Android Wear has evolved in leaps and bounds over the last couple of years. Now, your smartwatch can do a lot more than just show your phone's notifications; it can give you turn by turn navigation with a map, it can hook in to local Wi-Fi when your phone is out of Bluetooth range. But at the end of the day, the thing living on your wrist also has to function as a watch well — it has to tell the time, and not run out of power in the middle of the day. Huawei's stainless steel Watch doesn't just want to take the crown of best Android Wear smartwatch — it wants to be the best smartwatch period.
What Is It?
- Processor: Snapdragon 400 (1.2GHz)
- Memory: 4GB
- Screen: 1.4-inch AMOLED (400x400, 286ppi)
- Battery: 300mAh
- Connectivity/Sensors: Bluetooth 4.0 LE, Wi-Fi, gyroscope, accelerometer, heart rate monitor, barometer
The $549-plus Huawei Watch is a smartwatch, running Android Wear. That means, apart from its design and the materials used to construct it, it's very similar to the Asus ZenWatch 2, the new Moto 360 and the LG Watch Urbane 2. Like on these other smartwatches, the Huawei Watch's Android Wear operating system is designed by Google and will work with any Android or iOS smartphone.
For the most part, Android Wear is pretty straightforward; unless you tell it otherwise, it'll mirror every notification that appears on your Android smartphone, delivering you bite-size email subject lines from Gmail or Outlook, the first couple of words from a Twitter or Facebook fave or like or response, and any contextual Google Now cards like weather, traffic, or flight times. You can also opt to receive only priority notifications, or none at all.
Like other Android Wear smartwatches, the Tizen-based Samsung Gear S2 and the Apple Watch, the Huawei Watch also has a gyroscope and accelerometer to track steps, which it'll sync to your Google Fit activity tracker and any other fitness app like Runtastic or Runkeeper. It has a heart rate monitor on the rear of its 42mm-diameter case, which will only measure your heart rate on command. It'll connect to your phone using Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy, and you can also connect the Huawei Watch to any infrastructure Wi-Fi network and receive your notifications remotely when your phone isn't within Bluetooth spitting distance.
And, as you can see, it's metal. The entire case of the Huawei Watch is stainless steel, as is the band if you buy the $649 stainless steel link bracelet or the $649 stainless steel mesh wristband version. You can also spend $749 to get the same watch in a satin black finish, with matching satin black link bracelet. (The entry-level $549 Huawei Watch has a leather band.) The watch's thin, angular circular bezel is chamfered, and the multipurpose Android Wear button — it'll switch the screen on or off if you tap it, or jump straight to the app menu if you hold it, or restart the watch entirely if you hold it longer — is offset to the watch's top, at the 2-o'clock position. If you buy the link bracelet, you'll have to get it sized to your wrist.
You can, of course, buy different 18mm wristbands for the Huawei Watch; they're a dime a dozen on eBay if you want to get a cheap one, or you can spend as much as you want for exotic materials and exotic brands. The metal wristband of the $649 Huawei Watch, as tested, certainly gets the job done, so there's no reason to change it unless you want to match your outfit. It's also worth pointing out the that the Huawei Watch's display box is very, very cool.
What's It Good At?
The Huawei Watch is the best built and most attractive smartwatch that I've seen so far. That includes the stainless steel Apple Watch, the LG G Watch R and Watch Urbane, and Samsung Gear S2. Huawei has managed to do what no other smartwatchmaker has so far, in making the Watch feel like an actual watch — it's built just as solidly as my old Seiko. Part of that is the effectively-scratchproof sapphire glass watchface, but most of it is the exclusive use of polished stainless steel across the watch's casing; this is a smartwatch that feels solid. It has heft, it has presence, and from a distance, a casual observer will think you're just wearing a normal-person watch.
Android Wear has come a long way, too, since I first used the original, square LG G Watch. Now at version 1.3.0 in line with Android 5.1.1, it's smooth and responsive when the Huawei Watch is replicating notifications from an attached Android phone; it rarely takes more than a second after my phone has buzzed for my Huawei Watch to vibrate too. Swiping vertically between notifications is quick and seamless, and launching apps — even heavier ones, like Maps, which in full-screen mode actually shows you your position on a 2D map and plots your movement against any directions you have — is usually fast. (There are occasional slowdowns, but these are very rare.)
If the Huawei Watch's metal case is the first thing you see and love about it, then its 400x400 pixel, entirely round, 1.4-inch AMOLED display is the second. It's very bright at its maximum luminance (there are five to choose from), and the OLED tech means there's huge contrast between whites and blacks that makes for very easy readability in indoors and outdoors. At 286 ppi it's almost equal in pixel density to the Apple Watch, but I much prefer the rounded display and the clarity of text on Huawei's attempt. The bezel on the Huawei Watch, too, is very thin.
I've experienced somewhat better battery life from the Huawei Watch than the LG G Watch R that I've used daily for the last year. With the watch's screen set to always-on mode — where it dims to a black and white outline, with enough definition to easily tell the time, but lights up with your watchface of preference once your wrist is raised — I'd easily reach a day and a half of heavy usage before the Huawei Watch fell to the 15 per cent level and reminded me that it needed a charge. This is a moderate improvement on the slightly-more-than-a-day that I'd get out of other Android Wear smartwatches. (It's certainly possible to push an Android Wear smartwatch to five days of light usage, though.)
It's the combination, though, of a good Android Wear experience and a good watchfeel that makes the Huawei Watch enjoyable to use. It's a lovely watch to just raise your wrist and look at to check the time, or to flick your wrist against and scroll through notifications and Google Now cards; it's also one of those lifestyle-enhancing tools that's easy to talk to — "OK Google, navigate home", "OK Google, remind me to message Luke when I get home", "OK Google, set a timer for five minutes" — or to tap away at to quickly archive email and dismiss Facebook messages.
What's It Not Good At?
If I had a criticism of the Huawei Watch, it'd be that its case is quite thick; at 11.3mm thick it's somewhat (but probably not noticeably, in real life) thicker than the LG G Watch R's 9.95mm, and in the same class as the 11mm Moto 360 (2015), 11.5mm Apple Watch, and LG Watch Urbane. With the bezel being slightly raised as it is from the sapphire glass touchscreen to protect from scratches, like the crenelations of a castle wall, it looks thicker than it is. The Watch's bulk certainly gives it that Casio G-Shock-esque presence, and it's still dressy beside that point, but a thinner watch would look a little less out of place on a thinner wrist. Huawei, too, should consider making the already-very-impressive Watch in a smaller 38mm case like competitors.
The Huawei Watch's 1.4-inch AMOLED screen can ramp up from quite dim to quite bright, but there's no ambient light sensor to adjust that backlight in dim or bright rooms, and therefore no automatic brightness setting. I like to keep my Android Wear watches in always-on mode with brightness set to maximum, and while this is great for most of the day, it can be inconvenient — and a little blinding — when driving at night and the screen's light-up wrist gesture kicks in, or when you're settling down in a cinema or dark room to watch a movie. Android Wear has an easy theatre mode — swipe down, swipe left — to disable the display entirely, but an ambient sensor would have been more convenient.
What the Huawei Watch really needs, in the light of its newly minted competition from the Samsung Gear S2, is a non-touchscreen mode of interaction. Apple has the digital crown dial, Samsung has a tactile rotating bezel; Huawei should have used one of these to make the Watch's menus, simple as they are, a little faster and easier to navigate. Android Wear is built around swipe, and its interface is perfectly easy to use, but its navigation shortcomings are starting to be shown up by competitors' innovative faster methods. The talk amongst everyone that I've asked about the Huawei Watch is that with the Gear S2's clicky bezel, it would be the best smartwatch hands down.
The Huawei Watch is absolutely a premium device, and that shows in its build quality and the thought in its design and even the unboxing experience. Inside, it's much the same hardware — Snapdragon 400 system-on-chip, decent battery, tiny bit of internal storage for temporary music, no internal GPS or 3G/4G SIM for remote calls or notifcations — as the original LG G Watch of 18 months ago. With that in mind, and the roughly equal experience of Android Wear on every smartwatch of its class, the Watch is quite an expensive proposition. At $549, it's twice the price of a square G Watch, or $200 more than a round G Watch R. Its true price competition is the Apple Watch, or a regular fashion watch from Seiko or Tissot or Fossil.
There are a few other niggles — the charger isn't as easy to place correctly as LG's or Samsung's or Apple's, you'll have to visit a jeweller and pay the $10 to get the bracelet resized — but they're hardly worth mentioning in the course of using the Huawei Watch every day. When you are using it every day, you very quickly start to enjoy the add-on experience of Android Wear, but also the feeling of having an expensive, well-built, attractive smartwatch on your wrist.
Should You Buy It?
The $549-plus Huawei Watch is a very beautiful wristwatch, with a big bold case and a well-designed clasp link bracelet — both in stainless steel or both in satin black, and both for $649, if you want the best colour options. It's also a very beautiful smartwatch, too, thanks to that high resolution and high brightness AMOLED display. It has good battery life for a smartwatch, and passes the crucial test of surviving for a full working day under heavy always-on use; you'll be able to take it off your bedside in the morning and return it at night with the peace of mind it'll last the distance.
It doesn't have an ambient light sensor, so will require a couple of swipes and a tap to turn off or dim in a dark room. It's a bit big for more dainty wrists, and even normal wrists will need that bracelet resized on the $649 and upwards steel link variants. But if there was one thing that could be the Huawei Watch's undoing, it would be that it's really quite similar in utility and in internal computing hardware to older — and cheaper — Android Wear-ables. The Huawei Watch needs to stand alone on its style and on its build quality — and for me, it absolutely does.
Huawei could have made the Watch stand out from its crowded marketplace of competitors with a novel navigation method — that little 2-o'clock offset crown is the perfect place for a scroll wheel, as is the circular bezel. Both Samsung and Apple — the companies Huawei wants to beat — have innovative smartwatches. Huawei has done the standard Android Wear formula very well, but it's still the standard formula that you can find on cheaper models. For me, someone that loves vanilla Android Wear, and that is used to swiping up and down and left and right, it's just fine.
I've worn the LG G Watch R since Christmas of last year, despite temptation from the Apple Watch and Pebble and myriad smartwatch competitors. But, as of now, the Huawei Watch will be taking its place. It does everything that Android Wear does, and it does them well, and it looks good while doing so. This is the smartwatch I'll be wearing from now on — at least until something better comes along.