The ASUS ZenWatch beats its competitors in beauty – but do looks justify a $200 price tag?
There’s a big reason you shouldn’t buy a ZenWatch. Despite the ZenWatch’s scant 6 months on the market, there’s already a successor due out in the third quarter of this year: The ZenWatch 2. Even so, there’s still a compelling reason to buy a ZenWatch: ASUS pushed out the Android Wear 5.1 firmware update, which adds a number of features, many of which patch shortcomings of Android Wear. But even with a substantial update, the competition might prove overwhelming for the ZenWatch.
Read on for our full review on the ASUS ZenWatch, and at the end of the review you can enter to win one for yourself!
Between the Apple Watch (our Apple Watch review) and Android Wear, smartwatch options abound.
Out of the assorted wrist-candy in the smartwatch catalogue, the ASUS ZenWatch most resembles the Apple Watch. They offer similar features, although with a significant price difference: The ZenWatch comes $150 cheaper than the Apple Watch. Within its own ecosystem, the ZenWatch runs for $200 — $150 less than an LG G Watch Urbane and the same price as a Sony Smartwatch 3.
The ZenWatch’s major Android Wear competitors are the Sony Smartwatch 3 and the LG G Watch Urbane. All three watches offer Android Wear 5.1. For those unaware, the Wear 5.1 update provides a large feature bump over 5.0. It introduces gestures, Wi-Fi support, and a dedicated app launcher.
Perhaps the stiffest challenge comes from ASUS itself: Grist from the rumor mill, indicates that the sequel offers 3-4 days of battery life, among other features. All together, the next generation device may offer a uniform improvement over the ZenWatch.
Because Google intends on making Android Wear cross-platform, the Apple Watch might become a direct competitor. The $350 Apple Watch competes on a different plane. While Android Wear strives to offer the best personal assistant experience possible, the Apple Watch dips into both fitness wearables and personal assistant software — and offers a credible experience in each category. Android Wear offers a clearly superior platform as a personal assistant — but then fails far behind as a fitness wearable.
Unboxing the ZenWatch
Inside of the box you’ll find a minimal number of peripherals. There’s the watch itself, a charging cradle, a microUSB cable, and manuals.
The ZenWatch includes the – almost standard – Android Wear hardware components:
- System-on-a-chip: Snapdragon 400 system-on-a-chip @ 1.2GHz
- Display: 320×320 1.63″ AMOLED
- Sensors: Conductive heart rate sensor, accelerometer, gyroscopic sensor
- RAM: 512MB of RAM
- Memory: 4GB of internal storage
- Battery: 360 mAh
- Wireless: Bluetooth 4.1
- Strap: Replaceable 22mm leather band with clasp-style locking mechanism
- Water resistance: IP55 (can be exposed to a jet of water and is considered sealed against dust particles)
The specs compare on equal footing to other Android Wear smartwatches. It stands out in two ways: First, it uses AMOLED, rather than the LCD screens of the LG G Watch and Moto 360. Second, it offers a novel approach to heart-rate detection: Instead of the ubiquitous, green, LED light, the ZenWatch reads heart-rate through a conductive metal band, which doubles as a bezel.
The ZenWatch suffers from a critical failing: like many first generation Android Wear smartwatches, the ZenWatch does not include an antenna for Wi-Fi – therefore when the Android Wear 5.1 update rolls out, it will not receive a substantial component of the upgrade. That’s in spite of the fact that the SnapDragon 400 processor does in fact support both. This compares poorly with the Sony Smartwatch 3, which includes an antenna and GPS functionality. The LG Urbane rolled out the gates with the 5.1 update already, and by default included direct Wi-Fi access. The wireless capability will allow users to travel outside the range of their phone’s Bluetooth, provided they remain on the same Wi-Fi network as their smartphone. This allows many gym-rats to leave their smartphone in a locker and still receive text messages, emails, and more on their smartwatch.
The rest of the specifications aren’t too different from the other devices within the Android ecosystem. It’s worth noting, however, that the IP55 (Ingress Protection) rating is among the worst of the Android Wear devices. The Sony Smartwatch 3, for instance, offers an IP68 rating. In real-life situations, IP ratings usually translate into 30 minutes of submersion at less than one meter of depth. Keep in mind that the ZenWatch’s design wasn’t intended for extended periods of swimming — but it should get you through a rainy soaking.
The best feature of the ZenWatch is its lever wrist-strap locking mechanism. While you might fall in lover with the comfort and the styling, the wrist band is more than eye-candy. Once properly sized, the wrist-strap just slips onto your arm and locks into place. As far as wrist-straps go, the ZenWatch’s mechanism offers the best available in the Android Wear market.
Making Use of the ZenWatch
Like all Android Wear devices, the ZenWatch offers Google’s personal assistant software: Google Now. Google Now is the clear winner for turning vocalized commands into actions. Those who want directions to a movie theater – on the fly – can get to their destination without even taking their hands off the steering wheel. The sheer number of functions is large and compelling.
Activating Google Now from a ZenWatch just requires speaking the phrase “OK Google” while the screen is turned on. This usually means swinging the watch up, which activates the screen. From your list a growing number of voice commands exist – many of these allow the watch to work as a remote for your smartphone or tablet.
Recent updates of Google Now open up voice activation to several third party apps. Users can now launch music and radio apps without ever picking up their smartphone.
A somewhat tacked on feature though is watch-to-watch pairing. Apple more or less stole this idea – ASUS gets a feather in their cap for including it first. And then they lose that feather because they only allow watch-to-watch pairing with another ZenWatch. In all fairness, this feature won’t be of particular use for consumers. In a business environment, it might find practical application.
The most interesting aspect of the 5.1 update is the hands-free ability to scroll using gestures. For example, if an extra-long text message or email arrives, users can scroll up or down just by twisting their wrist. To scroll up, users just need to flick their wrist 90 degrees, away from themselves. To scroll down, the user just needs to slowly rotate 90 degrees away and then flick 90 degrees toward themselves. It will take some time before third (and even first) party apps begin incorporating gestures into their user-interface, but the basic concept holds a great deal of promise. Gesture control over apps provides for a truly hands-free experience and the possibilities stretch out into the horizon.
The battery life of the ZenWatch isn’t great, which owes to ASUS’s choice of a 360 mAh battery. Compared to other Android smartwatches, its battery size hovers above mediocre. It gets around a day and a half of up time, with light use. Heavy users can squeeze a day out of it.
Unfortunately, the ZenWatch’s cradle charger is neither magnetic nor is it wireless. The cradle also won’t accept irregularly shaped micro USB cables. The device clips onto the rear of the ZenWatch, recharging the device in approximately 3 hours. It’s not exactly as bad a charging option as the Samsung Gear Live, but overall it’s a poorer option than direct micro USB charging or wireless Qi charging.
ZenWatch Exercise Apps
ASUS’s exercise tracking app, Asus Wellness, is among the more polished of activity tracking apps in Android Wear. It doesn’t include GPS functionality as does Sony’s Lifelog app. Instead, its interface runs faster and provides a more user-friendly experience. The Wellness app offers the standard feature suite included in health tracking apps, flavored with ASUS’s own take and aesthetic design.
The app splits its analysis into two categories: Mind and Body. Body displays the amount of exercise a user engages in. Mind refers to how relaxed a users is (which requires measurement). Unfortunatley, the app piggybacks on the GPS functionality of a smartphone. This means that to get GPS working, users need to drag their phone around.
Overall, the app looks great, but delivers relatively little in terms of exercise tracking. While it can determine the difference between jogging, cycling, and walking, it does so with little accuracy. This is more a weakness of the sensor suite available to Android Wear smartwatches than it is a failing of the ZenWatch. Android Wear smartwatches simply lack the sensors necessary to give effective health statistics.
Android Wear’s Evolution
Since reviewing the LG G Watch a year ago, Wear’s operating system and app ecosystem passed through several major evolutions. The first wave of apps offered little practical value and a lot of flash. As the platform matured, apps began including more useful features, such as sleep tracking. A handful of apps in the latest wave could actually save lives.
The most recent development in Android Wear allows it to function as a graphical interface for blood-glucose sensors. Medical applications include not just useful – but life-saving features — such as pairing with blood sugar sensors for diabetics. Another health-oriented feature is hearing aid volume controls for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Android Wear is on a trajectory to offer a graphical user interface for medical devices, and that can only be a good thing.
- Strangers will often inquire about your Apple Watch
- Sleek, beautiful design
- Google Now works seamlessly from your wrist
- Google Play on your watch
- Latest version of Android Wear
- $150 cheaper compared to the LG Urbane
- Proprietary charging cradle
- Relatively short battery life (1 to 1.5 days)
- No WiFi for Android 5.1 update
- No automatic brightness sensor
- Bezel barely protects the glass screen
- Potential muggers may inquire about your Apple Watch
Should You Buy the ZenWatch?
Android Wear offers a feature rich device with low practical utility. And there’s a lot of competition. The two biggest considerations for avoiding a purchase are that the market for personal assistant smartwatches just reverberated with the impact of Apple’s Watch, and there’s another wave of Android Wear watches coming soon. Relative to the Apple Watch, Android Wear compares well as a personal assistant platform, but falls dramatically behind in its health metrics. If you’re looking for a health tracker, then the ZenWatch is not for you.
For those looking for the most aesthetically appealing smartwatch, wait until the ZenWatch II releases.
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