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Asus ZenWatch 3 review: basic is as basic does

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Android Wear at its simplest

Asus finally got around to updating the ZenWatch 3 to Android Wear 2.0. I’ve been wearing it on and off (no pun intended) for a couple months now, and I have been waiting patiently to see if the new software would change the experience of this smartwatch before publishing a review.

It basically didn’t. It’s a fine enough smartwatch, providing most of the things I really care about in a smartwatch. I have a particular set of things I care about, and they might not line up with what you want. For me, it’s a simple list:

  1. Look good
  2. Tell the time, day, and date (duh)
  3. Last a full day, without fail
  4. Show notifications
  5. Step tracking
  6. Show my calendar and the weather

This is a basic list of requests for a thing that is essentially a computer strapped to your wrist, but you might be surprised how few of them can pull it all off (looking at you, LG Watch Sport).

The Asus ZenWatch 3 runs for around $200 on Amazon, depending on the day you go looking for it and the color you want. It has a fully round 1.39-inch AMOLED display that automatically gets just bright enough to see in sunlight. That display is surrounded by a small bezel to protect it from scratches, and it sits atop a blessedly thin 10mm body.

To get that thinness, Asus excised a bunch of stuff that you might expect from a smartwatch: there’s no GPS, no cellular modem, and (most surprisingly to me) no heart rate monitor. Unlike some other Android Wear watches released this year, you can’t spin the crown to scroll.

The ZenWatch 3 does have two more buttons on it that you can customize to launch any app you’d like. I set one to weather and one to calendar, which frees me up to use a more elegant watchface that isn’t cluttered up with a bunch of complications.

What that particular constellation of features means is that the ZenWatch isn’t a great choice for somebody who’s hoping to really use it for health tracking. It’ll count your steps and do some basic tracking with either Asus’ own software or Google Fit, but a fitness device this is not.

A better use for the ZenWatch 3 than fitness is that list of basic smartwatch stuff I talked about above. It definitely lasts a day, and it definitely handless all the basic notification and glanceable information stuff simply and easily.

Well, mostly easily. I’ve been watching the rocky transition to Android Wear 2.0 for a while and it’s safe to say that the platform has some issues. For me, the main hassle is that I don’t like how it doesn’t display notifications persistently anymore. (The Apple Watch has the same issue.) I’ve also found watches that are upgraded to Android Wear 2.0 (as opposed to those that ship with it) to be a little slower than I would like. The ZenWatch 3 is no exception, but it’s not perniciously slow like the very first generations smartwatches were years ago. It’s just a little pokey.

A big reason for many of the changes you’ll find in Android Wear 2.0 was to make it more useful when paired to an iPhone. Despite the changes, however, I wouldn’t recommend it for iPhone users. It still feels like a hack because third parties don't have as much access to the OS as Apple's own watch does. It’s still best when used with an Android device.

As for aesthetics, I’m basically fine with the options that Asus offers: black, silver, and gold. I do find the gold ring around the screen to be a little gaudy, however.

A bigger problem for some is that the watch has “wings” that the bands attach to, instead of the standard lugs you find on most watches. Although the bands do come with quick-release pins, finding new bands to fit your style that also match the non-standard attachments is either going to require a lot of hunting or a lot of skill with an Xacto knife.

If you’re looking for an Android Wear watch, the options out there right now can seem both overwhelming and underwhelming. A bunch of them are coming from fashion brands like Michael Kors and Fossil, which take the same basic technology stack and apply different designs and styles to it. The rest are from brands like Huawei and LG. Moto is out. And even Asus itself is reported to be bailing on the platform.

The move, I think, is to make your own list of what you want from a smartwatch and then go out and find something that hits those bullet points. They’re out there, but there’s no single Android Wear watch that I think is clearly better than any other. They’re all an exercise in compromise. You just need to figure out which compromises you’re willing to make.

The ZenWatch’s particular set of compromises makes it a decent watch for people who just want the basics. There's no shame in the basics, but there’s not much ambition either.

Photography by Dieter Bohn / The Verge