Sony Smart B-Trainer: A Do-It-All Device

Working out, specifically running, to music isn’t something I normally do, mainly due to safety reasons. However, under certain circumstances and in a secure environment, doing so can play a part in getting the workouts done. The 6 weeks of training prior to tapering for GCAM saw a number of double workout days and increase in mileage. Anyone can run a marathon but if one has a time goal, you need to put in the work. Since I’m not genetically gifted it’s been challenging, like any paths towards improvement should be. Music makes those hard days a little more bearable.

Note: I’m not here to debate the merits and demerits of plugging in when running. Whatever rocks your world. However, please read the cautionary note at the bottom of this post.

That precursor out of the way, let’s get on to the Sony Smart B-Trainer (SBT). The SBT is the 2nd wearable from Sony that I’ve had the experience of using. The first being the NWZ-W262 Meb Special Edition [review]. Since the W262, what a difference 3 short years have made. Where the W262 and W273S were mostly about the music, hence their Walkman branding, the SBT is a different beast. To the point that the company tries hard not to associate it with the Walkman. Nestled within the earpieces are Heart Rate, GPS, Accelerometer, Gyro, e-Compass, and Pressure sensors. Other features are of course the MP3 player, NFC, and Bluetooth components. It’s the market’s first all-in-one device that I know. No longer will you need to slap on the chest or wrist straps or hook up your smartphone or iPods. Because it’s IPX5/6 and JIS/IEC waterproof grade, you can wash it or wear it swimming (if you must have music while doing your laps in the pool).

Out of the box, the SBT looks very unassuming. Several sets of buds (for regular or swimming use), HRM covers, a carry bag, USB charging cable/dock, and quick guide.

The included pouch is to store the device and the accessories.
There’s a holder or hook thingy to secure the SBT
From left: HRM covers, swimming buds, regular buds

The iconic Walkman logo is hard to shake off. The exposed pins on the right ear piece are charging contacts, not heart rate sensors.
Slide the right earpiece into the charging dock like so.
Red indicates charging and green, complete.

Even though there’s always the excitement about using new gear straight out of the box, it’s my habit to first charge it up. Slide the right ear piece into the dock and plug the dock into the computer’s (PC or Mac) USB port. You’ll get a prompter to install either the Media Go (for Windows) or File Transfer (for Mac) software. (Windows Media Go (how-to setup) | Mac File Transfer how to setup). The installation is very simple and this software allows you to manage your music files, just like iTunes. The supported audio files are MP3, WMA, AAC, and Linear-PCM. The interface is easy to understand and use – the gold old-fashioned drag and drop method. To get the most out of the SBT, it’s advisable to export a large selection of music tracks to it’s 16GB memory. This is so that there’s a wide range of tunes assigned to all the training intensities. So go ahead and fill up your playlist.

This is how the Windows based Media Go User Interface looks like. The SBT appears as a removable device on the left panel – be sure to eject it like you would any flash drive before unplugging it. The UI is pretty intuitive and you can see from the highlighted column the track BPM. Some are blanks, which I’m not sure why.

And below, the rather inferior and spartan UI of the Mac version. Even the name of the software, Mac File Transfer, doesn’t inspire any excitement :D. To add salt to the Mac user’s wounds, the Mac File Transfer offers no calibration of the music tempo. There’s a workaround though, and to do that you’ll need the smartphone app – more of that in awhile.

It takes a couple of hours (max 2.5 hours from zero to full) to top off the battery so while that’s going on, it’s time to download and install the B-Trainer smartphone app to ensure that you get the most out of the device. It’s available for free on the iOS and Android (iOS | Android) platforms. This is the app that will get you going like setting up of a training plan, charting your workouts and getting everything sync’d with the device, not to mention the calibration of the track tempos done. With the app installed on the phone, it’s time to pair both the SBT with the phone. I had the opportunity to test it out with the Sony Experia Z3+ and connectivity is ultra easy with NFC (on the SBT, the NFC sensor is located on the right earpiece). On my iPhone 5S, I’d to toggle to the Bluetooth settings to get that done. Next, 2 screens will guide you on how to wear the SBT properly, which is important since the HR sensor needs a good contact with the outer ear to get an accurate HR reading.

Next will be the app settings you may want to get out of the way. It’s not something critical which can’t be done at a later stage.

Sorting out your music tracks.

I mentioned earlier that Mac users won’t be able to get the File Transfer software to calibrate the music tempo? You get around that limitation by going into the smartphone app menu and selecting Device Info > Retrieve song information and follow the onscreen instructions.

There’s a wide variety of training modes that are up for selection. For example, you could train by time, calories burned, pace or use the preset Fat Burning or Endurance training modes. There’s also the Custom option where you can tweak to your heart’s content, right down to what data you want read to you and at what intervals. Due to Sony’s partnership with Asics, there’s also the  Do note that whenever you select a workout mode, you’ll need to sync it to the SBT. Otherwise, the SBT will run on the same mode as the previous workout. I kept things simple and opt for the Free training mode every time. A great thing about this is, once sync’d, you can pretty much leave the phone behind and just go run without your ridiculously large phones strapped to your arms.

Set it up your way, if you so choose. Or go Free mode.

Now that all the setup is out of the way, you’re pretty much good. I pretty much had all the gear on for the first run – the Garmin watch and chest strap, and the B-Trainer. Although I’m no expert at determining which is the more accurate, this is necessary for comparison. The SBT’s GPS acquisition speed is impressive, and I noted that as you log more workouts with it, the acquisition gets increasingly quicker. This is consistent with the behavior of the wrist-based GPS devices. HR acquisition is even quicker and once both are established, all I needed to do was to press the Start button on the left earpiece. The Free training mode essentially allows you to run according to your music tracks. There are toggle buttons to allow the forward and backward skipping of the tracks. At the preset intervals, voice prompts will keep you updated on your distance, pace, HR and any other metrics you set to. Press the Info button anytime and the same set of data will be read out too.

Once your run is done, you can sync the data to the phone. Below are some of screenshots from the workouts.

There are several analysis you can make of your workout once the data is sync’d, for example, comparison between any 2 readouts from pace, elevation, heart rate, stride and cadence. Like any social apps worth their salt out there, there’s the sharing of your exploits on Facebook or Twitter too.

 

Past workouts can be easily searched from the logs and they can be viewed by the various measurements below.

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Note: As mentioned earlier, the SBT can be worn during your swim too, although several functions are inactivated in the water. I don’t swim but a friend who does, reported that the measurement is not as accurate given the bobbing motion of the head. He pointed out that his Suunto also has this shortcoming, and thus Sony isn’t alone in this area. The product website does, after all, states that only the music function is enabled during the swim mode.

The Bluetooth button toggles between Device mode and Swimming mode. By default, it’s on and set to Device mode.

The distance readout performed flawlessly and each kilometer was ticked off within 3 seconds of the Garmin. What proved more challenging was the HR reading, which depends largely on how well the device fits. This is critical especially if you’ve chosen the preset training modes where you could, inaccurately, be prompted to slow down or speed up. I was experienced enough to know that I wasn’t running at 170+bpm but beginners may be alarmed. So, be sure to get the correct earbuds fitted.

The GPS lock was good throughout the run, which was done on neighborhood roads. It only faltered when I logged my runs at the KLCC Park where the surrounding skyscrapers dropped the signal a number of times. Tall buildings are a bane to GPS devices and the Sony isn’t exempted. While the wrist-based devices only alert you in cases of extended loss of signal e.g. transitioning from running outdoor to a treadmill, the SBT will alert you each time the signal drops. In the case of my week day runs, drops can be experienced a few times over the course of a workout session, especially when I run along the KL Convention Center frontage. To be fair, the reacquisition is pretty quick.

I’ve used the SBT for a couple of months and the initial few weeks had been like discovering easter eggs. Many of the functions are not as obvious from the get go and some buttons serve multiple functions. Here are some of those that I’ve discovered:

Bluetooth button

  • Short press – toggles between the Swimming or Device Mode.
  • Long press – turns the Bluetooth on or off.
  • Short press (when paired and used with the smartphone) – Toggles between playing songs stored in the sport device and songs stored in your smartphone

Info button

  • Long press – Power on or off.
  • Short press during workout – Info readout.
  • Short press (when paired and used with the smartphone) – Answer or end calls.

Memo button

  • Walkman mode – Play, Pause.
  • During workout – records voice memo via a mono mic. Recording length is configurable via the app.
Memo button doubles up as a music and voice memo recording

Depending on the usage, published battery life ranges between 3 to 13.5 hours. A friend wore it for the recent Gold Coast Airport Marathon and managed to squeeze 4.5 hours out of it. If the battery saving feature is enabled (via the app), 5.5 hours is a possibility. Given the size and weight of the device with so many sensors, this is expected.

So, is the Sony Smart B-Trainer for you? On paper, it’s a solid proposition from the company, especially to those who place a premium on working out to music without having to lug around a smartphone or a HR strap around your chest. On top of that, it has every other important features – GPS, HRM, cadence sensor – a runner would look for.

Pros

  • All-in-one device. Has pretty much everything you’d need to track your progress.
  • Option to leave the phone behind.
  • Fast GPS acquisition.
  • Good sound quality.
  • Not noise isolating, hence the wearer retains some awareness of the surroundings.

Cons

  • No cloud sync. Storage and viewing of data are limited to the smartphone.
  • Battery life is around 4.5 hours per real-life use.
  • May be an overkill for those who don’t need as much in a product.
  • Price. Some may compromise convenience with carrying separate devices.

Word of caution: Please exercise caution when plugging in during an outdoor workout. Be always mindful of traffic and other safety threats. The majority of my testing occurred at the KLCC Park where there are high human traffic. I don’t recommend running solo with the ears plugged. Always use your better judgment and never listen at extreme levels of volume.

Disclosure: The Sony Smart B-Trainer was a review unit courtesy of Sony Malaysia. The SBT is available from Sony Centers and The Marathon Shop outlets in Malaysia and retails for RM999. More information on the SBT here.

Originally published: July 19th, 2015

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