Sony SmartWatch 3 review: Goodbye MOTOACTV, hello future of Android Wear

The Sony SmartWatch 3 earns a permanent spot on Matthew's wrist thanks to its ability to serve as an activity tracker, smartwatch, and GPS fitness device.

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(ZDNet: Matthew Miller)
After purchasing a Sony SmartWatch 3 a couple of weeks ago -- check out my first impressions -- I wasn't sure if I was keeping it or returning it. Two weeks later, there is no question: The Sony SmartWatch 3 is clearly the smartwatch for me.

While the Sony SmartWatch 3 doesn't have a heart rate monitor, it does have GPS, WiFi, NFC, and IP68 waterproof rating. The stand-alone GPS functionality and music playback make the Sony SmartWatch 3 the device I have been looking for to replace my MOTOACTV while also serving as my daily activity tracker and smartwatch.

Specifications

  • Operating system: Android Wear 4.4W.2
  • Processors: Quad-core ARM Cortex A7 1.2 GHz quad-core CPU
  • Display: 1.6-inch 320 x 320 pixels transreflective TFT LCD
  • RAM: 512 MB
  • Storage capacity: 4GB internal storage
  • Radios: 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1, near-field communications (NFC)
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, magnetometer, gyroscope, GPS
  • Battery capacity: 420 mAh with microUSB charging port
  • Dimensions: 36 x 10 x 51 mm, and 74 grams (watch module and band)

There is currently nothing in Android Wear that supports the use of WiFi, but we may see support for transfer of data without a phone connection. NFC can be used to launch the Android Wear app on your phone with a single tap. It's possible that wireless payments via Google Wallet may be supported in the future.

While these two wireless technologies are not fully utilized at the moment, they do help make it an accessory with a future. I am a bit disappointed in the lack of a heart rate monitor, but hope to find an app that supports using an external Mio Link monitor for running.

See CNET's Take: Sony SmartWatch 3 stands out from Android crowd with swappable straps

On the hardware

The Sony SmartWatch 3 is a two piece smartwatch design: a removable module and silicone band. The black band model is the only one currently available, but in the future there will be other color band options.

The watch module is well designed with glossy and matte finish stainless steel and glass composing most of the module. You will find a microUSB positioned at the bottom of the back, hidden under a small rubber cover. The cover is a bit difficult to remove and then rotate to fit in the microUSB cable. It is easier to remove the module from the band before charging up the SmartWatch 3.

The band has a rigid frame for the watch module with a metal button for the right side of the watch. The clasp is easily adjustable and clamps down securely. I did have it pop open once when I was lifting a heavy piece of furniture and bent my wrist until it applied pressure to the watch band.

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The trans-reflective display looks great in direct sunlight and low light conditions. I love that the SmartWatch 3 can be placed into always-on mode and actually show you a useful amount of information all the time. The Moto 360 goes dark and doesn't always come on when you rotate your wrist.

The fonts bothered me a bit at first because the display is bright and seems to wash the fonts out more than what I have seen and enjoyed on the Moto 360. After using Facer to switch watchfaces, I found better looking faces that changed my opinion about the SmartWatch 3.

I am seeing a couple of days of battery life from the SmartWatch 3. In comparison to the Moto 360 that I have been using, I am getting better battery life with the SmartWatch 3. While running with GPS navigation enabled and music streaming to my Bluetooth headset I saw about 25 percent battery consumption every 30 minutes. With GPS enabled --again in offline mode and not music streaming -- I experienced about 15 percent consumption every 30 minutes.

Pros Cons
Solid design with elegant form factor Band collects lint
Couple day battery life even with always on display Difficult to hold open microUSB door to fit in cable for charging
Standard microUSB for charging Included watchfaces are a bit dull
Stand-alone GPS support is useful
Offline music playback is flawless, best with Xperia Z3

On the software

Sony includes several watchfaces on the SmartWatch 3, but I honestly only like a couple of them. I installed Facer and installed a few other watchfaces that I am enjoying.

Android Wear works well on the SmartWatch 3; the more I use it, the more I find it quite useful. I do get frustrated by the lack of good multi-tasking support, though; if I accidentally swipe away an app, I can't go back to where I was easily. This will soon be fixed with the update rolling out to Android Weardevices.

Using the SmartWatch 3 for running: As I mentioned earlier, one of the main reasons I bought the Sony SmartWatch 3 was to see if it could replace my MOTOACTV. The first step in using the offline GPS mode is finding an application that supports this functionality. I am a RunKeeper Elite member, but unfortunately there is not yet an app for Android Wear that supports offline GPS.

The first app I tested was Google My Tracks. This is a very basic application that has a simple red start/stop button. There is no GPS status confirmation and the provided run progress is limited. I did find a tool that lets you export My Tracks data that is backed up to your Google Drive account, but found the tracks to be quite rough with intermittent skips in the data collected.

I then discovered iFit Outside. This app has a much better UI than My Tracks and did an excellent job of tracking my 10 mile run. Unfortunately, I didn't figure out that you could put the display in standby mode on my first couple runs so my long sleeve stopped the app from recording a couple of times. The data lines were smooth and the stats closely matched what my Xperia Z3 capture. There is no ability to export the collected data, but if you are happy with iFit, then this is a viable solution.

Yesterday, I discovered Ghostracer, which is now my preferred solution that will let me leave the phone behind. Ghostracer syncs directly to Strava, but also supports easy exporting to .GPX format. This capability lets me easily get the data off my SmartWatch 3 and import it into RunKeeper. The data from Ghostracer on my SmartWatch 3 almost exactly matched the data captured by my Xperia Z3.

The Ghostracer Android Wear UI is excellent with full control over what three lines of status appear on your watch as you run. Simply tap and hold on each line and then select the data you want to show. You can also scroll up to the settings to change the mode, switch units, and more. GPS status appears in the upper left after you launch the app. A minimal view also appears on the standby screen. Your data syncs to your phone after you reconnect and Ghostracer may even remain as my preferred app when RunKeeper finally rolls out its update.

Music on the SmartWatch 3: Android Wear supports offline music playback through Google Play Music. Unfortunately, this is a terrible experience as all of the music you have downloaded on your phone gets synced to your watch via Bluetooth. There is no playlist control or other fine tuning of music.

Thankfully, I have a Sony Xperia Z3 and Sony's latest Walkman app update supports Android Wear. You can easily go into the Walkman app on your phone, create a number of playlists, and then flip the toggle switch on each playlists to send the music to your watch. On your watch you can select which playlist to enjoy and even select to shuffle that playlist. Overall, the Sony experience is what you would expect from Google Play Music on Android Wear.

Other third party apps: I am also enjoying using Coffee Time to pay for Starbucks with my watch, LevelUp to pay for food at my local teriyaki place, and TrackID to identify music playing on the radio.

Pricing and availability

The Sony SmartWatch 3 is available from the Google Play Store and Verizon Wireless for $249.99. Google had a Cyber Monday special where they offered $50 in Google Play Store credit with a Sony SmartWatch 3 purchase.

The competition

There are several Android Wear devices available, including the ASUS ZenWatch, LG G Watch R, and Moto 360. They all offer something a bit different with the Moto 360 serving as a rather elegant round watch, the G Watch R being a classic round watch, and the ZenWatch offering a rectangular classy look.

The Sony SmartWatch 3 is targeted towards the more active user who wants to run without carrying a phone, spend time out in the elements, or have a sleek device that doesn't stand out from the crowd.

Conclusion

If the Sony SmartWatch 3 had a heart rate monitor and a more elegant way to charge up, then I would have awarded it a 9.5. Android Wear still needs more work before I can give any of the watches a perfect 10, but it is getting better and more apps appear regularly.

If you like to run without your phone and also enjoy music via Bluetooth, then the $250 SmartWatch 3 is a reasonably priced GPS watch. I look forward to more fitness apps supporting the SmartWatch 3, but in just the last couple of weeks I found some solid applications and am ready to leave the phone behind when I hit the road this winter.

Continue to the full gallery of SmartWatch 3 images

Contributor's rating: 9 out of 10

See CNET's Take: Sony SmartWatch 3 stands out from Android crowd with swappable straps

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