If you like the idea of a wrist worn activity tracker but want something more from it than step counting and calorie calculation, then you may be intrigued by the Sony SmartBand. Yes it counts your steps and calculates calories expended, and it can monitor sleep too. But it does a lot more – and indeed there’s a clue to its expansive aims in that its main accompanying app is called Lifelog. I received my review sample SmartBand from Clove, and after spending a few weeks with the device I think Sony might be onto something. That said, more work is needed to refine the concept and how it is implemented.
The SmartBand is a two piece affair – the wristband and capsule that does all the tracking work are separate. You get two wrist bands in the box, one a bit larger than the other, so almost all wrist sizes should be catered for.
The band is made from a rubbery material and is held in place on your wrist by a simple pair of press-stud style protrusions that pop into holes on the band. I’m not sure that the mechanism is very robust. A couple of times overnight the band came off my wrist due to nothing more than general movement while I was sleeping. Longer term I can imagine that the holes might stretch and the pop-in mechanism fail to work. Shorter term, the patterned, textured finish to the band made it really receptive to little bits of dirt. My black band got dirty quite quickly – I’d have liked a material that kept its fresh-out-of-the-box look for a lot longer. If you have a brighter coloured band it might look better for longer – you can buy these for £25 each.
The business end of the SmartBand is a small white capsule that sits neatly inside a slot on the wrist side of the band so that it is snug against your arm in everyday use. It just pops in and out for easy access, but it feels very secure. It has a USB charge port, three status lights, and a small button you can activate via an accompanying button-like protrusion on the wristband.
The whole arrangement is water resistant. I have to admit I did take it off while showering, but had no concerns about it getting sweaty. You could also drop the capsule into a pocket at times when you don’t want to wear the whole wristband. It is not dissimilar in size to the Fitbit One.
To use the Sony SmartBand your handset needs to be running Android 4.4 or higher. It won’t work with the hundreds of thousands of older Android handsets out there, nor will it work with an iPhone or anything else running iOS. On the plus side, Sony has at least made it compatible beyond its own handset range.
Setup is painful and it could easily be made a whole lot less so. The setup leaflet that comes in the box doesn’t run through the process fully and nor do the online instructions. That’s a major failing as the setup process has several stages involving downloading three (yes, three!) apps.
Those three apps are Smart Connect, the Sony SmartBand SWR10 app, and Lifelog. The first of these manages the connection between SmartBand and phone, the second allows you to decide what info to collect from the SmartBand and edit its settings and the third, Lifelog, displays the collected info.
You need to charge the white capsule for at least 30 minutes before you can do anything. Then you can pair it to your handset with either Bluetooth or NFC. I was working with a Google Nexus 5, which has NFC so I chose the latter and when I passed the band over the NFC point on the phone it dropped me into the Play store with Smart Connect identified.
I downloaded Smart Connect, but there were no instructions on what to do next. What you do is hit the plus button on the main screen, which identifies that the SWR10 is sitting nearby. It also found a couple of other devices for me, so make sure you pick the right one when you tap!
Once the pairing is complete you are instructed to download the SmartBand app and Lifelog app. During that process the SmartBand itself got a firmware update, ensuring that everything is running the latest versions.
Despite having downloaded three apps, only two show up on screen – SmartConnect and Lifelog. To get to the SmartBand settings you go into SmartConnect. There’s no prompt to tell you that you also also need to run Lifelog and go through its setup steps. These include selecting a Gmail or Sony account with which to sign in, deciding whether or not to allow Lifelog to access your circles and entering basic information about your age, height, weight and gender. When I tried not to sign in but to move straight into using the app without logging in I got a software error, Lifelog crashed, and I had to restart the app.
Like I said, this is all vastly over complicated.
Once you have been through the drill, though, you are ready to start using the SmartBand. As I noted at the start, this is much more than an activity tracker. Because it is paired with your phone it can interact with it a fair bit. So, I set it to vibrate for incoming calls, and that helped me catch a few calls I’d have otherwise missed because my phone rang in a noisy environment.
It can also be used to pause or play the music player. Tap that side button for pause or play, and double tap the band itself to go back and forth between tracks. I found this very unreliable, but perhaps firmware updates will improve things as time goes on.
You set up these features via the SmartConnect app and you can download little applets to let you control other applications such firing the camera shutter or a find phone applet that lets you tap the smartband to cause your phone to ring – if it is within a 10 meter radius of course.
You can also set the capsule as a vibrating wake-up alarm. The vibration itself works wonderfully well. However you can’t set a wake up time, just a window during which the band will wake you when you are sleeping lightly. By default this is set to be any time within a half hour window, but you can change that to anything from an hour to 10 minutes. Picking that latter setting is as close as you can get to a timed alarm.That needs to change to offering a timed service, and there also needs to be a repeat / snooze system. Turning over and going back to sleep is an easy option if you know the alarm is only going to ’sound’ once. There are separate settings for week days and weekends, but I’d also like to set a range of timed alarms for the day, and what about going the whole hog with this idea and allowing countdown timers. That fits with the fitness ethic – say you want to do a half hour walk at lunchtime, for example, or interval training.
As far as capturing and displaying information is concerned, that little white capsule sends information about steps and distance to your handset over Bluetooth, and the phone stores and displays this alongside other information gathered by the Lifelog app.
The Lifelog app is beautifully designed – Sony has done a great job here. About half the screen is given over to a display that shows a person moving along a timeline. It gives a great visual representation of your logged activities – scroll through the timeline and tap on any small icon on to view the log. There’s built in weather – so if it is going to rain or rained in the past you can see that shown on the timeline.
The bottom part of the screen shows a whole host of different types of activity – not all related to tracking movement. This is where the Lifelogging part comes in. There are little slots on the screen for things like photos, music, gaming, reading, and so on. The idea is that the app will record time you spend on different kinds of activity. Tapping any one of the activity areas takes you into a breakdown of time spent on it with more really nicely designed graphics. You can set goals for each activity type.
What Sony is trying to achieve with Lifelog is ambitious, and the SmartBand data is only a small part of it. The ultimate goal is for Lifelog to automatically track everyone you’re doing – playing Watch Dogs on your PlayStation 4, listening to your favourite album via Sony Music Unlimited, or watching a film via the Sony Movies Unlimited service. With Lifelog you’ll be able to analyse your behaviour – perhaps you’ll be able to see that on Saturday when you played games for three hours, it was also raining during that time, hence you weren’t out cycling. Or perhaps you were listening to more downbeat music because of the bad weather. What you do with the insight gleaned from this data is a question that only you can answer.
Sony takes this logging idea to the Nth degree by allowing you to record your own ‘life moments’. This basically records duration and lets you say what you were actually doing at that time.
But for those of us interested mainly in activity tracking the options aren’t plentiful enough. Walking and running are all you get. What about cycling and swimming? What about the ability to add in other sports, complete with icons – downloadable into the app?
The SmartBand has ‘day’ and ‘night’ modes with the latter used for tracking sleep patterns – it uses movement to work out when you are in deep or light sleep states. The SmartBand doesn’t switch automatically between these modes when it thinks you are sleeping though. You can set it to switch automatically by setting a time span in between which it should be in night mode, or make the setting manually by long pressing the capsule’s button. Those three status lights glow throught the side of the wristband and, along with a small vibration from the capsule, indicate that you’ve switched.
Accuracy is always an issue with wrist sensors and like others of its type the SmartBand is only really good as a comparator with itself. If you swing your arms about a lot when walking it will record more steps than if you are, like me, someone whose arms don’t swing that much. I have compared wrist worn trackers with GPS based trackers and the latter are, as you would expect, much more accurate. Still, if you buy a tracker and stick with it, the variance day to day should be a good relative measure of your changing activity levels.
Sony says the capsule is good for five days of life. I got about four from it, but recharging is pretty quick. You do have to have a microUSB connector around, but that’s still a far more convenient option than a proprietary charging cable.
The Sony SmartBand is a good idea that needs refining. For those of us interested in using it for activity tracking it needs to support more activity types. The alarms need work and the capsule could be configured to issue alerts during exercise.
I do like the visual representation of the Lifelog app, and the way the SmartBand can do more than just count steps. I like the ability to tell me about incoming calls and to control music playback – though the sensitivity of the capsule to taps needs some work. But the whole detailed lifelogging thing needs more thought if it is to be really useful.
- Potential to log lots of activities
- Good looking Lifelog app
- Android 4.4 only
- Complex to set up
- Capsule touch responsiveness is iffy
- Needs refinement