Asus ZenWatch 2 review: The smartwatch, simplified

Price when reviewed

The Asus ZenWatch 2 is among an increasing number of Android Wear smartwatches struggling to find a niche in the bold new world of wearable tech. It’s a second generation smartwatch, but as with many other newer devices, there isn’t much on paper to entice.

Asus ZenWatch 2 review: The smartwatch, simplified

Indeed, take a look at the specifications (and the appearance of the watch for that matter) and you’ll see hardly any difference between it and the first Asus ZenWatch.

The Asus ZenWatch 2 has the same processor as its predecessor: a 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400. It has the same 512MB of RAM and 4GB of storage, which means, like most Android Wear watches, it sometimes feels sluggish. It also has an identical 1.63in OLED display with precisely the same, slightly grainy-looking, 320 x 320, 270ppi resolution.

Asus hasn’t added GPS or a continuous heart rate monitor, which will disappoint anyone looking for a device for tracking fitness. And it hasn’t dramatically altered the look of the watch either, retaining the elegant design and square watch face I so liked in the original, but also keeping the thick, rather ugly, bezel surrounding the screen.

Asus ZenWatch 2: So what’s new?

It isn’t entirely identical, however. That would be silly. In fact, Asus has made a number of subtle, yet significant alterations. The ZenWatch now has a button on the side, used for enabling and disabling Cinema mode (for switching the screen on and off so notifications don’t disturb you in the dark), entering Sunlight mode (which temporarily boosts screen brightness) or launching into the Apps menu (hold it down). This is a genuinely useful addition, and I found myself using the button all the time, especially for activating Cinema mode.  

There’s also a number of new straps and finishes: the ZenWatch 2’s stainless steel case comes in gunmetal grey, silver and rose gold, while the original was only available in one finish, with nine different straps to choose from. The ZenWatch 2 is now a touch more dust and water resistant, too. Thanks to a change in chassis manufacturer and the addition of interior rubber sealing, the new watch is rated at IP67 instead of IP55 as the original was. I still wouldn’t take it swimming, though.

The big news, though, is that the watch has been improved in the place it desperately needed it: battery life. The first ZenWatch barely lasted a day in general use. The new one’s larger battery allows it to extend that stamina well into day two. In general use, I found I was able to get through a couple of working days before needing to connect it to its proprietary magnetic USB charger cable.

This is mainly thanks to a larger 400mAh battery (which is 31mAh larger than the old one), but also to a new sensor arrangement. The ZenWatch 2 has a six-axis sensor, controlled via a “sensor hub”, whereas the old watch had a nine-axis sensor and “bio sensor”, which it used to monitor your heart rate.

The sensor hub, like Apple’s M-series co-processors, is a separate, low-power chip designed specifically to monitor the accelerometer, allowing the watch to track your steps and sleep without consuming too much battery. Combined with the stripped-down sensor, it works well and the watch lasts even longer than two days if you disable ambient mode so the screen only turns on when you tap the watch face or raise your wrist.

Asus ZenWatch 2: Software and companion app

The other major change with the ZenWatch 2 is to the companion app used to manage it. Clearly unsatisfied with the homogenous me-too nature of Android Wear, Asus uses its ZenWatch Manager app (downloadable from Google Play) as an alternative to add supplementary features.

It certainly looks different. It’s brighter and more colourful than the standard Android Wear app. But is it more useful? Not really. The only significant extra feature it adds is the facility to customise and design your own watch faces. You can add touch-based widgets to your face here, change the background, the ticks around the edges and even the watch hands.

The results, however, are hit and miss and this is principally because the majority of the faces supplied to use as your base watch face are ugly. Plus, the level of customisation isn’t a patch on third-party tools such as WatchMaker and Facer.

It’s a similar story with the rest of Asus’ preloaded apps. These cover music playback, weather updates, fitness and sleep tracking and each has a corresponding app that must also be installed on your smartphone. None of them, however, do anything third-party apps couldn’t do better, and simply serve to confuse new users.

Asus ZenWatch 2: Verdict

Still, the Asus ZenWatch 2 doesn’t pretend to be anything but a low-cost, stylish Android Wear smartwatch, and at that job it succeeds well. It looks stylish, it doesn’t cost much and the improvements to battery life are a major bonus.

For many people, that will be recommendation enough. However, with older, better appointed Android Wear watches coming down in price all the time (the LG Watch Urbane, for instance, is now around £170), it’s  worth checking out those before you take the plunge.

See also: The best smartwatches of 2016 – our favourite wearables

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