Sony SmartWatch 3 review: substance over style

The smartwatch is still an infant technology that hasn’t yet decided what it wants to be when it grows up. Although there are a spate of Android Wear-based devices on the market, they’re all really the same thing in different outfits. This is a market where differentiation is more difficult than most, perhaps even more so than the tablet space.

Generally I complain that tablets are boring, mundane technologies, but smartwatches come pretty damn close too.

Sony’s SmartWatch 3 doesn’t exactly harbour an interesting name (hell, anything other than calling a smartwatch “SmartWatch” would’ve piqued my interested) or an interesting exterior, but at least it strives to pack some differentiating features.

But can it be called the best smartwatch currently available, in terms of features, performance, comfort and value?

Unboxing

If you’ve seen our gallery unboxing last year, the SmartWatch 3 isn’t so much delivered in a cardboard box as a glass shell. It’s a spectable and a work of art itself with the watch seemingly suspended on an arm that clips into the cube’s lower portion. Because it doesn’t quite touch the exterior of the cube, the watch is well protected from bumps.

Read more: Unboxing the Sony SmartWatch 3 [Gallery]

Sony SmartWatch 3 9

Additional goodies like the tiny charging cable and the usual host of uninteresting paper-based nonsense is housed beneath the cube itself and can be easily accessed by clipping off the cube’s lower portion.

Aesthetics

If you purchase devices based on their exterior appeal, you’ll find it very difficult to fall in love with the SmartWatch 3.

Although I fancy the plaid looks, it’s hopelessly mundane especially when held up against LG‘s round G Watch R or Motorola‘s stately Moto 360 smartwatches. The face is nice and shiny with its scratch resistant glass coating slathered across. And it was difficult to scratch, even on my overly clumsy person.

The business-end of the watch can be popped out of the strap, which makes charging and cleaning both pieces easy, but it also means that no third-party strap can be whacked onto the unit.

The strap is of the black plastic variety too, and has a horrid knack of attracting all types of flying debris. It particularly likes fluff and dust so rinsing it under a tap now and then is something you’ll want to do often.

The charging port lies on the back of the watch, and is covered by a little grey flap, tasked with keeping dirt and liquid out of the microUSB port.

Sony SmartWatch 3 4

Unlike the notch system, the Sony SmartWatch 3 uses a metal clasp which holds the wearer’s arm extremely well. It can get a bit sweaty in warmer climes but the rubberised strap grips onto one’s skin extremely well — there’s very little chance of it falling off an arm.

There’s also a power button on the outside right of the watch, used to coax the screen into life and shutdown the watch entirely. The screen can also be awoken using a gentle flick of the wrist which I used more than the button itself.

Internals and features

Smartwatches pack some serious processing power nowadays, and the SmartWatch 3 is no exception. Beneath the swollen rear hump of the watch, a quad-core 1.2GHz CPU with 512MB of RAM and 4GB of internal storage can be found. Why a watch needs four processing cores is beyond me, especially considering that Android Wear isn’t a particularly taxing OS.

Additionally, the SmartWatch 3 also houses essential connectivity options including Bluetooth 4.0 LE and NFC, with an ambient light sensor, an accelerometer, a gyroscopic sensor a compass and, more interestingly, a built-in GPS integrated too. The latter really sets it apart from other smartwatches;  the only issue? Android Wear doesn’t quite feature any apps that can make use of this feature, yet.

Sony SmartWatch 3 16

A 420mAh battery keeps the 1.6-inch 320×320 IPS screen on, which Sony claims will last for at least two days on mixed use.

So it boasts fairly generic features, but that GPS will definitely futureproof the phone once Android Wear catches up with its hardware.

Performance

Thanks to its dense feature set, the SmartWatch 3 doesn’t show any signs of lag at all when buzzing between menu items, Android Wear cards or instructing the tethered smartphone.

Android Wear can be an baby-sized slob (as shown by the LG G Watch R’s noticeable UI lag), but the Sony SmartWatch 3 powers through everything well.

The watch does the usual Android Wear watch things well too, like count steps (using Google Fit) and notifies the user of pending mails, messages and calls. Sadly, the device doesn’t have a heart rate monitor, but for fitness geeks, the watch will serve as an admirable companion.

Battery life is rather stellar compared to other smartwatches too, and lasted more than two days when sat on my arm. Of course, this largely depends on how often and how you use the watch, or how popular you are but for the average person, charging it daily isn’t something you’ll likely forget.

Sony SmartWatch 3 G Watch

The screen is bright enough when fully lit or in standby mode, so there are no qualms there at all either.

Usability

Fashion or function. Pick a side, manufacturers, because that’s the future dichotomy of the smartwatch.

Sony hasn’t exactly raided Paris Hilton’s makeup draw when designing the SmartWatch 3, and for me at least, that’s perfect. It looks good, and strangely innocuous, without being flash. “Understated” is a term one could use to describe most Sony products.

Read more: Sony Xperia Z3 Compact long-term review: sexy, submersible, sensational

The watch itself isn’t heavy either, even if it does have a noticeable hump at the rear, so the watch grips onto the wrist with relative ease. The strap’s design doesn’t dig into one’s flesh either, so its comfortable to wear for long periods of time and easy to quickly snap off if need be. And if you fancy a quick dip in the shallows, the watch will happily swim alongside, boasting an IP68 water and dust resistance rating.

But you wank to know about the “smart” part, don’t you?

Commenting on this unfortunately has to involve Android Wear to a certain degree. This is Sony’s first bash at crafting a watch that runs on Google’s ultramobile platform, with previous iterations running on Sony’s proprietary system. That was nice, sure, but it lacked substance.

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Ironically, although Android Wear has familiarity on its side, it too lacks substance. Hell, thanks to Android Wear you can’t even use the built-in GPS, which is a major part of this smartwatch’s allure.

For one, used as a message relay device or a smartphone controller, it’s a stellar device, but one wonders if smartwatches will ever graduate to become an integral part of our lives. I’m not so sure, especially not with Android Wear at the helm.

Value and price

At around R3100, it’s not the cheapest device on the planet and will set one back more than the average mid-range smartphone, but it is on the lower end of the smartwatch price spectrum. For comparison’s sake, the LG G Watch R retails for around R3700. Granted, the G Watch R looks incredible and should appeal to more watch lovers, but the Sony does boast a more complete spec sheet.

Verdict: Smartwatches in general have a good few years before total maturation, but for the moment, the Sony SmartWatch 3 is an admirable device in its own right. Everything it claims to do, it does, and does well, without being cumbersome or a chore to wear. And that’s all you can ask for in a device like this. Would I personally purchase one? No, because right now, I don’t feel that anyone explicitly needs a smartwatch on their wrist.

Score: 7.5/10

Andy Walker
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