Review: Sony SmartWatch 3

Few companies have given traditional watch wearers a reason to shift their wares and move to the watch of the future, but Sony hopes it has the answer with a smartwatch that not only boasts solid battery life, but can be seen in sunlight.

Features

Sony has developed a couple of smartwatches in the past, but they have all been Android based, with overlays and an old version of Google’s phone-based Android operating system.

With the SmartWatch 3, though, the company is investing in Google’s Android Wear OS, a recent platform made just for smartwatches and seen on products made by LG, Samsung, and Motorola.

Sony’s SmartWatch 3 is also included in this bunch, and in this product, Sony is marrying a quad-core 1.2GHz processor with 512MB RAM and 4GB storage, as well as Bluetooth 4.0, Near-Field Communication,and a haptic motor for vibration feedback.

Google’s Android Wear runs here, something we have already mentioned, and so there is a requirement for an Android phone to run this smartwatch, though provided it is running Android 4.3 “Jelly Bean” and higher, you should be fine.

This sits under a 1.6 inch square screen running the resolution of 320×320, with a 420mAh battery powering everything, one of the largest smartwatch batteries we’ve seen thus far.

The Sony SmartWatch 3 weighs roughly 45 grams without the strap.

Performance

There are only so many gadgets in the world and so little time, so let’s get stuck into this one before another takes up our attention.

This time, our wrists have been taken over by Sony’s SmartWatch 3, a small 1.6 inch smartwatch sporting the 320×320 resolution and running a small processor, 4GB storage, and Google’s Android Wear, the first time a Sony smartwatch has seen Google’s operating system.

Design is obviously a big deal, and while we’re not huge fans of the whole square or rectangular watch thing, Sony manages to soften the deal up with a silicone strap that the SmartWatch 3 square can sit in, providing a strap that is easy to tighten and quite comfortable to wear. It doesn’t breathe like leather, but if you’re use to wearing the softer plastic straps from other watches, you’ll be at home here.

We’re actually reminded of Samsung’s Gear with this strap, as it’s very close in design, so if you have tried one of those on, that’s what you’ll find here.

You can even push the watch body from its strap, which is a neat inclusion as it makes recharging a little easier, as well as packing if you choose not to wear it at the time, the small square — the important bit — able to be packed in a separate location. Alternatively, we can see replacement straps being bought and installed to the watch very easily.

One thing about the strap that is very noticeable is how easily it picks up on dust.

While gadgets are fingerprint magnets and just won’t let go of the oil from your digits, the SmartWatch 3’s strap won’t let go of flecks, and because it’s black, they show up easily in photos. Fortunately, the watch is water-resistant, so you can wash it, you just might have to run your arm under water on a regular basis.

Operating the watch is more or less what we’ve seen in the past, with Google’s Android Wear taking centre stage, with practically no intervening or modification from Sony.

In general, that’s a Google thing, as manufacturers can’t add their own overlay to the wrist watch platform, but Sony has left things pretty bare in general, with only a handful of watch faces, most of which tend to skew on the digital side.

Using the watch, however, is your regular Google assortment of left to right and up and down gestures, receiving a notification and swiping it away, swiping up and down through your list of alerts, rejecting or receiving a call from either a swipe left or right when it comes in, and a palm to the top of the screen to silence everything and make the watch go to sleep, setting itself to standby mode.

It doesn’t take long to get the hang of, and as usual, there’s a tutorial in Android Wear on the phone you’re using if you need it, though you will need an Android phone with Android 4.3 “Jelly Bean” (at least) to make this watch work, so if you’re struggling trying to work out why this isn’t doing anything on your iPhone, that’s why.

You’ll also find some resistance to the elements here, with the aforementioned water and dust resistance rated at IP68, just like the semi-ruggedness Sony’s Xperia Z2 and Z3 smartphone handsets have received over the past year.

Charging is a positive, though, as Sony finds a way to out do the competition, which all have relied on a dock in some form or another that wouldn’t work with another watch.

For instance, the LG G Watch is a rectangular watch, and as such, it is incompatible with the LG G Watch R, which is circular and yet relies on a similar charging mechanic in a different shape. Motorola’s charging system is wireless, and while we suspect it’s Qi-based and relatively open, it’s another charge technology that you won’t casually find in travels if you ever lose the charger, which does happen.

But the Sony SmartWatch 3 includes a standard that you can find easily, and it is perhaps one of the best features of the Sony watch altogether.

To charge this product, you merely have to plug in a microUSB cable, with a flap pulled away on the back of the watch.

It’s easy and painless, and happens to be one of our favourite things about the watch, just make sure to plug that grey rubber port back up when you’re done charging otherwise the IP68 weather-proofing won’t work and a washing of the hands could end up hurting the wrist watch.

We’re also fans of the battery which does very well, boasting two days of regular usage through our tests, with frequent alerts, time checks, and general use of the product.

That’s a use time that puts the Sony SmartWatch 3 alongside LG’s G Watch R, which up until now was the battery winner for us in the Android Wear competition.

But we suspect this battery win comes from that massive 420mAh power supply — larger than the 410mAh found on the LG G Watch R — as well as the screen, and if the screen is part of the reason the battery life is so good, it probably has a lot to do with Sony’s choice in screen type, which is both a good and a bad thing.

On the one hand, it’s a great screen for going out in the sun, and that’s because Sony is using a transreflective LCD panel, making it very, very easy to read in direct sunlight, and showing up the time on black quite nicely, as well as showing messages and notifications quite well.

But the other side of this is panel technology, and while we haven’t pulled apart the watch to find out for ourselves, we suspect this is a Twisted Nematic panel or “TN” for short, which would explain the terrible viewing angles the SmartWatch 3 offers.

Slight angles are acceptable, but the moment you twist your head or wrist, the screen washes out with severe colour drops, reminding you of a phone from several years ago, rather than one of the models with a decent screen from today. You know, like Sony’s phones from the past year, most of which have excellent screens.

But not this watch. No, its screen is great for sunlight and mediocre for your eyes. The answer for this is to go out in the sun more, but that’s it.

Dead on, the watch has decent colour (top left), but shift angles and that colour washes out.

The Sony SmartWatch 3 can also exhibit some pretty obvious lag when you’re loading apps, something we found every time we wanted to check our Up status with the Android Wear Jawbone Up app, with the SmartWatch 3 loading a black screen instead and waiting for us to return to home and try running again to get it working.

This happened rather consistently, several times throughout the day, telling us it was likely the watch, since it hasn’t happened on other Android watches we’ve used thus far.

You’ll also find very little in the way of extras for this watch, because while LG and Motorola both have included heart-rate monitors, the Sony SmartWatch 3 has neither. It also could do with some more effort with regards to including more watch faces, because there are so few.

Granted, you could always download some more, but Sony could have also included more than just the bare minimum here.

Conclusion

Sony’s first take on Android Wear shows come promise, but it’s still not quite there, with a watch that boasts strong battery life and readability in the sun, but no other amazing reason to choose it over the competition.

If you need a smartwatch and spend a lot of time in the sun, this is probably the one to choose, though we’d look at the entire range of Android Wear devices and make your decision from that, because its competitors also offer some strong reasons to look at them, too.

The whole smartwatch thing is also fairly new, and this area is expected to be big competition this year, so we can’t imagine this will be the last watch we see all year from Sony, though we do hope that the next one brought along from the company will be better overall than this model.