I found the maps feature very useful when cycling

Huawei Watch review � connected necessity or expensive plaything?

The aesthetics of Huawei’s Watch device really make it stand out in the increasingly crowded wearable technology market. Is this enough to elevate it to must-have status?

Watches need to look good; they are a fashion accessory and have been for centuries. This was something that smartwatch vendors didn’t seem to cotton onto until the Moto 360. Lo and behold, since the release (and relative popularity) of this first round smartwatch, LG, Samsung and Huawei have jumped on the bandwagon.

Unlike its bigger Android brother, Google’s Android Wear operating system - designed specifically for wearable devices - is heavily locked down with very little in the way of customisation options from manufacturers. One Android Wear device functions largely the same as the next. If visual appeal is of no concern, stop reading now. You don’t spend £280 on the Huawei Watch when you can get essentially the same user experience from something half the price.

Huawei Watch aesthetics

It is the aesthetics of Huawei’s device that really make it stand out in a crowded market. We trialled the base model, a silver body with a black, leather strap attached. It manages to look sleek and appealing for a watch, forget a smartwatch. And that is one of the best things about it: without closer inspection, no one is really aware you’re wearing a smartwatch.

The 1.4 inch display sat relatively comfortably on the wrist and the leather straps seem of high enough quality to last at least a couple of years. At 11.3mm thick, it’s a little chunky - not ridiculously so, but we certainly wouldn’t want the body to be any thicker. One female friend complained that the band was too thick for a woman's wrist and we agree that while it suits the average male, the lack of a variant with a thinner band does seem a bit of an oversight. You know women make up 50 per cent of your potential customers, right Huawei?

On the edge of the body is the device’s sole button. It sticks out at a slightly odd 45 degree angle which is designed to prevent it from being accidentally pressed by the back of your hand. The straps are also easily detachable via a slightly fiddly little switch that allows the user to remove and reattach without any tools. The watch can take any standard 18mm watch strap that you find in a jewellery store or on Amazon.

Huawei Watch tech spec

When looking at its specs, the AMOLED screen is the major distinguishing feature. With a pixel density of 286ppi and a resolution of 400x400, the 1.4 inch display looks just lovely and eclipses most of the competition (bar perhaps the Apple Watch, but we’ll get to that later). AMOLED is the technology used on all Samsung phones which, for those not in the know, lights itself using its individual pixels rather than more conventional LCD technology, which is lit with side-mounted LED’s. The advantage here is that when a pixel displays pure black, it is actually turned off. This allows for deeper blacks than LCD screens and sizable power savings. As you can imagine, a minimal number of pixels were lit up on a mostly black watch face (which is what we stuck with) which is great for battery life. Choosing ambient mode also keeps the screen on so that the time is always visible, like a normal watch.

In a brief flirtation earlier this year with the first-generation Moto 360 (which contains an LCD display), we found that ambient mode would destroy battery life, consistently running out of charge before the end of the day. The alternative, where the screen would turn on when touched or with a flick of the wrist seemed unresponsive and was not an adequate solution.

Huawei Watch battery life

On the first day with the Huawei device, we chose a watch face with a maroon background. The battery was struggling by the evening and it had completely switched off by 11pm. We subsequently changed to a minimal watch face with a black background and the following day found that the battery still had 40 per cent power left at the end of the day. If black watch faces aren’t your thing, you'd probably best steer clear of the Huawei. LCD screens, such as that found on both generations of the Moto 360, are actually less power sucking when displaying a multi-coloured face all day.

In general, the battery life was acceptable but sometimes inconsistent. When making extensive use of the device one day - checking emails, maps, dictating notes and so on - the battery lasted just fine until bedtime. The next day, despite barely using these additional features, only checking a few texts and emails at work, the battery had completely gone by 5pm. We couldn't pin down the cause of this erratic battery drain and feel that it takes away from the 'it just works' ethos that Android Wear devices need to adhere to (surely an essential aspect of any wearable tech).

The watch was advertised as being waterproof and while we didn't go as far as testing our review unit in the bath, cycling through a rainy rush hour London yielded no issues. The screen even remained responsive when speckled with water droplets, although we did experience a phantom touch or two while it was wet.

Cycling and fitness

Cycling and fitness are the areas where the watch really shines. As an avid cyclist, the number of times I have to stop and check my phone during a journey is often frustrating. I dangerously choose to listen to podcasts and music when cycling around London and Android Wear automatically shows a small notification that contains basic volume and track controls, allowing easy skipping of rubbish songs and the ability to turn it up when car horns are blaring.

In addition, the map feature also proved a great help in navigating unknown areas. You can open the mini Google Maps app on the device and it will pinpoint your location, moving with you as you go with an acceptable degree of responsiveness. If you set up a route on your phone beforehand, it will also show you directions and indicate which roads you need to take next. It was undoubtedly one of the most useful features, especially when cycling, but this feature also destroyed the battery life. Using it for a few hours would often cause considerable drain and it would shut down before I had a chance to reach a charger.

Other features that are common on Android Wear and beneficial to cycling include the ability to read texts, send short replies and see who’s calling - all without taking your phone out of your pocket. Messages from texts and apps can be responded to in a few ways. A number of canned responses are available, e.g. "On my way", "Give me a moment", "Yes", "No". A gimmicky emoticon-drawing screen can also be brought up if an emoji is enough to convey your response or messages can be dictated by using the (generally reliable) microphone. The device seemed to misinterpret or fail to recognise spoken commands until held pretty close to the mouth, at which point the accuracy of the results was impressive. The dictation feature can also be used for other apps, such as notes.

The watch also has a number of features for joggers that some may find useful. The fitness tracker appeared to accurately track footsteps taken during the day, with daily graphs plotted for those people obsessed with such things, documenting exactly how much physical activity they've undertaken that day. The heart rate sensor also seemed relatively accurate, giving consistent readings around 60BPM as my resting heartrate when stationary. Huawei says it uses special green laser technology to provide a more accurate reading than other brands, although we were not able to confirm the accuracy or otherwise of these claims.

Is it worth it?

Overall, the watch was relatively responsive. It opened and closed apps acceptably quickly, scrolling was smooth for the most part and the animations were simple but effective. There was the occasional stutter when swiping from screen to screen, but nothing that affected the usability of the device. Performance is likely to improve in the future, as Android Wear is still in its relative infancy.

The main alternative to Huawei’s watch is the aforementioned Moto 360. Although this model is cheaper, it comes with a number of compromises. The screen is not AMOLED, meaning that it takes a bigger hit on battery life and doesn’t have such deep blacks (which look lovely on the black watch face we tested with the Huawei). It is also not perfectly round, with a little chunk taken out at the bottom giving it a ‘flat tyre’ look. This does have some plus points however: while not visually appealing, the flat tyre actually houses light sensors that can adjust the screen brightness dynamically according to the amount of ambient light. This is something sorely lacking in the Huawei Watch. It was sometimes a pain to have to manually readjust the screen brightness when moving from indoors to out. Additionally, the Moto 360 has a wireless charging cradle that you can just drop the watch into at night. This is objectively superior to the Huawei Watch’s magnetic charger which was sometimes fiddly when trying to align the watch so that the pins line up, enabling it to be recharged.

The other device which cannot be ignored here is the Apple Watch. While not a direct competitor in the same way as the Moto 360, because it is not strictly usable (unless you know what you’re doing) with Android phones, the Apple Watch is probably the only wearable that has a screen that can be compared to Huawei’s efforts and it also has a speaker. Curiously, professional tech dismantlers have taken the Huawei apart and found that the hardware does contain a speaker, but as of right now it is unusable. Here’s hoping that a future software update could add this functionality. A personal penchant for round watches may also rule out Apple’s square Watch models, but that is a matter of personal preference.

Conclusions

We can see a use for Android Wear and could be persuaded to enter its ecosystem, although maybe not at the price of a Huawei Watch. However, most of the cheaper alternatives feature square screens and lack the essential aesthetic appeal. Although the Moto 360 does come in at a lower price point - a still relatively hefty £229 - I’m not sure that the £60 saving is enough to justify the misshapen screen. The price of both devices is just too much for a watch that is merely an addendum to your phone. We’re almost there, though - give it another year and these devices will have halved in price. Just take a look at what the original Moto 360 is currently selling for. At £150 or less, we would definitely recommend the Huawei Watch. At £289, perhaps not.

Update

A Huawei spokesperson responded to our invitation to comment on its Watch battery life:

“The Huawei Watch battery run time is one and a half days, based on typical usage. The battery life will vary according to the intensity of usage.”

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