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Sony gets the fitness tracker right

The Good The Sony SmartBand Talk's e-ink display makes it easy to see your activity, the time and incoming notifications. The display uses very little power so battery life is pretty good and its ability to take calls comes in handy when you're too busy (or too lazy) to fumble for your phone.

The Bad It doesn't have GPS, a heart-rate monitor or the most glamorous design. Sony's Lifelog fitness app keeps track of too much pointless information.

The Bottom Line The SmartBand Talk's screen, waterproof design and ability to show your incoming notifications make it a useful piece of tech to wear, even if you're not fussed about keeping track of your activity during the day.

The world is awash with fitness bands, each one promising to help you make sense of your workouts, track how well you're doing and spur you on when your willpower flags. With so many options available from so many different companies, it's difficult for new models to stand out.

Sony is hoping the SmartBand Talk will catch your eye, thanks to its easy-to-read e-ink display -- like on a Kindle -- as well as the ability to show notifications and receive phone calls via your phone.

The SmartBand Talk is available now directly from Sony in the UK for £130 or for $170 in the US. It's due to go on sale soon in Australia, although final prices have yet to be confirmed (the UK price converts to AU$240, for reference).

Design and comfort 

Due to the fact that it's housing a proper display, the SmartBand Talk is much wider than strict calorie-counters like the Jawbone Up24 or the Garmin Vivosmart. It's more similar to wearing a watch -- too wide in fact to comfortably wear next to a watch, I found. It's 23.5mm wide though, so still slim enough to go mostly unnoticed throughout the day.

It only weighs 24g, too, so your wrist certainly won't feel at all weighed down when you're on a jog. It has a rubber strap that wraps around and fastens in place with little pegs. It's fairly easily to fasten once you've practised a few times and the flexible rubber is very comfortable to wear all day.

I took it off at night, although it's not too obtrusive to keep you awake. You can also set "Do not disturb" times in the SmartBand app to block notification -- and therefore vibrations -- from waking you up in the middle of the night. It doesn't track sleep patterns, although Sony says this function will be added at some point in the near future, so it might be worth keeping it on your arm at night then. 

Sony SmartBand Talk

(Andrew Hoyle/ CNET)

It's available in black or white, both likely to go with most of your outfits, although a range of alternative colours -- including a rather lurid lime green -- will soon be available to buy as well. Sadly, neither launch date nor prices for these spare straps were available at the time of writing. The SmartBand looks inoffensive enough, but it's not exactly what you'd call glamorous.

It's waterproof to a depth of 1.5m for up to 30 minutes at a time. You'd be wise then to take it off before a swim -- unless you only plan on having a quick splash around the shallow end. What that does mean though is that it'll be safe from pouring rain, sweat in a heavy workout or even when wearing in the shower.

It charges via a Micro-USB port which is built into the side of the watch. Having it built in means you won't need to carry around any additional charging cradles, which are easy to lose and difficult to replace. The port is covered by a small flap to keep the water out, but it's simple to open and close.

Display 

One of the main features of the SmartBand Talk is its display. It's a 1.4-inch screen that uses e-ink technology, like you see on e-book readers such as the Kindle. Unlike a regular LCD screen, e-ink only uses power to refresh what's already on the screen -- it takes no power to display what's already there. Showing the clock, for example, doesn't take any power, but it will use a minute amount to refresh when it changes the numbers.

 Sony SmartBand Talk
(Andrew Hoyle/CNET)



This has two main benefits. For one, even though the display is always on, it requires very little power to run. I was able to get over three days of use out of a single charge, which is considerably more than I'm able to get from Android Wear smartwatches, whose power-hungry LCD screens drain the battery usually in a day.

The second benefit is that it's extremely easy to read under bright lights. E-ink screens are black and white, giving them a high contrast. They're also not backlit, so there's no glare. The result on the SmartBand Talk is a display that makes it perfectly easy to see your step count as you're jogging down a sunlight-flooded boulevard. It's also easy to read in a rain-drenched grey street in London, as I found out.

Features 

The SmartBand Talk is, at its heart, a fitness band, so its main function is to track the number of steps you take. Below the time on the display, you'll see a little image representing yourself, with a bar that steadily fills up to indicate how far you are toward your progress. Click the function button on the right-hand side and you can see a more detailed breakdown of how many steps you've taken and how many minutes of activity you've had so far that day.

It links to Sony's Lifelog app which, as well as keeping record of how much activity you've had (it uses an algorithm to roughly calculate calories you've burned), also keeps track of photos you've taken and people you've spoken to, showing everything on a timeline throughout your day. It's sometimes nice to see what you've been up to, but personally, I never much care to see who I happened to call at 3pm on a random afternoon. 

 Sony SmartBand Talk

(Andrew Hoyle/CNET)

It seems reasonably accurate in measuring your steps -- it gave roughly the same reading as the Garmin Vivosmart and the Android Wear LG G Watch R, although none of them are super accurate. They're good for giving a rough estimate of distance, but you should take the results with a pinch of salt. The SmartBand Talk doesn't have built-in GPS so it can't accurately track exactly where you walked -- you'll need to use apps on your smartphone like RunKeeper or MapMyRun for that. It also doesn't have a heart-rate monitor like you'll find in a lot of fitness bands and smartwatches, but at this price, I'm happy to forgive this somewhat.

Its second main feature is its ability to take calls, thanks to the microphone and loudspeaker built in. It doesn't have its own SIM card, so it can't make calls itself. But it pairs with your phone, letting you answer any incoming calls on your wrist.

You might be wondering what the point is and indeed that was my first thought when Sony first showed it to me. In actual fact, though, it's surprisingly helpful. I regularly took calls using the watch when I was at home, particularly while cooking -- I didn't want to have to hold a phone up to my face when slicing up vegetables, but the microphone was sensitive enough to pick up my voice from an arm's length away.

Quality isn't superb by any means. My caller said I sounded "distant and a bit echoey", although he was still able to hear every word. It's also handy for a lazy conversation if you're lounging on a comfy chair and simply can't be bothered to hold your phone to your face. It might be the height of laziness, but I'm totally fine with that. It's certainly not something you should do in public unless you want to look like an imbecile, and of course share your conversation with everyone within earshot. 

 Sony SmartBand Talk

(Andrew Hoyle/CNET)

The band also shows notifications from your phone, such as incoming emails, messages (including messages from services like Google Hangouts and WhatsApp) and calls of course. If, like me, you're constantly bombarded with emails throughout the day, you'll find it extremely handy having a quick view of what messages are coming through, meaning you don't have to pull your phone out of your pocket every other minute just to dismiss a totally pointless email.

Conclusion 

The Sony SmartBand Talk has a bunch of neat features that separate it from the slew of generic fitness trackers out there. Its e-ink display makes it extremely easy to see your activity throughout the day, as well as incoming notifications and the time. Additionally, its low power usage means battery life is pretty good. Its ability to take calls might sound a little daft, but it's actually quite useful in emergency moments when fishing your phone from your pocket and holding it to your face isn't possible.

Even if you're not that bothered about keeping count of the steps you've taken in your day, the Sony SmartBand Talk's extra features still make it a helpful piece of tech to wrap around your wrist.

Sport: Fitness and wellness

Proficiency level: Expert/Intermediate

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