Tag Heuer’s Carrera Connected is a damning critique of smartwatches

Are smartwatches just lesser watches?

Ask someone you know to name watchmakers and you’ll likely hear a few familiar brands: Rolex, Timex, Swatch, and others. But ask them to name some smartwatch makers and you’ll hear totally different names (provided they come up with any): Apple, Motorola, LG, Samsung, Pebble, and so forth. So far, the still-young smartwatch world has been dominated by the companies that make our smartphones, laptops, and tablets. They aren’t watch companies, they are gadget companies.

That’s what makes Tag Heuer’s recently released Carrera Connected so interesting. Tag is a brand with a long legacy of traditional watchmaking that dates back over 150 years. Perhaps best known for its racing-inspired chronographs (aka stopwatches, if you’re not horologically inclined), Tag is a big part of the massive Swiss watch industry, and its pieces sell for thousands of dollars in high-end shops around the world. If anyone has the watch brand cachet to move smartwatches out of the electronics stores and into 5th Avenue’s boutiques, it’s Tag.

Tag Heuer Connected

In a lot of ways, the Carrera Connected is just like other smartwatches. It runs Android Wear, which functions exactly the same here as it does on a Motorola Moto 360 or Asus ZenWatch 2. It has an Intel processor, which is fairly unique, but accomplishes the same purpose as the Qualcomm chips inside other smartwatches. The Connected has a circular touchscreen and voice controls. It can count your steps, show you notifications, and give you handy info at opportune times. None of that is remarkably different than any other Android Wear watch.

But it just takes one look at the Carrera Connected to see how it is different than a Motorola or Samsung or Apple or what have you. It, well, looks like a watch. Specifically, it looks like a Tag Heuer watch, with its imposing size, angular edges, and bezel full of numeric markings. The Connected has a titanium case, which makes it shockingly light and gives it a unique gun metal finish. It’s paired with a beefy rubber strap that can be had in seven different colors. When you put it on your wrist, it’s surprisingly comfortable, despite its mammoth proportions. It’s obvious from the get-go that this was designed with a lot of wristwatch heritage baked in.

And there’s one more “traditional Tag watch” thing you need to know: the Connected is $1,500 and can only be purchased from Tag direct or in a handful of boutiques around the world. Further, Tag is offering a trade-in program for buyers of the Connected, where they can trade the watch in after a couple years (plus put down another $1,500) for a mechanical version of it. Needless to say, that’s unprecedented in the smartwatch world.

Tag Heuer Connected

It’s clear that Tag isn’t targeting the same people looking at a Moto 360, Huawei Watch, or even the Apple Watch. Its goal is to entice the watch connoisseur who might have a curiosity about smartwatches but will only consider wearing a piece from a trusted brand. And when their curiosity is sated, Tag will let them trade it in toward a “real” watch, which Tag bets is probably what they wanted all along to begin with. It’s also saying that no smartwatch has a shelf life of more than two years, while mechanical watches, to use the words of Tag CEO Jean-Claude Biver, are “eternal.”

To better understand this approach, I sat down with John Tarantino of Martenero, a boutique watch brand based out of New York City. (You might recognize John from earlier this year, when he gave us his perspective on the Apple Watch.) Before John started Martenero, he was just the kind of watch collector and aficionado that Tag is targeting with the Connected.

The Connected delivers on projecting Tag's brand and aesthetic

“I think there are plenty of guys who would wear this ... certainly from a distance, it looks like a Tag,” he says as he puts on the watch for the first time. “[It’s] a little large for my taste, [but] there are plenty of guys that would wear something like this, especially in today's environment where oversized watches are very popular. It's just a large watch that would definitely work for some people, aesthetically.”

Size aside, John thinks that the Connected delivers on projecting Tag’s brand and aesthetic, which is important to people that spend thousands of dollars on watches. “I think that it would register more as a mechanical Tag Heuer to me from a distance,” he says, though once you get up close, it’s more obvious that it’s a smartwatch and not a traditional piece. That’s different from the Apple Watch, which looks like nothing else. “[With] the Apple Watch, it has a very distinctive shape and it's a very heavily promoted product as well. I feel like that you can spot it across the room, you know someone's wearing an Apple Watch,” he says. “Whereas this one, I can't imagine anybody would identify it as a smartwatch right off the bat.”

Tag Heuer Connected

So if you do find yourself in Tag’s target market and are considering the Connected, what exactly do you get for your $1,500? In a couple weeks of wearing it, I found that — at least from a tech and feature perspective — you don’t get much more than what a $300 Motorola offers. The Connected’s battery generally lasted a day between charges. Its display has an always-on mode and is readable outdoors, but isn’t as high-res as other options. You can issue voice commands to start timers, send messages, and perform Google searches, and of course get notifications and music controls on your wrist. It lacks a heart rate sensor, but will still count your steps, and Tag designed a few watchfaces specific for the Connected that mimic its line of mechanical watches (including an interactive chronograph).

It's largely the same experience as any other Android Wear smartwatch

The watch is comfortable to wear, despite its rubber strap and large, 46mm case. It’s designed to wrap nicely around the wrist in ways that other smartwatches don’t. It’s those little ergonomic things that watch brands like Tag figured out a hundred years ago that the electronics companies still struggle with.

While the premium price gets you a sapphire crystal and titanium case, both of which are nice to have, what you’re really paying for is the Tag Heuer brand name. And, to an extent, you’re paying for the flexibility and opportunity to purchase a mechanical Tag Heuer down the road. It’s almost like a payment plan for a proper Tag watch, but one that lets you play with a smartwatch for a couple years while you scrounge up the other $1,500 for the real thing.

Tag Heuer Connected

That last point makes the Carrera Connected more like an experiment by Tag than a full-fledged effort. Sure, it partnered with Google and Intel to produce this watch, but it’s done so in such a way that it could easily back out of smartwatches entirely if its customer base doesn’t bite. It’s positioned the Connected — at the bottom of its lineup, with the option to trade it in — and smartwatches in general as “starter” watches, timepieces that are temporary placeholders before you get into a real, mechanical watch that never becomes obsolete.

Tag is, in effect, saying smartwatches are starter watches with the Connected

Experiment or not, the Connected is the start of Swiss brands dipping their toes into the smartwatch world. And if smartwatches are going to succeed their traditional forebears, they are going to need to be available to anyone considering a watch, no matter what cost they are prepared to pay.

After playing with the Connected for 20 minutes or so, I asked John which Tag Heuer he would buy if he walked into a boutique today, mechanical or smartwatch?

“Mechanical,” he replied, without hesitation.

Perhaps that’s exactly the response Tag Heuer wants to hear.

Photography by Amelia Krales and Sean O'Kane