Recently I’ve become very interested in smart watches, for two big reasons. One, because I commute to work through a combination of subway and bus, I spend a considerable amount of time each morning and afternoon either standing up in crowded spaces (try finding empty seats in Seoul subway) or hurrying to and from stations. I’m always listening to music during commute (on my smartphone with B&O Earset), but since the music collection I have on my phone runs up to 20GB, I often find myself skipping tracks. People looking at the smartphone while walking is a major pet peeve of mine, but above and beyond that it’s cumbersome and difficult to control the smartphone while moving, as well as putting the phone under the risk of being dropped. The second reason was that I just hated having to dig out the phone from my pocket to check the time and date. I wanted to have the ability to see them with the simplest and fewest number of steps possible.
The smart watches that are being released today theoretically solve these two problems at once. Many of them have some form of music control function built in, and most – but not all – allow you to glance at the current time without any further input. A couple of months ago I bought Pebble to try it out, but found its features rather spartan and was left wanting more from a smart watch. I sold it (I have since bought another Pebble – more on this later) and turned to Sony’s Smartwatch 2, a device that looked better and seemed to promise a more full-featured experience.
Smartwatch 2 leaves a good first impression. Its metallic build and chamfered edges look suitably high-quality and feel sturdy. Particularly with the metal strap (which I ordered) it looks quite discreet and doesn’t give off the gadget vibe all that much. There’s a power button on the right side, and the typical Android front facing capacitive buttons for back, home and menu on the bottom below the display. The watch face is always showing even without backlight; in this state the device is locked and will not accept any input from the front facing buttons. Pressing the power button on the right turns on the backlight, and either pressing it again or the home button will allow you into the homescreen of the watch proper. Once there, the apps are displayed much as you would find on an Android smartphone, and you swipe sideways to move to the next screen. The notification bar shows the battery status, number of pages, bluetooth icon and the time, and you can swipe down from it to get the notification panel. Before you can delve into the home screen, you need to pair the Smartwatch 2 with an Android phone via bluetooth, and download Smartwatch 2 SW2 application from Google Play Store. All the apps and features of the device are loaded on to it from this app. As well as recommending Sony’s own applications, the app also points you in the way of some notable 3rd party apps. As for the battery life, Smartwatch 2 required charging every 3 days or so, which I found neither great nor terrible.
While I was mostly interested in the music control and the glanceable/on-the-go aspects of Smartwatch 2, I also got to grips with its notification features, an area where wearable devices are expected to perform a useful role. To start off, there are no notification apps pre-installed on the device. The aforementioned SW2 app on the phone recommends applications like Messaging, Gmail and Missed Call, in addition to social network notifications such as Twitter and Facebook. They work as well as you expect them to: emails and text messages are shown clearly and legibly, and are scrollable, so it’s possible to read the whole email (sans photos or other embedded media – just text) on the device. Unread notices are shown on each of the notification app on the watch, and tapping into them will allow you to read any previous email and message. There is another, separate app which shows you how many notifications across different services you have in total. As a medium for notification receipt, Smartwatch 2 is pretty well done and is certainly a better option than Pebble, which will show you emails and messages as and when they arrive, and are gone once checked. If a user’s main expectation for a smart watch is to receive notifications for various services, then Smartwatch 2 fits the bill rather well. It also supports the ability to reply with pre-determined text and to call back an SMS sender from the message. A pretty nifty feature is Call Handling, with which you can dial a number and tap on the phone button from the app on the watch, and the phone will start making the call. An incoming call, however, can only be rejected, not accepted, from the watch. You can also set alarms – simple vibration – and here Smartwatch 2 goes further than Pebble by allowing you to set repeat alarms and choose the days of the week.
It’s in the features other than notification where Smartwatch 2 starts to show its weaknesses. Let’s start with music control, one of my main areas of interest. The most obvious way to control your smartphone’s music playback from the watch is through a Sony-developed app called Music Player Extension, available from the Play Store. It’s a lamentably barebones application: you have the apparent option to choose which music app to control, but when you open up the option the only selection you are given is ‘automatic’, rendering the said option rather redundant. Whichever player you choose to use, the Music Player Extension struggles to show album artwork which the layout of the app suggests it should. Not only that, it’s very hit and miss when it comes to displaying song/artist information, so that all too often there’s no way of telling what or who is currently being played. Skipping tracks is done by swiping sideways, which works well, but controlling volume is tricky because the detection areas for volume up and volume down are absolutely tiny. Everything works, but in a way that makes you feel that Sony could have done a much better job. The Music Player Extension and other apps of its ilk also suffer from significant delay when you tap to open. This is made worse because the watch shows you no indication when you tap an app that the touch has been successful, so that on many occasions I would tap an icon, wait for it to open up, only to realise that the tap wasn’t recognised. A better music control app on the Smartwatch 2 is called Poweramp Control, which oversees playback on the said music application in a more attractive way by succeeding more often than not in displaying artist name, song title and album title as well as album art, in addition to letting you skip tracks and change volume. Again, however, Poweramp Control has tiny hit areas for volume control, has (lesser) delay in launching, and as the name suggests only works with one music player.¹
The technical shortcomings of Smartwatch 2 and the very fact that it’s a touchscreen device present a considerable problem when trying to control music – and make use of the watch in general – on the move. It’s almost impossible to skip tracks or change volume without looking at the device, which is a major hindrance when you are walking or on public transport. Touchscreen control can be prone to imprecision even on full-sized smartphones, so everything is made harder on a 1.6 inch screen, and extremely difficult when you’re trying to hit the volume controls. Given that music control apps on Smartwatch 2 don’t open right away and struggle to show even the basic information about the music, the whole feature makes for a disappointing experience.
As a wristwatch, Smartwatch 2 is inexplicably rudimentary. Compared to Pebble its specification is more robust and has potential for more varied implementation as a time-keeping device, but Sony for some reason has limited the watchface to just 5 built-in options, 2 of them showing time and date, and the others just the time. Only one is a digital clock, and is incidentally the only decent looking watchface; the rest are analogue and look terrible. As far as I can tell, there is no way of installing other watchfaces without resorting to a separate app, which will disappear when the device goes to sleep and reverts to one of the default watchfaces. One of Pebble’s main strengths is the ability to install all kinds of 3rd party watchfaces, which on a practical level means that depending on what you install you can be glancing at more information, like this one. As things stood I could only bear to look at the digital watchface on Smartwatch 2, which unfortunately shows the least amount of data.
After coming up against these shortcomings, I experienced a newfound appreciation for Pebble, and decided to buy a new one to compare and contrast. Limited though it may be overall, Pebble has physical buttons that are more useful for music control on the move, transitions into music control mode immediately upon a couple of button presses, and is capable of much more glanceable information through 3rd party watchface support. Now in possession of both smart watches, Pebble’s appeal to me has become more pronounced. I don’t necessarily think that its simplicity by itself is its major weapon: as far as notification is concerned, Sony’s device is markedly better. But Pebble’s lack of technical complication allows for very streamlined navigation and quick function transitions. There’s a Pebble app called Music Boss, with which you can control pause, play and skip tracks and change volume with just the three physical buttons on the right side of the device. It opens immediately, shows you what’s playing and basically just works every time. There’s no equivalent on Smartwatch 2, unfortunately. Likewise, it’s not just that there are more watchfaces that show more information on Pebble, but rather that they do so dependably. It’s hard to understand why Sony has developed a smart watch that is more sophisticated and ripe for all kinds of glanceable information and yet has chosen to limit its watchface to display less data than the most primitive wristwatches. Also, what is interesting is that Pebble supports accelerometer-activated backlight while Smartwatch 2 doesn’t. What this means is that when you bring your wrist up to look at the watch, the motion triggers the backlight, which is especially useful at night. Granted, Pebble’s accelerometer struggles to work half the time, but the fact that a cheaper, more basic device that was crowdfunded has this feature while Sony’s doesn’t speaks volumes for the philosophy behind the respective products.
My use case is not everyone’s, obviously, but my time with Smartwatch 2 has made me realise that it is far from where the smart watch needs to be at – and the same goes for Pebble to a lesser extent, despite the fact that I find it more useful. For one, I’m not sure that touchscreen interface, at least as used on Smartwatch 2 and based on the generic smartphone layout, is necessarily the way forward for a wearable. It’s fine when the user is static, but the fundamental appeal of wearable devices is that it is on your body at all times and accessible in a way that smartphones aren’t. As such, the focus for smart watches has to be the ease, speed and dependability of control. Your body is less likely to be stable while using a wearable, so the buttons and controls need to take that into account and require less precise, less visually-dependent types of input. In this regard, and against my expectations, I found the physical buttons on Pebble to be preferable. On Smartwatch 2, I found myself wishing that it supported system-wide gesture controls rather than the diminutive front-facing Android buttons or the shrunk-down homescreen navigation, particularly when I was out and about. Presentation of glanceable information is another area where Smartwatch 2 doesn’t get it right. There’s great potential for devices like it to provide the user with lots of useful information extremely quickly and in very convenient ways. On Smartwatch 2, however, the existence of the homescreen itself is very telling. It’s proof that Sony didn’t feel comfortable straying too far from a smartphone mindset, and that its vision of a smart watch was to build a very limited, miniature Android device and then added a watchface on top of it. Given that there is no way to feed any additional information to the watchface itself, and that you have to delve into the homescreen and deal with the undersized icons to access proper information, Smartwatch 2’s glanceability is lost and the benefit of having such a watch is reduced.
Looking at the ways in which Smartwatch 2 falls short, I think that trying to get the smart watch to be a miniature smartphone on your wrist is the wrong way of going about it. A smart watch manufacturer should concentrate on getting a few things to work right, quickly and reliably. The device should not require you to peel through layers of the user interface to get to the feature you’re looking for, because it negates the purpose of a wearable. Ideally it should enable you to bring up the information or access the function you’re looking for with a single press, tap or gesture, by having specific buttons or hot corners that are assigned to particular functions like message notification and music control. In this way you can access the feature you need without having to think too much or make additional movements. Surely the point of products like Google Glass or Pebble is that the information they present is more naturally, perhaps even instinctively, accessible. No doubt this means that the number of features that the watch can support will be significantly limited, but I think that should actually be the aim for smart watch makers. Because of this, the selection and quality of the features to which the buttons/gestures are assigned will be vital, and thus the onus will be on the manufacturer (as opposed to app developers). Finally, the watchface should be treated with much more thought and imagination. It’s what the user will be looking at every single time she or he uses the device. Having it be customisable like Pebble would be good; a location-based watchface that displays different information depending on where you are would be interesting², notwithstanding reliability and battery life issues. Rather than acting as a secondary unit leeching off the smartphone’s data, a smart watch should at least have some ability to acquire and process data natively and then pump it up to the watchface. Whatever it is, don’t make it like Smartwatch 2’s watchfaces: uninformative, restrictive, unsightly and anything but smart.
¹All this was tested on LG G2, as the Music Player Extension did not support KitKat on Nexus 5 at all, while Poweramp Control eventually did after an update.
² This is something that according to rumours Google’s smart watch will be doing, using Google Now-style cards.