Asus ZenWatch review: Obsolete or still a contender?
By Edwin Yapp October 2, 2015
I’VE been itching to give smartwatches a run for the money and so when the Asus ZenWatch became available for review, I jumped at it.
Firstly some background. The ZenWatch is the Taipei, Taiwan-based company's first attempt to craft a smartwatch and one of the earliest models to support Google's Android Wear platform. It was first announced at last year’s IFA Berlin consumer show in 2014.
Unfortunately, it took Asus more than a year to make the watch available in Malaysia, when it arrived in May 2015. Since then, Asus has announced a revised version of its ZenWatch called the Asus ZenWatch 2, slated to go on sale early next year in this part of the world.
As such, this original ZenWatch can be considered obsolete already, but is it really? Firstly, the good news is that the price has come down considerably on this model, even though in terms of features, the successor isn't significantly more powerful or smaller than this unit.
Secondly, smartwatches seem to stand the test of time better than smartphones, since the functionality remains roughly the same. So if you're in the market for a smartwatch, the original ZenWatch may still be a good option.
Design and build
The first impression I got upon unboxing the ZenWatch is, it genuinely looks like a real watch. One of the major complaints of early smartwatch users is that the devices were too geeky and don’t resemble dress or even sport watches -- something which led to many not wanting to invest in them.
With the ZenWatch, you get a partially rectangular-shaped designed smartwatch but not too sharp at the edges to the point that it looks unattractive. Rather the designers at Asus have chosen to round up the four corners making the smartwatch nicely shaped and its good looks fit well on any wrist that wears it.
The front screen measures 1.63 inches diagonally and has a very pronounced bezel, which in my opinion eats too much into the screen. This to me was a waste of screen real estate as the ZenWatch screen could do with more pixels on its AMOLED display.
Resolution-wise, the screen is up there with the best having 320x320 pixels and given its 1.63-inch screen, this translates to about 278 pixels per inch (ppi). This ranks slightly below the Apple Watch at 290 ppi and certainly better than the LG G Watch R (246ppi) and Moto 360 (205ppi).
The build quality of the ZenWatch is also pretty good as the watch body, especially the sides and the back, is pretty solid. The ZenWatch also comes stocked with a genuine leather strap, which is a nice touch. Although I’m more of a stainless steel kind of watch guy, the leather feel does seem great to put on.
The ZenWatch case diameter is 50.6mm (diagonal) and thickness 7.9mm and it weighs 75 grams. All in all, the smartwatch is comfortable to wear for long periods and fits most occasions -- from formal wear right up to casual/ sports wear. The clasp on the watch is easy enough to adjust to various wrist sizes and for the most part, is quite sturdy and clips on well.
To charge the ZenWatch, you’ll need to attach it to a cradle that is provided by Asus. Charging is via a micro USB dock on the side of the cradle. It isn’t the best looking cradle in the market but for charging purposes it’ll suffice. Charging time takes between one and two hours depending on whether the battery is totally depleted or only half depleted.
Setup and configuration
Setting up the Asus ZenWatch was pretty forward but only assuming you’ve had a chance to reset the watch from the beginning. On my first try, I had difficulty connecting my Moto X (2014) smartphone to the watch.
In order for a smooth installation process, you’ll need to reset the ZenWatch completely and then pair it with your chosen device. I suspect this shouldn’t be a problem for new users; but for a reviewer who had inherited the test unit from another person, this was a problem for me. Still if you have problems setting up, try resetting the watch and then try pairing it again.
After doing so, the process was a breeze and within minutes, the watch was up and running.
The first thing to learn about the ZenWatch is how to operate the basic functions of the screen. To interact with the watch, you generally find yourself either swiping left or right, up or down. Depending on what you’re choosing to do -- such as dismissing a notification or requesting the watch’s menu -- you’ll use different swipe movements. It takes quite a bit of getting used but fret not, you’ll eventually get used to what to do to accomplish your task.
Once you’ve done this, you can select an appropriate clock face that strikes your fancy from the menu of over 25 clock faces, set up your screen brightness, font size, whether your screen is always on, on only partially on, and whether your screen lock is on or off.
To access the full feature set on the ZenWatch, you’ll also need to download the ZenWatch Manager app besides the basic Android Wear app. After doing so, you can configure some specialised features such as the health app on the ZenWatch.
Software and usability
In terms of software, Android Wear is pretty standard across all smartwatches from different brands, but Asus has included some additional functions such as using the watch as a remote camera shutter or music player through the ZenWatch Music app.
Initially, Google's smartwatch platform didn't feel fully baked in June 2014, but the latest 2015 update has brought along a number of improvements including wrist gestures and even support for Apple's iOS platform.
This is something I feel is a main consideration for potential buyers to think about before jumping into smartwatches, as some of the limitations you might experience from the ZenWatch are not Asus’ fault but rather due to Android Wear.
Functionality-wise, the main selling point of the ZenWatch besides telling the time was really to get quick notifications on my wrist rather than on my smartphone. With the ZenWatch (powered by Android Wear), you can get WhatsApp, email, SMS, weather, and calendar notification all on your wrist. You can also control your music player next track or previous track and volume.
The control features of the ZenWatch are pretty neat as you don’t have to keep taking out your phone to get quick notifications, especially if your phone is deep in your pocket or in a handbag, or play with your smartphone’s volume or track control. The ZenWatch performed well in this area as a hub for all your my information and controls.
That said, I did find that viewing long conversation threads on WhatsApp became cumbersome as viewing them one by one over a small screen was hard to do. For single chat messages, it’s fine. Also, you can reply your messages quickly by speaking at to the watch and while this may seem novel in the beginning, it gets cumbersome after a while.
Other issues involved apps popping up and notifying you when you actually didn’t want the watch to do so -- like the weather app which kept popping up from time-to-time telling you what’s the weather; or when the WhatsApp messages kept popping up because you’ve not dismissed it on your smartphone.
Also, some things you could supposedly do with the ZenWatch such as viewing maps are just impossible to do as you can’t view any meaningful information on your watch.
As for the health app package that came with ZenWatch: I did find that also somewhat cumbersome to use. To measure your heart rate for example, you’ll need to touch the sides of the bezel, wait 4-5 seconds and then only can you have a reading.
I found this a roundabout way to of measuring heart rate as compared to when I had the Fitbit for review, which I could just tap to get my heart rate reading. Accuracy of heart rate reading was also suspect as the ZenWatch consistently reported a higher heart rate when compared to actual manual measurements. Also, I think would think twice using ZenWatch during exercise as the nice leather strap would be ruined in no time.
The only real practical feature I found on the ZenWatch was that you could set reminders of between 15 minutes and 2 hours to get you off your butt if you have been sitting for too long.
The test with Google Voice was satisfactory -- you could speak to your phone and get it to do certain tasks as you would to your smartphone with Google Now function turned on.
Lastly, the battery life, which I feel is really the Achilles heel for smartwatches for now. The best I got with the ZenWatch was a 12-hour day when operating the watch using only minimal voice commands and notifications. When using the watch more aggressively by answering chats, emails and other notifications, the best I could muster from the ZenWatch was about 8 to 9 hours.
As far as a first try is concerned, I feel that Asus has done a decent job at making its first smartwatch for the mass market. That said, the question everyone should ask themselves is whether or not smartwatches are ready for prime time, which is not an issue Asus can address by itself.
The plus points of the ZenWatch are that it’s well built, is fairly attractive as a smartwatch and sports some useful features especially in the notification department. Dragging it down would be the so-so only health app and heart rate monitoring, which I feel a user should be using a dedicated health monitoring band such as the Fitbit or Jawbone for.
Finally, battery life is still a problem with most smartwatches in the market. For me, it’s still early days for the smartwatch -- like the early days of the smartphone -- and it may do you well to wait a little while longer before investing in one.
The nice thing about the Asus ZenWatch is that it's not a heavy investment to try out Android Wear, but if you must absolutely have the latest, then the new Moto360, Huawei Watch or Asus ZenWatch 2 may probably be more up your alley, although you'll have to fork out about twice as much for those.
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