Sony Smartband AH-8

Featured Review: Sony SmartBand

September 27, 2014 - Written By Tom Dawson

Earlier this year, Sony entered the wearable game with the Sony SmartBand and while it was hardly surprising to see a big technology name like Sony enter said market, the way they did so was a little different. Instead of being a straight fitness tracker, Sony’s SmartBand is something of a strange tracking device; it tells you how many steps you take, how long you browsed the web for, how long you slept for, how much time you spent on games and so on and forth. It’s an interesting concept and one that relies heavily on Sony’s Lifelog application, and while they’ve released the SmartBand Talk as a follow-up to this, the SWR10, not everyone wants a display on their wrist. Not everyone wants a full-on fitness tracker either, so can Sony’s SmartBand offer the best of both worlds? I’ve been living with the SmartBand for the last month and below, I try to answer that question.

Design

First of all, we had better start with the design of the SmartBand, after all nobody is going to wear this if it doesn’t look any good. Thankfully, Sony have done a pretty good job here, with the Core being easily swapped out throughout different colored bands. I plumped for the World Cup 2014 Limited Edition as the green is the only color besides black that you can actually buy the SmartBand in. To me, that’s a big mistake on Sony’s part and while you can certainly get your hands on packs of three other colors (some of which are featured in the gallery below) not everyone wants to pay for a device up front and have a choice of just one or two colors.

Still, the band itself is fairly neutral, it’s a simple band that sits around your wrist, and while the Core does make it feel a little chunky it weighs very little and from a distance nobody will even think you’re wearing anything other than a silicon band of some sort. I like the Sony button that holds the bands together, and in my use the band never fell off of my wrist once. With some really nice colors available for both men and women (with the white being one of my favorites) it’s pretty easy to find a way for the SmartBand to blend in with your wardrobe.

One point I feel Sony has overlooked is the replaceable button that holds the bands together. In typical Sony fashion, each pack of three bands only comes with one button, a concentric circle design in steel that has the Sony logo inside. It’s fairly good-looking, but Sony promised different button designs to further customize our bands and we’re still stuck with – very few of these buttons in the first place – and the same old color. It’s not a big deal by any means, but a small point that might make the SmartBand a little more popular in my eyes.

The Core

Sony Smartband AH-13

This little “nugget” as I keep on calling it is the SmartBand’s brain and one that features a single button, NFC for pairing, and is powered by Bluetooth 4.0LE. Oh, there are some LEDs included as well, which you’ll need to pay attention to when using it. Sony say that the SmartBand should get five days on a single charge, and in practice, that’s about what I got. I would charge the Core on a Wednesday and need to charge it again by the next Monday or Tuesday, considering the Core is a simple microUSB connector and 30 minutes away from a full charge, I was pretty happy with this. It’d be nice to see a full week here, but five days is pretty good considering you’re supposed to be wearing it 24/7.

The Core has a few other tricks outside of tracking your movements throughout your day, like the ability to skip music tracks, and vibrate as your alarm goes off on your phone. Controlling music with the SmartBand is frankly laborious, you have to push the button, tap the top of your band once to pause, twice to skip and three times to head back a track. It’s slow, and it can also be a bit of a guessing game, but for those that go running with their phone tucked away safely, this is a very nice feature, it’s just not as easy as Sony thinks it is.

You can set the Core up to vibrate when you get a phone call or a notification, but with no display it’ll just buzz, annoyingly so. The vibration is actually really strong, and the fact that you can have it vibrate for a phone call or notifications, without having to have it all or nothing, the SmartBand becomes a simple way to catch those emergency phone calls in the middle of the night.

For those lazy sleepers, the SmartBand will vibrate at the same time as your alarms do and can also vibrate to wake you up when it senses you’re in a light sleep. You can set a window of opportunity of 15 minutes up to an hour for this, and all it does is wait for you to move between said time window to wake you up. This doesn’t really work all that well, but that could be because I was mostly awake by the time it went off, however having your alarm on your phone work with the SmartBand is an effective way of shifting yourself in the morning.

Software

Before I get onto the main attraction which is Lifelog, you’ll need a total of three apps for the SmartBand to be of any use. You need to download Smart Connect, the SWR10 app and of course Lifelog itself. I can see why Sony went this route – they did the same with the SmartWatch 2 – but it needn’t be this complicated. Smart Connect is a universal app for all of Sony’s peripherals and sadly, it creeps into your everyday life as well. You’ll be haunted by popups when you charge your phone, when you plug in headphones and more. It’s nice that Smart Connect can help with actions and such, and they’re not difficult to completely turn off, but I needed this app for the SWR10, I didn’t ask for anything else, thank you.

Setting things up however, is really quite easily. Once you have your apps set up, just turn on Bluetooth, tap your phone to the band on your wrist and hey presto, you’re done. I like the fact that Sony seems to be the only manufacturer out there making decent use of NFC, and the fact that the band vibrates when its disconnected is a nice way of not leaving your phone behind.

Overall, Sony’s approach here is a little muddled, but it does help them update just the SWR10 firmware independently of Smart Connect and Lifelog, so there is that. It’s simple to set up and the only real complaint I have here is that I wish the smart actions for headphones and charging were opt-in and not the other way around.

Lifelog

Sony Smartband AH-14

This is what the SmartBand is all about, without Lifelog you have a glorified notification ringer and that’s it. Lifelog tracks your activities throughout the day and presents them to you as they happened, in a chronological order. It tracks pretty much everything, not just your activity on your wrist, and it’s an interesting look at your life overall, but it can also be toned down to suit your needs.

I wanted to see if a record of a week’s worth of laziness would shame me into doing something and I also wanted to see if I could understand my sleep a little better. After a month or so, I can say that Lifelog has done just that, but right now it’s more potential than anything else, and here’s why.

You can set goals for steps, time spent walking or running, you can set a goal for whatever you want. If you’re trying to cut back on how much time you spend on social media for instance, you can set a goal of 2 hours a day for ‘Communication’ apps. When you hit that goal, you’ll be told about it and you can then choose to stop or carry on. Similarly, you can set a goal of 30 minutes walking everyday, or a 10 minute run every day. It’s all nice and simple to get set up and it really did encourage me to fill those meters up and lead a more active life.

Step counts weren’t super-accurate, but they were at least consistent, with the short walk to my local store being around 760 – 780 steps every time I head there. You can manually adjust your stride length in the settings as well, making sure that it’s as accurate as possible. Thankfully, Sony didn’t create a band that responded to every movement ever, and instead requires some decent motion to register a step. With my LG G Watch, I sometimes clock in 120 steps for pretty much nothing, meanwhile the SmartBand will stick at zero, which is important I feel.

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For keen runners, you’ll be happy to know that Lifelog figures out when you’ve gone for a run and it’ll also track how long you ran for and give you a little route using Google Maps. It’s not on the same level on Runtastic, and I wish it did this for walks as well, but add-in all your other activity throughout the day it can be a good way of getting a picture of your day.

As for more mundane activities throughout the day, Lifelog will track time spent on games or browsing the web and present them as bubbles on a time graph of your day, the bigger the bubble, the more time spent. Below the main display are meters of all the time spent on these activities and it’s an interesting look at how you use your device. For instance, the first thing I do in the morning is spend 10 or so minutes dealing with my inbox and Lifelog showed that every day. Another area I enjoyed was taking photos throughout the day, Lifelog remembers where you were, what time you took them and adds them to your timeline. This allows you to head back to last week, and show your friends the photos you took at that brilliant concert you didn’t watch but document without the need to head to your photo app and dig them out.

Speaking of concerts, Sony has introduced the Life Bookmark. Which is basically a double-push of the button on the band to record a bookmark, this is then marked on your Lifelog for you to input data like who you were with, what you were doing etc. This is a nice feature and while it is a little melancholy, there are a lot of ways you could use such a feature, and it’s a nice little add-in for sure.

At the end of your day, the SmartBand can track your sleep, too. You need to have the band in night mode for this, which you can set up automatically, or manually trigger it with a long press of the button. After a few weeks of it tracking my sleep, I learned some interesting facts (facts according to Lifelog, of course) such as my average sleep time being 7 hours and that I mostly get around 2 hours of deep sleep each night. On days where I woke up feeling groggy and stiff, Lifelog told me I had slept over 8 hours and that I had almost 3 hours of deep sleep. It seems that 7 hours is the magic number for me, and I can genuinely say that paying attention to these figures has helped me sleep better. I now try to head to sleep either before or a little after midnight every night and wake up around 8 o’clock. Sticking to this newfound pattern of mine – thanks to Lifelog – has helped me sleep better, and I can’t complain about that at all.

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Lifelog isn’t perfect, either. It refuses to track how much time on spend listening to music with Google Play Music, unless my phone is awake and the app open, which is certainly not how we listen to music. I’m not sure if this is a Google Play Music issue or a Sony issue, either way though that was the biggest issue I had with Lifelog, which is hardly a dealbreaker.

On the whole, Lifelog is an interesting idea, and one I sort of fell in love with. I’m trying to get fit, and the first step to that is to go for a brisk walk everyday, with the aim to graduate to a 30 minute jog every other day. I now feel guilty, and disappointed with myself if I don’t fill up that step count, if I don’t see that walking meter fill up. Sitting at a desk all day (and no, do not suggest a standing desk) is a major drawback of a job I love, but I need to be more active, and being able to track how active I have been in a general, no-pressure kind of way has helped me get out of the chair and be more active.

Sony has already said that they’ll be expanding Lifelog by bringing it to the web and delivering an API for third-party developers to hook into, and I think this will make the SmartBand far more useful, and I’ll take another look at future updates to Lifelog, too.

The Final Word

All-in-all, Sony have done a fairly decent job at creating a fitness tracker that doesn’t push you too hard, and yet also persuades you to be more active by sort of shaming you into doing something. I think the hardware here is pretty decent, although elevation detection would be nice to see, and I am more than happy to wear the band all week, day and night. Lifelog has the potential to be a great application for those wanting to get fit and stay fit, but right now it’s just raw data that is up to you to interpret. For me, that’s actually kind of nice, as I can do things my way, but a push to the more fitness-tracker side of things would help the SmartBand compete against the likes of the Jawbone and the Fitbit. If you’re looking for something that doesn’t look like a fitness tracker on your wrist, doesn’t need to be taken too seriously and can still track your sleep, then the SmartBand is an excellent option.