2/24/2015

Sony SmartWatch 3 review: Android Wear can be remarkably unremarkable

Almost since Android was introduced, it's been followed by people (including me) complaining about manufacturer customizations to the software. Companies like Samsung, Motorola, and LG used to layer horrifically bad software UI on top of the "pure" Android experience. They're better now, but still, there's always been a call for Google to force its partners to keep things in line and just release something close to the original vision.

By all indications, the company did just that with the wearable version of the platform, Android Wear. In the six months since it launched, we've seen a handful of different watches, but very little differentiation. I've been using Sony's SmartWatch 3 for awhile now, and I'm starting to think we had it all wrong. It's not just that this watch is kind of boring (it is), it's that the software platform is already feeling like it's waiting. Waiting for the Apple Watch, of course. Call it the meh before the storm.

The whole ethos of the SmartWatch 3 is a study in how to make an unremarkable gadget. It's a small puck of a screen that you can slot into a rubberized band (there's a metal version too), and it seems meant to be as inoffensive as possible — much like the original LG G Watch. But I personally find it kind of ugly — it's more sportwatch than smartwatch. If you think of it as a sportwatch, it actually kind of fits the category well: the rubberized band handles sweat without getting nasty, and you can pop out the watch itself if you want to give it a really thorough cleaning or change colors. It’s big, but not so big that it’s offensive.

YOU NEED TO PLUG IT IN EVERY DAY

It also uses an honest-to-god standard microUSB plug for charging, covered with a little rubber flap that ensures the watch is fully waterproof, not just water resistant. If you asked me in principle if this was a thing I wanted, I would have said, "Yes, I hate proprietary chargers." But in practice, plugging it in is a comparatively fiddly hassle. And you'll be plugging it in every day. Sony specs this at two days of battery life, but as with most smartwaches running Android Wear, the manufacturer battery life and actual battery life are pretty far apart. I was plugging it in every day no matter which settings I used.

Sony has baked in features that others haven’t, notably GPS. It works (with a very limited app selection), as does keeping music stored on the 4 GB of storage on the watch itself. Combined, the two features mean you can leave your phone behind as you go for a run. Both features are significant drains on battery life, and I often found myself leaving it charging on my desk with that convenient-yet-somehow-inconvenient microUSB plug.
As for the software, there's surprisingly little to say. It's Android Wear, with all its clever ideas and sometime annoying restrictions. I'm fully aware that a platform that's less than a year old deserves some slack, but lately I worry that Google is moving in the wrong direction with Android Wear. There are some new features like custom watch faces and the aforementioned local music storage, but the system for finding them on Google Play and getting them to my watch isn't very intuitive.

 sony smartwatch 3 review

ANDROID WEAR IS GETTING BETTER, BUT IN FITS AND STARTS

Don’t get me wrong; Android Wear is much more capable as a platform now than it was even a couple of months ago. But I worry a bit that every new feature that Google adds feels like it takes away from the beautiful simplicity at the core of the platform. Adding features without increasing complexity is devilishly hard, and in this case some of the new stuff feels bolted on and not very well thought through.

For example, the process of transferring music is a bit opaque. There's a checkbox deep within Google Play Music called "Download to Android Wear," and checking it will set your phone to (slowly) syncing your local music to the watch. I've got way more storage on my phone than I do on my watch, so I imagine at some point that's going to be a problem. But it works.

Actually, "but it works" is kind of the right way to think about the Sony SmartWatch 3 and maybe even the whole Android Wear ecosystem right now. Battery life is a bit of a disappointment, but it works. Google isn't advancing the platform as quickly as we'd hoped, and it won't let manufacturers do it for them, but it works. Finding a decent-looking watch face and getting it onto your watch requires wading through screen after screen of hideous garbage, but it (eventually) works. The fundamental simplicity of the platform is alternately refreshing and stifling. But it works.

Of course, "but it works" is a very low bar. It's hard to escape the feeling that Android Wear is in a bit of a holding pattern until we see how people respond to the Apple Watch. Or maybe we'll see some big updates at this year's Google I/O developer conference.
The previous 700-odd words of grumbling probably sound pretty dire, but I’m actually pleased that the Sony SmartWatch 3 exists at all; the whole premise of Android Wear is that it should enable a wide array of watches, from the elegant LG G Watch R to this sporty thing Sony made. I’m nonplussed by the hardware, but the point of Android is that there are different strokes for different folks.

Also, I really do like Android Wear. It has a pretty clear vision of what a smartwatch should be: simple, focused on smart and helpful notifications, and not the sort of thing you should be spending a long time looking at. We haven't had a chance to actually use the Apple Watch yet, but the previews have revealed an almost dizzying array of features and concepts you need to understand to use it. Usually we think of the iPhone as simple and the Android as complex, so it's funny to see that Google's vision for smartwatches seems to be much simpler and less ambitious than Apple's.

THERE'S A KIND OF COURAGE IN DOGGEDLY STICKING WITH SIMPLICITY

Android Wear feels like it's nowhere near its full potential and that the only thing holding it back is Google. You could say there's a kind of courage in doggedly sticking with simplicity, in refusing to rush out functionality that would give it feature parity with the as-yet unreleased Apple Watch. I'd love to know if the developers inside Google are standing on that principle or just waiting to see how people react to what Apple has made.

In the meantime, we have unassuming watches like Sony's SmartWatch 3. Even if you're part of the tiny sliver of users to whom it's designed to appeal, you have to admit that there's nothing really special about it.

But it works.