[alert type=alert-blue]Technical details[/alert]
OS Android Wear
Processor Snapdragon 400 1.2GHz
Screen 1.63 inches
Resolution 320 x 320 pixels
Memory 512 MB RAM
MicroSD compatible? No
Connectivity Bluetooth 4.0
Dimensions 51 x 39.9 x 9.4mm
Battery 369 mAh
Android Wear, Google’s operating system for wearables, has only been out for a few months, but a glut of devices are already running it from the likes of Samsung, LG, Motorola and now Asus.
The cynic might say they’re all rushing to make a few bucks before Apple’s much-hyped Watch arrives in the spring. But if you’re committed to Android, there’s plenty to like about the ZenWatch.
For a start, it sports a much more mature design than the G-Shock-esque LG G Watch R, and it doesn’t give off the prototype vibes of the Motorola Moto 360, its two similarly priced Android Wear rivals. With its square face, steel frame and light brown leather strap (replaceable with any other 22mm strap of your choosing), it’s attractive rather than beautiful, but that might be all you need.
The gold charger connections and power button are quietly hidden around the back. It’s a watch to match your suit, and people won’t notice it’s a smartwatch, at least until you start talking to it. And perhaps more importantly, you won’t either, as it’s very comfortable to wear, and not nearly as chunky as some other smartwatches we’ve tested.
There’s a trade-off, of course. That steel frame contains a small, square display that’s rather low resolution, and left us hankering for the more attractive round screens of the G Watch R and 360.
[alert type=alert-blue]Performance and software[/alert]
In almost every other way, it’s a homogenous Android Wear watch, with a processor that’s fast enough to never cause any slowdown, no matter how many information cards you swipe away, and a battery sadly small enough to last only a day and a half – and that’s if you’re careful. You’ll also need an Android phone running 4.3 Jelly Bean or newer; if you’ve got an iPhone, you’ll have to wait or make do with the multi-talented but black and white Pebble smartwatch.
Asus has provided one small addition, its ZenWatch Manager app, which lets you set the watch face and handily let the device act as a password for your phone, so that as long as you’re within Bluetooth range, it won’t ask for a PIN code or password.
Other than that, Android Wear exhibits the same pros and cons as any other device. Its voice recognition is surprisingly accurate, even outdoors, and it’s easy to send short replies to emails without pulling your phone out of your pocket – you can tap a canned reply or dictate your own.
There are some other genuinely useful options: track controls for your music, for instance, as well as walking directions with handy alerts every time you need to make a turn. And you’ll be ever so pleased the first time your watch quietly vibrates on your wrist, letting you know your phone is ringing even when it’s in silent mode; you swipe to answer it, pull your phone out and just start talking.
App support is surprisingly comprehensive as well. You’ll find you automatically get Facebook and Twitter alerts alongside texts and emails – some of which you can read in full – and you can even reply to WhatsApp messages using voice dictation.
But the same old problems rear their head too. You’re very reliant on what Google elects to show you. You can’t really summon notifications again once you’ve swiped them away, and it’ll chuck others at you that you don’t need relentlessly. For some inexplicable reason, Google can create safe, self-driving cars, but can’t figure out that you probably don’t need public transport directions to your office on a Saturday afternoon.
Our biggest bugbear is on the sports side of things. One of the major issues we’ve had with the first batch of Android Wear devices is that they’re essentially useless as fitness devices, since they need to be paired with your phone via Bluetooth to do anything beyond estimating your steps (and not particularly accurately), at which point you might as well just take your phone out with you on a run instead.
Google has gone some way to mitigating this with software updates that support GPS built into Android Wear watches themselves, and support for direct Bluetooth connections to your headphones, so you can store those NPR podcasts directly on the watch and stream them without the need for your phone or iPod.
All of this is well and good, except that the ZenWatch doesn’t take advantage of all of this, lacking as it does built-in GPS. It does at least have a heart-rate monitor, but you’ll have to press the front of the watch to log it, so it’s no good for monitoring at speed. You can at least listen to music on your watch offline if you have a pair of wireless headphones, but as a fitness device, the GPS-equipped Sony SmartWatch 3 is far superior.
Of course, with its leather strap, you could argue that the ZenWatch was never meant to be used as a fitness device, and if you’re okay with that, it just might be the smartwatch for you. But there are still a few too many caveats to make a ringing endorsement for everyone to buy it.
The Asus ZenWatch is handsome enough, but it fails to stand out from the crowd of Android Wear devices. Google’s wearable operating system still feels like a solution in search of a problem: too many alerts just direct you to pull out your phone, so really, why bother? Unless you have a specific use in mind for its features, you might hold out for the second generation or the Apple Watch.