Review: Sony SmartBand Talk
3.3Overall Score
Price (RRP): $199 Manufacturer: Sony

Not everyone needs a smartwatch, and if you want the time, maybe some phone calls, but don’t like the look or feel of a watch, there’s always a smart band. Sony is updating its take on that category with the SmartBand Talk, a model that brings a touchscreen e-ink display and a battery life that’ll keep you going.

Features and performance

People who want to shed a few kilograms or go the full hog and lose a ton of weight have a good assortment of gadgets to help them accomplish this, and the past few years have been instrumental in bringing more of these out. So many of these come from smaller players, the Jawbone and Fitbit and Misfit of the world, but the big guys are here too, and Sony is one of them.

The brand you probably know for Bravia, the Walkman, and even the PlayStation started combining fitness and wireless tech last year with its first SmartBand, and it’s now ready again with a slightly different take from that first model the company showcased.

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It’s worth noting, however, that this new one — the SWR30 — is a little different from the model Sony first showed us, the SWR10, which was basically a small plastic brick that could jump from silicone band to silicone band and would track steps, vibrate wildly when you had a notification, and show your life on an animated daily walk from dawn to dusk.

This time, Sony has taken the same concept but brought a screen to the package, flattening the entire thing and reviving the electronic ink division of its consumer electronics division that used to make eBook readers.

You get two buttons on the side — a volume rocker up top and a menu button to let you jump between the few menus that exist, technically features, with a degree of touch applied to the screen for all other aspects.

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A degree of water resistance has also been applied, with IP68 protection present, meaning it should survive an encounter with freshwater up to 1.5 metres for up to 30 minutes, with the rest of it being dust proof provided you keep that the one port it has for charging sealed.

And the strap is even removable, thanks to two plastic clips that can be pulled up, detaching each side of the band from the black curved plastic brick that is the SmartBand Talk’s main section, with the screen, the sensors (accelerometer, altimeter), a microphone, and the Bluetooth connection to talk to your phone.

But that’s pretty much all there is to the unit, with the 1.4 inch electronic ink display and the two buttons essentially being the SmartBand Talk.

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And Sony has nailed a few things with this particular product, an activity bracelet that again shows us what our daily activities look like by, again, animating our progress through the course of a day to night. It’s not iron clad or perfect, and just like before, it’s an experience only Android users get to partake in, with no application support extended to either iOS (Apple) or Windows Phone.

Sorry people interested on it on those platforms, but this is an Android only affair.

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The screen is also reasonably viewable in direct sunlight, something we’ve experienced in the past with other e-ink devices, but it holds true on this product, too. Even with a glossy piece of plastic on top, the SmartBand Talk is clear under the sun, and readable in other places too, making it usable without a phone.

You’ll still need one to get the most use, however, since it doesn’t just take down your activities, and can bookmark life events and call a few specific contacts. But it does need a phone, and an Android one at that.

If that’s you, however, you’ll find the Sony SmartBand Talk is very lightweight, comfortable to wear, and easy put in, simply needing to do up a two button clasp. We’ve worn wrist bands that required more effort, even in the past year, and this is essentially effortless.

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So too is charging, with Sony keeping the standard microUSB charge port in this gadget, hidden by a small silicone flap that can be pried away with a fingernail. Charging doesn’t take long — barely an hour or two — with a battery life better than other bands out there with a screen that we’ve seen.

Overall, we found battery life stretched from three to four days, and that was with notifications coming through the band, not just the tracking of activities. That’s only a day or so under what the screen-less option can do, so it’s nice to see that the battery has remained a strong part of the design in this next iteration of the Sony SmartBand.

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Notifications are reasonably clear, and you’ll find this band will read back your notifications in small amounts, which is handy for short text messages, and acceptable for small emails, though it’s more or less a preview situation, showing off what’s in your inbox and waiting for you on the phone.

One thing we noted after two days of wearing the SmartBand Talk is that it desperately needs a stronger glass element over its screen, with noticeable scratches appearing through very, very minimal activity.

We’re reminded of the Pebble in some ways, because the first generation of that product missed out on Gorilla Glass and amassed scratches pretty easily, usually from when your dog decided to paw you, or you quickly moved past a wall without thinking.

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It’s the same on the SmartBand Talk, which built up quite a few scratches quickly, and surprised us immensely.

Most of Sony’s mobile gadgets come with a degree of ruggedisation too, making this lack of scratch-resistance a little odd. You’ll find water-proofing up to a little over a metre here, but nothing in the way of scratch protection. It’s strange.

Also strange is the inability to detect when you’re awake with the alarm going off, even though the SmartBand is sending information to the phone showing that you’re using the phone.

We decided to see how far we could take this during the course of our testing, and on one day, the smart alarm — which is supposed to wake you up as you’re on the way out of a sleep cycle — continued to pester us every ten minutes if we snoozed it even though it was clear we were moving.

It buzzed and buzzed and buzzed even though we were using our phone to play games, even though we were on Twitter and social networking, or even browsing the web.

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It’s also a rather unusual comment on how the Smart Alarm works, because Sony’s Lifelog picks up on your phone usage and compiles an animated picture of what you’re doing through the course of a regular day, and these activities — the ones that proved we were actually awake — were logged, even though both the app and the piece of hardware insisted that we were asleep.

I guess it knows us better than we know ourselves. Or something is wrong. We’ll go with the latter.

This is obviously one of those things that needs fixing, though we’re surprised it’s here, and that the two gadgets aren’t talking to each other in a more logical manner.

Touch the screen to move throughout the options on the menu.

Touch the screen to move throughout the options on the menu.

Some other things about how the SmartBand Talk works bother us a bit, such as the touchscreen, which requires a very heavy touch to work. We suspect this is because the not-so-scratch-resistant screen pulls back on the sensitivity of the electronic ink touchscreen, but you’ll find this does require a pretty heavy touch to get the SmartBand jumping screens.

In fact, with the buttons along the edge of the device, you’d be excused for thinking they do more than just menu jumping and volume, but this is all they do.

There are other things missing, such as that notifications tend to pile up and not go away which will become an annoyance over the course of a day, there’s pretty much no customisation offered for the the way the clock and home screen look, and you can only dedicate a quick contact for one person.

Some of these issues feel like things Sony could fix with a simple patch, and others are probably going to be like this throughout the course of this gadget’s life.

And sure, nothing is perfect, but some of these glitches are, at the very least, surprising.

Don't like the black band or want to wash it? You can simply remove the clips holding it in.

Don’t like the black band or want to wash it? You can simply remove the clips holding it in.

Conclusion

Is Sony’s SmartBand Talk an improvement on the original? Maybe, but it won’t be for everyone, and Sony isn’t helping the situation much with only one operating system supported, a small amount of touch interaction, and a screen that can barely take the most minor of beatings.

We liked the original, and for a $50 premium, this newer SmartBand seems more compelling, though months later from the first generation Sony SmartBand, you can now find that first model for a fair amount less, fetching street values closer to $60 to $140.

We don’t think many would pay the high end of that tag, especially when there are more options out there from other companies, and we’re not sure this e-ink equipped SmartBand really matches its current price, either.

That said, if you like Sony and you like being able to see the time in sunlight, while also being able to see a notification here and there (and aren’t fond of smartwatches yet), this will offer that feature on your wrist, and will do it for a few days without needing a charge.

Can't find the SmartBand Talk? No worries, the app will help out.

Can’t find the SmartBand Talk? No worries, the app will help out.

Review: Sony SmartBand Talk
Price (RRP): $199 Manufacturer: Sony
Very easy to see in sunlight; Light and comfortable to wear; Does some of the things a smartwatch would do, but on a budget; Three to four day battery life; Charges through microUSB, so no proprietary charger (woot!);
Electronic ink screen needs some Gorilla Glass or mineral strengthening, as it scratches easily; Waking alarm won’t automatically detect when you’re upright and moving, or even using your phone altogether, and continues buzzing regardless; Touchscreen requires very heavy touch; Very little in the way of customisation for home screen look; Can only call one person; Repeats message notifications if never clicked and more come in (meaning if you never check John’s email, but Jane messages after John, John’s notification will keep alerting you);
Overall
Features
Value for money
Performance
Ease of Use
Design
3.3Overall Score
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