, with Jawbone, Fitbit, Misfit, and Runtastic, while the smartphone makers are also using their skills to get the technology they’re familiar with down to sizes wrists and arms and waists like, as Samsung, LG, Acer, Huawei, and Xiaomi all make in-roads into this burgeoning area.
Sony is one that sits in the latter category, and has for some time, as this isn’t a new thing or a passing interest.
We first saw a fitness gadget in the first Sony SmartBand back in 2014, and since then, we’ve seen smartwatches and a generation of the SmartBand with an electronic ink screen. Sony has even integrated fitness monitoring technology into a pair of earphones made for people keen to go running.
The SmartBand 2 isn’t that product, though, and is an update to the original SmartBand, which was a small white gadget with motion sensors and a battery that you would store in a piece of rubber. Like its predecessor, it has only one button, three LEDs, and a microUSB port.
Unlike its predecessor, there is a heart-rate sensor at the bottom of the unit, one of those green light gadgets that can look through your skin and give you a clue of your pulse, but that’s about all the differences that you can see.
For the differences you can’t see, Sony has applied IP68 waterproofing to the design, which means you could shower with it, though since IP ratings are made for clear-water, we wouldn’t swim with it.
Near-Field Communication and Bluetooth are both along for the right, same as they were in the original version, and this little gadget charges through microUSB and connects to phones and tablets using Bluetooth and the Sony SmartBand 2 app or the Sony Lifelog app depending on how much data you want.
We’re not sure if Sony’s wearable design team is asleep or whether it just thinks it had it nailed last time so it would be easier not to change what works, but this year’s SmartBand is identical to the original SmartBand.
In fact, if you don’t flip them over and didn’t know the difference between the new model number (SWR12) and the old model number (SWR10), you’d be excused for thinking they’re identical, because they’re the same size, the same shape, and feature the same white plastic chassis.
Turn them over, though, and you will see a difference, with a slight extrusion on the bottom and a heart rate tracker, and this is the one thing that separates the models by the naked eye.
Despite our jab to the Sony wearable design team, it has spent some time changing the band that the SmartBand gadget goes into, and now it’s thicker and supports a strap style that looks like it would fit on more wrists, complete with a small metal buckle.
Unfortunately for that small metal buckle, the SmartBand 2 strap isn’t as comfortable or easy to get on your wrist compared to the original, which merely relied on a button and the right whole for making the band tighter.
On the SmartBand 2, you find a strap that doesn’t feel as simple or comfortable, and even bangs up against the metal computers many of us use, clashing with a rather annoying metal ding that just makes you grit your teeth.
In fact, we even found the band would feel like it was coming off our wrists more than it stayed on, while one person remarked that the thick white strap made the SmartBand 2 look like we had escaped from a hospital.
It’s a good thing this wearable is compatible with the original band, because we switched to that very, very, very quickly.
Playing with the Sony SmartBand 2, you’ll need one of two apps: either Sony’s basic SmartBand 2 app which gives you the bare basics of stats or the more playfully animated Lifelog app.
Technically the gadget is doing all of the heavy lifting tracking your activities, but the app is where it all comes together, and they’re both slightly different, so we’ll tackle them individually.
Over in the basic one — SmartBand 2 — it’s pretty much made for the simple things, and in some ways feels like an advertisement for the Lifelog app.
You’ll find settings for notifications and some cards you can swipe between that take Google’s Material Design and provide steps, walk time, sleep time, and so on and so on.
The SmartBand 2 app never really says much, though, and instead tells you to “View history in Lifelog”, so go download that.
Lifelog is the better way of viewing what you’re doing, providing an animated representation of yourself as you walk, run, and sit in vehicles in your regular daily life. This is a fairly slick app that is reminiscent of folded paper and lets you drag back through your time to see what you were doing with animations.
The app integrates with everything you’re doing on the device, so if you stop to play a game, it will count it with an app icon, and if you stop to take a picture, it will show that with an icon, too.
That means this is an update of the original Lifelog, which did much the same thing.
Aside for the cute animations — which have been refreshed from the original and are now even easier on the eyes — you’ll be able to dig into you’re stats a little more, finding how you’ve been walking, running, how far you’ve gone, and how you’ve slept.
It doesn’t always feel ironclad, though, and we found our sleeping patterns weren’t always accurate, with the time blown out on some of the tracking by several hours. One night, we knew we had slept for only five or six hours, but eight was the time Sony had tracked, making us wonder if it had picked up on the slight movement and changes to heart-rate when we had woken up.
At least the notifications are consistent, because if you dive into the SmartBand 2 app, you’ll find options to get notifications from calls, messages, and any app you choose.
That’s a neat inclusion, because it means you can tailor your constantly vibrating wrist to a not-quite-as vibrating wrist.
One thing that does confuse us is the set of three LEDs on the side, with the button next to it. The button is pretty easy, and can tell the SmartBand 2 when you’re in and out of sleep depending on how long you hold it for. It used to be the way you switched the SmartBand into sleep mode, but now that’s automatic, so that’s fine.
But the LEDs seem to suggest they’re a battery meter, counting up to three with small pauses, and yet it in no way reflects the battery meter. If you have 60 percent or 20 percent of your battery left, it will always count up to three. And sure, it looks like a battery meter, but it definitely isn’t which is rather curious.
Surprisingly, there’s one thing Sony has nailed in guessing, and that’s the battery life. In the original product information, Sony suggested a runtime of “two days”, which we thought might have been conservative when Sony mentioned it, but it turns out it’s a spot-on estimation.
Unfortunately, that’s not a good thing.
Unless we’re talking about a smartwatch, two days is not a good life for a wearable, and we even expect more out of a smartwatch.
For a wearable without a screen to make two days down from five in the original, we take issue, and that’s one of the major problems with the Sony SmartBand 2.
Simply put, its battery life is a joke, with the heart-rate sensor working so often that the five day battery life of the original gets cut in half. A little more than half, actually.
Strangely, you can get the same five days as the last generation, but you have to turn Sony’s battery-saving Stamina mode on with the SmartBand 2, and that just switches off the heart-rate sensor, turning the SmartBand 2 into the SmartBand 1.
Seriously, we’re not even going to talk about that point, especially when the new model cost $40 more than the original.
And that leads us to what you get for your money, and the truth of the matter is not a whole lot.
Simply put, your smartphone has much of the technology inside, and if it were our dollar, we’d probably opt for a better fitness gadget either for a little more money or made from another fitness gadget maker because the value on a Fitbit or Jawbone or even a smartwatch is going to be so much better.
At $199, it’s hard to make a case for Sony’s SmartBand 2 because it doesn’t bring much of anything to the table that should make up that price.
In fact the first SmartBand has been out for long enough that you could probably find it for far less, and if you exclude the heart-rate sensor — which doesn’t do a whole lot — it’s basically the same thing.
What needs work
Despite the issues with battery life and value, we can see what Sony is trying to do with the SmartBand 2, building upon the simplicity of the original version from a couple of years ago (2014) and adding to it.
Unfortunately for Sony, however, these updates aren’t enough. Not nearly.
In fact, the updates are minor and don’t help the second-generation SmartBand in any real way, outside of telling you what your heart rate is, which may well be ramped up if you’re a Sony executive reading this review.
Here’s the thing: in the two years since the first Sony SmartBand turned up, we’ve seen some pretty interesting gadgets in the fitness wearable space, and while Sony’s is still one of the smallest, it is bringing absolutely nothing unique to the table.
Small size? Fitbit has it. Heart-rate tracking? Nearly every brand offers the same technology in some way or another, be it through green lights, chest bands, or galvanic skin sensors. Water resistance? Not new either.
A core that can be removed from the band and shifted to another wrist band? Nope again.
And these are just some of the problems with the Sony SmartBand 2, as it brings nothing majorly new to the table for $40 more than the original unit.
Ok, sure, it technically brings a new heart rate sensor that the original didn’t have — that’s true — and there’s some waterproofing here the original didn’t have thanks to that work Sony has with the waterproof microUSB ports on the Xperia handsets, but that’s it.
You even get a more complicated and slightly clunkier band. Thankfully, the new unit is the exact same size as the original, so if you have one, you can use that far more simple strap.
So what needs work on the Sony SmartBand 2?
Pretty much everything, because while it’s not terrible, it’s also not special. It’s just meh with a deep sigh. There’s no reason to pick this over another fitness gadget.
Not for this price. If it were under a hundred, it might make more sense, but this just feels like Sony isn’t even trying, and given how aggressive the competition is in this space, it probably should be.
With little that separates it from the crowd, there isn’t much of a reason to pick Sony’s SmartBand 2 over the rest of the fitness gadgets, except maybe if you loved the original so much and wanted a little more information about yourself.
Even with that reason, though, you’re exchanging battery life for a feature that isn’t a huge leap, and we’re not sure that’s worth it.
Frankly, we’d stick with the original if you have one, because almost a week of life with no heart-rate tracking is better than two days of life with some at all. Factor that in with an app that looks better but doesn’t track as well and the idea that this model somehow costs more and you have very little reason to update.
Seriously, stick with the old model if you have it, because Sony sure has, with little to no work to make its SmartBand better. This is just an update to more of the same, and two years on, it’s not impressing anyone.