- Gorgeous, slim, comfortable design
- Decent, bright screen
- Good price
- One day battery life
- Android Wear still isn't good enough
- Unreliable as a fitness tracker
The ZenWatch is the first attempt from Asus, constant inventors of new gadget forms, to build a future-gazing smartwatch. What makes it special is that it's also a step back in time, with the leather strap conjuring images of classic car interiors and Italian design.
Essential reading: Asus VivoWatch review
This is the best looking smartwatch we've laid eyes on. And at £200, or $200, its stylish looks don't come at too much of a premium, compared to rival watches like the Moto 360 and the LG G Watch R. As the last of the first generation of Android compatible smartwatches, with its pre-Christmas launch, can design alone put the ZenWatch on top?
Asus ZenWatch: Design
Remember how we swooned over the Moto 360? The ZenWatch makes it look chunky and even a bit cheap.
The most elegantly designed Android Wear watch to date, the result here is genuinely unisex. The thin build and curved edges and top are just manly enough to offset a suit, and just feminine enough to match with most jewellery. This is no mean feat, and perhaps puts paid to the theory that the smartwatch is for male wrists only.
The metallic back is made of stainless steel, and feels smooth and reassuringly cool to the touch. The ZenWatch is also superbly thin and light – impressively so. The whole watch weighs just 75g, yet still feels well put together and solid. And at 9.5mm thick, compared to the Moto 360's 11.5mm, it doesn't sit quite so high on the wrist. The two tone design of the body itself - in our case tan to match the tan strap - makes this more a fancy, flattened macaroon next to the Double Stuf Oreo that is the Moto 360.
The thick, sturdy leather strap is a big part of the appearance of Italian flair, with lovely detail stitching etched up both sides. The tan colour is also great, right on vogue complimenting the design of the ZenWatch's silver case perfectly. There's also two more colours to choose from - one a dark brown, the other a burnt orange, both lovely.
The only issue here is that the clasp. The stainless steel here was very thin and rickety, and we're dubious about how many years it would last. Also, when typing on a laptop it tends to catch and make us freak out that we're going to scratch our MacBook Air - it might not be a problem for everyone but its something to bear in mind. Still, the ZenWatch takes the standard sized strap and features an easy-change system, so you can quickly update the look at home.
All this might give you the impression that the ZenWatch is a dainty little smartwatch. It's not. It will still take up a chunk of room, especially on smaller wrists, mainly due to its sizeable bezels that make the front look like a squircle. That's right, you heard us.
Asus ZenWatch: Screen
Because the watch itself may have rounded corners but the 1.63-inch 320 x 320 screen is a good, old fashioned rectangle. Now before you squirm too much, both Asus and Apple have proved it doesn't have to be a circle to look pretty and that's certainly true here. And since Android Wear was designed with this display shape in mind, no text is cut off at the corners as on the Moto 360 and LG G Watch R.
That said, this isn't the best display Asus could have graced the ZenWatch with. The lovely, analogue-style watch faces and notifications are noticeably pixellated when you get your eyes close to the (Gorilla) glass. This ruins the illusion somewhat that the ZenWatch was hand assembled in the hills of Switzerland, and firmly places it back into the factories of Taiwan.
Smartwatches are made to be glanced at so we won't drop too many marks from the ZenWatch's smartwatch scoresheet for screen quality. It's bright enough to be used outdoors, though not as bright and vivid as say a Samsung Gear S, and everything on screen can easily be viewed from the face to wrist angle.
Asus ZenWatch: Android Wear
Android Wear is a bit of a double edged sword, even after an update going into 2015. Without it, we wouldn't have a nice variety of designs, features and prices to choose from. With it, we have a wearable OS that's still far from flawless with too much swiping, nowhere to view past notifications and often too many unwanted Cards with weather, calendar and transport info popping up.
Essential reading: Android Wear in-depth guide
That's much the case with the ZenWatch but everything works as expected - simple music controls, surprisingly accurate Google Voice and a range of great, preset watch faces, both faux analogue such as our favourite Explorer and unashamedly digital.
There are a few additions alongside the usual find my phone and remote shutter tricks which all work fine. The ZenWatch can be set as a trusted device, for instance, to keep your smartphone unlocked when it's in range. But essentially it's the same Android Wear experience. It has to be. At times it's magic, like when you're rushing to leave the house and 'Your Uber is arriving' pops up on your wrist. At others, it's frustrating, like when you wish you could scroll through your last few WhatsApps or emails like you can on a Pebble or Gear 2. Most of the time, you find yourself being patient with your shiny, new toy.
Asus ZenWatch: Fitness features
There's a couple of points going against the ZenWatch as sports watch. Firstly, it doesn't have GPS for standalone run tracking like the Sony. Secondly, it's pretty and made from steel and leather and well, we wouldn't want to ruin it in the gym.
Despite this, Asus thinks its smartwatch can improve the health of both your body and your mind - hence the Zen in the title and its Wellness app that you have to download separately to the ZenWatch Manager (that's for settings, watchface tweaking etc). Once you've entered your vital stats, you get a diary complete with leaf graphics, heart rate logs, steps, calories and total activity time. Step counting is a bonus but if this is a big draw, we'd look elsewhere as it wasn't always terribly accurate when compared to trackers we've been wearing like the Jawbone UP Move.
The Mind section refers to relaxation - Asus tracks relaxation and stress levels throughout the day using a 'biosensor' and gives you daily and weekly scores for this too. In our time with the ZenWatch, we've measured our heart rate by pressing two fingers either side of the metal rim around the screen and it's generally been much too high to be accurate (often 120+ BPM at rest), especially when compared to readings from optical heart rate monitors on the likes of the Microsoft Band. It also takes at least five seconds to get going which is a pain. And it doesn't seem to have made any impression on our Mind score. Curious.
One handy feature is that you can specify in the app at what interval you want the ZenWatch to buzz to remind you to get up and move - between every 15 minutes and two hours. This alarm feature works well on Garmin's trackers and the ZenWatch did a good job of tracking when we were inactive.
So the fitness features are a mixed bag. Seeing an approximate of the steps you've taken as a monochrome icon on an analogue-style watch face is really satisfying. But the Asus isn't quite reliable enough to be taken completely seriously as a fitness wearable.
Asus ZenWatch: Battery life and extras
We've hinted a few times that it's on design alone that the ZenWatch stands above its Android Wear rivals and with battery life, too, it simply matches the average. We tended to get a day and a half out of the ZenWatch in our week of testing (with always on screen on) but that still means charging every night unless you want to walk around with a blank screen.
As usual, there's a charging cradle which slots around the main body of the smartwatch with a Micro USB port for power - it does at least charge quickly and is small enough for you to take to work. But we prefer one of the following: microUSB built in as on the Sony SmartWatch 3 (which lasts for two days) or a lovely wireless charging dock for our nightstand as is bundled with the Moto 360. These cradles have got to go.
Finally, the ZenWatch is water resistant up to the IP55 rating. Again it's bested by the altogether more practical IP68 Sony SmartWatch 3 which can be immersed in water up to 3m i.e. taken swimming. But the fact that the not-very-sporty ZenWatch can withstand water jets is an added bonus and means it won't get damaged from rain or splashes at the sink.