Spending time with smart watches

Orde Saunders' avatarUpdated: Published: by Orde Saunders

Wearable computing is on the rise and, whilst Google Glass is grabbing the headlines, there are an increasing number of smart watches commercially available and they vary in capabilities - from simple notifications up to fully independent devices. To get an idea of how smart watches work and to compare different approaches I have tried out a Pebble followed by a Sony SmartWatch 2.

Pebble and Sony smart watches

Hardware

The most obvious difference between the Sony and the Pebble is the screen: whilst the Sony has a larger, full colour, touchscreen the Pebble has a smaller e-ink display that is not an input.

With the main input for the Sony being the touch screen it only has one hardware button - the power button - which is located where a mechanical watch would have the winder: in the centre of the right hand side. Pressing this switches on the backlight and enables the touch screen which has buttons at the bottom for back, home and menu. These buttons use the same iconography as Android 4 and behave as expected.

Sony smartwatch buttons

The Pebble uses four hardware buttons for all interaction with the device: in the centre right is the 'action' button - used for confirming selections; above and below this are 'scroll' buttons - used for moving up and down items displayed on screen; on the top of the left is the 'back' button - used to move back though screens and ultimately back to the watch face.

Pebble smart watch buttons

As mentioned above, the Sony has a full colour touch screen which is activated by the power button. Until activated, the screen shows the selected watch face and doesn't respond to touch. When activated, the backlight comes on and the home button can be used to access the watch's home screen. The home screen again clearly follows the Android visual language with screens of icons that you move through by swiping horizontally and a status bar at the top that has a swipe down drawer which holds notifications.

Sony smart watch home screen

The Pebble's e-ink screen is really easy to read in daylight and the motion activated backlight also makes it easy to read at night. Pressing the 'action' button brings up a menu list which can be navigated using the 'scroll', 'action' and 'back' buttons. This does take a small amount of getting used to, but very quickly becomes second nature and actually I found it isn't needed too often.

Pebble smart watch home screen

Whilst charging your phone at least once every day is now the acceptable norm, having to also remember to charge your watch every day I think would become a bit irksome. Having used the watches in the same way, they both last for several days before you get a low battery warning - around four days for the Sony and five or six for the Pebble.

The Sony charges from a standard micro USB slot recessed behind a captive door whilst the Pebble has its own proprietary magnetic charger.

Sony smart watch charger

Pebble smart watch charger

The Pebble's magnetic charger is the more elegant solution but I've had a few issues with it in practice. The magnets don't hold the charger on very firmly so it needs to be left in a place where it won't get disturbed, a real problem given that the vibration notification of the watch is enough to reliably dislodge the charger. The other problem, inherent to proprietary connections, meant that when the original cable supplied with my watch failed after only a couple of months I couldn't use the watch until I had ordered a new cable.

Aesthetics and ergonomics are subjective but I much prefer the rounded edges and smoother styling of the Pebble. Whilst the Sony isn't any thicker than the Pebble, I find its angular edges make it harder to get to and more likely to snag the cuffs of clothing.

Side profile of Pebble and Sony Smart watches

Software

Both watches have companion apps for the phone that manage communication with the watch and these handle basic system notifications such as phone calls, text messages, music etc. There are also additional apps for both that extend the range of communication. Both have an app that will relay any notification from the phone to the watch (and allow you to filter which notifications end up on it) and I've found these to be essential for making the watches useful.

When it comes to actually showing notifications on the device, both show the notification on the screen for a time before returning to the watch face and they can be dismissed with a button press.

Pebble and Sony smart watches showing notification

On the Pebble the notifications stay on the screen for a reasonable amount of time if not dismissed but then they are gone, you will need to check your phone to see what the message was.

The Sony doesn't show notifications for very long before returning to the watch face but does keep them available in a couple of places on the home screen allowing you to check recently received notifications.

The Sony might sound like it's a better system but in practice I find it annoying, it leads to a fast Pavlovian response to catch a notification before it disappears. If you miss it, the notification list is four actions away from the watch face. Also, as clearing a notification on the watch doesn't clear it on the phone, you now have two lists of notifications to manage. On the Pebble you have much longer to read the notification and, if you miss it, it will be on your phone anyway.

Both the Pebble and the Sony have apps that can be installed on the watch: for the Sony these are installed as Android apps from the Google Play store, for the Pebble they are downloaded from the web and pushed to the watch from the Pebble app. (This will change when Pebble release their own app store.) I've tried a few of these but haven't found many to be that useful.

One application of note for the Sony is a web browser which I have had a good look at and, honestly, it's not much more than a gimmick. Although you can read a well designed, well built, and accessible site it's not a great experience as the screen resolution isn't really up to rendering small text.

Sony smart watch web browser

Entering text on a tiny phone pad style 3x3 keyboard is extremely time consuming, you really need to use the companion phone app to enter bookmarks. I guess if you had a bookmarked dashboard or status page that was formatted to work well on that type of screen then it might be useful but I'm really stretching to find a problem for this solution.

Sony smart watch browser text input

Additional resources

Use

When I first tried out the Pebble I wasn't sure how useful it would be but within a week I was a convert and it rapidly changed how I use my phone.

With notifications coming to the watch I can quickly and easily check what they are and if they need action. More often than not notifications don't need me to do anything immediately so my phone stays in my pocket. Additionally, as the watch is strapped to my wrist the vibration is easily felt so I can leave my phone on silent which makes it less obtrusive.

As I'm now reaching for my phone much less often I've changed from a Galaxy S3 to a Note 2. The larger size is less of a problem if it's staying in my pocket and I benefit from the larger screen1 when I do use it. An additional benefit of the larger phone is a correspondingly larger battery which means that having bluetooth on all the time doesn't leave me running out of charge at the end of a normal day's use.2

Telling the time

With all the focus on the smart it's easy to forget about the watch and telling the time is, perhaps unsurprisingly, what I use my watch for most.

The Sony is somewhat of a disappointment here. The screen backlight is off until the power button is pressed which means that, in anything but good lighting, it's hard to read without using your other hand. It also uses a motion detector to turn the screen completely off when it's not being worn which I find a bit annoying as I tend to take my watch off if I'm going to be in one place for some time - such as when I'm sat at a desk.

Pebble and Sony smart watches in daylight

The Pebble's e-ink display is readable in a wider range of lighting conditions and the motion detector is used to turn the backlight on when shaken - a quick flick of the wrist will activate it - making it easy to read even in the dark.

Summary

The different approaches of the two watches become clear as you use them. The Sony is primarily an active device: it's comparable to a feature phone in terms of functionality and you need to treat it as a device in it's own right. The Pebble is primarily a passive device: it's more of a notification screen, it handles simple frequent tasks and leaves the more complex interactions to the phone.

The feature laden Sony is more what I thought I wanted from a smart watch but the simpler Pebble turned out to be what I needed.

Footnotes

  1. I am running Cyanogen Mod which means I can adjust the pixel density of the screen so it's more like a small tablet than the large phone that Samsung ship. The factory setting is to use the same size UI as a smaller phone but just stretch it to fit the larger screen.
  2. I haven't done any controlled testing of this but my impression is that the Sony drains the phone battery faster than the Pebble.