For years, I've wanted a smartwatch: a device that would blend style with digital convenience. Unfortunately, the first crop of smartwatches have predominantly been bulky pieces of plastic and glass for which adjectives like "elegant" seem disingenuous. But the Asus ZenWatch is evidence that things are getting better.
With a slim watchface body, a snap-and-go wristband, and a battery-conscious AMOLED display, the ZenWatch is an unobtrusive and stylish timepiece.
What is it?
A $200 smartwatch from Taiwanese manufacturer Asus, running Google's wearable software, Android Wear. It's not meant to replace your smartphone, but compliment it by sending notifications, step counts, weather forecasts, and other bits of info straight to your wrist.
It packs in many of the same specs we've seen in other smartwatches, primarily the AMOLED display and smartphone-grade Snapdragon processor, but it does it all with an attractive stainless steel casing and a slim body. It's one of the better looking smartwatches out there.
Who's it for?
Until recently, smartwatches have really looked like smartwatches, resembling sci-fi wrist computers rather than things you'd want to wear every day. Samsung's Gear lineup certainly doesn't do much to hide its wrist-wearable pride and bulky entrants from LG and Motorola didn't help much either. They have trouble blending into the average person's wardrobe. For some that's just fine—and for others not so much.
The ZenWatch is for the others, the people who want something that looks great and also provides great smartwatch-y capabilities.
When I'm not reviewing tech timepieces, I wear a $35 Timex watch I bought from Target about two years ago. I think it was on sale, maybe. It tells time. It glows in the dark. That's about it. Yet I wear that thing almost every day, so every time I transition to a new smartwatch, I'm like a caveman discovering fire. "It's a watch that can tell time...and more!" After all, it's the "more" that makes people want these things in the first place. But there's a reason I haven't traded in my Timex yet: I just haven't found the right one for me. After two weeks with the ZenWatch, my attitude is changing.
During those two weeks I've learned one undeniable truth—most people think the ZenWatch is an Apple Watch. These are passing strangers, mere acquaintances, and that one bartender from a dive bar down the street. So maybe not the most smartwatch literate, but it's still a major compliment. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but Apple's Jony Ive is well-known for design prowess. I was pretty pleased to see my new accessory confused for an Apple product.
The ZenWatch also wins with one of the more slimming watchfaces available. It's almost a full 2 millimeters thinner than the Moto 360, and curved sides make it feel even more so. The body itself is made from water-resistant stainless steel with a rose-gold (basically bronze) pane sandwiched between two panels of gray steel.
Asus ZenWatch resting on top of the LG G Watch R
The curves along both edges of the ZenWatch feel comfortable against my wrist, and I like that the well-unified exterior isn't broken up by some awkward knob sticking out of the side. Instead, the only visible hardware inputs are on the back: a set of charging pins and a single button on the left. You have to grasp the watch and lift from your wrist a bit to reach the button, which could be a little annoying, but you can easily swipe and tap on the touchscreen to change settings and launch the watch from standby. The button only really exists so you can reset the device if you get in trouble.
Powering on the screen, you're greeted by a 320x320 AMOLED display, much the same as the LG G Watch R and the Samsung Gear Live. AMOLED is great news for battery life but can mean not-so-great news for daytime readability. The (slightly) curved ZenWatch display does look dim in comparison to the Moto 360's backlit LCD, but it also sips on battery rather than guzzling it down, and at no point did the watchface feel totally unreadable in sunlight. You can also crank up that screen brightness if need be, but I operated exclusively on the lowest setting and all was well.
The screen itself—including color, brightness, and viewing angles—are all pretty stellar. The only downside are the big bezels, those black panes of dead space that feel particularly egregious on such a small screen. The edge-to-edge display on smartwatches like the Moto 360 will spoil you in comparison. If I have one rule for smartwatches, it's this: dead space is unforgivable. These screens are simply too small to not take advantage of every single millimeter that you can.
At very close inspection, like nose-to-glass close, you can make out pixels, some color fringing in certain cases, and jagged edges on the digital watch hands. But this isn't a smartphone screen. You're not going to play endless games of Clash of Clans or stream Netflix on this thing.
Almost as important as the watch itself is the band that accompanies it. I need a watch band that's quick to put on and adjust with almost little to no effort. The more I need to wrestle with getting the thing on my body the less I like it. The ZenWatch is as easy as it possibly gets. Buckle, then unbuckle. Done. The silver clasp unbuckles with a modicum of force or you can just pinch two small buttons on the side to release easily. As far as function goes, there isn't a better smartwatch buckle out there.
But color is another story. Asus lets you choose from a brown band and also a…no wait, just brown. Sure, you can just swap out for any ol' 22mm watch band—another nice feature—but I actually like the small branding on the buckle and the matching metal clasp. I just wish there were more options.
There's also the tiny little issue of the way the strap tends to latch onto any unfettered piece of clothing. Several times I had to wrestle through a coat sleeve or untangle from a backpack strap. And while the clasp is super simple to slip on, it is somewhat bulky, making it uncomfortable to rest your arm on anything.
If you've had a chance to test drive Android Wear (and you really should), then you're probably familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the platform. Unlike Samsung's plans with Tizen or even Apple's own smartwatch ideas, Android Wear is a stream of small cards delivering information on local weather, traffic info, sports (in my case hockey) scores, and occasional recommendations for things in the Google Play store. If you brandish an Android smartphone on the regular, this should sound pretty familiar—it's essentially Google Now.
This isn't meant to be some Swiss Army watch or a wearable outfitted for double-O agents, it's a notifications screen on your wrist. You can't take pictures, make phone calls, watch movies, or type out texts. You'll be regularly ushered to your smartphone if you try to do anything too complicated, and that's perfectly fine.
Asus's additional ZenWatch companion app helps set security features, watchface backgrounds, Find My Device options and is a great no-fuss way of hunting down neat smartwatch apps, specifically the ones designed by Asus like Wellness and Remote Camera.
Wellness is just a fitness app that tracks your activity and relaxation. However, I'd warn you against using the ZenWatch as a detailed fitness tracker. I took the ZenWatch to the gym and threw it in my locker within five minutes. The thing just knocks on my wrist too much, and unlike some smartwatches, the ZenWatch doesn't have an optical heart rate sensor on the bottom to keep track of your pulse. Instead you have to stop what you're doing and place two fingers on the side of the screen with a peace sign hand gesture. The ZenWatch will work in a pinch for simply counting steps, but not much else.
As for Remote Camera, this app turns the ZenWatch's 1.63-inch AMOLED display into a tiny camera viewfinder. You can turn camera flash on and off or use it as a tiny spying device—whatever you're in to. It's a cool trick to show friends when you're at a bar or something (I think I go to too many bars), but one they'll probably laugh off with a "Ok, what's the point?"
That's the big question when it comes to smartwatches, period. What is the point? I'm not saying there isn't one, but that answer is different for every person. For me, I love the simple moments when the ZenWatch genuinely shows me something interesting. Once, it let me know that I could finally buy the new Parquet Courts album I'd been looking for weeks ago, and while at work, the ZenWatch reminded me that I was seeing Interpol later that evening, a show I had completely forgotten about since I purchased the tickets back in July. These are all small things, sure, but they're things I did on my watch. If that isn't the definition of "living in the future," I don't know what is.
But for all those little moments of wonder, there are as many that are frustrating and obvious version 1.0 shortcomings. The stream of consciousness via Google Now is great, but I wish there was a way to pin certain apps on my screen without them disappearing on me all the time. For instance, if I want to use the Asus' quirky Remote Camera app, I'd rather just swipe down a few times and tap it rather than saying "Ok Google. Start Remote Camera" and frightening everyone within listening distance.
Simply put, I want to talk to my watch as little as possible. One evening I was walking down the street trying to say "Ok Google. Start Maps" without drawing the questioning gaze of various passersby. Of course, I didn't speak loud enough so my watch heard "Star Maps" and I was whisked away to a teensy 1.63-inch version of Google Search prompting me to download a star-gazing app.
Despite some impressive designs from Motorola, Samsung, LG, and Sony, Asus has delivered a smartwatch that's very much its own. It's a great-looking timepiece that you won't mind wearing, and one that effectively combines digital convenience with personal style.
Despite the bulky clasp, wearing the ZenWatch is completely comfortable. Except when working out at the gym.
Brown is great and everything, but I'd never buy that color if I had a choice. If Asus had a nice gray option along with the matching steel rim included, this could very well be the watch that wins me over, but right now it's brown or bust.
Android Wear still feels like a version 1.0 product.
I can't help but shake the feeling that the screen is too small for the frame. Compared with the Moto 360, this thing just looks tiny in comparison. If Asus could have brought that edge-to-edge style with this watch, we'd have something amazing on our hands. Literally.
Should you buy it?
Perhaps! If you're sure you want an Android Wear device, the ZenWatch is among the best. For me, it's definitely in the top three, nestled alongside the LG G Watch R (which looks more like a Casio G-Shock) and the Moto 360's big silver disc. It's easily the best square-faced Android Wear device out there as it actually looks like a well-designed fashion accessory first and a smartwatch second. In comparison, the LG G Watch, Sony Smartwatch 3, and Samsung Gear Live all fall short on style.
If the LG G Watch R's intentionally bulky design doesn't cut it and you worry about the Moto 360's battery-guzzling woes, then the Asus ZenWatch might be just for you. It's also aggressively priced. At $200, it's tied with the Samsung Gear Live as one of the cheapest Android Wear watches available.
Will 2015 bring even better smartwatches than the Asus ZenWatch? Almost definitely. But for the right here right now, it's a solid pick.
And for the first time, I'm not missing my Timex.
Photos and GIF by Nicholas Stango.