Asus bets on steel appeal to set its ZenWatch smartwatch apart

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Asus perhaps isn't best-placed to change the world of wearables, lacking the sheer size of Samsung or the clout of Google, but nevertheless the Taiwanese tech-maker is having a pop at the smartwatch market. The ZenWatch is a bold first effort that places an emphasis of design -- but is it worth your time, or is it another smartwatch also-ran?

Wrist assessment

The ZenWatch hopes to stand apart from the crowd with a slick design that borrows many cues from good old-fashioned watches. The body of the watch is curved stainless steel, while the strap is a stitched leather affair that does lend the ZenWatch a classic look. That strap has a quick-release clasp, while the watch's face is built from sturdy Gorilla Glass 3.

That familiarity stops abruptly when you come to the watch's face. The 1.63-inch display isn't exactly enormous, but will definitely set this gadget apart as a smartwatch, being decidedly too large to pass for a regular timekeeper. The display has a 320x320-pixel resolution, which is a high enough pixel count to discern the small icons and text that litter the ZenWatch's interface.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

We found the ZenWatch to be comfortable to wear in our brief hands-on, and with a slim construction it didn't feel too bulky or weighty on our wrist. Keeping the watch slim means Asus has made a few omissions, however.

The health app's heart-rate scanner is a sensor on the front of the watch rather than the glowing red heart-rate scanners that Samsung uses for its phones and wearables. There's no micro-USB port on the watch, either -- to charge it you'll need to plug it into a special charging cradle.

The stainless steel does give the ZenWatch a weighty, robust feel, but perhaps isn't quite as easy on the eye as the Pebble Steel smartwatch, which is a real looker.

Android Wear and Asus apps

The ZenWatch is powered by Android Wear, which is the operating system Google has built for smartwatches. On top of that, Asus has layered its own bespoke tweaks and apps.

The ZenWatch's interface is easy to navigate and very simple -- by default, the watch will display a traditional clock face, while swiping in from the sides of the screen will call up a set of menu icons. Tapping on the screen or saying "OK Google" will bring up the Google voice search page, which will let you command the ZenWatch with a few crisply barked orders.

The ZenWatch works with all Android phones running Android 4.3 or above, though there are a few treats on board if you happen to be using the watch in conjunction with an Asus smartphone. Asus has also bundled some own-brand apps and features, some of which are quite interesting.

A feature called Tap Tap, for instance, lets you launch an app or service of your choosing when you double-tap the ZenWatch's face. A function dubbed Watch Unlock means you don't have to use a code to unlock your smartphone as long as the mobile is in Bluetooth range of the watch. The idea is that you're spared the aggravation of entering a code every time you use your phone, but should your mobile get lost or stolen, anybody else would need the code to access your precious files and photos.

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The ZenWatch runs Android Wear, with some Asus tweaks. Asus

Cover to Mute is a feature that sees an alarm or incoming phone call silenced by holding your hand over the watch, while the Asus Wellness app gives you a way to measure steps taken. As previously mentioned, you can check your heart rate too, by gently applying your finger to a sensor just below the ZenWatch's screen. Asus has also added seven bespoke face options, and the power to add extra info to the watch's homescreen, such as the time in a second city, or the weather.

Power and battery life

Battery life is a thorny issue for any smartwatch. With regular timekeepers hardly ever needing their batteries replaced, having to charge your watch every day is a big ask for any shopper. Asus says the ZenWatch will last over a day before it starts crying for its charging cradle, but that still sounds like a pretty big adjustment for wearers of old-fashioned watches.

The ZenWatch has 4GB of storage and is powered by a Qualcomm 400 processor, backed up by 512MB of RAM. That's not much memory compared to a modern smartphone, but the ZenWatch's needs are far more modest. As of yet, there aren't really any apps or games for Android Wear that would require a huge amount of processing clout, but swiping through the watch's minimal menus felt very smooth. The watch is splash-proof, with Asus telling me it should handle rain, but don't take it swimming, or in the shower.

Outlook

Asus is hoping to get the ZenWatch on sale by Christmas, at least in the UK. It's going to cost €199 in Europe, while Asus says it may cost £199 in the UK, but hopefully a little less. A US launch is yet to be confirmed, but the Euro price converts to roughly $260. Asus has confirmed that it will bring the ZenWatch to Australia but there's no firm dates or pricing -- the Euro cost converts to around AU$280.

The ZenWatch feels like a capable smartwatch that doesn't lag behind in any significant way, but doesn't particularly push the category forward either. The wearable world is evolving rapidly, with both manufacturers and shoppers still figuring out exactly what a smartwatch should be. As such, it's entirely possible that in just a few months' time, the ZenWatch could feel outdated, or misguided.

For the moment, however, it's an interesting part of a new tech trend, and we'll look forward to giving it the review treatment as soon as possible. Keep this page bookmarked, because we'll soon be adding hands-on photos and video of the ZenWatch, and eventually a full review with a star rating.

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