As Google attempts to maintain some semblance of software consistency across the devices, manufacturers are once again forced to distinguish themselves almost entirely on hardware. From the moment the ZenWatch comes out of the box, Asus’s play is pretty clear: Making a smartwatch people might actually want to wear.
It is, oddly, still a bit of a novel concept in 2015, especially when coupled with a surprisingly reasonable $199 price tag. But even as Asus has managed to step away from the pack, the question still remains, is now the time to get on the Android Wear train?
Some day, in the not too distant future, good-looking smartwatches will no longer be an anomaly. They’ll look less like late-80s Casio calculator watches and more like legitimate fashion accessories. Until that day comes, it’s worth pointing out those companies who manage to produce smart wearables we wouldn’t want to be caught dead wearing (or even alive, for that matter).
With the ZenWatch, Asus has produced a top contender for the best-looking smartwatch around. As with smartphones and tablets before it, gadget makers would do best to chant the mantra “less is more” before taking a seat at the old design table. And indeed, the ZenWatch is probably most succinctly described as a tiny, wrist-worn tablet.
It’s slick, it’s thin and it’s nearly all screen. All of the bright and shiny stuff occurs in that backlit space between the bezels — which is exactly as it should be. If you drop a couple hundred bucks on a watch, you’re going to want to be as inclined to wear it to a wedding as a morning jog, and the simple black front and metal framing fits that bill.
The brushed stainless steel back looks pretty nice, too — not that you or anyone else will spend much time looking at the thing. When it’s not on your wrist, you’ll almost certainly have it nested in the charging cradle.
The rear also houses the microphone, which is just off to the side enough so your “OK Google” commands don’t get muffled by your wrist and the single physical button: power/reset, which is flush against the backing. Power is more of an emergency switch than anything; hold it down for a few seconds if things lock up or if you find yourself desperately needing to conserve battery.
The ZenWatch is relatively thin and reasonably light at 9.4mm and 1.7 oz, respectively, but the device is still fairly big. As a 5’11 human male, the watch ran the length of my wrist. Any larger and it would have been unwieldy, which I suspect is the case for those with smaller wrists. Hopefully Asus will pull an Apple for the next generation and offer two size options.
At present, Asus offers two band options for the ZenWatch — both leather. The one it ships with is best described as a sort of orangish/tan. It’s a classier affair than most of the fitness-focused bands I’ve used, though there’s something a little sickly in the tint. Asus also sells a darker leather band as an after-purchase add-on, which looks to be the nicer of the two options.
It also features a snap clasp of the sort you often see on metal bands. It makes a snug fit, and the brushed metal Asus-branded tab is a nice accent that matches the watch well. There’s good news: If all of this isn’t to your liking, the ZenWatch bands are standard size and can be swapped out for non-Asus straps.
On the face of it
Of course, the watch’s footprint is completely beholden to the its screen size. At 1.63-inches, the ZenWatch is about average, with most of these devices hovering around the 1.6-inch mark. Ditto for the resolution; it clocks in at 320 x 320 putting it at 278 pixels per inch (ppi).
That’s low for those of us who regularly geek out over smartphone and tablet resolutions. It’s pretty clear at a glance that you’re not looking at a physical watch face, but it does the trick just fine for the sort of short informational bursts that define the Android Wear card interface.
In default mode, the display is pretty tough to make out in sunlight, as one would expect from an LCD, but a few swipes turns on sunlight mode, substantially upping the brightness. The watch will automatically knock itself back down, though, since that level isn’t really sustainable on a limited battery.
If there’s a big complaint to be leveled against the display, it’s the amount of the face that’s monopolized by a pretty sizable bezel. Roughly one-third of the space seems to be taken up by the grayish-colored borders — a phenomenon only compounded by the fact that space is such a premium on devices like these.
The rest of the insides are pretty on-par with the competition. There’s a 1.2GHz Snapdragon processor and 512MB of RAM — enough to respond quite zippily when flipping through all of those informational cards. I didn’t detect any noticeable lag on the device while putting it through its paces.
There’s also 4GB of on-board storage — same as the Moto 360 and the latest Samsung Gear — for storing things like Play Music songs locally. As with the vast majority of the smartwatches out there, most of what you do on the ZenWatch will be heavily reliant on that ever-important smartphone tether.
Batteries are nearly always a dim spot for wearables, and I’m sad to report that there’s not much difference here. The battery life on the device is middling, at best. With light usage, you should be able to make it through a day. If you actually want to get the most out of your watch, however, you’re going to want to make sure you’re within charging distance of an outlet mid-day.
You’ll be able to accomplish this courtesy of a snug matte black charging cradle with a detachable USB cord.
Here’s the part where I’m obligated to mention that, at this point, the Android Wear experience is awfully similar across devices, and the ZenWatch certainly isn’t an exception in that respect. The core of the UI are little cards that deliver bite-sized bits of information, formatted for the small screen.
Default mode is, as one would expect, a watch face. This is, naturally, highly customizable. Press and hold on the screen, and you’ve got more than 20 different faces, representing a wide scope of styles, many exclusive to the ZenWatch. It covers a lot of ground and should keep the majority of users satiated.
I went with “Aviator,” a minimalist analog face that matches the ZenWatch’s relative elegance. It’s a white face that turns dark after a few seconds of inactivity to save that ever precious battery life. Swipe down to mute and check out the remaining battery life and keep swiping there for additional settings like Theater Mode, which turns off the backlight without completely turning the watch off.
Once tethered, notifications will begin popping up in the lower portion of the display, along with some accompanying haptic feedback. A down swipe will bring up the full message. From there you can check out your daily step rate, read incoming emails, check out Twitter notifications, peek at stocks, view the weather, etc.
In many cases (as with the weather), more information can be viewed by swiping right. In pretty much every case, however, the watch recommends to take a trip to your smartphone for the full experience. But hey, at least the ZenWatch does you a solid by opening up that app for you.
If you’re sick of all of the swiping, give voice commands a swing with a simple “OK Google.” Personally, I have yet to get used to talking to a watch that won’t talk back; I found myself having to repeat commands multiple times in some cases.
But while the base experience is pretty much universal across these devices, Asus has done an admirable job bringing some of its own unique flavor. For example, there’s the ZenWatch Manager which brings added security, an app for finding the watch should you misplace it and even more customizable faces.
Asus also has a few more proprietary Android apps for additional functionality, including a basic music management program and Remote Camera, which lets you snap and preview smartphone photos by tapping your watch. At the moment, I can’t think of too many instances where I’d need that functionality, and the preview really drives home how much the tiny display is lacking relative to a smartphone, but it’s a cool proof-of-concept at the very least.
Worth a wear?
Given that we’re dealing with a first-generation device, it’s perhaps not too surprising that Asus doesn’t do a ton to stand out from the pack.
The Android Wear experience is pretty universal across devices at the moment, but the company has certainly brought out some nice additions here in the form of its Android apps to help create a fuller experience.
The watch does, however, stand out in the looks department. It’s that rare smartwatch that doesn’t scream, “Hey, check out the crazy gadget on my wrist!” Rather, I was able to wear the thing out without drawing curious glares from on-lookers, which is an accomplishment in and of itself.
Lovely design • Great price
Middling battery • Big size • Minimal software tweaks
The Bottom Line
The ZenWatch is one of the nicer looking smartwatches around, but otherwise doesn’t do too much to stand out from the rest of the first-gen Android Wear pack.
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