Huawei Watch might be the best Android Wear watch yet

September 22, 2015, 2:33 PM UTC

China’s Huawei (pronounced “Wah-way”) recently overtook Microsoft to become the world’s third-largest phone manufacturer, yet it’s still a barely known brand in the U.S.

However, that may change with the arrival of the Huawei Watch, an Android Wear-powered timepiece that rivals the venerated LG Urbane and new, second-generation Moto 360. Round, metal, and absolutely gorgeous, it definitely scores a style win over Apple’s (AAPL) smartwatch and Pebble’s new Time models. But how does it compare overall to other Android Wear devices on the market?

Although Huawai’s phones have long undercut the competition when it comes to price, the Watch does not: It starts at $349, same as the Moto 360 and Urbane, and stretches to $799 if you opt for the gold model with matching metal wristband. It’s also similar in appearance to its two competitors: a hair smaller than the bezel-heavy Urbane, and only slightly larger than the compact 360.

My review unit came with a black leather band and stainless steel body, both exuding a luxuriousness befitting the price tag. But the real star of the show is the 400 x 400-pixel, 286-pixels-per-inch AMOLED display, which brings watch faces to such bright, colorful life, you’ll end up stealing glances even when you don’t need to know the time.

That’s the highest resolution yet for an Android Wear watch, and this is also the first model to be protected by sapphire crystal, which promises greater resistance to scratches. So, although the Huawei Watch doesn’t really compete on price, it does provide a bit more bang for your buck on the hardware side.

I especially liked that the screen extends from one edge to another; you don’t have the small black bar at the bottom like on the Moto 360. The flipside is that there’s no ambient light sensor—so any changes to screen brightness must be done manually—and that option resides two menus deep into the Android Wear OS.

Speaking of which, despite the Android underpinnings, Huawei’s watch is among a growing number of models that also supports iOS, albeit it with some limitations such as little support for third-party apps and watch faces. Also, in my tests with an iPhone 6 Plus, some notifications failed to appear on the watch. I didn’t encounter that glitch with the LG Urbane I’d tested just a week earlier, nor did it occur when the smartwatch was paired with the OnePlus One Android phone.

Android Wear on the whole continues to suffer from some user-hostile interface elements. For example, in one section of the vertical-scrolling settings menu, you’ll see Daily Tracking (represented by a running shoe), Fit, and Fitness Tracking one after the other. To me those all sound like the same thing. Tap your way into Daily Tracking and you’re instructed to swipe left, enter your age, swipe left again, enter your weight, and so on. I got all the way through these setup steps, only to discover the app hadn’t actually logged my selections. It wasn’t enough to merely scroll to any given age or weight; I had to then tap it, even though it was already highlighted.

What’s more, it’s easy to get lost in Wear, whether it’s because you swiped too far into notifications or because swiping down doesn’t return you to the home screen in some places the way it does in others. Not much about the OS has improved since Android launched it last year; it looks nice, but there’s a definite learning curve.

For those into fitness, the water-resistant Huawei Watch offers not only the aforementioned step and activity tracking, but also an excellent heart-rate monitor that employs two sensors instead of one. And for those into fashion, Huawei supplies some 40 watch faces, many designed to replicate expensive analog watches, most of them stunning. There are also some great fitness-oriented faces, to say nothing of the thousands of third-party options available to Android users.

After a few seconds of inactivity, those faces fade to a dimmed, always-on display, sort of a “lite” version of the selected style. I love this mode, as it doesn’t require you to raise the watch just to get a peek at the time, but it does impact battery life. Huawei promises “up to two days,” but in my tests the battery always needed charging right around the 36-hour mark. That’s enough to get you through a full day and then most of another workday, but still far short of ideal. (Pebble’s Time Steel runs 9-10 days before needing a trip to the charger.)

The good news is Huawei’s magnetic charging pack, which snaps to the back of the watch with a satisfying click and can recharge the battery to 80% in just 45 minutes. A full charge wraps up in under 90 minutes.

The extra battery pack is a nice perk, but when it comes to the growing crop of Android Wear watches on the market, there are only a few ways to stand out: style, price, and battery life. The Huawei Watch has a slightly better display than its competition; everything else is pretty much a wash.

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