The ASUS ZenWatch 3 is the best looking smartwatch on the market
Now on the third generation of Android Wear-powered smartwatches, ASUS is paving the way with its first circular smartwatch. Sporting a respectable price of $229, ASUS hits the sweet spot for smartwatch pricing and even throws in some little extras that other OEMs don't necessarily add to their Android Wear smartwatches. On top of this ASUS seems to have some difficulty keeping up with demand when this one launched at the end of 2016. Now that it's readily available and has a promised Android Wear 2.0 update sometime in Q2 of this year, is it worth forking over $230 to grab the latest and greatest in smartwatches, or should you opt for Google and LG's latest watches instead? Let's find out.
ASUS' third generation ZenWatch sports a brand new design when comparing to previous ZenWatch models. A brand new round body sports a 1.39-inch AMOLED screen on top with 400 x 400 pixel resolution, equating to a pixel-per-inch density of around 287. The watch shipped with Android Wear 1.5 and a custom ASUS skin, but has already received its Android Wear 2.0 update. The watch is powered by Qualcomm's quad-core Snapdragon Wear 2100, which is the latest in mobile processing available for smart wearables. Also inside is 4GB of internal storage and 512MB RAM, and the watch connects with your Android or iOS powered smartphone via Bluetooth v4.1 Low Energy or to the cloud via WiFi 802.11 b,g or n.
There's no GPS, radio or biometric sensors packed inside, although there is an accelerometer and gyro for gesture control and step detection. The watch is built with Stainless Steel 316L and is IP67 water and dust resistant, apart from the 18mm leather band it ships with, which may be less resistant to the elements. Inside sits a 341mAh Li-Ion battery, rated at 48 hours of use. The ZenWatch 3 weighs 48 grams and measures in at a 45mm diameter and 10.8mm thickness, and ASUS ships the watch in a variety of colors including Gunmetal, Silver and Rose Gold. You'll also find a speaker and of course a microphone on the body, giving you true speakerphone capabilities on your wrist as well as notification sounds and audio playback.
Right off the bat it's pretty obvious ASUS is going for the kill when it comes to looks. The ZenWatch 3 is easily one of the most striking, beautiful smartwatches on the market, and it's clear that ASUS has stepped it up a notch in the design department for their latest wearable. This is a watch that looks like a real watch in every way, from its shiny metallic trim and buttons, to its strong and unique lugs. ASUS ships the watch in three different colors, and it's the Gunmetal color in particular that we have for review here. This is a darker metallic color with copper trim, both around the axis of the body as well as around the face where metal meets glass.
ASUS ships the watch with a genuine leather band, in this case a very dark brown leather, which fits on the lugs via a standard 18mm pin connection. What's unique about the lugs on this watch is that they downturn about 45-degrees, forcing a certain look and design to the watch's band, all while still giving access to a standard watch band. As this is the case the first several millimeters of the band will feel more stiff than the rest, simply because of the metal hardware inside keeping it attached to the lugs. This may be uncomfortable for some, but it was something I found assuaged with time. The included band's adjustment holes are a little off for me though; while one size is just a tad too big and has the watch wriggling on my wrist, the next hole makes it less comfortable because it's tightly clinging to my wrist.
The front of the watch features glass which sits just inside of the body, giving a millimeter or so of scratch protection by not leaving the glass at the same level or above the body. This screen isn't quite as recessed into the body as the Huawei Watch features, and the angle of the metal rim around the glass gives better ease of access to the touch screen, making it more comfortable to use than the Huawei Watch as well. Three buttons sit on the right; a traditional crown sits in the middle of the three, while two smaller buttons sit right at the 2 o'clock and 4 o'clock positions relative to the face.
Not visible is the speaker inside, which provides notification sounds, ringer sounds and media sounds in addition to acting as a loudspeaker for phone calls. The bottom of the watch is simple and with little fanfare. There's no heart rate sensor here, or no biometric sensors of any kind, as we're used to not seeing on the ASUS ZenWatch series. Instead you'll find a series of magnetic pins in a stairstep formation, all four of which are recessed into the frame so as to not press against the skin and irritate users.
ASUS moves into the modern smartwatch age this time around with a fully round 1.39-inch AMOLED display, which features a resolution of 400 x 400 pixels. This equates to roughly 287 pixels-per-inch density, which is a tad low for most modern displays. This means that you'll pretty easily see pixels when looking up close, but when viewing the watch from the distance a wrist would normally be from someone's face makes them nearly invisible and looks more like a standard watch. This puts the PPI density slightly higher than what we've seen on Asus ZenWatch 2 with its larger display, and makes it look more attractive as a whole.
One thing that's often not considered is the glass on top of the display. Up to this point every smartwatch we've reviewed seems to pack a variation of fairly standard smartphone glass and makes them look more like a smartphone's display instead of a watch display. ASUS has outfitted the ZenWatch 3 with a different type of glass, one that's not only scratch resistant but also fingerprint resistant as well. In the past month of use we nary saw a fingerprint on the screen, regardless of how much it was touched. Greasy fingers will still leave slight smudges occasionally, however it's considerably better than other smartwatches out there by a long shot.
In addition to this the glass on the ZenWatch 3 features a gorgeous shine to it, one that exhibits multiple layers of design and care. The shimmer and shine that comes from the glass as it's rotated gives the ZenWatch 3 the distinct look of jewelry, something every smartwatch we've seen thus far has failed to do. This really enhances the display, and although it's not the most dense display out there, it still looks great. Viewing angles are phenomenal and exhibit no color shifting or brightness adjustments at all. This is a true AMOLED display and turns individual pixels off when they're black, so faces with black elements or minimal always-on faces will look simply gorgeous as the pixels blend in with the rest of the hardware and make it look less like a display.
What's wholly unique here, and something that's a first for any smartwatch, is both the inclusion of a completely round display as well as an ambient light sensor. Up until now we've seen watches like the Huawei Watch feature a completely round display at the expense of having no ambient light sensor. Others, like Motorola's Moto 360 line, feature a "flat tire" which contains the ambient light sensor and sacrifices a small portion of the bottom display for this functionality. ASUS provides us with a completely no compromise solution, and it's one that works truly brilliantly. The screen dims and lights up immediately when entering a room or going outside, giving you the readability of a bright screen outdoors, with the ease and comfort of a dimmer screen indoors. I never had a problem seeing this one outdoors either, which is likely both a combination of a nicely lit screen and a glass that does a good job disseminating external light.
The ASUS ZenWatch 3 ships with Android Wear v1.5, which is based on Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow. As the big Android Wear 2.0 update based on Android 7.1 Nougat is fast approaching, this section will only apply for so long. The ZenWatch 3 runs the same software as every other Android Wear watch on the market, something Google designed to keep continuity between watches, giving manufacturers the ability to stand out with their hardware and custom features rather than worrying about custom software upgrades and the like. This means the ZenWatch 3 should be receiving the Android Wear 2.0 update, and all other updates until end of life, at the same time as the rest of the Android Wear watches on the market.
Given that it's still running the same Android Wear 1.5 that almost all other Android Wear watches on the market have right now, you won't find a lot of new software features to speak of, however there are a few gems here that are worth noting. First off is a light skin of the entire Android Wear interface, one that doesn't change the icons or layout, but changes the bright white backgrounds into something a little more friendly on the eyes. This dark interface really helps give the watch a more unique look when compared to other Android Wear watches out there, aside from the hardware looks of course.
As other manufacturers do, ASUS ships the ZenWatch 3 with a number of custom watch faces that you won't find on any other Android Wear watch on the market. These are mostly themed toward elegance, although all of the watch faces included in previous models of ZenWatches are here as well. On top of that ASUS has two different apps for customizing watch faces; the ASUS ZenWatch Manager allows you to customize all of the ASUS-made watch faces on the watch, while FaceDesigner allows you to completely build your own from scratch. These two apps aren't new to the ZenWatch 3, but function the same way as they did on previous versions of ASUS' Android Wear products.
Performance and Battery Life
Shipping with the latest in smart wearable technology, ASUS has outfitted the ZenWatch 3 with Qualcomm's Snapdragon Wear 2100, a quad-core system-on-a-chip (SoC) that's been redesigned from the ground up. This chipset is made specifically for smart wearables, and while the ZenWatch 3 isn't the very first smartwatch to market with the chipset, it's certainly among the first. Qualcomm's latest SoC follows the pattern of all SoC advancements thus far; the promise of better performance all while delivering better battery life. Thus far most Android Wear watches have been powered by the Snapdragon 400, a reduced version of the popular phone SoC, but what we're seeing here in the Snapdragon 2100's implementation in the ZenWatch 3 is less than impressive.
From the get-go the experience is a little more stuttery and laggy than even the original ZenWatch. This isn't consistent, but that's what's so annoying about the slowdown and the hitching from time to time; there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why the watch is hanging on the simplest of tasks. Scrolling through notifications often times ushers in a slight micro pause to load the content, and swiping between notification screens falls victim to the same issues. Apps sometimes load quickly, while other times they take longer than usual, and overall the performance of the watch is disappointingly inconsistent. In general Android Wear powered devices are pretty smooth, with the exception of a few that used non-Qualcomm chipsets, like the original Moto 360.
One of the biggest offenders here seems to be the official ASUS ZenWatch Manager, which bogs the watch down into single digit frame rates when installed. This happens even days after being installed, and it took some time before I figured out exactly what was causing the issue. Again this doesn't happen on the ZenWatch or the ZenWatch 2, just the ZenWatch 3, and it's a peculiar problem that's difficult to diagnose from this side of the coding fence. For now it's not worth installing the ZenWatch Manager on your phone until the problem is fixed, as it makes the watch nearly unusable. Hopefully the Android Wear 2.0 update fixes these big performance issues, as they mar what should be an amazing experience.
Battery life in general is good too, despite the performance issues, and it's easy to get a full days' use out of a single charge no matter what. Since there's no GPS or other radios here to put extra strain on the battery, it's normal to have 50% battery left by the end of any given day. Keeping the watch on a desk or other stationary area will put it into standby mode as well, saving extra battery and draining only 1-3% if left on the dresser overnight. If you need a top-up the included charging dock will charge the watch an incredible 60% in just 15 minutes; enough to get through a full day and then some. The dock itself is a bit of a weird design, with a donut shape and a locking magnetic mechanism, however it doesn't stand up by itself and has a strange cable placement underneath that doesn't allow it to sit flat on a surface either. ASUS includes an odd little rubber piece to help it stand up, but it would have been nicer for this to be a single piece instead of separate components that can get easily lost.
ASUS has crafted an incredible piece of technology here, one that actually looks like a watch in every way, shape and form. From its jewelry-like glass on top to its sleek and svelte body, the ZenWatch 3 is a marvel to both look at and wear all day. With its comfortable leather band and lightweight, yet sturdy construction, it's easy to see why this is the single most attractive smartwatch on the market today. It's not the most feature rich smartwatch you're going to find though, as it doesn't have NFC for payments, GPS for offline fitness tracking, or cell radios inside for phone-free use, but its lower price compares easily with others of this nature, and it's looks more than make up for lack of functionality. Let's just hope ASUS irons out the weird performance issues we've seen when that Android Wear 2.0 update drops in quarter 2 of this year, as the company has promised. For now though this is still one of the best smartwatches you can buy, problems or not.