DNA Test: Chinese smartwatches – cheap, but any good?
By Keith Liu August 10, 2015
ANDROID Wear and the Apple Watch may be grabbing most of the headlines when it comes to smartwatches these days, but there is a whole bunch of smartwatches (from China, where else?) available for the picking, if you want a wearable on a budget.
In this DNA Test, we compare two specific models at contrasting price points, just to give you an idea of the range of devices and the functions you can expect.
On the one hand (or wrist?), we have the FiFine W9 smartwatch (pic above, left). At US$160, it’s one of the most expensive Chinese-branded smartwatches we could find from online outlets like here and here.
(Disclaimer: we do not endorse nor are supported by any of these online merchants, we mainly list them as we were able to purchase the model from these retailers. There are plenty of other online stores where you could buy these kinds of products from).
At the low-end of the pricing scale, we managed to secure the DZ09 (pic above, right), a smartwatch that costs US$29.
Yes, you read that right – for under 30 bucks, you can get your hands on a connected timepiece – they’re that cheap. But are they any good?
First, let’s group these smartwatches into different categories. There are generally four types of smartwatches:
- The smartphone watch supports voice calls, data downloads and actually runs the full, open version of the Android operating system, in most cases, Android 4.4 OS (KitKat).
- The smartwatch phone supports voice calls and data downloads but uses a closed, proprietary operating system with its own non-standardised user interface.
- The smartwatch companion requires a smartphone (Android or iPhone) to be paired with to unlock the full functionality of the watch. On its own, it’s basically just a fitness band made to look like a watch.
- Android Wear smartwatches refer to those made by OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) like Motorola, LG and Sony that run on Google’s wearable software platform and requires an Android smartphone.
- Proprietary OEM smartwatches would mean the Apple Watch since it only works with iPhone and most of Samsung’s Gear smartwatches that work only with Samsung’s Galaxy devices.
The FiFine W9 falls into the first category of smartwatches, or what we would term a ‘smartphone watch.’ Since you can insert a micro SIM into it along with a micro SD card for extra storage, this device is a full-fledged smartphone in its own right.
It’s powered by the MediaTek MT6572 chipset, which was typically used in many 3G (Third Generation) smartphones back in 2013. This quad-core chipset provides enough horsepower to run the full Android 4.4 (KitKat) operating system but FiFine enhances the watch further with 1GB of memory and 8GB of storage.
Most of its cheaper rivals only provide 512MB of RAM and 4GB of storage, so the W9 is quite unique at this point.
Not only does it support 2G or 3G (Second or Third Generation) mobile networks, but it also comes with WiFi connectivity, Bluetooth 4.0 and a GPS (global positioning system) chip as well for location-based services.
The reason why the W9 is priced so high is probably due to this and the fact that it also sports a 5-megapixel camera.
Why would anyone need a camera on a watch? We’re not convinced it’s necessary, but it’s there anyway.
A 600mAh battery is on board to provide the juice, and you will need that juice if you start activating all the radios and sensors on this smartphone watch.
The question then – how does it look and function as a watch, and as a smartphone?
Design-wise the main watch itself is understandably thick, and the dimensions are definitely not made for small or even medium-sized wrists, but considering how much technology is packed into it, we can’t see how it could be made smaller without it being chunkier than it already is.
The main chassis is made of metal, with two screws protruding out on the left and two large buttons sticking out on the right, while a large ‘crown’ which houses the camera is positioned in the middle.
Due to the position of this camera, we never found any possible situation to use it.
We suspect the screws on the left are there to offer some form of symmetry in design, because they don’t have any other function except to hold the cover for the SIM card tray. But it does make it easy to remove the screws by hand, rather than rely on a screwdriver.
To access the removable battery and micro SD slot however, you will need a tiny screwdriver to remove the four screws at the bottom of the watch.
On to the strap – it’s made from genuine leather (or so the marketing blurb says) and since we’re not experts in leather, we can’t say for sure if it’s genuine, but the leather is stiff. Our wrists didn’t suffer from rashes even after wearing it for more than eight hours. What made it more uncomfortable was the weight (89 grams) rather than the feel of the leather.
There are two colour schemes available: The gold model comes with a brown leather-strap while the black version is accompanied by a black leather-strap. A single speaker is attached to the strap, which means it’s not possible to swap out the strap for another one.
The ‘butterfly buckle’ design clasp is an absolute pain to manage, since you’ll have to unlock first the main buckle then undo the pin that attaches to the holes on the strap.
Never once did we wear the watch without having to fiddle with the buckle for a bit. Call us clumsy, but putting on this smartwatch clearly required patience and a real desire to wear it, otherwise we would have given up a lot sooner.
Unfortunately, the charger that came with our unit didn’t work consistently either, so we wrapped a rubber-band around the charging dock to ensure that the pin connectors stayed in contact. Not a particular glamourous solution, but it beats sending the unit back for a replacement.
But our initial frustrations went away once we began using the watch.
The face of the watch is endowed with an OGS (one-glass solution) IPS (in-plane switching) panel, providing good visibility all around. The 1.54-inch display comes with a standard 240 x 240 resolution, surrounded by relatively thick bezels.
One of the main drawbacks of these types of smartwatches is that the screen is not always on. In order to conserve battery life, the screen would go black if there’s no activity, and in order to turn the screen back on, you’ll need to press the power button (the top-right button).
This sort of defeats the purpose of a wristwatch, which is supposed to tell you the time the minute you glance at your wrist.
But as a smartphone on your wrist however, the W9 is actually quite fun. As long as you’re not using it like a normal smartphone to browse the web, answer e-mails, or compose long social media posts, it works relatively well.
Call quality is decent, and the speaker is surprisingly loud – although we quickly paired it up with a Bluetooth headset so we don’t end up looking like Dick Tracy and speaking to our wrists. You can or course, if cosplaying as that comic detective character from the 1940s is your thing.
Still, it’s far from perfect. Android 4.4 just isn’t designed for such a small screen, and neither are most of the apps, which is why Google created Android Wear.
While the stock user interface was acceptable with four main icons on each page, we had to control the device using swipes across the screen. Swiping left to right means ‘Back’ while swiping right to left calls up the sub-menu. This, however, didn’t work all the time.
To improve the usability, we downloaded and installed a few third-party apps from Google Play. The first is called Smart Keyboard, which provides us with the retro-feel T9 keyboard (remember those?) since having fewer keys on the tiny postage stamp screen made it far easier to type.
The second app is called Big Launcher Wearable which really simplified the user interface – again, to suit the small display. This is the only launcher we know which supports these types of smartphone watches.
A third app is SWApp Link, to enable synchronisation with our main smartphone using a Bluetooth connection.
This is only required if you’re using the watch as a companion device without a SIM card. It allows you to activate or receive calls on the smartphone using the watch, write and send messages and even control the music player.
The fourth and very important app we used was Google’s very own Google Now. It provided the highly convenient Voice Search function and allowed us to activate quite a number of tasks on the watch with just our voice.
The small, low-resolution screen holds back the watch’s potential as a smartphone, but with the apps mentioned above, the experience became a lot better. The performance is zippy despite running a few apps at the same time, thanks to the 1GB or memory.
Downloading and installing apps were a breeze, though not all apps support the small square display obviously.
The built-in Codoon fitness app is not optimised for users outside China, since you’ll need a Chinese social media account or phone number to sign up with the service. The good news is you can easily uninstall the app from the watch.
The meagre battery life is a bugbear, but only if you turn on the screen and use the watch continuously. Under normal circumstances, we were able to use it for almost a whole working day by keeping Web browsing and WhatsApp to a minimum, avoiding playing games (they’re no fun on such a small screen anyway) and listening to streaming music via the Bluetooth headset for not more than half an hour.
We can see how the FiFine W9 deserves a place on your wrist especially when you’re out and about and can’t carry a large-screened smartphone with you.
Unfortunately we cannot say the same for the DZ09. Despite the low price, we’re not sure why anyone would benefit from owning this device.
From a hardware perspective, the DZ09 isn’t all that bad. Yes, the design is a poor copy of Samsung’s Galaxy Gear 2 but the metallic chassis that holds the screen is decent looking.
The plastic that houses the SIM card, micro SD card and battery feels cheap, but the TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) strap is comfortable on the wrist, even though it’s not made from the highest of manufacturing standards.
The DZ09 only supports 2G or GSM networks, so you can make phone calls with it, but data downloads are slow.
It’s all just downhill from here though.
While the 1.54-inch display sports the standard 240 x 240 resolution, the screen quality in terms of brightness is poor. The touch response is also lacking, but we suspect that’s partly due to the aging MediaTek MTK6260A processor and 128MB of RAM.
If you do shop for a smartphone, we recommend avoiding products with the MTK6260. Go for the more recent and improved MTK2520-powered smartwatches instead.
The DZ09 also comes with Bluetooth 3.0 rather than the more advanced Bluetooth 4.0 radio, and the software didn’t allow us to connect to a smartphone and a headset simultaneously.
In fact, multitasking is severely limited, since you cannot activate the pedometer and the sedentary sensor at the same time and just leave them running in the background. The sleep sensor also needs to be activated separately from other apps.
And since it doesn’t run an open operating system, there is no way to download new apps to the device. You’re pretty much stuck with the three watch faces and 20 or so built-in apps, some of which require it to be paired up with a smartphone, while others requires a SIM card to be inserted.
Putting in the micro SIM card and micro SD card is a matter of removing the screws from back of the chassis and taking out the battery. Below you’ll see the slots for both cards.
There is only one home button below the screen, which acts as the power button and menu button. Swiping up twice on the home screen calls up a shortcut screen, which is completely redundant and confusing.
The 2G call quality is bad, with the voice breaking up every now and then, due to either the weak radio signal or a bad Bluetooth connection to the headset, or both.
Using the speaker was no better since the sound is really soft, as it’s positioned against the wrist, muffling all the sound that comes out.
The screen remains dark until you press the home button, which isn’t ideal if you’re using it as a watch – but this is to be expected among most Chinese-branded ‘smartwatches’ today. Even an expensive model like the W9 didn’t address this limitation due to battery life issues.
To pair it with a smartphone, you will need to download the MediaTek SmartDevice app from Google Play. This will set up the connectivity between your phone and the watch to enable you to use the watch without inserting in a SIM card.
However apps like phone finder (called ‘anti-lost’) didn’t work despite the connectivity. And Bluetooth based calls only works with the speaker, since you can’t connect a Bluetooth headset to the watch while the watch is paired up with the smartphone.
It’s all very peculiar and confusing.
The rest of the software on the DZ09 is just clunky and badly designed, if they worked at all. The colours in the apps are loud and unrefined and the fitness apps don’t go beyond giving you the current state. It doesn’t store any of your historical data, for instance.
Oh, and should you remove the battery from the watch, you will need to reset the time and location again.
Avoid this at all costs. The DZ09 is just not worth your time or money, even if it’s not a lot of money.
In summary, buying in a smartphone watch isn’t completely a bad idea since you could use it in situations where bringing a large smartphone around is inconvenient.
As for watch companions, the unfortunate truth is that it’s far better to stick to Android Wear despite the much higher price tag, since this alternative MediaTek-based solution is just not ready for prime time.