Smartwatches still haven’t proven themselves to me. I was quick to jump on the Android Wear train with the launch of the LG G Watch, but since, this Android Wear ride has been nothing more than mundane. I think one of the easiest ways to sum up my underwhelming experience is to say that this watch — the third generation of the budget “ZenWatch” line from ASUS — is almost functionally identical to the Moto 360 that launched two years ago.

That’s not to say that this watch is bad. It’s actually pretty good. It actually might be the best Android Wear device that you can buy right now. But for me, that’s not enough. It has required discipline to go out of my way for the last week to wear this thing, and I probably won’t keep wearing it every day from now on. But this review isn’t about me; don’t let me sway you if you’re dead-set on getting a smartwatch. If you are, the ASUS ZenWatch 3 might be a great option for you…

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Design & hardware |

First of all, let’s get the specs out of the way. The watch has the Snapdragon Wear 2100 system-on-a-chip, 512MB of RAM, 4GB of storage, a circular 1.39-inch AMOLED display with a resolution of 400 x  400, a 340 mAh battery, IP67 water and dust resistance, a hardware speaker, and the usual Bluetooth 4.1 and WiFi. The watch is running Android Wear 1.5. All of this is pretty typical hardware for an Android Wear watch, and not much of this will probably change soon, either.

The design of this watch is bound to be divisive, but thankfully its bold look is available in three variants. The one that I’ve had the opportunity to look at this week is mostly black with a gold trim around the screen and the edges. Personally, it’s not really my style. Regardless of which variant you get though, you’re getting a pretty hefty 316L stainless steel device with three buttons that stick out on the right side and lugs that extend off the body of the watch to fit the curvature of your wrist. It’s nice.

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Watch bands

One of the biggest drawbacks to this watch, though, is its watch bands, which aren’t really interchangeable except with other bands that are specifically made for the ZenWatch 3. Like the Huawei Watch, the place where the bands connect to the lugs is actually smaller than the lug width itself, and the shape of the connection here is pretty proprietary.

Basically, you’re probably going to be stuck with the band that the watch comes with, so be smart about which variant you buy. All this said, the leather watch band that came with my version of the watch is well-built and comfortable. It’s genuine leather of course and it buckles just like any other typical watch band. Personally, I don’t feel the need to swap it out with a third-party band, and if you like normal leather watch bands, you probably won’t either.

 Size

I say this watch is hefty for a reason — it definitely feels and looks substantial especially next to the comparatively dainty Huawei Watch or 38mm Apple Watch. Eyeballing it, I’d say it’s about the same size and weight as the original Moto 360, which means it’ll fit well on medium-to-large wrists. Definitely don’t get this if you have smaller wrists. I was going to use my wife as a wrist model for some of the photos in this article, but found out quickly that that wouldn’t work so well with her smaller wrists.

Display |

One of the places where the ZenWatch 3 clearly shines is its display. This 1.39-inch AMOLED display looks great with its 400 x 400 resolution, and it was definitely the right direction for ASUS to go in after two generations of ZenWatches with square displays. As with any Android Wear watch you can somewhat see the pixels if you look close enough. But it’s good enough not to affect the experience — the watch has about the same pixel density as the Huawei Watch, which is a good thing.

Ambient light sensor

One huge win with the ZenWatch 3 is that it’s the first fully-circular Android Wear smartwatch to offer an ambient light sensor. This was an engineering problem that faced last generation’s Android Wear watches, and both Huawei and Moto approached the problem in different ways. The second-generation Moto 360 maintained the flat tire to keep the ambient light sensor around, while the Huawei Watch went full-circle and ditched the ambient light sensor altogether. The ZenWatch 3 gets you both.

Software & Performance |

The ASUS ZenWatch 3 runs Android Wear, and the current version feels a bit outdated — which makes sense considering 2.0 was pushed back to early 2017. Everything here is what you would expect with Android Wear in its current state. You can swipe from the right side to view a full list of apps, you can swipe up from the bottom of the main screen to see a history of notifications and cards, and the quick settings drop-down will appear when you pull down from the top. The usual. Mostly.

This is a super-customized version of Android Wear — at least compared to Android Wear watches that I’ve reviewed before. It’s a surprising departure from the almost-stock version of the software we’ve found on the Huawei Watch or the Moto 360 2nd gen. The colors throughout the UI have been toned to match the gold accent around the watch hardware, the backgrounds have been changed to a darker gray color, there are plenty of unique watch faces and there are a couple pre-loaded apps as well.

Performance

I haven’t seen many other reviews of this device mention this (so take it with a grain of salt), but I feel pretty lukewarm about the performance of the watch so far. As I mentioned, it has the Snapdragon Wear 2100 processor, which should in theory bring better battery life and speed compared to other watches with the Snapdragon 400. But my experience has been about on par with other Android Wear devices if not maybe slightly worse.

Maybe it’s just a flaw with my unit (because, like I said, I perused some other reviews to see if anyone else was noticing this, and I found nothing), but I’ve noticed a decent amount of jitteriness and inconsistency when tapping around the UI. On my first day tinkering with the watch, I had the watch crash on me twice within about an hour and I couldn’t fluidly navigate around without suffering frame rate drops. Maybe that was just a fluke.

On the second day playing with the watch, things got better, but there was still some weird problems that I would have thought would be resolved at this point in Android Wear. It feels to me that it takes the Snapdragon Wear 2100 a little bit of time to “wake up” after the watch goes into sleep mode, which is pretty detrimental to the experience considering interactions we make with our smartwatches are usually short bursts of checking notifications or replying to texts anyway.

Over the course of the third and fourth days using the device I noticed these little performance hiccups less and less, but it still happened on occasion. On a smartphone or another device that might not be a big deal, but it’s especially frustrating when one of the selling points of smartwatches is quick access to notifications — and then even this doesn’t work as it should without lag and hiccups.

Watch faces & ZenWatch Manager

If you only use the Android Wear app to set up your ZenWatch 3, you’re only going to get a dozen or so basic watch faces that come pre-loaded. But if you get ZenWatch Manager, you’ll get an additional 50-or-so watch faces to pick from for free. Most of these are terribly ugly (check out the examples below), but some of them are decent. Regardless, I count this as an upside simply due to the sheer number of options. There’s almost no chance that you’re not going to find one that looks nice on your wrist.

As I said, the way you’re going to manage all of these watch faces is through ASUS proprietary ZenWatch Manager app, which can be used alongside the standard Android Wear app — although it’s not required. Your primary use for this app is probably going to be managing your watch face, but it can do more than that. The app tells you how much battery and storage space your watch has left, lets you install recommended apps, and lets you set up features like “SOS” which can send a message to your emergency contacts. Overall, it’s a pretty great — albeit not so pretty — experience.

Battery

A smartwatch isn’t any good unless it can last a full day without dying right? Well, thankfully the ZenWatch 3 does a great job in this area. Compared to other Android Wear watches I’ve tested over the last couple years, I was impressed with just how long this thing lasted — definitely longer than the Huawei Watch, which was my most recent AW daily driver. Perhaps this thanks to the Snapdragon Wear 2100, but I was able to eek out more than a day and maybe 2 with light use. What matters is that it will last a full day with moderate-to-heavy use, and you can charge it every night to keep going.

If for some reason you forget to charge the watch, though, a quick morning charge while you’re in the shower or getting ready should be able to get you through most of the day. The watch brings what ASUS calls “HyperCharge”, which can get the watch — in my testing, at least — from nothing to about 50% in about 15 minutes. That’s enough charge to get you through most of your day in most cases.

Three buttons

I think ASUS did this one right. Having three crown buttons on the right side of the device is great, and the fact that the top-right can be completely customized to open any app you want just adds to that. I personally use smartwatches often to control music, so I set the top-right button to open the Spotify watch app. This is pretty handy, and I think anyone can find a good use for it. The bottom-right button, while I would like it also to be customizable, is stuck on “Eco mode” — which is basically just airplane mode.

Conclusion |

Overall, I think this watch might be the watch to buy if you find one of the variants that ASUS offers fitting for your style. In terms of hardware and features, you probably can’t beat this watch — at least not in the Android Wear space — for the price. The less-capable Moto 360 2nd gen. still retails for $300, and this watch can be yours for just $230. It’s a no-brainer if, like I said, you can stand its looks. These quick shots I took for this review may not do a great job of conveying its looks, but I have to say that the ZenWatch 3 is definitely nicer in person than it is in stock imagery.

Quite simply as a watch, this little piece of hardware is pretty nice. It’s entirely stainless steel, and you can feel its build quality when you wear it. It may be more affordable than many of the other options on the market right now, but it definitely doesn’t feel that way. And besides the annoyances of performance hiccups and non-interchangeable watch bands hat I mentioned, I don’t think I have hardly any complaints about this watch. At this point your best bet might be to wait for Android Wear 2.0 devices, but if you absolutely want a watch now, this is a pretty good option.

Stock is a bit behind, but you can get the model I reviewed at Amazon for $230 shipped.