Sony SmartWatch 3 review: Cheap but very much showing its age

Sony’s sporty SmartWatch 3 is getting on a bit and despite an attractive looking price isn't something we'd recommend any more

4
Price when reviewed 
100
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The Sony Smartwatch 3 was among the very first group of Android Wear smartwatches to appear in the shops and it's now very much looking its age. Although I was quite impressed with its combination of decent battery life and features when it first came out, things move on, so despite big discounts I can no longer recommend anyone spend £100 on one.

The reason is that there's now a whole army of better quality alternatives on the market better suited to the job of providing fitness-based smartwatch functions. And, as Google continues to release new versions of its wearable operating system, the hardware is going to become less and less capable of running it smoothly.

For a full list of our favourite smartwatches visit our best smartwatches of 2018 page but, suffice to say, almost any of the wearables on this list will outperform the Sony Smartwatch 3 in one way or another.

If you're still interested, despite all that, my original review continues below. Just be aware that more attractive, more responsive and more practical smartwatches now exist that will do a better job than the Sony Smartwatch 3.

Sony SmartWatch 3: display and battery life

The first of the plus points is the SmartWatch’s 1.6in, 320 x 320 display. Instead of using the standard IPS or OLED tech used in most other manufacturers' smartwatches, the Sony employs transflective technology.

" title="<--wysiwyg_see-related_plugin-->" style="font-size: 0.8125em;">Transflective (transmissive and reflective) LCD panels are dual-purpose screens, more commonly found on outdoor gadgets such as handheld GPS devices and ruggedised tablets. The addition of a reflective layer means that, as long as there’s enough ambient light, the display remains legible, even if the LCD backlight is switched off. For a smartwatch, where you don’t want to be constantly sapping the battery life by turning the backlight on and off, it’s the perfect fit.

In the case of the Sony Smartwatch 3, the transflective screen means that, even when you’re not engaging with the watch, you can read the time and notifications at a glance, and in bright sunlight the screen is far more readable than on wearables with standard screens.

Indoors, however, it operates just like any other smartwatch: the screen turns on when you tap the button or the screen or lift your wrist abruptly, and it can be turned off by covering the watch face with your palm, or pressing the button again.

It’s a clever idea and one that, coupled with a light sensor to adjust the backlight based on ambient conditions, leads to decent battery life. In casual use, with the screen set to always on, we found the watch typically lasted two days of use, matching Sony’s claims, and it did well in our smartwatch battery benchmark as well, achieving a projected runtime of 47hrs 16mins.

That result puts the Sony up with the best Android Wear devices we’ve used - the LG G Watch (52 hours) and LG G Watch R (69 hours) - although given the transflective display, it isn’t as good as we were hoping, especially since its 420mAh battery is as big as we’ve seen on a smartwatch.

With regard to the screen there is one major downside, too: compared with the AMOLED and IPS displays found on other smartwatches, with the backlight on and out of the sun, it looks terrible. Colours are washed out and insipid, and they fade further when viewed at an angle. Also, it’s disappointing that there’s no way to engage an ultra-power saver mode, by switching entirely to reflective mode. That could have made a palpable difference to the SmartWatch 3’s battery life. As it is, the battery is good but not better than the market leaders.

Sony Smartwatch 3: design, features and software

The watch itself looks a touch drab, but we did find ourselves warming to the minimal, frill-free design. It’s comfortable to wear and feels well made: its thick rubber wristband is adorned with a hinged metal clasp that holds it snugly and securely to your wrist.

A chromed button on the side of the housing sleeps or wakes the watch without you having to touch the screen or flick your wrist, and the watch is available in two colours: black or neon yellow.

We prefer the black band, but whichever you choose it’s possible to change between straps easily by simply popping the “core unit” out and back in again. It’s a great system, but at the time of writing we were unable to find any accessories to buy other than the official Sony pink and white straps, for around £20 each. Given the focus on fitness, it would have been nice if Sony had seen fit to launch the SmartWatch 3 with a handlebar mount. It’s also somewhat surprising to discover that there’s no heart-rate monitor on the rear of the watch, a feature many of its non-sporty rivals include.

However, the SmartWatch 3 is water- and dust-resistant; its IP68 rating means it’s completely sealed against dust, and you can submerge it in up to a metre of water for 30 minutes. We wouldn’t take it swimming, but it should be fine in the shower or while doing the washing up.

The SmartWatch 3 also has its own GPS sensor - something other Android Wear watches lack. This allows it to - in conjunction with Sony’s Lifelog app - log your runs and rides independently, so you don’t have to take a smartphone out with you when you exercise.

Other practical touches include 4GB of flash memory (with 2.6GB free to use) for storing MP3 files for offline playback via Bluetooth headphones. There’s also NFC, raising the prospect of being able to pay for goods and services without having to whip either your phone or your wallet out of your pocket.

Our favourite feature, though, is the most prosaic of the lot: a standard micro-USB charging port, found at the rear of the watch beneath a rubber flap. While owners of other smartwatches will worry constantly about losing their fiddly magnetic or clip-on charger attachments, Sony SmartWatch 3 owners need only find the nearest standard phone charger. Frankly, this is something we’d like to become standard across all wearables.

Finally, as for software - well there’s nothing much to see here. The SmartWatch 3 runs plain Android Wear, which means it works just like any other Android Wear smartwatch, receiving notifications and Google Now updates via pop-up cards, and allowing you to issue various voice controls to set reminders and send messages. Plus, with the recent Android Wear 5 update, Google is gradually beginning to iron out the kinks, although in our view there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Sony SmartWatch 3: verdict

The Sony SmartWatch 3 is a good smartwatch, but we can’t help but feel that it could have been so much more. On the plus side, the built-in GPS and transflective display set it apart from the crowd, battery life is decent and it’s sensibly priced, too.

However, the poor screen quality when backlit and the lack of heart-rate monitor will put a sizeable dent in its appeal for many wearables fans. For now, that means only one thing - the LG G Watch R retains the Android smartwatch crown.

Sony Smartwatch 3 specifications

ProcessorQuad-core, 1.2GHz, ARM A7
RAM512MB
Screen size1.6in
Screen resolution320 x 320
Screen typeTransflective
CameraNo
GPSNo
CompassYes
Storage4GB
Wi-FiN/A
Bluetooth4
NFCNo
Size (WDH)37 x 10.5 x 52mm
Weight74g
Operating systemAndroid Wear
Battery size420mAh
Warranty1yr RTB

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