NEW YORK — What does it say that so many people are fascinated by smart watches even as they're disappointed that the high-tech timepieces aren't as smart as they'd like them to be? That encapsulates my own view of a product category that has garnered attention as part of the burgeoning wearable computing trend.
Most smart watches function as pricey second-screen devices for the smartphone in your pocket. That's so with two of the three devices that I checked out for this column, the Sony SmartWatch 2 and the Qualcomm Toq.
The third, called FiLIP, works with an app on your phone, too. But it's a wearable locator designed for kids that lets him or her make calls from the wrist — to Mom, Dad or other designated grownups.
A closer look:
• Sony SmartWatch 2. I was down on the last Sony SmartWatch I reviewed. Among other flaws, it didn't constantly display the time — most of us still glance at our wrists to find out what time it is, after all. That's been fixed, and its successor represents a big step forward. There are more apps now, too — more than 200, Sony says, though not all are free or worthwhile. Apps range from a Blackjack game to a fitness tracker.
The battery life that had been short-lived on the last Sony watch seems to live up to Sony's promise of 3 to 4 days of "normal usage" on the new model.
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Normal use for me was peeking at the watch to view incoming Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and missed-call notifications. You can reject incoming calls from the watch but cannot accept them.
The squarish 1.6-inch touch display is viewable outdoors. Below the screen are navigational touch icons similar to icons on Android phones.
You can pair SmartWatch 2 with most Android smartphones (4.0 or later), not just Sony's own Xperia models. If your phone is capable, you can pair using NFC (near field communication), by touching one device to the other.
Though you charge the watch through a micro USB, I had one heck of a hard time removing the lid protecting the port. There's a reason for that firm seal, though; the watch is water resistant down to three feet of fresh water for a half hour.
SmartWatch 2 costs $199.99 for a version with the black rubbery wristband like the one I tested and is also available with a metal band.
Unlike the Samsung Galaxy Gear watch that I previously reviewed, the Sony watch lacks a camera (though I had issues with Samsung's watch, as well).
Qualcomm's Toq.(Photo: Qualcomm)
• Qualcomm Toq. The chipmaker doesn't typically peddle products directly to consumers anymore — I owned a Qualcomm-branded cellphone back in the day — and even now comes across as a reluctant seller. Qualcomm is using Toq to showcase such technologies as the always-on low-power Mirasol color display on the watch face and for wireless charging (in a special dock).
Despite impressive capabilities, I don't expect Toq to go mainstream, certainly not at a rather imposing $349.99. Qualcomm is selling the watch in limited quantities, anyway, and expects to collaborate with its more traditional ecosystem partners.
The Mirasol display employs microscopic mirrors to reflect light rather than emit it, resulting in a screen that you can make out even in bright sun. Added benefit: The display sips power rather than sucks it up. Qualcomm claims the display can last for days between charges. I never had an issue.
In dim settings, you can summon a front light by lightly double-tapping the watchband above the display, a rather clever way to interact.
By tapping the strap below the screen, you can activate the 1.55-inch touch display, letting you browse preloaded applets: AccuWeather forecasts, E-Trade stocks; doubleTwist with Magic Radio music. The watch is large but attractive.
You pair Toq with an Android smartphone (version 4.03 or later) via Bluetooth, and customize what's on the screen through the Toq app you download onto your phone. Through the app, you get to choose which other Android applications on your handset can send notifications to the watch, change watch face styles, and more.
From the Toq itself, you can tap to make or receive a call, but you must still talk through the phone itself, since there is no independent speaker. If you can't take a call, you can send a pre-configured text reply from the watch. Qualcomm says stereo Bluetooth speakers that sit outside the ear canal are coming in early 2014.
Major hassle: You must size the Toq watchband to your wrist before using it, surgery that requires scissors and spring bars. It, too, lacks a camera.
The FiLIP watch.(Photo: FiLIP)
• FiLIP. It's up to you whether you think FiLIP represents responsible parenting or an invasion of your kid's privacy. It may also be the first "phone" you feel comfortable giving your child (target ages 5 to 11). Whether the kid wants to wear this colorful contraption is another matter.The price is $199.99, plus $10 a month for service with AT&T, so it isn't cheap.
By pressing the only two buttons on the kid-size locator, Junior can make a call to any one of five phone numbers that you, the parent, set up from within the FiLIP app, a free download for iPhone or Android. There's no actual dialer on the watch. A parent can call the FiLIP, but only from inside the FiLIP app on their own phones. That safeguard prevents someone from accidentally dialing your kid.
Parents can also send a text (from within the app) to the device, so long as the message is 16 characters or less. Kids can't text back from FiLIP.
You can also track and display the whereabouts of the child wearing the watch on a map.The watch relies on GPS, cell tower location and Wi-Fi. By default, the watch checks location every half-hour, but you can have it check more often, potentially at the expense of battery life, which the company says can go two days between charges. If the battery dies, the FiLIP reports the last known location.
Parents can also establish up to five "SafeZones," (home, school, etc.), and trigger push notifications if your child enters or leaves the designated area.
In a true emergency, the kid can hold down a red button on the watch for three seconds. FiLIP immediately transmits its location to the smartphone app, and uses its built-in microphone to start recording. It also calls your emergency telephone numbers, starting with your primary number, until someone answers.
Founder Sten Kirkbak named FiLIP after his then three-year-old son, who who went missing for a while in shopping mall.
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THE BOTTOM LINE
Sony SmartWatch 2
Pro. Watch improves battery life, adds apps, water-resistant, NFC pairing.
Con. Still not a compelling buy. Hard to get at USB port. Pricey.
Pro. Impressive display technology. Strong battery life. Cool way to interact by touching watch band.
Con. Not a compelling consumer offering, especially given its extremely high price. Hassle adjusting watch band.
$199.99, plus $10 a month for AT&T service, myfilip.com
Pro. A "safe" wearable phone for kids that lets your child call five designated numbers. Reports kids location. SafeZones.
Con. Expensive. Sometimes slow to respond. Frequent location checks can curtail battery.