Review: Updated: Sony Smartwatch 3

Review: Updated: Sony Smartwatch 3

Introduction and display

Update: The wait for the Sony SmartWatch 4 has been longer than we anticipated, but could make its debut appearance at the upcoming IFA 2016.

Unfortunately, if you’re looking to purchase the Sony Smartwatch 3 while you wait, you’ll have to look elsewhere than the Google Store. If that’s no problem for you, it remains a well-rounded (even though it’s a square) Android Wear smartwatch that you can now find for cheaper than ever.

Sure, competitors like the Moto 360 and the Huawei Watch may have it beat when it comes to looking like a more traditional timepiece. But, Sony’s wearable boasts a few stand-out benefits over each, and at that, most of the Android Wear device portfolio available today, too.

Its battery can last up to two days with light to medium use, a bar that many smartwatches struggle to reach. It offers built-in GPS functionality, which can track your walks or jogs without the need to carry around your phone. Finally, it’s affordable as ever. After enjoying some time on the market, it isn’t too uncommon to find its price slashed up to 40% off.

Where some of its newer competition may have it beat is with Android Wear 2.0 support. While we haven’t heard any comment from Sony directly, it’s possible that it could be left out of the group of supported devices.

Original review continues.

The Sony SmartWatch 3 is more than just a smartwatch, it’s also got ambitions as a capable fitness watch, thanks to the inclusion of GPS.

It doesn’t make the most stunning first impression, especially when compared to the more traditional circular stylings of the Moto 360 and Huawei Watch. The Sony SmartWatch 3 rocks a square shape that’s more similar to the Pebble Time than other Android Wear devices.

But, where its appearance might fall flat, it surprises in other ways. For one thing, the mere fact that it runs Android Wear is a bit of a shock, given that Sony has spent the last few years shying away from it, attempting to perfect its own system instead.

But it’s a decision that I welcome. Android Wear is still finding its footing and with Sony jumping into the mix can only be a good thing.

Its 1.2GHz quad-core processor and 512MB of RAM pack it with power, even to today’s standards. And with GPS built in, it’s a more fully-functional fitness accessory than most other smartwatches available.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

Of course, all that power doesn’t come cheap, as the Sony SmartWatch 3 retails for £189.99 (about US$250, AU$299.99). However, if you do some digging, you can probably find yourself a big discount.

All in all, it’s not quite the most expensive smartwatch. The aforementioned Moto 360 and Huawei Watch both edge it out, seemingly charging a premium for a circular, fashionable styling.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

Each Android Wear watch is, functionally, very similar to the other and Sony’s SmartWatch 3 is no exception. Android Wear is far more locked down than the version of Android found on smartphones.

In many ways that’s a good thing, as it keeps bloat down on a system which really can’t afford to be bloated, but it can also make it hard to stand out, which could be a problem when you’re asking people to pay an above average price. Read on to find out if and how Sony’s latest stands out.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

Display

The Sony SmartWatch 3 has a 1.6-inch 320 x 320 transflective display. That’s the same resolution and almost exactly the same size as the similarly square Gear Live, as well as being the same resolution as the G Watch R and a slightly higher resolution than the Moto 360. Fast forward to 2016 and the resolution standard hasn’t changed all that much. The Huawei Watch reigns supreme with 400 x 400.

As smartwatches go, it remains crisp and clear. But even on such a small screen, there’s still room for improvement, with text and images being noticeably less sharp than on a 1080p smartphone.

Being transflective makes it easier to read in direct sunlight than most competing smartwatches. Or it should anyway, December in England and New York City didn’t prove the optimal time to test this, but I certainly had no problem reading the screen when outside.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

The display has a number of brightness settings and can pump out quite a lot of light at its brightest, but auto mode does a decent job of regulating it. It’s also always on, unless you deactivate that feature. As standard it will dim but still be readable when not in active use, while tapping on it, raising your wrist to your face or receiving a notification will cause it to light up.

Unless you really want to stretch out the battery life I can’t see why you’d want to turn the screen off completely, as it reduces its usefulness as a watch because you can no longer see the time at a glance, but it’s nice to know the ability is there if you want it.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

On the whole the screen impressed, delivering a relatively good resolution and a decent amount of brightness, though the colours could be richer. And while the square shape might not be as aesthetically pleasing as a round display it does mean more apps are compatible with it, ones that might get chopped off with the Moto 360’s flat tire.

Design and comfort

Some of the more recent smartwatches such as the Moto 360 and the LG G Watch R have emulated a traditional wristwatch to great effect, with a circular display and a fetching build rich in metal and leather.

They look less like a gadget and more like a fashion accessory, which I’ve always thought is important, especially since “dumb” watches are every bit as much about form as function.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

Sadly, the Sony SmartWatch 3 looks more like the Samsung Gear Live and the LG G Watch from the first wave of Android Wear devices. Its face is square rather than circular and the default band is rubber, giving it the look of a sports watch more than something you’d wear all day every day. But hey, you might like the look just fine.

The built-in GPS and an IP68 certified water and dust proof build seem to indicate that Sony is pushing the rubberized version at fitness fans. The optional stainless steel band is now available and as you can see, looks really good. But at the low-end, the SmartWatch 3 could, for better or worse, easily be confused for a fitness tracker.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

Looking at the most affordable configuration, the rubber strap that it comes with is fairly comfortable, though dust tends to stick to it.

While it looks distinctly casual and arguably more like a sports watch than a smartwatch, the black shade of our review unit gives it a low-key look. There’s also a yellow version on the way which risks looking a bit garish if you’re not mid-marathon.

The SmartWatch 3 uses a folding deployment clasp which makes it easy to take on and off. Its clasp itself is metal, which along with the metal power button on the right of the face contrasts the plain black band nicely. The band is easy to adjust, so it should comfortably fit on most wrists.

If you purchase the stainless steel band, there are a few more steps involved in adjusting the size. There are arrows on the band, which you can poke a watch tool into to loosen the links. Just make sure to remember where you put the spare links.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

If there’s a downside to the deployment clasp it’s that it could potentially come undone if for example you bend your wrist and put enough force on it, but that never happened in my time with the watch.

The design of the SmartWatch 3 is interesting in that the watch itself can actually be popped out of the band with no tools required. This makes changing bands a breeze but, on the downside, it also means that it doesn’t support standard watch straps. You’ll have to stick with those built by Sony.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

Removing it from the strap gets you a better look at the metal back, which while visible when wearing the watch is less obvious, sandwiched as it is between the strap and your wrist.

The body of the Sony SmartWatch 3 is fairly large, with its 1.6-inch screen and bezels, but it doesn’t feel heavy or much bigger than a large wristwatch and certainly won’t look out of place if you have larger wrists. This is par for the course with smartwatches anyway and almost unavoidable if you want them to be big enough to use.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

The body is mostly featureless, except for a microUSB port on the back, with a cover keeping it water and dust tight. This small feature is worth highlighting, as many smartwatches use a wireless or proprietary charger, which can be costly to replace. Plus, if you’re like me, you have at least six microUSB chargers lying around by now.

It’s not a total win for the Sony SmartWatch 3 though, as actually getting at the micro USB port is a bit of a pain.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

Not only do you have to either remove the body of the watch from the strap (which is admittedly easy) or struggle your way around the strap which gets in the way of the port, you also have to pry off the port cover, which can take a few attempts.

It’s not a big deal and it became a little easier with practice, but it can still get annoying given that you have to charge it every day or two.

Interface and performance

Like most recent smartwatches the Sony SmartWatch 3 runs Android Wear and as this OS doesn’t allow for much manufacturer added flair (aka bloat) if you’ve used one of these smartwatches, you’ve essentially used them all.

It’s good then that Android Wear is quite an attractive and well thought-out system in its relative infancy, though there’s always room for improvement.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

The first screen you’ll see on the watch is the actual clock face. This will dimly be shown at all times unless you un-tick the always-on option in settings. A single tap on the screen will light it up, or you can raise your wrist to achieve the same, while placing your palm over it or just waiting a few seconds will cause it to dim again.

A long press on it brings up a selection of alternate faces so you can customize it to your own taste. If you aren’t finding something you like, the Google Play store has hundreds for you to peruse. Or you can check out our list of the best Android Wear watch faces.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

Back on the main screen you can swipe up to scroll through information cards, showing traffic, weather and the like, much like Google Now does on a phone and swipe left across any of them to get more details and options or swipe right to clear them. If you want to recall them you have a brief opportunity to with a swipe down.

A swipe down from the clock face will show your remaining battery and allow you to mute the watch, then from there a swipe left will give you access to the settings screen and ‘cinema mode’, which ensures the screen stays off unless you press the power button. Handy in cinemas and anywhere else that needs to be dark.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

Tapping the clock face or saying ‘OK Google’ will bring up a screen which allows you to give it voice commands, such as sending texts and making notes.

I found this mostly works quite well, even in fairly loud environments, though I did need to speak slower and more clearly than I would in normal conversation and in a lot of cases it took longer than just reaching for my phone would have.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

If, instead of speaking, you swipe up from this voice screen you can get a list of possible commands you can give it, with a tap carrying that command out, or as close to as possible. For example tapping on ‘take a note’ will let it know that you want to take a note but you’ll still have to speak the note, while tapping ‘show me my steps’ will do just that, with no speaking required.

If you scroll right to the bottom you’ll find other options like the settings screen and the start menu.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

The former lets you adjust the screen brightness, pair Bluetooth devices, turn on airplane mode, reset or restart the device, change the watch face, invert the colours, increase the text size or search for software updates, while the latter gives you a list of all compatible apps that you can launch from the watch.

It used to be that these screens were only accessible by digging this deep into Android Wear, but since the update to Android 5.0 the settings screen at least can be accessed by swiping down from the clock face and left a couple of times.

The update also made it so that screens you’ve recently accessed or actions you’ve recently carried out will sit at the top of the options list, giving you easier access to things you use regularly.

It’s worth noting that while the Sony SmartWatch 3 has its own settings screen, certain settings are only accessible from within the Android Wear app on your phone, such as toggling whether you can tilt the watch to wake the screen. It seems odd and unnecessary to separate features like this, but it’s not a big deal once you know where things are.

If you get a call, message or notification then that will pop up on the main screen of the watch and cause it to vibrate to alert you to it, at which point you can interact with it or clear it. If it’s a call you can opt to answer or reject it, but if you choose to answer it still comes through on your phone (or a Bluetooth headset if you have one paired). There are no embarrassing wrist conversations here.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

For the most part this all works pretty well and I found it genuinely useful being able to just glance at my wrist to see what an email said or what the notification I just got was rather than having to dig my phone out of my pocket, especially as in many cases it would be things that I’d just as soon ignore anyway.

It also had the advantage that I never missed a message or call, because while the vibration isn’t all that strong it’s a lot more noticeable against your wrist than it is from a bag or pocket. Its functionality is limited and as such it’s not as exciting as some gadgets but it genuinely saved me time in my day and meant I wasn’t as distracted by my phone.

It’s not the most intuitive interface and the SmartWatch 3 doesn’t do a brilliant job of explaining how everything works, but it’s simple enough that it doesn’t take too long to get to grips with.

Performance seems pretty good too. Occasionally the watch wouldn’t register a tap and it can take a while to process voice commands, for example sending texts or opening apps on my phone.

There are times when it sits there long enough that I wish I’d just done something by hand, but when navigating the interface and scrolling through messages and alerts there’s no noticeable slowdown at all. But that’s no surprise given the 1.2GHz quad-core processor and 512MB of RAM that it’s packing.

Battery life and connectivity

Battery life is an even bigger issue on smartwatches than it is on smartphones, as not only do some of them actually sport worse life than the average handset but people are likely to be less accepting of having to give their watch a regular juicing, when a normal watch needs charging precisely never.

The Sony SmartWatch 3 doesn’t solve this problem but it’s far from one of the worst offenders. It’s got a 420mAh battery, which is big for a watch. The LG G Watch R for example is slightly smaller at 410mAh and the Moto 360 has a much smaller 320mAh battery, so that’s a promising start. Sony reckons it can last for up to two days of use and I’d say that’s just about right.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

With what I’d think of as average mixed use it lasts around a day and a half. For example on one day I unplugged it at 8:30am when it was 100% charged and by roughly midnight it was down to 59% battery.

That was with it connected to my phone all day, the screen always on, regularly getting emails and notifications, many of which I read from my wrist and on a few occasions I used the voice controls as well as using it to control Spotify on my computer for a while.

So with light use it can just about stretch to two days, but I can’t see it ever lasting longer than that and if you start using GPS that life begins to plummet. Still, that’s up there with the best battery life of any smartwatch, other than the Pebble anyway, which is in a league of its own.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

When it is time to charge it the Sony SmartWatch 3 does at least benefit from having a microUSB port, so there’s no need for the proprietary chargers or docks that most smartwatches favour. That’s handy as there’s always likely to be a microUSB cable lying around and they’re small enough that you could easily carry one with you if needed.

On the other hand that port does add a bit of bulk to the watch and it’s not the easiest to access, so it would be nice if it supported wireless charging as well for when you just can’t be bothered to pry open a flap and struggle to plug it in.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

The Sony SmartWatch 3 is a better connected device than most wearables, as not only does it have the obligatory Bluetooth 4.0 along with common features like ambient light sensors, an accelerometer, a compass and a gyro, but also GPS and NFC.

I talk about GPS in the apps and fitness section and NFC isn’t really supported by Android Wear yet, but it means that the SmartWatch 3 will be more future-proofed than wearables that don’t have it.

Apps and fitness

Once you’ve grabbed the Android Wear app off Google Play and paired your phone to the Sony SmartWatch 3 you’ll be ready to start exploring its apps, not that there’s a huge amount to explore.

Any apps that you have on your watch can be accessed either by navigating to the start screen, which is buried at the bottom of a list of voice commands and actions or by actually giving the watch a voice command and asking it to launch an app.

Out of the box there’s not much included and the Android Wear versions of apps are mostly pretty basic, but that’s probably for the best given the small size of the screen. For example you can see your agenda for the day but not get a full view of your calendar.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

Or you can get it to navigate you to an address, complete with a map of the route, but you can’t scroll the map.

Playing music from the watch is particularly problematic, as while it has 4GB of storage which you can fill up with songs the only way to actually get your music on there is to upload it to Play Music, then make it available offline on your phone and even once done you can’t specify which songs you want to add to your watch, it will just sync all the offline songs, or as many as it can fit.

Given that there’s a handy microUSB port it would be nice if you could hook the SmartWatch 3 up to a computer and drag and drop, but no, you have to jump through a perplexing number of hoops.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

Of course even once you’ve got the music there you’ll need a pair of Bluetooth headphones to listen to it.

You might find that certain apps on your phone are already Android Wear compatible, especially if you’re using a Nexus, as many Google apps are optimised for it. If you launch the Android Wear app on your handset you can set the default app for various categories, for example you can ask it to use RunKeeper or My Tracks when you’re jogging.

You can also change and download more clock faces from the Android Wear app, adding to the fairly limited selection that Sony packed in.

You can download more Android Wear compatible apps too but right now the selection is limited. For example if you have the Google Camera you can manually control the shutter from your watch, but many other camera apps aren’t supported.

Similarly while Hangouts lets you directly reply to text messages from your wrist other SMS apps don’t, so you might find that to get the most out of the Sony SmartWatch 3 (or any Android Wear device) you have to change your default apps. Hopefully this will be remedied over time as more apps add full Android Wear support.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

The good news is that you will at least get notifications from all your apps, even if you can’t always respond to them from your wrist and just being able to see what a notification is can be handy, as it’s not always going to be something that needs immediate attention anyway.

And if you dig around you should find an ever growing number of Android Wear apps, some of which are pretty useful. For example Sony’s own TrackID service is supported, allowing you to use your watch to identify music.

Fitness

The Sony SmartWatch 3 is a more fitness-focused device than most smartwatches, as while it lacks a heart rate monitor it has built in GPS, so you can leave your phone behind when you go on a jog or even take it swimming since it’s waterproof.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

Right now there aren’t a huge number of apps that support its GPS function, but there’s a growing number including, unsurprisingly, Google’s own My Tracks. Simply start it up from your watch and it will tell you the distance and duration of your workout, while once you sync it up with the app on your phone you can see more detailed stats, including speed and the route you took.

There are two potential problems though. Firstly as you might imagine the battery takes a real hit when using GPS. I found that it dropped by 10% in 24 minutes, so a two hour workout would cut its life in half. I’m also concerned about its accuracy, as while at one point the watch claimed I’d travelled 2.01km my phone reckoned the same journey was 1.85km.

Now it could be the phone that was wrong, but it’s a route I’m familiar with and have tracked on other devices in the past with results closer to what the phone claimed than the watch.

Other than GPS the Sony SmartWatch 3 has a built in step tracker and if you download Sony’s Lifelog to your phone then it can sync with that and give you all sorts of detailed stats from calories burnt to hours slept and also gives non-fitness related information, such as how long you spent listening to music. You can even see what time you did these things.

I’m not entirely sure that much of the information is all that useful, but seeing how long you’ve spent walking or running and how many steps you’ve taken can be handy, especially as you can also set daily targets.

But while you can go back and view previous day’s activities it doesn’t give you a clear breakdown of how your performance has changed over time, so while it might remind you to stay active and give you an idea of how much exercise you’ve done on a given day you can’t easily track your progress.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

There are other supported services too though, such as Google Fit, which similarly tracks your steps as well as the overall amount of time you’ve spent being active in a day and like Lifelog it allows you to set targets.

Ultimately I’m not sure the Sony SmartWatch 3 is quite a replacement for a running watch or fitness band, but if you predominantly want a smartwatch yet quite like the idea of being able to occasionally take it for a jog or a ride without your phone then this could be the wearable for you.

The Competition

While there aren’t a huge number of smartwatches on the market there are enough quality ones that the Sony SmartWatch 3 faces some stiff competition, especially as some offer things that the Sony SmartWatch 3 doesn’t.

So to make purchase decisions easier here’s a roundup of its closest competitors and how they compare.

LG G Watch R

At around £220 / $250 / AU$280 the LG G Watch R is slightly more expensive than the Sony SmartWatch 3 and in some ways it’s easy to see why. It’s got a round display for one and as such it looks more like a traditional timepiece than any other smartwatch on the market.

And while it doesn’t quite have as premium a build as the Moto 360 we’d say it edges the Sony SmartWatch 3, thanks to a leather strap rather than rubber.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

It’s also got a similarly sharp screen and delivers almost lag-free performance like the SmartWatch 3. The two watches also have similar battery life, stretching to two days at a push.

But the Sony SmartWatch 3 bests it in a few areas. It has a larger screen for example, coming in at 1.6 inches to the G Watch R’s 1.3 inches and it supports microUSB charging, while the G Watch R requires a dock.

Then of course there’s the thing that the SmartWatch 3 has over almost every smartwatch: built in GPS. It’s a feature that may not play that heavily into everyone’s purchasing decision but it will surely appeal to runners and cyclists.

Samsung Gear Live

In some ways the Samsung Gear Live is incredibly similar to the Sony SmartWatch 3. After all they both have square faces with a resolution of 320 x 320 and their screens are almost exactly the same size, though for better or worse the Gear Live is slightly bigger at 1.63 inches.

But other than the presence of Android Wear on both of them that, for the most part, is where the similarities end. There’s a big difference in price for one thing, with the Gear Live appearing a relative bargain at £169 ($199, AU$250).

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

The Gear Live lacks GPS, but on the other hand it does have a heart rate monitor, which the Sony SmartWatch 3 doesn’t. Both are fitness orientated so it would be nice to see both features in a single watch but of the two I’d argue that GPS is probably more useful to more people.

Where the Gear Live really fails is in its battery life, coming in at around a day max and for that reason, whatever your stance on GPS and heart rate monitors, I’d say that the Sony SmartWatch 3 is a better buy, even with its higher price tag.

Moto 360

The Moto 360 is a fairly expensive wearable like the Sony SmartWatch 3, coming in at around £200 / $250 / AU$275 and for that you get arguably the best looking smartwatch yet, with a metal body and a round face, though there’s a cut-out at the bottom so it’s not quite a perfect circle like the G Watch R.

But it’s definitely a case of style over substance, essentially making it the opposite of the Sony SmartWatch 3, with a wireless charging cradle that looks nice but is less practical than microUSB charging, poor battery life and an underpowered processor. Even the screen disappoints, as at 320 x 290 it’s a little lower resolution than the Sony SmartWatch 3.

Sony SmartWatch 3 review

I think when it comes to smartwatches the design and build is even more important than it is on a smartphone, since they’re so visible and since traditional watches have long been fashion accessories as much as anything else.

As such I don’t want to underestimate the importance of the Moto 360’s premium design. I’d much rather be seen wearing it than the Sony SmartWatch 3, but with a worse screen, inferior battery life and less power it’s still a tough sell.

Moto 360 review

Verdict

The Sony SmartWatch 3 puts function ahead of form, delivering one of the best user experiences yet but with minimal style.

Sadly that means it’s still not quite the complete package and it’s not cheap either, but if you favour geek chic over high fashion this could be the most compelling smartwatch yet.

We liked

One of the biggest selling points that Sony SmartWatch 3 has over rivals is built in GPS, which, coupled with being water and dust proof, makes it a handy workout companion, allowing you to leave your phone behind.

It’s also a slick performer, with rarely any slowdown and its 1.6-inch display is sharp enough to look good and use comfortably, while the size is also a good balance between being useable and not looking like you’ve got a phone strapped to your wrist.

Its battery life deserves a mention too, as while you’ll still be charging the Sony SmartWatch 3 every other day you at least might not have to charge it nightly, which gives it one-up on the likes of the Moto 360.

Plus while the charger is a bit fiddly it’s at least microUSB, so even if you forget your charger you can bet that someone else will have a compatible cable.

We disliked

While I was happy to see GPS included in the Sony SmartWatch 3 it doesn’t seem entirely accurate. It’s good enough to track your route and get a vague idea of the distance travelled but if you need real accuracy you’ll probably want to hold on to your sports watch for now.

The other problem with the GPS is how much it drains the battery. If you use it for a long run or ride you’ll likely have to charge the watch’s battery before nightfall.

Then there’s the design. It’s certainly comfortable and Sony’s newly released metal strap for the SmartWatch 3 looks pretty good, but with the default rubber one it doesn’t really.

It wouldn’t look out of place if you’re out on a jog or at the gym, but it definitely looks like a sports watch rather than a fashionable one. The square face will also limit how much it could ever look like a normal watch.

Verdict

In many ways I really like the Sony SmartWatch 3. It’s not an essential device – no smartwatches are yet – but I’m in the camp that finds Android Wear genuinely useful, particularly as a quick and unobtrusive way to check notifications.

The Sony SmartWatch 3 also stands out from much of the competition through impressive performance, a good screen and solid battery life, not to mention the inclusion of GPS which makes it a better fitness accessory than most smartwatches, despite an imperfect implementation.

When it comes down to it though I don’t think I’d buy one and that’s mostly because of the style, or lack thereof. It’s far from an ugly device, but it’s merely passable and for me that doesn’t cut it with a watch.

Give it a metal or leather strap and ideally a round face, then we’re talking, but as it stands it’s got the substance but not the style.

On the other hand if you don’t care so much about style or actually do like the look of the Sony SmartWatch 3 then I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as one of the best smartwatches around, even given its fairly high price, and as Android Wear continues to mature it will presumably get even better.

First reviewed: December 2014

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