Sony is introducing yet another entrant to the wearable tech space, though with a little something special. Called the Core, it's a small chip that's designed to go in a number of accessories to offer real variety to consumers.
Initially it's being shown off with the SmartBand, a waterproof strap that's essentially an activity tracker that also gives access to the Core's media controls plus call and message alerts on their Android tablet or smartphone.
It tracks the usual sleep patterns, movement metrics and calories burned, and discretely vibrates to alert wearers of incoming calls or texts.
There are certainly some elements of devices like the Galaxy Gear and Sony's own SmartWatch 2 found in the SmartBand, and a Sony rep here at CES 2014 told us that it's "much more than a fitness tracker."
The display-less gadget follows a long line of wrist-worn tech with a twist. The likes of Pebble, the aforementioned Gear and Neptune Pine are just a few, and design-wise the SmartBand finds itself in the same camp as straps like Jump and Fitbit.
Future cases and options for the Core will be brought out in due course from Sony, which told us that it's working with a number of hardware partners to offer up a greater range of accessories to allow you to use your little fitness chip.
Powered at the Core
Most spec details for the Core are still under wraps. Sony informed us that more specifics are due at MWC 2014, but for now there's one key bit of tech that makes the band tick and sets Sony's venture into wearables apart.
When users buy a Core, they'll receive two differently sized Smartbands, but the plan is to have it expand well beyond the strap.
But back to the present - the Core, housed in a white casing, slips in and out of the SmartBand. Users charge the whole thing via a USB in the Core capsule's rear with a separate charging unit. The capsule is curved, so it shapes to the wrist. Once it's in, users only feel the rubber edges that encase it inside the strap.
Core helps the SmartBand do more than just count calories. Using an accompanying Lifelog app, users can see keep tabs on various elements of their life beyond movement, like how what songs they listened to, when and what mood they were in. It can also track weather around where you go, tell you how many minutes of video you watched and more, with the idea that it will begin to predict patterns of behaviour and warn you of negativity.
The app is downloadable on Android devices, and the entire system works with Android 4.3 and up, with Sony telling us there are no plans for an iOS version as yet. It's a colorful, graphic-filled interface, and one that should make users feel good about moving.
None of the tech is stuck just using Sony products. Users of any Android device with 4.3+ will be able to use SmartBand.
The SmartBand strap
The strap is made of a rubbery liquid silicon. It's soft to the touch and feels light on the skin. It's gentle in a way, and as the SmartBand has no sharp edges, the only thing to really call attention to its presence on your wrist is its weight.
Because of where the Core sits, the whole thing feels unbalanced. There's a large lump where the Core lives, but the rest of the band is the same width and weight (the we tested the larger of the two SmartBand sizes). After a while a wearer would probably get used to it, but initially it was distracting.
The other negative about the strap is how you clasp it on. There are two pegs that fit into two holes. Wearers can make it shorter or longer based on where they put the pegs.
The problem is getting the darn thing on. It's similar to putting on your own wristband for concert admission – you have to twist the wrist you're trying to put the band on and push down at an awkward angle. The pegs, which pop up like mushrooms, don't go in easy.
We were successful a few times getting it on and off (off is the easy part), but at one point had to take a break from trying because it was so frustrating.
Design wise, we like the matte black look of the band we tried. Customers will be able to get it in different, more vibrant colors and patterns when it's released.
The lights along the progress bar are discrete, as is the band's only button. The button is situated on the inside of the strap, and the three dull lights run along its right side. The button is actually housed on the Core, and is used to mute an in coming call, for example.
Tapping on the top of the band's bulb controls media functions, such as play, pause and choosing the next song. This we liked - one only has to tap and push the strap to get it to do anything, and there's no flicking through interfaces on screens.
You also use this button to switch between sleep and day mode, so the Core knows when you're napping and when it should be monitoring you.
The only flair on the black band we tried is the shiny clasp with "Sony" carved in, and since it's on the bottom when you're wearing it, there's little chance it will glint annoyingly in the sunlight.
If priced right, the Sony Core could carve itself a nice niche in the activity tracker/wearable market. While there are some design flaws, it's comfortable to the touch and lightweight, save for the bulk of the Core. It's functions are basic - really the most complicated thing about it is the Lifelog app.
It'd be nice if it slipped on like some of its competitors, but Sony seems to want to keep with the watch theme of its other wearables.
While those why buy it will get a fine device, what they're really buying is the Core. Once more wearables with different come out that support it, the Core could lead a revolution of sorts in how consumers and the industry thinks of what makes a wearable.
The Core and the surrounding accessories will be released soon, with 'Spring 2014' the mooted Sony Core release date that has crept up on us.
We'll be keeping an eye on this device, especially at MWC 2014 later this year.