The Huawei Watch 2 is the first smartwatch in Australia that supports 4G, and that’s just one of its many tricks. Running Android Wear, it’s simple but powerful. This is the first watch you can use properly without your phone in Australia — and that comes in handy more often than you’d think.
This review was originally posted on Gizmodo. This Lifehacker Double Take is brought to you by Huawei.
What Is It?
The $599 Huawei Watch 2 is the first smartwatch in Australia that supports 4G. It’s a chunky 48.9×45 beast that at 12.6mm thick is even thicker than the original Huawei Watch, though at 42 grams it’s not especially heavy on the wrist. Despite that extra size, it has a smaller display — a 1.2-inch, 390x390pixel circular AMOLED panel with no flat tire like Motorola’s Moto 360 smartwatches. You get two physical buttons, top and bottom on the right side of the bezel, that broadly function as a power/home/back button and quick launch for your favourite app and Android Pay respectively.
Yep, the Watch 2 supports Android Pay — that’s its other big hook, with a NFC chip that lets you load up your virtual credit cards as long as Android Pay supports them. There are plenty of banks in Australia (the Cuscal network, for example, is 150-odd providers) that do, but also some big ones that don’t. I’m lucky enough that my CUA credit card and my American Express are supported in Android Pay, Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, but I have found anecdotally that Android Pay’s simple tap and pay support works with more terminals than its manufacturer-specific rivals.
Inside the Huawei Watch 2 you’ll find a 420mAh battery, a nearly 50 per cent jump in capacity from the original Huawei Watch. Huawei says you can expect two days of battery life from the Watch 2 under regular (Bluetooth- or Wi-Fi-connected to your phone, screen set to automatic brightness, and so on) operation, or 10 hours of active workout monitoring with GPS and constant heart-rate monitoring turned on. The combination of these two makes the Watch 2 useful for approximating your VO2max, which is a useful metric for any committed or amateur athlete to be aware of as a snapshot of their overall fitness.
Huawei’s big focus with wearables is fitness and health, and it shows in the feature-set of the Watch 2. A GPS and GLONASS satellite receiver means you can locate yourself and track your movements while you’re away from your phone, you can store all your data in Google Fit or an even more comprehensive Huawei Fit app with a complementary Huawei Health app for your phone, and there are new Huawei-only watch faces that take some serious inspiration from Apple’s activity rings. That’s fine, though, from my point of view — Apple did it very well and I now want that system on an Android Wear smartwatch for my Android phone.
What’s It Good At?
The Watch 2 is the first smartwatch in Australia to include a 4G SIM slot, and that matters because it’s great. You’ll have to get a standalone SIM through Huawei’s launch partner Vodafone to use the Watch 2 away from your phone, but it’s so worth it. I’d pay $10 a month for the ability to leave my phone at home when I go cycling or jogging and just have my music streaming through Google Play Music on my wrist and all my Facebook Messenger messages appearing live. You can even divert calls from your phone to your watch, and take them through the mic and speaker if you don’t have Bluetooth headphones hooked up at any particular moment.
When I say the Huawei Watch 2 is feature-packed, it really is. You’ve got a GPS sensor to track your workouts away from your phone, and it works better than when you have your phone with you. You have NFC for tap and pay. You have a regularly-updating heart rate sensor. You have the latest Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and a built-in 4G connection. You have loads of RAM, enough that the Watch 2 never feels slow or appears to lag when you’re loading apps or swiping through menus.
Having Android Pay built in and easily accessible makes the Huawei Watch 2 far and away more useful than any other Android Wear smartwatch I’ve used. Tap the lower button twice and within three seconds, you’ll be able to tap your wrist against an EFTPOS terminal. If you’ve got multiple cards, just swipe up. It’s actually easier than Apple Pay on Cupertino’s Watch, too, and it’s supported in more places. Its utility as a standalone device extends further than that, too; if you’re on a Samsung smartphone you can have Samsung Pay running on your phone and Android Pay on your wrist for maximum versatility.
There’s a lot to like about the Huawei Watch 2’s design. It’s — as sports- and fitness-focused smartwatches go — relatively clean and straightforward and, apart from the scalloping around the outer edges of the bezel and the utterly pointless 5-minute increments engraved into there, could pass as a chunky dress watch. I wish Huawei would release some fancier leather bands; that would elevate the Watch 2’s looks massively versus the unobtrustive but not exactly classy lightweight black polymer strap that’s the only option for Aussie buyers.
What’s It Not Good At?
Huawei suggests the battery life of the Watch 2 is in the region of two days, but I’ve never been able to get it to stretch that far even in out of the box settings. Put a 4G SIM in and it’ll default to using that, using a lot more juice than regular ol’ Bluetooth or Wi-Fi would. I strongly recommend the Smart Battery Saving mode that you’ll have to dig into settings to find, although its active screen sleep mode takes a second or two to bring the screen to life — and show you the time — when you most want it. To Huawei’s credit, at the final few battery per cent the Watch 2 switches to time and step tracking only and massively boosts its lifespan.
Being IP68 dust and water resistant, the Huawei Watch 2 is effectively impervious to sand and rainstorms. It’s disappointing, though, that Huawei doesn’t rate the Watch 2 as waterproof enough to let you take it swimming. That was one of the huge appeals of the Apple Watch Series 2 for me, and it’s a hardware feature that had a positive impact on my health: it made me swim more at the gym. If I was to blame anything for this lack of swimming support, I’d blame the easily-accessible, fingernail-pullable 4G SIM slot — maybe it could have been better sealed against the elements.
The sporty design of the Watch 2 suits my particular tastes, but it might not others. I’m of the opinion that a dressy watch looks better with a casual outfit more than a casual watch does with a dressy outfit, and this means the Watch 2 doesn’t really gel with a formal look the way that the original Watch did. You’ll still get away with it if you’re not at the Oscars, but there’s no escaping the fact that the Watch 2 is chunky and has a fitness aesthetic that might restrict its versatility unlike, say, the Apple Watch’s more streamlined looks.
Android Wear has its own limitations, too, even in its most recent — and much improved — 2.0 iteration, which streamlines things massively. You can’t start a message on Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp through taps on the interface; instead, you’re limited to reacting to the chat notifications that pop up. It’s a good piece of software — it does navigation and notifications both especially well — but it’s more limited in scope than Apple’s watchOS is. It also doesn’t have the range of apps that Apple does. If you want to run a zillion widgets off your wrist, you’ll need a different device.
Should You Buy It?
If you want an Android Wear smartwatch, the $599 Huawei Watch 2 is one of the best. It has every feature you could want in a 2017 watch — GPS tracking for your runs whenever you’re not carrying your phone, and 4G for when you want to do anything else — whether that’s playing music through Google Play or shooting off a quick response to your friends using Facebook Messenger. It’s a reasonable size, albeit thick, as men’s watches go, but if you have slim wrists or if you’re female you might find an alternative more attractive.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that all of Watch 2’s traits do come at a considerable cost to battery life. Despite having a battery nearly 50 per cent larger than the original Huawei Watch — which was my daily go-to from its launch day until the day I strapped on the Watch 2 instead — its increased battery drain means you can’t expect battery life that’s any measurably superior. For safety’s sake, you’ll still be recharging your watch overnight, every night, or using smart battery software tweaks to shut off the screen when you’re not looking at it.
The Watch 2’s saving grace is that, even at the final percentage points of its battery life, it’ll still function as a watch — and step tracker — longer than any other smartwatch I’ve tried. It does the watch thing very well. It’s hampered by a small screen though, weirdly smaller (albeit more pixel-dense) than the original Watch, despite being larger and thicker. Its design is a personal preference; I tend to like it, but then I tend to like big G-Shock-esque hulks on my wrist. Caveat emptor.
The Watch 2 is a powerful smartwatch first, and a wristwatch second. It’s big and it’s chunky, and if you’re travelling it’s another charger to carry with you — a USB-C port would have been a revelation! But if you’ve bought into the Android ecosystem already with your phone, and you like the idea of getting all your notifications and more on your wrist whenever you’re out and about, even if your phone isn’t with you, it’s hard to go past the Huawei Watch 2.