Don't look now, but Sony has quietly released a new smartwatch, and I'm almost surprised to report it's not a total disaster.
Compared with Samsung's just-released and almost universally criticized Galaxy Gear, Sony's SmartWatch 2 has much more modest ambitions. It doesn't overreach with a zillion half-baked features, and as a result it stands a fighting chance of restoring a semblance of credibility to the entire smartwatch category.
The SmartWatch 2 doesn't shoot photos or video. It doesn't respond to voice commands. And it doesn't have a microphone, so you can't use it for phone conversations that look something like this. But those are all features that often feel like beta experiments in the Galaxy Gear. The SmartWatch 2 honors simplicity over feature depth, and the result is a gadget that's only intermittently frustrating, not consistently frustrating like Samsung's take on the smartwatch concept.
Strap the SmartWatch 2 to your wrist. Use it to check notifications of who's emailing, texting, or calling you. It offers few thrills, but imposes a little less pain than its direct competition does. And maybe that's something of a moral victory in today's screwed-up smartwatch market.
Smartphone support for (nearly) all
I'll try not to pit Sony's watch against Samsung's watch at every turn, but I need to clarify three major differences up front. First, the SmartWatch 2 works with any phone running Android 4.0 or later. This feature is significant, because at press time the Gear pairs only with a single phone, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (though support for more Samsung phones is imminent). The SmartWatch 2 also offers significantly more battery life than the Gear: between three and seven days as opposed to a mere 12 to 24 hours. And at $200, the SmartWatch 2 costs a full C-note less than the Gear.
These are important distinctions. Both watches depend on smartphones for their key functions, so Sony's liberal, big-tent approach to hardware compatibility is welcome. And don't underestimate the importance of battery life: If your smartwatch can't even last through the day, you don't lose only its mobile-app functions—you also lose the display on your wrist that shows you the time.
Sony's 1.6-inch LCD screen isn't spectacular, but it gets the job done. Resolution comes in at just 220 by 176, and a certain pixely graininess will remind you of what mobile gadgets looked like before Retina screens showed us a new way of living. On the plus side, off-axis viewing isn't horrible, and I found I could easily read the display in direct sunlight.
The watch's design aesthetic is unapologetically nerd-tech, complete with a stark black bezel, rounded corners borrowed from Sony's Xperia phones, and a thin strip of blingy, polished metal running around the edge of the watch face. The whole affair reeks of 2005. Or maybe something you'd find in a Brookstone catalog.
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