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Circuit Breaker

The Asus ZenWatch 3 is Android Wear déjà vu

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I’ve seen this scene before: fancy Berlin venue, shiny new Asus smartwatches, and precious little in the way of any differentiation. Even the Android Wear demo loop on Asus’ new ZenWatch 3 units is the same one we’ve all been seeing for years. It’s not for lack of trying, of course, as Asus has upgraded the hardware to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 2100 processor, specifically designed for wearable devices. But that still only gets you the regular one to two days of battery life, albeit with a new fast charging option that bumps the battery from 0 to 60 percent in 15 minutes. Asus even added two extra buttons for a total of three, but the new additions are just physical shortcuts to your favorite apps.

Maybe I’m expecting too much. It’s just deflating to keep coming back to tech exhibitions and seeing all this design and engineering work going toward what are, in my estimation, underwhelming devices. I’m referring to Android Wear, yes, but also to smartwatches in general. What can you do with them? Well, you can use the ZenWatch 3 as a mouthpiece for taking calls on your connected phone, and you can use it as a remote shutter button for the camera on your connected phone. Or you can collect notifications from your connected phone. You can do a bit of rudimentary messaging and some fitness tracking. So a smartwatch isn’t useless, but I can name better, purpose-designed devices for most of its uses, and those typically cost less than Asus’ €229 asking price.

Asus’ efforts with the ZenWatch 3 are concentrated on the thing it could improve most: the design. The Taiwanese company has moved from rectangular to a round watchface, and it’s for the better. Maybe you won’t get as many lines of text on the screen at the same time, but Asus’ new smartwatch looks a lot more like a regular watch now. It’s still quite unmistakably chunky, though, and while Asus touts exhaustive skin sensitivity testing that went into choosing its materials — "jewelry grade" steel for the case and leather or silicone for the strap — this is another case of a smartwatch landing in the "ungainly" area of the size spectrum.

The ZenWatch 3 is polished to a high sheen, and its looks will be polarizing. Its copper color option is eye-catching, glinting in the light at every opportunity, while the gunmetal is more demure, but still rather showy with a copper ring of its own. Asus doubles down on this aesthetic with a bunch of highly stylized watchfaces, which it claims will be your chance to personalize your ZenWatch. The overwhelming feeling with this watch is that it was over-designed. There’s not much subtlety to it.

The overwhelming feeling with this watch is that it was over-designed

Asus does accessorize the ZenWatch 3 nicely, throwing in a watch stand and a small battery pack that can be attached to the watch and extend its battery life by 40 percent. Still, you’d probably need to spend the full €249 on it, owing to the unpleasantly cheap feeling of the entry-level silicone strap — this watch just looks wrong without a leather strap anyway.

If you do find yourself intrigued by Asus' latest, you'll want to know that it's launching in Germany and the US in October, to be followed by a global rollout. That's approaching the time for the next big Android Wear update, and you never know, maybe better and more capable software will make this a device worth desiring for more than its looks. To avoid a sense of déjà vu, Asus needs to give its watches a raison d'être.