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Featured Review: Asus ZenWatch 2

November 9, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

About a year and a half ago Google’s Android Wear smartwatch platform launched, and with it were two simple reference devices: the LG G Watch and the Samsung Gear Live.  Both of these watches were square and simple and didn’t have too many special features.  A few months later the second round of watches came out and were significantly more stylish: the round Moto 360 and the elegant Asus ZenWatch.  Both of these products ushered in a more unique design and both featured some unique features, among better builds over the Gear Live and G Watch.  Now a year later Asus has followed up its ZenWatch with the aptly named ZenWatch 2, a product that we got our hands on at IFA 2015 in Berlin when it was launched.  Now that we’ve got a proper review unit and have been able to spend some time with it let’s check out what it brings to the table.

Specs

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This time around Asus is offering more than one size, and considerably more styles too.  The smaller ZenWatch 2 features a 1.45-inch 280 x 280 resolution (273 PPI) screen and the larger one packs a 1.63-inch 320 x 320 resolution (278 PPI) screen.  Both are Super AMOLED panels designed for always-on capabilities so you never have to raise your wrist awkwardly just to tell the time.  The smaller watch features a 300mAh battery, while the larger one has a 400mAh battery.  Both are IP67 water and dust proof and are designed to go with you just about anywhere in life.

Since the screen is smaller Asus was able to make the size of the physical watch smaller too, sitting at 45.2mm tall, 37.2mm wide and 11.8mm thin, while the larger one is 49.6mm tall, 40.7mm wide and 10.9mm thin.  Both devices feature a metal build, Gorilla Glass 3 on the front for good scratch protection, 512MB of RAM and 4GB of internal storage.  You’ll also find that Asus kept the same Snapdragon 400 1.2GHz CPU from the original ZenWatch that still powers the vast majority of Android Wear devices.  Both watches sell for $149.99 for the leather versions while one that ships with a rubber brown band retails for $129.99.

In The Box

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In the box you’re going to find the watch band attached to the watch itself and the magnetic charger, but not a whole lot else.  This is a pretty bare bones experience but that’s OK considering that this watch is less expensive than most of the Android Wear watches out there while still retaining a quality metal build.

Hardware and Display

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Square watches are certainly in thanks to the smartwatch trend, and Asus’ take on the square watch trend is to make its watches look more like pebbles you’d find in a Zen garden.  The smooth lines around the watch and round corners give it a more elegant look, and the metal build gives it a genuinely quality feel.  The top glass is curved just enough to give it a more elegant look and appeal than flat glass would, and has a fairly sizable bezel around the square display.  You may not notice it at first, but the bezel around the display actually rounds off the edges of the screen making that square display look less awkward inside the more rounded body.  While the watch is made of metal and feels solid it’s still quite light and comfortable.  The size of the larger one fit perfectly on my wrists and the smaller one is designed for people with smaller wrists (and is generally marketed toward females).

On the right you’ll find what looks like a traditional watch crown but is just a single button.  A single press switches between the always-on display and the live watchface display, while double-pressing it toggles theater mode on and off.  Theater mode turns off all gestures and keeps the face off unless the button is pressed, which is handy when you’re in a dark place like a movie theater and don’t want the watch turning on and off with every little wrist movement.  Silver, gunmetal and rose gold colors are available, and each color has its own separate choice of leather band colors from Asus.  There’s a Swarovski Crystal edition watch band available as well as well as metal watch bands too.  If none of these suit your style you can always change out the bands for any standard 18mm band for the smaller watch and 22mm for the larger one via a simple push pin system.

Underneath you won’t find anything but a smooth plastic plate with 4 charging pins.  This is unfortunate because it means no heart rate sensor, a truly important component when monitoring health statistics.  The charging cable included is rather interesting and features a magnetic locking system that will only lock in one way, and does so quite forcefully.  This ensures a tight connection so when you wake up from a long night’s sleep you won’t find a dead watch sitting in your charging dock.

The display on the ZenWatch 2 is of a Super AMOLED variety and features great brightness for viewing outdoors, excellent viewing angles and punchy colors.  It’s not the most pixel-dense display in the world, and you can clearly see the pixels when holding the watch less than a foot from your face, and while it looks just a bit soft from a distance it ends up making the watch feel cheaper than it should.  On the bright side the curve of the glass makes it easier to interact with the swiping motions that Android Wear relies on and feels better than many other Android Wear watches with hard bezels because of it.  Many of the built-in watch faces feature an always-on mode, and interestingly enough the watch doesn’t force black and white mode but rather allows an 8-bit color palette for the always-on faces.

Something that’s not always thought of is the strength and vibration quality of the motor inside the unit.  Since this is metal it gives off a different feel when being alerted to a notification than a plastic watch would, and that’s a positive feeling all around.  The vibration is solid and short but not sharp, so while it’s enough to get you to notice even while walking and swinging your arms, it’s not strong enough to irritate wrists when vibrating.  Microphone quality on the device is phenomenal, and picked up everything I said even while in my truck with the windows down.  Lastly and most curiously there’s a speaker inside this device, making it only the second Android Wear watch to have such a component.  The other watch featuring this is the Huawei Watch and at this point there’s nothing Android Wear can even do with a speaker, giving us hints at what the next big Android Wear update might be.  This seems like great future proofing and will likely enhance the ZenWatch 2’s value down the road.

Performance and Battery Life

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It’s a bit strange to say there’s some lag here, given that this is specced basically the same as most other Android Wear watches, but it feels like the watch runs well below the 60fps that many other Android Wear watches run at.  This one isn’t quite as slow as the original Moto 360, but it’s pretty close and lends yet another hint that this is a bit of a cheaper smartwatch than others out there.  That’s not to say it’s bad necessarily, just not as good as it should be.  This could have a direct impact on battery though, which seems to be significantly better than every other Android Wear watch I’ve used.  Often times I’d end the day with nearly 60% battery remaining, meaning 2 days’ battery life is an easy feat even with always-on screen enabled.  That’s impressive and is something no other Android Wear watch I’ve used can truly claim.

Software

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Android Wear as a platform has only been around for about a year and a half now, but it’s matured significantly in that time.  Since its inception we’ve received an app drawer, quick emoticon drawing and other sharing options, a completely redesigned settings and pull-down bar and plenty of new features as well.  The ZenWatch 2 has all of those features but lacks one big feature that might kill interest for some people: a heart rate sensor.  There’s nothing on the underside of the watch at all and this means that the only health-monitoring you’ll be doing is on the built-in pedometer, which Asus claims is top class in the industry.  It’s difficult to test this in ordinary life situations, but it seemed just as accurate as the other phones and watches I carry.  The lack of more biometric sensors in such a health-centric wearables culture is a bit alarming, though, and it leads me to wonder why Asus chose this even to just keep the price down.

Companion Apps

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Android Wear as an ecosystem isn’t allowed to be modified per Google’s mandate, so OEMs usually make companion apps and watch apps to enhance the experience over other watches out there.  Asus focuses on customization and other Asus branded apps to make its watch feel more like an Asus skinned product.  Even so the normal day-to-day experience won’t look any different from other Android Wear watches unless you launch these applications, all of which can be found in the main companion app from Asus.  This main companion app, aptly named the ZenWatch Manager, can be found for free on the Google Play Store and is the best way to interface with your ZenWatch over the Android Wear app for many tasks.

Just like Motorola has its own app for customizing watch faces and other parts of the watch, Asus ZenWatch Manager app lets you fully customize all Asus-made watch faces down to an incredibly granular level, which we’ll cover below.  Outside of that it lets you know how many apps you have installed from Asus, which at this time of writing encompasses a total of 7 dedicated watch apps.  The exhaustive list here includes Asus Weather, FaceDesigner, Music, FoneHelper, Remote Camera, Remote Link, Omlet, SOS, Wellness and UP by Jawbone.

All of these apps are well designed, and many include a companion app on the phone to help with more detailed information such as step history in the Asus Wellness app.  It’s really a shame that this one doesn’t have more biometric sensors too because these apps are all well laid out and look great.  Other options are found under the tools section of the Manager app and include remote call management for changing call options via your watch while you’re on a call, forgot phone warning, find my watch, unlock my phone, flashlight and SOS.  All these can be enabled or disabled to your liking and all tie into Android rather than being restricted to Asus custom ecosystem on its Zen line of phones.

Watch Faces

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Customization is the name of the game here, and of course while all the thousands of faces on the Google Play Store can be used here, it’s the Asus faces that are really something special.  There’s a ton of different styles including analog and digital bases, with different categories like simple, luxury and sport helping to break things up a bit.  After you select a watch face you can customize it to your liking including changing what information is displayed on it, such as weather, steps taken and battery level, as well as changing color schemes, watch hands and more.  Some faces let you add more information than others, so it all depends on what you like as to what information is available to be put on the face.

There’s also the FaceDesigner app that lets you completely build your watch face from scratch, by using a library of pre-chosen icons and backgrounds, watch hands and more.  What’s amazing here is that you can completely build your own icons, backgrounds and watch faces from scratch too and position them here however you’d like, so if you’re looking for a more custom watch face you will absolutely be able to build it here.  After selecting your background and watch hands, you can then add additional information to the face to your heart’s content.  There’s no limitation to how much stuff you want to pack on your screen or where you can place it, so if you’re feeling like an Apple Watch face designer you can throw as much information on that tiny display as you want.

Conclusion

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Asus once again shows that they can pack a punch in the value department, delivering a solidly build watch with a range of colors and styles to suit different tastes.  In addition to this there are two different sizes for customers to choose from, and all available styles are under $200 for the entire package, with most coming in under $150.  The ZenWatch 2 family runs Android Wear’s latest platform and features some additional Asus apps to enhance your experience rather than try to replace what Google does well.  There’s also more customization here than any other Android Wear watch has out of the box, with a watch face designer that lets you completely build your own face from scratch.  As long as you don’t need a heart rate monitor and don’t mind a square form factor over a round one, this one is nearly impossible to not recommend.  It’s really a gem of a device that could at least play a secondary role as an additional Android Wear-powered watch if you’ve been looking for more.  Check out all the different styles and sizes at the Amazon links below!

ASUS ZenWatch 2 – Silver W/ Brown Rubber Band

ASUS ZenWatch 2 – Silver W/ Beige Leather Band

ASUS ZenWatch 2 – Gunmetal W/ Gray Metal Band

ASUS ZenWatch 2 – Rose Gold W/ Taupe Leather Band

ASUS ZenWatch 2 – Rose Gold W/Orange Leather Band