24 November 2015

A Pebbler's Guide to the Huawei Watch

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I backed the original Pebble smartwatch on Kickstarter a lifetime ago (or at least it seems that way), and I wore it daily since its arrival two and a half years ago. Pebble got a lot of things right from my perspective. I enjoyed the always-on e-paper display, the easy-to-press buttons, the 50m water resistance, and the 5-day battery life. The software was featureful (without overdoing it), and constantly gained new capabilities with regular updates. Being one of the first relatively mainstream smartwatches, Pebble attracted a following of clever developers and talented designers, and their efforts provided a rich ecosystem of faces and apps. I was happy with my Pebble and didn't feel the urge to jump on the first generation of Android Wear devices.

Back in the spring, though, we started seeing glimpses of a smartwatch that didn't look like a smartwatch. As more information and images emerged about this Huawei Watch, I started to wonder if it might be time to give Android Wear a try. Two weeks ago Huawei generously provided me with the black stainless steel version of the Huawei Watch for testing and evaluation. (Just so we’re clear, a review wasn’t part of that arrangement - they neither asked for a review nor conveyed an expectation of a positive one. These words and opinions are my own, and my own alone.)

How's that working out? Was it a worthwhile upgrade from my trusty old-gen Pebble? I can't really make any fair comparisons to other Android Wear devices, but I'll do my best to describe what the Huawei Watch is like in my daily use. Wearables are a particularly personal device genre, and you and I may have very different expectations or usage scenarios in mind. I can’t answer the question of “Do I want/need a smartwatch?” but hopefully I can help you determine whether the Huawei Watch could be the right watch for you.

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The first thing to know if you're considering dumping Pebble for a Huawei Watch or another Android Wear device: each platform takes a very different approach, and some of those differences may surprise you.

  • Display. The Pebble (OG, remember) features a high-contrast monochrome 1.26” rectangular e-paper LCD with a resolution of 144x168. While it lacks color, this screen works really well for a smartwatch that doesn’t try to be too fancy. Watch faces designed with the screen in mind can look really great; I particularly enjoyed ones that were primarily black so they blended seamlessly with the black body of my Pebble. This display is always on (thanks to the magic of e-paper) and is readily visible under any light (including direct sunlight) - just as long as there is adequate light. The e-paper screen doesn’t emit any light on its own, so if you want to view it in the dark you must activate the backlight either by flicking your wrist or pressing a button.

    The Huawei Watch, on the other hand, boasts a full color round (actually round!) 1.4" AMOLED screen with a 400x400 resolution. And what a gorgeous screen it is! Watchfaces look crisp and clear on the display, and some even create the illusion of depth. It can sometimes be hard to tell that the elegant face is a digital creation rather than a watch maker's delicate handiwork. The Huawei Watch’s face is also “Always-on” by default, though that nomenclature can be a bit misleading: after a few seconds of inactivity, your snazzy watchface will switch to a dimmed (and often simplified black-and-white) Ambient Mode. This is a nice balance between being able to always display the time (after all, I think a watch is kind of useless if it doesn’t show the time around the clock) and battery life (since black/dimmed AMOLED pixels consume no/less power). A lot of faces take advantage of this transition and still look great; others (particularly community-built faces like you’d find in the WatchMaker app) don’t know how to handle the change and kind of choke.

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    Of course, AMOLED displays aren’t quite as visible as e-paper in direct sunlight, and the Huawei Watch lacks an ambient light sensor (like the one “hidden” inside the Moto 360’s infamous Flat Tire) so the brightness won't automatically increase when you venture outdoors. I keep my display brightness set pretty low (as low as it goes, in fact) for comfortable viewing inside, so the screen might as well be blank under the sun. Fortunately, there’s a solution to that which doesn’t require keeping the brightness set to the maximum: triple-pressing the Huawei Watch’s crown will temporarily boost the brightness to the maximum level so you can quickly see what’s up. So the Pebble requires deliberate user action to view it in the dark, while the Huawei Watch requires deliberate user action to view it in bright sunlight.
  • Input. The Pebble's input is handled via big solid buttons on the sides of the watch frame. They’re easy to use without staring at the screen - especially nice for controlling audio playback. Pebble also lets you set any installed application as a Quick Launch shortcut which you can access by holding the up or down button from the watch display. This works great for quickly accessing two-factor authentication codes without having to scroll through a menu. Speaking of which, the menu is always in the same order so you can quickly learn that “select, down, down, down, select” will launch your stock quotes app, for instance. Being able to use the watch's functions without dedicating your eyeballs to its screen is a pretty cool capability.

    Android Wear uses touch-based input combined with the single physical crown button that I mentioned earlier. Gestures can also be used for scrolling through the stack of notification cards (flick your wrist forward or backward), but the action has to be pretty deliberate to get it to trigger in the right direction. It’s so hit or miss that I tend to just use my finger to swipe up and down through the stack rather than hope that the Huawei Watch interprets my flailing about in the manner in which it was intended. That crown button does have some handy functions though: press once to return to the watch face from within an app or to toggle the Ambient Mode display from the watch face, twice for Theater Mode (which turns off the display entirely and ignores notifications), or three times for the Brightness Boost described previously. A long-press of the crown will deploy the App Drawer, which can sometimes be a little easier than swiping in from the edge of the screen. Unlike the Pebble, there’s no easy, reliable way to use the Huawei Watch to skip to the next audio track while your eyes are otherwise occupied. You have to tap to wake the device, slide up the “Now Playing” notification card, swipe left, and then tap the desired control - and that sequence only works if the “Now Playing” card is the most recent in your stack. For eyes-free usage, the Pebble is a clear winner.
  • Build. As much as I love my Pebble, I will readily admit that it looks (and feels) like a child’s toy (the new ones even more so). It’s lightweight - too light - and made entirely of plastic. It feels cheap, plain and simple. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, and in fact that simple plastic construction made it relatively easy for Pebble to protect their watch against water ingression at up to 5ATM (~50m). I appreciated the attractive watchband tanline I got from wearing the Pebble while snorkeling in Mexico - and appreciated the timer-based reminders to reapply sunscreen even more!

    The Huawei Watch, on the other hand, screams “premium” at every turn - even the packagingis sturdy and elegant. The Huawei Watch body itself (any variant) is constructed of cold-forged stainless steel with sapphire crystal for the display - solid materials which lend the Huawei Watch much-desired heft. It really does feel like a quality metal-bodied mechanical watch, and the black models include subdued hash marks around the bezel which add to the illusion. The display is also slightly recessed below that bezel, enhancing the sense of depth while also providing some degree of protection for the screen.

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    It feels great, it looks great, and it's a watch that I'm happy to show off to “normal” people who care about how it looks rather than just tech geeks who are primarily interested in what it can do. Of course, the Huawei Watch is only rated to IP67 (rather than the Pebble’s 5ATM), meaning that it will probably be okay for splashes and brief submersions (like while doing the dishes) but it definitely shouldn't be worn while swimming. (And really, even if it were fully water resistant I'm not sure you'd want to use it in the water anyway - have you ever gotten rain on your phone's screen and then tried to interact with it? It's a miserable experience all around.)
  • Battery life. I measured my Pebble’s battery life in days - generally five or six, depending on usage. The Huawei Watch's battery life is best measured in hours, but quite a few of them. “How many?” can be a somewhat tricky question, but the short answer is “enough.”. It's tricky because usage and configuration will have a HUGE impact (and because the Wear Android app recently removed the slightly-useful battery graph), but with Always-on enabled and the display brightness at the lowest level I've been spending an easy 15+ hours off charge without dipping below 20%. Today, I've been wearing the Huawei Watch for about 16.5 hours and the battery now indicates 23% remaining. The point is that it should easily get through a day but probably not two. Just plan on charging it when you charge your phone each night and you'll have no issues.
  • Smartphone Integration. If you ask me, this is the Android Wear "killer app.” The Pebble functions as an accessory to your smartphone. It pushes select notifications to your wrist, lets you act on a few of them with user-defined quick response phrases or simple notification actions which leverage Android Wear’s notification handler, and interacts with some mobile apps specifically made for that purpose. And while the Pebble does have an impressive developer community for apps and faces, it seems to be somewhat lacking in big name support. Very few large companies have updated their popular mobile app for Pebble support (Domino’s being the notable exception I can think of). Sometimes the community would step in with an unofficial app to bridge the two, but all too often those projects disappear overnight when Big Name Corporation starts distributing Cease and Desist orders. The OG Pebble also has a maximum of eight non-stock watch faces and watch apps that can be installed at a time, which can be quite limiting if you want to connect your watch with multiple apps and services.

    Android Wear, on the other hand, is a truer extension of your Android smartphone experience. By default, all notifications get mirrored to the watch, and swiping them to the left will display various actions that you can take like marking an item as Done to remove it from your Inbox, replying to a message in Hangouts (via voice, drawing emoji, or a set of simple quick responses), or, at the very least, blocking an app from pushing any further notifications to Android Wear. In contrast to the Pebble, the Hangouts quick responses are canned and cannot be changed by the user, but the option to reply by voice does add some versatility. Many popular applications also include an Android Wear component allowing you to manage your finances, order products, monitor the weather, cross off lists, and many other tasks you may want to do while on the go - and these are big name, officially-supported apps for the most part.

    And then there’s the clincher: all of Google, easily accessible and seamlessly integrated with your watch. This is where the magic of Google Now really shines. Search for a restaurant or hotel on your PC, and directions and travel time automatically appear on your wrist on your way out the door. And once you get over the self-conscious hang-up of talking to your watch (which was honestly a bit of a hurdle for me) the possibilities expand much further. Ask a question and get Google’s best-guess answer, or speak a command to have your wrist borne digital butler execute your whim (I use “OK Google, start a timer for 3 minutes” on a daily basis) - all without touching your phone. Check out Google’s Android Wear help page for some of the basic commands orthis blog post for a pretty extensive list of examples. It’s powerful stuff!
If you haven’t caught on just yet, I’ve been very impressed by the Huawei Watch (and Android Wear) but it’s not perfect. There are some minor issues that temporarily spoil the magic. On the hardware side, the steel link band seems particularly prone to pinching and pulling on my arm hair. That’s not something I remember encountering with other steel link bands, but I haven’t yet tried swapping in any others onto this watch yet. (The good news is that this is a problem which will resolve itself when I no longer have hair on my wrist!) The lugs where the band attaches are a bit large and pronounced, which means the stock band is a somewhat unusual size: the band is 22mm wide, but the lugs narrow to 18mm. There are plenty of replacement bands available sized for 18mm lugs, but fewer which maintain the full 22mm width. And, by the way, those oversized lugs stick straight out to the sides rather than contouring slightly to the curve of the wearer’s wrist. The result is a fairly pronounced gap between the bottom of the upper lug and my wrist, though it’s possible that this gap is intentional as the dual microphones used for voice input are situated on the back of the Huawei Watch near this upper lug.

On that note, while the sensitivity of the “OK Google” hotword activation seems to be pretty good (the Huawei Watch readily responded to my speech even while riding in a noisy car with a noise floor around 90dB), I feel like I have to speak just a little bit too loudly to get its attention in a quiet environment. Some informal testing suggests a minimum of 70dB in order for the hotword to take even in a quiet (~40dB) room, while a much quieter voice is sufficient for whatever command follows “Ok Google”. It’s almost like the activation threshold is set slightly too high; I hope this is something that might be fixed with a software update. Similarly, the notification vibration can sometimes seem a bit too soft. I’ve found that I can usually feel the vibration when my arm is horizontal (and the weight of the Huawei Watch pushes it down onto my skin) but I’m less likely to notice when I’m walking around. This can apparently be adjusted with a custom kernel and root, so maybe Huawei will bless us with a fix as well.

I’m also a bit underwhelmed by the included charging puck. Rather than implementing wireless charging (like the 360), Huawei opted instead for a plastic disk with four tiny pogo pins for charging. The puck does include a magnet so it will stick to the steel back of the Huawei Watch, but it doesn’t have much of a guide to make sure the pins get lined up properly. I have been very deliberate when placing my Huawei Watch on the charger, but I know others who have had theirs run out of juice halfway through the day because they only thought the pins were lined up correctly and their Huawei Watch failed to charge. It’s not a huge deal if you pay attention, but it’s a bit surprising that such a detail was apparently overlooked. Similarly, the puck is just a puck, not a stand. This design probably works fine for watches with a leather band which could be draped flat over the puck, however the closed loop of steel links on mine means the puck has to rest awkwardly between the steel links and the back of the Huawei Watch. It's an inelegant arrangement which could be greatly improved by a stand. The puck also sadly includes a permanently-attached USB cord rather than a micro-USB input. If that cord becomes damaged, you’ll need to buy a whole new $40 charger. It just really feels like Huawei skimped out on the charging design for their otherwise-premium smartwatch.

Huawei proudly includes dozens of stock watch faces, and many are quite attractive, but few can be customized in any meaningful way. I’d really appreciate some added customization options to choose colors, hand styles, and complications - indicators like weather, moon phase, step counter, etc. Fortunately, there is an ample supply of polished faces offered in the Play Store, along with hundreds more at community sites like WatchAwear and FaceRepo. (I’ve shared some of my favorite discoveries so far on Google+ via the #HuatchfaceWednesday tag.)

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There are even a few things that the Pebble seems to handle better than the Huawei Watch/Android Wear. First, the Pebble has a compass and the Huawei Watch does not; several other Android Wear devices do include a compass, so one of those may be a better option if you routinely rely upon your watch for plotting a course through the woods. Second, I had regularly used an app called Pebble Nav Me to get navigation directions sent to my Pebble. Those instructions came through in a timely manner, so I could generally navigate based solely on my watch’s instructions. I thought that surely Android Wear’s native support for Google Maps/Navigation would at least match that experience, but so far it’s been kind of disappointing. Intense battery drain aside (we’re talking 10% in as many minutes), the instructions displayed on the Huawei Watch updated irregularly and rarely quickly enough for me to act on them. Navigating based on the Huawei Watch’s directions would not be a pleasant task. I’ve spoken with a few users of other Android Wear devices who reported a similar navigation experience, so this may be an Android Wear issue rather than one specific to this watch.

Huawei has attracted quite a bit of attention this fall with the release of the Huawei Watch and the Nexus 6P; based on the early supply issues, they’ve sold many more of each device than they had originally anticipated, which means they may have to support many more US-based customers than they have in the past. This is still a relatively new market for the company, and some customers are wondering if they are up to the task. I’ve seen posts on social media and Huawei’s own community complaining about RMAs with up to three-week turnarounds, and at least one post mentions that Huawei only has a single individual handling repair/replace cases. By contrast, Pebble was eager to replace my watches that failed due to flaky display connections four times over the past two years - well beyond their original retail warranty, and I purchased through Kickstarter rather than a retail channel. Each RMA was handled from opening a case to receiving a new Pebble within a week. Huawei has extended the standard warranty for the Huawei Watch out to two years, which is a really great gesture. I just hope that the company will be able to streamline their support request processing in the coming months.

Overall, though, these issues and complaints are relatively minor and easy for me to get past. I remain hugely impressed with the form and function of the Huawei Watch, and I’m glad to finally give Android Wear a chance. After experiencing the improved notification handling and tighter integration with Google services and Android applications afforded by Android Wear I don’t think that I could go back to wearing the Pebble (nor do I have any interest whatsoever in their more recent offerings, but that’s another post altogether). And this experience should only get better with the next big Android Wear update, which should introduce support for the speaker hidden inside the Huawei Watch as well as some new gestures for one-handed control, among other things.

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The Pebble was a great starter wearable; the Huawei Watch is an attractive and functional grown-up smartwatch, and I’m happy to have made that step up.


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Update (11/24/15)

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Huawei has begun rolling out a new firmware for the Huawei Watch, LCB43B. This is still Android5.1.1 / Android Wear 1.3 (so no speaker support - yet!), but does bring a small handful of bug fixes andfeatures (a few of which I complained about the other day):


  • Adjusts the activation threshold for the spoken "OK Google" command. No more shouting loudly to get the Huawei Watch's attention! This is actually a huge improvement as I canspeak in a much softer, more natural, less conspicuous voice when issuing voice commands.
  • Adds a new charging screen. This attractive animated display makes it more obvious when the Huawei Watch is correctly aligned with the pogo pins on the charging puck. It doesn't help the fact that the design of the puck, frankly, sucks, but that's sadly not something that can be fixed with software.
  • Adds a new customizable watch face. It's not the most attractive face in their collection (pictured above), but it does let you select the background color/texture, markers style, and hands style, and also lets you toggle four different data displays (watch battery level, steps counter, date, and additional time zone). I hope that Huawei will make more of the very attractive stock faces user-configurable as well, but this is a nice start.
There are also less obvious fixes and enhancements for things like battery level reporting and Bluetooth stability, layout/icon improvements, and some new tricks for the bundled Huawei fitness tracking applications. Here's the full changelog from Huawei: