Asus ZenWatch review: Fashion and function start to find balance

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Gizmag reviews one of the best blends of tech and style yet, the Android Wear-running Asus ZenWatch (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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Apart from the Nexus 7, Asus isn't exactly a household name in mobile. But if the company's new Android Wear smartwatch, the Asus ZenWatch, is any indiciation, it could make a name for itself in wearables. Read on, for Gizmag's review of the most pleasant smartwatch surprise of the year.

Every Android Wear smartwatch runs the same software. Sure, most manufacturers throw in their own companion apps for your phone or watch, but those are just extras. Unlike on Android phones and tablets, OEMs can't skin or tamper with Wear's core software.

That leaves smartwatch-makers to differentiate their products on a hardware level. Asus has done just that, designing a beautiful watch that provides the best blend of style and technology that I've seen in any wearable.

Most of the early Android Wear watches we've seen have been big and bulky: even the gorgeous Moto 360 looks a little beefy on most people's wrists. But Asus' watch sits on the smaller end of that spectrum. We're going to see smartwatches that get smaller and smaller through the next few years, but for right now, the ZenWatch is right on the money. It doesn't look any bigger than most men's designer watches.

As far as design, the images in this review should speak for themselves. The watch's stainless steel body has rounded corners, with a very slightly curved screen ("2.5D") that adds to the jewelry aesthetic. Everyone is going to have their own reactions to wearable designs, but I think the ZenWatch is a damn good-looking watch.

You can swap the ZenWatch's band with any standard (22 mm) strap, but I'm a fan of the one it ships with. The rose gold-colored stitched leather looks spiffy, and feels great on my wrist.

Its screen gets the job done: not too big, not too small (it's a 1.63-in square); with fairly sharp (278 pixels per inch) resolution. It doesn't have the wow factor of the round screens on the Moto 360 and G Watch R, but it fits this watch's form factor.

The display gets plenty bright on the highest settings, and, though none of the Android Wear watches so far have looked great in direct sunlight, I find the ZenWatch to be perfectly readable on brightness levels 4-5, and readable enough on level 3, while in the sun.

Performance isn't a concern. With the same Snapdragon 400 processor found in the Gear Live and LG G Watch, the ZenWatch is going to give you roughly the same experience. Android Wear is a lightweight operating system anyway, so Qualcomm's chip, combined with 512 MB of RAM, is all these early watches need.

After my first few hours with the ZenWatch, I thought we weren't going to be able to recommend it, as its battery was dropping like a fly. But I eventually realized that was tied to one of Asus' add-ons, a setting that leaves your paired phone unlocked while the watch is nearby. With this setting turned on, the watch dropped between 6-8 percent per hour, even with very light use. But once I turned it back off, battery life ended up being quite good.

With that "Unlock my Phone" setting turned off (it's off by default), and brightness set to "3," my ZenWatch typically drops around 3-4 percent per hour with moderate use. And that's with the always-on (ambient clock face) setting turned on. With normal use, this should be an all-day watch with room to spare.

The ZenWatch's charger is a cradle that reminds me of a cross between Samsung's Gear chargers and the original G Watch's charger. It isn't as elegant as the Moto 360's wireless charging dock, but if using this charger helped Asus to keep the price down, I won't argue with that decision.

The ZenWatch has a lower water resistance rating than most smartwatches: they're typically IP67, but the ZenWatch is IP55 (the same as the original Galaxy Gear). That means it protects against splashes and maybe the occasional rain shower, but not full submersion.

All Android Wear watches can double as fitness trackers, and the ZenWatch is no exception. One notable difference is that its heart rate sensor is on its front bezels, instead of the watch's backside. So whenever you want to check your pulse, you'll need to put two fingers (like you're making a peace sign) on either side of the watch's front.

Asus' software extras are fairly run-of-the-mill: a ZenWatch manager companion app lets you find your watch if you lose it, adds a compass and flashlight, and allows you to tweak settings like muting a phone call by covering the screen. There's also that "unlock my phone" feature, but, again, I'd avoid that if you want the watch's battery to last a full day.

Asus also threw in its own fitness-tracking app, Asus Wellness, that logs your exercise and measures your heart rate. It has an idle alert option (like on Jawbone trackers) that can remind you to get up and move if you've been vegging out for too long. The watch can also both measure your heart rate directly, and use it to give you a "relaxation score." It's a solid addition to Wear's built-in fitness tracking.

If you would have told me a few months ago that my favorite wearable of 2014 would come from Asus, I probably wouldn't have believed you. But that's just what happened here. It's still early days for smartwatches, but the ZenWatch provides the best combination yet of tech and style.

Ringing up at US$200, the ZenWatch also happens to be one of the cheapest Android Wear watches you can buy. If you're shopping for a smartwatch this holiday season, we recommend putting the ZenWatch near the top of your list.

For more on what the ZenWatch can (and can't) do, you can hit up Gizmag's Android Wear review from earlier this year.

Product page: Asus

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