ZenWatch 3 Review: As Smartwatch Interest Wanes, ASUS Offers a Compelling and Competitive Wear Product
Smartwatches have been on a steady decline for what feels like ages, at least in terms of the interest they garner. It has been a while since analysts even acknowledged the smartwatch as a market force, likely due to their failure to predict the so-called “Year of the Smartwatch” time and time again.
With the death of Pebble, an iconic pioneer into the modern smartwatch scene, and the delay of Android Wear 2.0, smartwatch lovers (the few out there) have seen short-term prospects of their wrist platform dwindle into irrelevance. This is further amplified by the fact that other smartwatch makers like Huawei and Motorola haven’t been refreshing their smartwatches, and there don’t seem to be any current plans of doing so either. Meanwhile, Samsung’s wearable platform keeps rising the stakes and expanding its ambitions with MST payments and more features than you’ll ever need on your wrist, but even this approach receives little fanfare and enthusiasm from the tech-enthusiast community at large.
Smartwatch makers have tried all sorts of things to attract a wider crowd — premium and luxurious designs, over-the-top feature sets, mimicking old timepieces, going full-techie, implementing e-paper displays, round watchfaces, shortcuts, gestures, sensors…. Alas, as compelling as these smartwatches can be for the notification-riddled tech-enthusiast, there is still no killer-feature to be found. This doesn’t stop companies like ASUS from trying to iterate and innovate, though. Their latest ASUS ZenWatch 3 is, in this sense, the last ambitious Android Wear watch before the inevitable round of Wear 2.0 devices.
Before diving into this review, it must be pointed out that the ZenWatch 3 was originally slated to released with Android Wear 2.0. With the launch of the watch, we learned that instead it is running Android Wear 1.5, coinciding with the delay of Wear 2.0 and the extension of the respective Developer Preview. The ZenWatch 3 will most certainly obtain Wear 2.0 in the future, but although this watch doesn’t bring the radical redesign of the new wearable Android version, it still brings a plethora of modifications and features that make the experience potentially different — that is, if the user cares to use the added features.
Hardware, Aesthetics & Fit
Android wear smartwatches actually offered quite a bit of variety and diversity in terms of hardware design, which allowed consumers to opt between all sorts of wearables from the gadgety-looking to the traditional premium timepiece. The ZenWatch 3 is not quite the run-of-the-mill smartwatch, but it also doesn’t look like something only a mother would love. The outer shell design can very well be described as “steampunk”, for a few reasons I’ll note below, but not even that is quite an accurate description. Let’s explore each of its elements and how they influence the overall design before making a final assessment:
Starting with the front and face of the watch, we find a sort of “solar eclipse” design with a prominent gold trim around the display, and a sleek black stainless steel (316L) finish all around the body. The display is coated by Gorilla Glass 2.5 (and not sapphire glass) and the bezels around it aren’t super thin, but the soft gold ring and the curve right outside of it help give the watch a slicker appearance. The top and bottom are flanked by two oversized band-holders, still slick and black but not quite as shiny and polished as the rounded sides of the watch. Unlike other smartwatches like the Huawei watch, I found these to be conveniently placed and angled — they don’t hug your wrist too much, but they also don’t hover over it awkwardly. Moreover, the height is appropriate so that it doesn’t grant the watch an appearance of being thicker than it is, like the original Moto 360 did precisely because the bands held the wrist so tightly, with the entire watch rising above that.
Moving onto the sides, you’ll find that the the ZenWatch 3 comes with three prominent buttons that stick out of the body very noticeably. They all look like buttons you’d find on a classic timepiece rather than a modern watch, giving the side of the phone an industrial look that compliments that “steampunk” vibes accentuated by the bronze-like motif of the gold trim. The middle button itself bears a hint of gold in the form of a small ring around it as well, and all three buttons are solid and springy, but not clicky, which is a perceptible difference in the tactile feedback of other smartwatches. The three buttons are programmable, which we’ll discuss in the software section, and they are arguably one of the stronger selling points of this hardware package.
Hopping onto the back, we find a solid plate and speakers as well as the charging pins for fast charging (discussed in the user experience section), and while these are magnetic (they work well, though), you still get the night-stand clock functionality prominently featured in the Moto 360 smartwatch line and their wireless charging cradles. As you can see, there is no heart-rate monitor here. I must also point out that the watch is rather thin at 9.95mm, and it certainly looks and feels thinner than many competing smartwatches. The included bands are made of a very dark brown stitched leather that passes off as black under most lighting conditions, and I found it to be very comfortable and serviceable, although it’s worth noting that the band attachment mechanism is proprietary, meaning finding replacements is not as easy as looking for a standard 18mm band.
I ultimately found the hardware to be an attractive if unconventional alternative, and I’ve gotten many compliments and inquiries regarding the watch as well. Some software decisions neatly complement the aesthetic, in particular the included watchfaces, and I must say it’s one of the most comfortable smartwatches I’ve worn. I haven’t had issues fitting it into sleeves and it doesn’t look too over-sized on my admittedly-thin wrist, and it can even pass as a regular watch to many people depending on your watch face. The steampunk vibes might not fit all styles, though, and it’s certainly not as widely-appealing of a design as other smartwatches, which are easier to match clothes to if that’s something you care about.
What about functional and internal hardware? Most items on its specification sheet are what you’d expect out of your average Android Wear smartwatch. First things first, it does count with IP67 certification for dust and water resistance, up to 1 meter and 30 minutes. The screen is a 1.39 inch AMOLED panel with a relatively high 400×400 resolution, at 287 pixels-per-inch, with no flat tire despite having a handy ambient-light sensor. I found the screen to be colorful and bright under most lighting conditions, although the ambient light sensor wasn’t as quick to act and adapt as I’d hoped, meaning I found myself manually adjusting brightness a few times — it tends to be to set brightness too low for my eyes as well.
Finally (because this is a smartwatch, after all), this device is one of the first to pack the new Snapdragon Wear 2100 chipset, which promises up to 25% lower power consumption (we’ll discuss performance in the following section), alongside a standard 512MB of RAM and 4GB of internal memory. It does not have, NFC, GPS or cellular connectivity, but supports WiFi and Bluetooth Low-Energy v4.2. It also does not have a heart-rate monitor despite ASUS’ emphasis on fitness with their dedicated ZenFit app.
Software and User Experience
The ZenWatch 3 is packed the to the brim with features, in a way that most smartwatches are not. While Android is an open platform, Android Wear is not — this is something with faults and benefits we’ve debated before, and ASUS isn’t the first OEM that wanted Wear as a platform to be better-tuned to their product. But those minor changes aside, the experience is very much what’d you’d expect out of Android Wear, and I’d argue it’s the additions that ultimately make the user experience stand out. ASUS’ leveraging of their hardware assets, such as their masked ambient light sensor and three-button configuration, are some of the key differences (and perhaps advantages) of this smartwatch.
Starting with the UI, we find that this version of Android Wear still functions just like you’d expect and it sadly doesn’t bring the features we were promised with Android Wear 2.0. The ZenWatch 3, however, manages to run the core functions really well — performance is on par with other Wear devices (bar the original Moto 360), the gestures actually work better than older Wear watches too, and it generally ticks at a fast rate. The screen is a little on the warm side, something that makes some white icons and white text look out of place, but other than that the screen works really well with Android Wear. The display experience has been above the average for two reasons, in my opinion: first, it is a fully circular AMOLED display with an ambient light sensor (no flat tire like we saw on multiple other watches), and second, because ASUS’ included watchfaces make good use of the rich display by not “gimping” the ambient mode.
That last point might be one that turns off wary customers afraid of burn in or battery life duration, but so far I haven’t experienced neither of those two issues. Granted, the former would take far longer than two weeks to manifest itself, but the always-on mode of the stock watchfaces hasn’t really made the device’s battery life too bad for my use case. The ambient version of the stock watchfaces still doesn’t update as frequently (i.e. no seconds hand or ticker, or moving elements), and they make the phone look even better when idling. There are over 50 watchfaces after downloading the companion app, most of them with classic watch designs featuring brown, dark grey and gold accents to compliment the watch’s physical aesthetic, and then there are some more abstract watchfaces similar to Moto’s rotational watchface as well. Below are some of my favorite included watchfaces:
Of course, you can also pick your favorite watchface from the Play Store and make one through facer, but I do think ASUS did a good job with the bundled options as they make good use of the screen in conjunction with the watch’s design language. And that’s the literal surface of what Asus offers on top of the base Android Wear provides, as the company bundled in multiple features, most in the form of watch apps, and a dedicated watch manager app can be downloaded to further customize and add functionality to the watch.
Beginning with my favorite feature, the buttons on the ZenWatch 3 are programmable to launch applications via the included watch app (after downloading ZenWatch Manager, you can customize both buttons). By default, the top button launches ZenFit (ASUS’ fitness tracking app) and the bottom one allows you to enter ECO Mode (more on that later), but being able to customize both can lead to some useful shortcuts. For example, I set one button to launch the Hangouts app in order to quickly check my group chats and messages, as well as reply to any pending chats. I’ve also used this feature to keep track of my location through Google Maps while going through new bus routes and streets, and it’s also useful when set to launching your calendar or agenda. Moreover, I can imagine other useful situation for certain people or under certain days, such as quick access to a stopwatch, calculator or Google Translate. The watch does a good job at keeping those watch apps in RAM, too, making the transition fast and fluid.
To unlock the full feature potential of the ZenWatch 3, one needs to download the “ZenWatch Manager” app from the Play Store. This grants you access to over 50 exclusive watchfaces, most of which aren’t very attractive, but many of them do fit the aesthetic nicely — some even reinforce the “steampunk” vibe by displaying moving cogs (albeit at a slow framerate). Some of the key features include grouping your favorite watch faces, a selection of watch apps (by ASUS), the ability to cover the ASUS clock on your watch to mute alarms, watch finder (uses vibration and sound), better remote call control, an SOS app (can be tied to button shortcuts), forgotten phone warning, and a flashlight app (which the Play Store is riddled with). Finally, there is a remote camera app to install, and a watchface designer that allows you to configure ambient mode in watchfaces as well. They also include a shortcut to smart lock and call it a feature, but it’s really just a shortcut.
I haven’t used many of the ZenWatch manager’s features, but I did like the watchface customization screen to configure my information widgets (fitness metrics, battery stats, etc). The ones that worked the best for me are the ones integrated into the UX passively, like the call manager which worked better than the default solution while answering calls out and about. I haven’t used the speaker for calls, although it gets surprisingly loud when playing alarms or music.
As for battery life, I managed to get over 24 hours out of the ZenWatch 3 with no real issues, and that’s being a notification-heavy user. I also ran the detailed ambient mode, and none of my watchfaces featured deep blacks for AMOLED battery savings. I did leave my watch on overnight every time, so I could have probably squeezed close to two work days of usage by turning it off at night — I just haven’t felt the need to, because the ZenWatch features really, really fast charging. This is one of my favorite features: ASUS claims that you can charge up to 60% in 15 minutes, and my testing confirms it (a full charge takes about 40 minutes). It does indeed charge very fast, fast enough that 15 minutes in the morning are enough to power a solid work day.
I haven’t felt that the battery life was exceptional, but the fact that there is an optional battery shell (which does add thickness, but adds charge nonetheless) means there is at least an option to extend battery life on the go by about 40%. Finally, on top of the default battery saving functionality there is an “ECO mode” that ASUS claims can double your battery life (with the penalties you’d expect out of an “ultra stamina” mode). Having those options available can probably help with battery anxiety, but I honestly haven’t felt limited by the watch’s endurance, in part because of the convenient charging speeds.
A Serious Competitor
The ZenWatch 3 is a nifty Wear device, and I’d go as far as saying that it’s the most complete Android Wear package out there. ASUS provides a good-looking watch with extensive software options, some of which are actually very useful and synergize well with the hardware. It doesn’t compromise the screen’s circumference for an ambient light sensor, it has useful hardware shortcuts… it’s light, thin, and comfortable. It does outclass previous generations by packing the Snapdragon Wear 2100 with a standard battery, although the gains are not necessarily noticeable in day-to-day usage. The charging mechanism is comfortable to use, too, and wicked fast — I only wish the included charger’s cable was longer, or that it wasn’t fused to the cradle. In terms of hardware, the main shortfall is the exclusion of key sensors like a heart-rate monitor, a GPS and NFC, the latter likely becoming a compromise once Android Pay inevitably hits Wear.
The premium design is well-realized and certainly like something you’d expect above the $229 price tag, which not only is lower than most competitor’s launch prices, but also lower than their current market prices. This makes the ZenWatch 3 extremely competitive in a market that is lacking renewed options, but there are a few aspects that might detract potential customers: the design doesn’t flow quite as well with all styles and I’d say it has more-limited appeal than that of other smartwatches. And while it packs many hardware advantages, we are on the brink of a new smartwatch generation that’s bound to up the ante even further. Nevertheless, the price is what makes it for me — it’s a very compelling option for those looking to buy a smartwatch at this moment in time. Admittedly, there isn’t a huge market for Wear smartwatches right now, and even tech bloggers and reviewers are increasingly freeing their wrists from another buzzing machine. But I am not, and I’m being fair when I say I’ve enjoyed the ZenWatch 3 more than my Gear S2 and Moto 360, even if none of these devices add indispensable value to my life.Check Out XDA’s ZenWatch 3 Forum >>