Review: Asus ZenWatch
3.4Overall Score
Price (RRP): $299 Manufacturer: Asus

Everyone has a smartwatch, and Asus is no stranger, too, offering a slightly curved display and a whole heap of customisable watch faces. Is this Android Wear at its best, or just more of the same?

Features

Another smartwatch for the pile, the ZenWatch WI500Q is the first time Asus is tackling this new area, and while it’s a first time product, what is inside is fairly familiar.

If you’ve seen an Android Wear watch this year, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the ZenWatch, though perhaps without realising it, because the hardware is pretty much identical.

Inside this watch, you’ll find Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 400 processor clocked at 1.2GHz, paired with 512MB RAM and 4GB storage, as well as Google’s Android Wear operating system.

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Wireless communication is included with this hardware, offering Bluetooth 4.0 to get the watch talking to the phone, though you will need an Android smartphone in order to make the Android Wear connection possible.

You’ll also find a multi-axis sensor on this watch, microphone, and a degree of water and dust resistance (IP55), with all of this sitting under a screen measured at 1.63 inches diagonally, and offering up a resolution of 320×320 or 277 pixels per inch if you’re talking pixel clarity.

The display is protected by Corning’s scratch-resistant curved Gorilla Glass 3, and touch has been kept in the unit allowing you to touch the screen. That being said, you’ll find a small button — the only physical button on the unit — on the underside of the watch.

Wrist straps on the ZenWatch are replaceable, however, and a proprietary charge bed is used to charge the watch, though this last section can be plugged into a microUSB connection.

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Performance

We’ve seen quite a few smartwatches in the past year, and while Asus is a little late for its first model in Australia, it is here all the same, showing off another take on what a wearable computer can be.

For the Asus example, we’re seeing a sway away from the skeuomorphism that Android Wear makers tend to take — you know, that circular smartwatch look LG and Motorola have both adopted — with a return to the square-wish take Samsung and Apple have both preferred.

We get why a square is more preferable, too: there is no mistaking that you’ll be looking at a screen, and regardless of how much you like a circular watch, you can fit more information on a square or rectangle, because that’s what screens have traditionally been shaped to be.

That being said, both shapes have their pros and cons, and while we like the square, we also still love the circular smartwatch design, and still rely on that LG G Watch R, as that is our smartwatch of choice on Android when we’re not wearing something more mechanical, or carrying an iPhone and relying on the Apple Watch.

With that out of the way, let’s see what the Asus ZenWatch is all about, because when it comes to design, Asus is all about first impressions.

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From the start, it’s easy to see why the ZenWatch could be appealing, offering a two-tone metal trim, with silver and a “rose gold” that resembles bronze to us, but still looks fashionable. Even the strap is a departure for the typical smartwatch stylings, with a fold-back metal clasp sitting on a relatively thin but vintage styled piece of brown leather.

People here are divided on whether this looks sexy or not, but this writer happens to find it evokes a more classic tone, and is a better leather strap — at least one that feels more quality — than the types both Motorola and LG offered with their respective smartwatches.

Switch it on with the one physical button on the underside of the watch and you’ll see the 320×320 square screen come to life, a bright colourful display that looks great from most angles, even if the curved glass does cause the colour to wash disappear and fade off a little too easily.

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Before we get started, we feel we need to address setup in this review, and that’s unusual because Android Wear doesn’t really have a whole issue around setup.

Typically, you just download the “Android Wear” app for Android and start linking the two devices up, smartphone and smartwatch, and Android Wear normally does its thing, but the ZenWatch is different.

You see, Android Wear is one of the first times Google has basically asserted some control over the manufacturer world and said “you’re not messing with this all that much”, providing the operating system and a basic blueprint, allowing the manufacturers to do cool things with that, but not much else.

Because of this, almost every Android Wear watch is the same. Oh sure, it might have a different body, shape, watch materials, different straps, and a choice of different faces, but look under the hood and check out the features and generally you’ll find that the assortment of Android Wear devices out there is very much the same.

One could almost say identical. Almost.

Asus isn’t a huge fan of this, and to shake up the formula just a bit, has built a little piece of software that really has to be installed in order to make the ZenWatch work.

And we’re serious about this. It’s not an optional “you know it would be really nice if you installed me” app, but rather a “your watch will continually report the wrong time and you won’t be able to do anything if you don’t install me” app.

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So you install the app “Asus ZenWatch Manager”, which sits alongside Android Wear and is required to make the ZenWatch work, and if you don’t, you find your watch never syncs and never really does anything, turning quickly into an expensive albeit good looking paper weight.

Once it’s done, however, and Android Wear and the Asus ZenWatch app are talking to each other on the same platform, everything starts to work. But only then, so if you’re struggling to work out why your Android Wear app isn’t working and you didn’t take the advice of the watch to install the Asus software, now you know that it’s not advice or a suggestion, but rather a requirement.

With that finished, however, you can get to using your Android Wear watch, and from here, it’s more or less the same style of product we’ve seen from previous Android Wear devices.

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Granted, we’re using the latest software, and so we have a more cleaned up interface, with a watch face being shown pretty much all of the time, which can lead to the apps, favourite contacts, and Google voice commands simply by swiping from right to left from that watch face.

Each of these occurs after each other, and that recent update (as of June 2015) means Android Wear has never been easier to get around, though it still doesn’t do much.

Yes, even with the Asus ZenWatch software, Android Wear is primarily a watch with a notification screen thrown in for good measure, almost making it a second display for your phone, so you don’t have to keep taking it out.

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Your emails will pop up in short form on that screen, as will alerts to messages, notifications from your weather app or security system, and you can even swipe away phone calls if you don’t want to answer them or swipe them in to pick them up.

Asus does bring in a little bit of extra functionality with apps you can download, allowing you to control a phone camera with the watch, move music over to the device, and even allow gestures to activate a torch or compass.

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Mostly, though, the Asus ZenWatch differs from other smartwatches with the amount of watch faces Asus has thrown in, and that’s actually probably the best feature of the ZenWatch.

While most of the other manufacturers feel like they only want to give you a sampling of the sort of watch faces your change-whenever-you-would-like electronic watch can handle, sending you to Google’s Play Store for the rest, Asus has actually spent some time with designers and made something.

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In fact, it has made quite a few, offering you a fair amount of slightly customisable watch faces offering different colours in modern designs that felt like they were made for this shape fake mechanical cog watches, and quite a few mixtures in between with analogue and digital styles.

Colour screens for all of these watches are offered, but even when the phone is in standby, you get nice basic monochromatic versions that don’t lessen the impact and still make you feel as if you’re using a real watch, and that’s the interesting part about the ZenWatch, as it it’s one of the closest experiences to have not just a smart device but a watch on your wrist.

But while we like the design and appreciate the extra watch faces, the performance of the ZenWatch leaves a little to be desired.

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First there’s the battery life, which manages to chew through itself in the space of a day without any issues.

That’s a low time for a smartwatch, and we can usually get around two days, which isn’t the best life as it is. One day, however, is a little sad, and that’s all this watch gets.

You kind of hope for more as a watch owner, and two days is a start for the others, but the Asus ZenWatch will need a charge nightly, and there’s really no way around it, unless you, you know, not use the smartwatch, which itself defeats the point.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the reliability of the watch is a touch problematic, and that’s because it crashes frequently.

This is how you charge the ZenWatch.

This is how you charge the ZenWatch.

Testing it with the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge, we found the watch would reset itself often, buzzing on our wrists and informing us that yes, it had in fact decided to restart itself all of a sudden for no apparent reason.

Because that’s just what you want a smartwatch to be doing, which appears to be something that happens when more than one Bluetooth is engaged with the smartphone, say a pair of headphones or a camera.

Other times, the phone would bring itself into the settings menu simply by the way you hold your wrist, and that was — we found — because of the location Asus had thrown the one physical button on the watch. A location of under the watch means that if your flesh ripples, folds, or hits the button just long enough if you’re stretching or flexing your wrist, you will inadvertently hit the button and force it into a settings menu, which itself might explain some of the random resets.

We did try to force this, mind you, and couldn’t, so we have no real explanation for the random resets, but this button location surely doesn’t help.

This is a silly location for a button.

This is a silly location for a button.

If you don’t suffer from those reliability issues, you will at one point struggle with trying to get the ZenWatch to wake up.

You’ll flail your arm about, shaking your wrist as if you were drying off those hands, and sometimes you’ll even touch and prod the screen, and the ZenWatch just won’t wake up.

Other times it will, and some times it won’t, providing what can sometimes turn into a thoroughly frustrating experience that again shows how unreliable the ZenWatch really and truly is.

This lack of reliability makes the Asus ZenWatch hard to keep on your wrist, and isn’t especially helped by the combination Android Wear and ZenWatch Manager, which don’t always play nicely with each other.

Even though Android Wear devices typically only require Google’s “Android Wear” app, this watch won’t run without the Asus app “ZenWatch Manager” installed, something we’ve previously noted in this review, but which also reveals itself to be a bit of a problem when the watch faces lose their connection to the phone all too easily. When that happens, your weather information will just cease to exist, changing to dashes and hyphens, and you’ll still get the time, but no real connection to the phone.

You will go into ZenWatch Manager and see the watch isn’t connected, and then you’ll go into the Android Wear app and find that it is, which will make ZenWatch Manager work.

It’s this form of synchronisation requiring two apps to work that makes the ZenWatch a little problematic in how it’s used and how it’s synced, and means that if something in the watch decided to stop working, you need to go into these apps to check what’s working and what isn’t.

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You won’t really have to be tech support for your watch, we’ll be honest on that, but this checking to see which app works and which doesn’t can be a bit of a pain in the proverbial, because while you could just hope for things working out of the box and staying that way, the Asus ZenWatch is more trying than that.

And we get why: Asus wanted the ZenWatch to be special, and Asus wanted the ZenWatch to be different. It has that, with extra watch faces that can be customised and made to look a little different, and with support for extra apps such as being able to turn the wristwatch into a sort-of-wireless-mouse or a camera controller.

But it also comes with its fair share of pain, and while the other Android Wear watches are all similar and don’t quite offer a point of differentiation, they’re also all very easy to install and keep working, and the Asus ZenWatch just isn’t, or at least not to the same level.

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Conclusion

There’s certainly something intriguing about the Asus ZenWatch, and it’s not a nod back to the skeuomorphism of circular smartwatches. Indeed, it’s something else.

It might be the two-tone style, with silver and bronze utilised in a design that tries to be bolder and yet different, and even offers the slightest of curves just to be that word again: “different”.

Perhaps it’s the watch band which is classic and comfortable, and elicits a feeling more like that of a watch and less like a smartwatch, with a metal fold-back clasp and high-quality brown leather that outshines the other Android Wear watch bands with a band that oozes quality, as opposed to convenience.

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One wonders if its the watch faces, with quite a few of those offered, and many more stylish and design-focused than just the options that hark back to a real watch that so many other devices offer.

It could be all of them, because Asus certainly has that going for its first-generation ZenWatch, with the gadget providing enough differences to make this a worthy choice for someone keen to take a gander at the whole smartwatch craze.

In fact, if it wasn’t for the poor reliability and issues between ZenManager and Android Wear, we’d have more to look forward to here, but there’s also one less thing going for the ZenWatch now that we’re ready with our review: a new model.

Yes, just like you’d come to expect with Moore’s Law, and how a device is always out of date the moment you buy it, the Asus ZenWatch 2 has literally just been announced the week this review came to being published. The local arm of Asus hasn’t mentioned anything about it, and so we have nothing official at the time of publishing on our website, but it has been announced.

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We need to acknowledge that we’re not terribly late with the review, even if that’s how it might appear to look. In fact, Asus only announced that the first generation ZenWatch was only going to be hitting stores sometime in April, and we received it in late-May.

It’s now June and Asus is already talking about a new ZenWatch, making us wonder just how long it is until Asus sends this our way. We have no concrete availability information, but our guess would be somewhere between August and October.

That makes the first-generation ZenWatch a little harder to swallow, though if Asus dropped the price a little *ahem*clears-throat*ahem*, we’re sure more people would take notice.

Against the other smartwatches, Asus is offering something unique, that’s for sure, but just make sure you have the patience to deal with the software quirks, because it certainly comes with its fair share of those, too.

Review: Asus ZenWatch
Price (RRP): $299 Manufacturer: Asus
Looks and feels a little different to other smart watches; Comfortable; Offers more customisable watch faces than other smart watches; Leather strap is quite nice;
Requires an extra app "Asus ZenManager" to work; Crashes fairly frequently, and usually when Bluetooth is used for something else; Screen doesn’t always respond when you wave your hand or bring it back from standby; Only one day of battery life;
Overall
Features
Value for money
Performance
Ease of Use
Design
3.4Overall Score
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