Sony's been trying the smartwatch thing for years, but the original SmartWatch and the SmartWatch 2 both... what's the word I'm looking for here? Sucked? Yeah. But the SmartWatch 3 has solid performance and two nifty features you won't find on any other Android Wear. It's the first with built-in GPS and a screen you can read without backlighting.
Android Wear watches are off to a pretty decent start. The Moto 360, the LG G Watch R, and the Asus ZenWatch are all lovely and useful in their own ways. So why might you buy a Sony smartwatch instead?
Because this year, Sony did something smart. It abandoned its own (train-wreck of a) smartwatch OS and opted to use Android Wear. Android already has hundreds of apps that are optimised to work with Wear, letting you do things like manage notifications, call a car, follow recipes or navigation directions, and sure-why-the-hell-not, right or left-swipe in Tinder. It's actually very intuitive and easy to use, and it's frequently easier to give your wrist a glance than to pull out your phone and unlock it just to see why it's been buzzing.
The good news is that the Sony SmartWatch 3 lets Android Wear do its thing without getting in the way. (If only more phones were that way!) Android Wear runs fast and smoothly on the watch, which is powered by a 1.2GHz quad-core ARM Cortex A7 and 512MB of RAM. That's more or less standard for Android Wear, though some manufacturers have gone with older, slower, more power-hungry processors, and performance suffers. Not the SmartWatch 3: out of every Android Wear device I've tried—and I've tried them all—it's the most stable.
But I don't know if I'd call it handsome. It's not unattractive, it's just kind of there, which is okay. Basically, you've got a simple black rectangular body with notable bezels set in a black rubber watch band finished with a silver clasp. The clasping mechanism is definitely nice, easy to pop in and out of, but secure enough that there's next to no chance it'll fall off your wrist. There's a single button on the right side for waking up the screen and quickly accessing settings. That's about it. Definitely not nearly as handsome as the Moto 360 or Asus ZenWatch.
The utilitarian construction does give the Sony another benefit, though: it's waterproof down to five feet for half an hour, which is more than than its Android Wear brethren. While I wouldn't recommend taking it into the water because the screen freaks out like you're pressing it with a thousand fingers at once, it's nice to have that peace of mind.
The watch's display is a rectangular, 1.6-inch transflective TFT LCD. So what the heck does transflective mean? Well, as the name suggests, it's a display that can both transmit light and it can reflect ambient light. This means that in most lighting situations (i.e. outside use, or reasonably well-lit indoors) you can read the screen without having to wake up the backlight. It's particularly useful outdoors. The sun still washes out the colours, but it's pretty readable.
The SmartWatch 3 also has the biggest battery of any Android watch to date at 420mAh, narrowly besting the 410mAh pack in the LG G Watch R. That, combined with that transflective screen and an efficient processor gives it the best battery life of any Android Wear device so far. The G Watch R usually got me about 40 hours of usage on a charge, but the SmartWatch 3 routinely nets over 48 hours. That's obviously a lot shorter than the Pebble smartwatch, which gets a solid week on a charge, but frankly, the Android Wear watches just do a lot more. Assuming you have an Android phone, of course.
So how about that built-in GPS? Combine that with a recent Android Wear update that lets watches locally store music from Google Play, and it means you can pair some Bluetooth headphones and head out on a run without having to tote your phone with you. There aren't very many apps that can take advantage of the GPS yet, but the basic functions of Runkeeper worked without a hitch.
But I'm a little sceptical that anyone would want to run with the watch alone. For starters, the Runkeeper watch app is pretty limited. It couldn't do any of the audio voice coaching as I ran. The UI that lets you browse through music is somewhat limited, and you're stuck with whatever you've already downloaded (which is limited to just a few gigs). Plus, if you turn your ankle or encounter some other kind of emergency, it's much safer to have a way to call for help. There are so many good, secure ways to attach your phone to your body that it doesn't feel like much of a selling point.
Best battery life for an Android Wear watch yet, and the transflective screen is nice for quickly checking the time of day.
I love that the charging port is just a plain old micro USB, which means it's really easy to charge it anywhere.
The watch itself doesn't catch your eye so much, which is generally a good thing, though fashionistas may find it boring.
The clasping mechanism feels nice and strong and yet easy to get on and off.
The SmartWatch 3 doesn't have a built-in heart rate monitor, which is become a key feature for wrist-worn devices for people who are serious about their health. The Moto 360, Fitbit Charge HR and Basis Peak constantly monitor my heart, giving me a much better estimate of my real caloric burn and heart health. If I had to choose between HRM and GPS, I'd take the HRM in a heartbeat. Yes, that was a pun.
The screen isn't quite as pretty as the Wear watches that use AMOLED displays.
While the band feels strong, it's a bit on the thick side where the clasp is on your inner wrist, which can get annoying while you're typing.
The micro USB port is covered by a little rubber gasket that feels like it'll eventually break off.
The pre-installed watchfaces are more than a little lackluster, but there are loads of gorgeous ones you can download from the Google Play Store.
Should You Buy It?
It's a tough call. It many ways, it simply performs better than any of the other Android Wear watches. But on the other side, it looks a bit plain, and looks matter when you're talking about something you're going to be wearing all day, every day. The lack of heart rate capabilities is the biggest ding, and it's up to you how heavily you weight that. If health and fitness are priority for you, the Moto 360—even with its godawful battery life—is probably the smarter buy. Even though the SmartWatch 3 lasts more than twice as long on a charge, and operates more smoothly, it's the one for me. That said, if you like the way it looks and tracking your daily burn isn't a big deal, I think you'll be happy with the Sony.
The SmartWatch 3 sells for $250 (£164, exact UK pricing to be confirmed), which is close to the top of the list most expensive Android Wear watches. It ain't fancy, but it's a solid performer, and it's the first smartwatch from Sony that might actually be worth your trouble. [Google Play]