Let`s get it out of the way nice and early. No, no-one really needs a smartwatch.
It`s the most common question I get when wearing mine, although “ooh, is that an Apple watch?” is a pretty close second and just marginally more annoying. But:
Is it useful?
Why would I want one?
Which one should I get?
Congratulations, you clever people, those are much better questions.
So, like everyone else in the world I have no need for a smartwatch, but I still have one and. In fact, I’ve owned several over the past few years – starting with the Sony SW2 (which I also hacked a little) and then burning fairly rapidly through the LG G Watch R, Moto 360 and now the Sony Smartwatch 3*. At the moment, I’m still very much in the minority as a recent survey by Ofcom apparently suggests less than 5% of UK adults currently own a smartwatch. That compares to two thirds of adults who now own a smartphone and an incredible 90% of 16-24 year olds.
And would I recommend that you join me? Absolutely, although you need to know what you are and are not getting. I definitely find it useful but it’s hard to argue that we’re talking anything but marginal benefits. Having notifications and things like music controls on your wrist are pretty helpful but you could certainly manage without them and it could be hard to justify the cash. However if, like me, you are a runner or have some other specific use-case then it’s obviously an easier sell. Whatever the reason and if you do jump in, I’d like to run you through why I think the Sony Smartwatch 3 is the best option out there right now. No, you still don’t need it but here’s why I’d recommend it over the competition:
Hip to be square
I know some people aren’t but I’m a big fan of watches generally. Not the crazily expensive -get-you-mugged-in-an-alley ones but the look-nice-do-the-job-and-make-a-good-present ones. It probably goes without saying but, as an adult, I’m talking analogue watches here with round or round-ish faces. So when I started looking into smart watches I went straight to watch-faces that looked like the ones I already owned. And with some well-designed exceptions, I soon realised that a round watchface looks pretty stupid on a square screen so I started leaning towards the Moto360 and G Watch R.
But after a while I had an epiphany – this was not a replacement for my previous watches but a different beast entirely. Just as before, the temptation is always to try to replicate the old “physical” version world but the question you have to ask is “why”? When you have a smart watch why not embrace it rather than trying to replicate what came before? With a full-colour screen capable of animation and even video, replicating the look and movement is probably one of the things it does worst. However good, an analogue watch face is really just a poor facsimile of an analogue watch.
Instead, my favourite watchfaces now focus on the strengths of the platform – gorgeous, vibrate and sometimes animated images that give me all the information I need at a glance. And, for literally everything else that it does, a square watch face is just plain better. Notification cards are, well, cards and can show full rows of text without compromise. Things like photos and intake up the whole screen, apps
A smartwatch with stamina
It is all relative but in a world where “all-day” battery life is a selling point, the Smart Watch 3 really does strongly. With GPS off (more on that later) and turning it off overnight, I get between 2 and 3 days of battery. Ok, so it’s still not great against a traditional watch or even something like a Fitbit but it does make a substantial difference. If you charge overnight, it means no risk of battery anxiety however busy the day, or late you stay out and it also means you can head off for the weekend without needing to pack a charger.
But when you do finally need to recharge it, this is done through a regular micro-USB cable, removing the need to pack a special adapter and increasing the chances that you will already have (or can borrow) the necessary cable to get you back up running again. Sure, there are pretty and less fiddly options but I’d rather have a working watch thanks.
Useful alone, better together
As I alluded to above, a major selling point for me was the built in GPS, something that means I’m able to leave my phone at home on a run and a feature that very few of the competition have. Yes, it would also be nice to have a heart-rate monitor but at the moment it seems you can’t have everything. But while that would be a nice to have, GPS is a necessity for me and I’ve found the watch works well without any issues with the accuracy that some owners have reported.
And with the most recent update to Android Wear the watch can also work independently of your phone when connected to a trusty wifi signal. Again, this is something that not every smartwatch can do and although it’s not a massive deal it has come in handy when, for example, I’m sat in my lounge but charging my phone upstairs.
Now you see me, now you don’t
Having owned the LG G Watch R, one of the most surprising benefits I’ve found with the Sony is actually what it doesn’t do. Even at its lowest brightness, the G Watch R was quite bright and combined with a fairly sensitive gyroscope this meant it really drew the eye of my friends and passers-by, to the point that it was distracting and too conspicuous for my tastes. An Android Wear update has since added “cinema mode” which may have helped matters but this would mean losing the ability to glance hands-free compromising some functionality.
In contrast, the Smartwatch 3 has a handy “transflective” screen, which means that the screen is visible (in lit conditions) without needing a backlight. Having this as my default setting suits me much better, it makes the smartwatch less distracting and relatively inconspicuous while keeping the functionality I’m looking for and, I’d imagine, helping contribute to that longer battery life. The trade-off is a slightly yellow tinge on fully white screens according to reviews but it’s something which I’ve hardly noticed in practice.
Time to wrap up
So what are the downsides? Well, it’s not the prettiest smartwatch out there with a look that is sporty rather than premium. For the time being that means I just wear one of my analogue watches as a “dress watch” but I may splash out on the steel strap when it’s available and, hopefully, a little cheaper than the RRP. The lack of a heart-rate monitor is also a real shame and would have made it a great exercise tool. And beyond that? Well, it shares the other downsides of the Android Wear platform in that: you need a phone to get the most out of it; the battery needs regular recharging which is an adjustment from the old analogue world; and you get some funny looks from anyone around you if you decide to use the voice recognition.
One day I’d love to own a smartwatch more like the incredible-looking Neptune suite. But today, with an RRP of £189.99, I believe the Smartwatch 3 is the best choice out there for anyone looking for a smartwatch. If you can get it closer to the £100 mark (as it’s been on Amazon on and off) then I’d highly recommend it. Let me know what you think.
*p.s. For the record, I have nothing against the Pebble which looks interesting but has never quite grabbed me for some reason. I can definitely see the appeal of the longer battery life for example and the smart straps idea looks pretty interesting so something to keep an eye on. As for the Apple watch? Well it’s out of the question to me as an Android user but I struggle to see how anyone can justify the price for the current functionality. Perhaps the inevitable second version will be different.