Lauren Goode

Sony’s SmartWatch Not Ready for Primetime

Watches with some computing functions have been around — in theory and form — for decades, but they’ve generally been bulky, super geeky and aimed at hard-core tech enthusiasts.

Now, techie watches are gaining some traction, as part of the growing trend of wearable devices. Apple’s iPod nano can be worn with a wristband, creating a music player and watch in one. Other electronics makers, like Sony, Motorola and the minds behind the Pebble watch project on Kickstarter are incorporating Bluetooth into “smart” watches. Wearers can wirelessly connect the watch to their smartphones to receive quick text, email and social notifications and to decide whether that call or email is worth answering. They can also control some smartphone apps, such as a music app, from the face of the watch.

This week, I’ve been testing Sony’s latest entrant in the market, the $150 SmartWatch. It’s Sony’s second attempt at a watch that works with a compatible smartphone to show notifications and allow the wearer to control apps from the face of the watch.

After five days of wearing the watch, I found this smart watch to be less than intuitive. The interface of this SmartWatch is confusing, the set-up was tedious and some notifications come through more regularly than others. The watch also doesn’t display time all the time, which conserves battery life, but it isn’t as much of a watch when you look down and see a blank screen.

The SmartWatch is eye-catching. People noticed it and asked about it, because it obviously wasn’t a standard watch, but unlike high-tech watches of the past (like calculator and TV watches), it isn’t clunky and super geeky.

The plastic-and-aluminum watch measures 1.42 inches tall by 1.42 inches wide and 0.3 inch thick — slightly smaller than the iPod nano. The watch itself is black and white, but wristbands are available in up to six different colors.

It has a 1.3-inch OLED display, though its app icons aren’t as bright as those on the iPod nano.

Sony estimates that the SmartWatch’s battery should last around four days with typical usage, though it could last as long as a week with lighter use. In my experience, it lasted five days, though at times the watch and phone weren’t paired, and notifications sent to the watch were intermittent.

The watch uses Bluetooth 3.0 technology and is meant to work with Android phones only — ideally, Sony’s own smartphones that are “optimized” for the watch, though there are a variety of Android phones that are verified compatible with the watch.

I initially tested the SmartWatch with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus smartphone — a phone that isn’t verified to work with the watch. After downloading the necessary software apps onto the phone and pairing the two devices via Bluetooth, I only got two calendar reminders through the watch, even though I linked my calendar, email and social media accounts.

So next I tried a Sony-recommended phone, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Ray.

Setting up the Xperia phone to work with the watch was a multistep process, as it was with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. On more than one occasion, I had to first “unpair” the two devices, and then pair them again, in order to get them working together properly.

Then I installed an app called LiveWare Manager, which is available for free in the Google app market. Then I connected the watch and smartphone using Bluetooth. After that, I had to install another app on the phone, called SmartWatch. Then I chose which notifications I wanted to receive on the watch — including email, weather, text messages, phone calls and social media updates — and then I had to log into some of those accounts again, despite the fact that I was already logged into those apps on the smartphone.

Finally, I started getting notifications on the SmartWatch.

The watch would buzz, and show a text message, tweet or email excerpt. There was a “View in Phone” option at the bottom of the screen, and if I pressed that, the corresponding app would open on my phone, allowing me to read the full info there.

But I had to press the SmartWatch’s screen firmly and sometimes more than once to get the info to appear. And navigating throughout the various options on the watch was confusing. The watch supports both apps and widgets, a nice touch since widgets show more information right on the screen, but it requires a combination of swiping side to side or up and down to access the apps and widgets. Tapping with two fingers brings you back to the previous screen.

When it came to getting back to the main screen, I was lost. I kept swiping and tapping the phone’s face, with no results. Turns out I had to pinch it to get back to the main screen.

There were some functions of the watch that hinted at the future of easy-to-access data through wearable devices. In one instance, I was on a phone call and the watch buzzed, letting me know that my boss had just emailed, which was helpful. I read a portion of the email on the watch and was able to evaluate whether I needed to get off the phone to address something quickly, or whether it was something I could respond to after the call. When I tried the Find Phone feature on the watch, the Sony Xperia phone chimed, so I could find it buried under the comforter on my bed.

Another feature of the watch that worked well for me were the phone call and SMS notifications. When the Xperia phone rang, the watch’s display immediately lit up to show me who was calling. I had the option to reject the call from the face of the watch or accept it, which would require me to pick up the phone. When I asked someone to send me text messages as a test, they appeared on the watch at the same time they were sent to my phone. I could also send quick, preformulated responses back from the watch.

This was especially useful when I was driving, although the watch’s screen is hard to read in sunlight.

Social media updates appear on the watch, at most, every 15 minutes. There’s an option deep in the phone’s LiveWare Manager app for setting the frequency of such updates, which I only became aware of after my Twitter and Facebook notifications on the watch seemed sporadic. On one hand, I might not want to get constant Twitter notifications on the watch, since I follow more than 800 active Twitterers. But the controlled frequency seemed to negate the point of real-time updates.

Lastly, it’s important to note that in order to work properly, the watch has to be within about 30 feet of the smartphone. This means that when I was on the treadmill at the gym and the Android phone was stuffed in a locker, the two devices weren’t connected and I wasn’t receiving updates on the watch. The watch was effectively just a watch — only, as I said, to save on battery life it doesn’t display constant time, which means I had to keep pressing the power button to see the time of day. Sony said it is at work on a software update that will give the option to have the clock showing on the display at all times.

The point of this kind of watch is to pair with a smartphone and provide quick and easy alerts, but the Sony SmartWatch wasn’t especially easy to use. If you’re an Android smartphone user and are in the market for this kind of compatible device, I’d hold out for a smarter smart watch.

Latest Video

View all videos »

Search »

When AllThingsD began, we told readers we were aiming to present a fusion of new-media timeliness and energy with old-media standards for quality and ethics. And we hope you agree that we’ve done that.

— Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, in their farewell D post