The original Huawei Watch was one of my surprise favorites. It didn’t have an overabundance of features, but it ran Android Wear nicely and it looked good doing it. With the new $299.99 Huawei Watch 2, the company pivoted hard. It put an emphasis on function over form in an attempt to make it more of a fitness device rather than a casual fashion piece. That’s exactly what a number of other companies such as Apple, Samsung, and LG have done with their recent smartwatch attempts, but in the case of the Huawei, the result is a mixed bag.
To test the watch, I linked it with my primary Google accounts and wore it constantly, except when charging it or swimming. I wore it while hiking, running, playing basketball, and doing a couple of at-home workouts. I used it as a second screen for my phone, as an activity tracker, and even for tracking my sleep (via a third-party app) — you know, the stuff that smartwatches are typically used for. But before we get into how it did, let’s talk about what’s new in this model.
The big new feature is that the watch now has its own GPS radio. This means you can leave your phone at home, then go for a run or ride and all your important, brag-worthy stats will be recorded. It also has a built-in optical heart rate monitor that tracks your ticker 24/7; it should deliver a good look at your resting heart rate over time, which is an important metric for your overall fitness. It’s one of the few Android Wear watches that has a built-in speaker, which you can use for notifications and alarms, as well as playing music directly from the watch. You should, theoretically, be able to make phone calls through it, but the app crashed on me every time I tried it. The global version of the watch has LTE as an option, but unfortunately that model hasn’t yet made it to the US.
To accommodate these additional components, the body of the Huawei Watch 2 is 1.3mm thicker than the original (12.6mm vs. 11.3mm). That doesn’t seem like a lot on paper, but on a watch, you notice every tenth of a millimeter. One of the things the original had going for it was that it was fairly unobtrusive. It laid more or less flat against your wrist, and it wasn’t overly prone to catching on your cuff. The Watch 2 juts out more and makes it feel closer to the chunky GPS watches you associate with trekking — but at least those are typically waterproof to 50+ meters. The Watch 2 tops out at IP68, which means it’s water resistant up to a meter for up to 30 minutes. In other words: you can shower with it, but swimming is out.
The body of the watch is now plastic instead of metal, which gives it a decidedly cheaper look and feel. The biggest loss, however, is that the screen has decreased from 1.4 inches to 1.2 inches. At first I thought Huawei did this to reduce the overall size of the device, but despite the smaller screen the new version is larger than the original in every dimension. The Watch 2 has a thicker, more utilitarian-looking bezel encircling the screen (again, probably to make room for the additional sensors and such), so it’s possible that shrinking the screen was how it kept the watch from being even larger than it is. If so, it wasn’t worth it, as the display is very hard to read. Icons get jammed together and it’s extremely easy to over-scroll when swiping, or select the wrong item by mistake. For context, the Apple Watch has a 1.65-inch screen (square), and the larger Moto 360 has a 1.56-inch screen (round). Both are much easier to use. The Watch 2 also lacks a rotating bezel or crown, so all of your interaction happens on that tiny screen. The exceptions are the two buttons on the side: one is used to open apps and launch Assistant, and the other launches workout tracking.
The Huawei Watch 2 runs Android Wear 2.0, which is a big improvement over earlier versions. It can run native, standalone apps and even download them directly from the Google Play Store on the watch. Watchfaces can display far more complex data fields, and the notifications are easier to interact with — or they would be if they weren’t so tiny on this diminutive screen. I actually encountered a surprising amount of bugginess: apps randomly freezing on a couple of occasions, and the watch generally being slow to respond to input. The screen times out all too quickly, which forces you to navigate all the way back to the thing you just had up (though this may be an Android Wear issue).
While Google Assistant is built in, it seems that not all Google Assistants are created equal. I can ask my Pixel XL “What time do the Warriors play tonight?” and it’ll tell me they are playing the Spurs at 6PM tonight. When I ask the watch the exact same question, Assistant tells me, “Sorry, I couldn’t do that.” Go figure. Also, Android Wear still won’t let Google Voice users initiate an SMS conversation from their own Google Voice phone number, which remains infuriating for me.
Android Pay is another new addition with Wear 2.0 and it works smoothly. Once you have your credit cards loaded into the watch (you’ll need your phone for that, too), you can use the watch to pay for goods pretty much anywhere NFC payments are available. You must have a lock screen enabled on your watch, but once it’s unlocked, you just open the pay app, select the card you want to use, and tap your watch’s screen to the point-of-sale machine’s NFC reader. This could come in handy if you’re running without your phone and you find yourself in desperate need of a drink or a taxi back home.
Huawei did build some of its own apps to take advantage of the Watch 2’s new hardware features. Simply press the physical button on the bottom right of the watch and you can track running, walking, outdoor cycling, treadmill, indoor cycling, and “other,” which you can use for general workouts. There are also modes for cardio and “fat-burning,” which will help you stay within a predetermined heart rate zone while running. If you also use the phone-based Huawei Health app, it can help you train for a 5K, 10K, half marathon, or full marathon based on your current fitness level and your goals. Huawei Health can also integrate with Google Fit, MyFitnessPal, and (strangely) UP by Jawbone so your stats won’t languish in a silo, alone forever.
The workout app is really pretty decent. It has an embedded Google Map which you can use to see your location (though only if you have preloaded the map or have your phone with you), and it can display your running cadence (i.e., steps per minute), which is an important metric and a pretty rare one for a watch to display.
Unfortunately, this is somewhat neutered by the small screen. Cadence is displayed on a page with five other data fields. When crammed into a 1.2-inch screen, those data fields are entirely illegible while running. If I wanted to see my cadence I had to stop and look, and then I only had a few seconds to see it, because it changes when your feet stop moving. This could easily be solved by separating some of these data fields onto other pages, so a larger font could be used. Of course, you can just as easily install Runkeeper, Strava, Runtastic, and other favorite mobile fitness apps, but even then the tiny screen is prone to cutting off text at the corners.
Wrist-based optical heart rate monitors are notorious for having accuracy problems, which is why I was surprised to discover the quality of this one. I did a workout with the Huawei Watch 2 on my left rest, and on my right I used the Garmin Fenix 5X paired with a very trustworthy chest strap HRM. I found that the Huawei tended to be 5–10 seconds behind the Garmin when it came to displaying changes in my heart rate, but once it caught up it was almost always within five beats per minute, and more often it stayed within two. That’s really quite good! The lag was definitely annoying, but in the context of a long workout I wouldn’t call it a deal-breaker.
One of the things the watch does best is function as an activity tracker (a la Fitbit and co). When you open the built-in Daily Tracking app, you’re greeted with a ton of data that’s laid out very nicely. It tells you how many steps you’ve taken, how many feet of elevation you’ve gained, how many times you’ve stood up, how long you’ve spent standing, how much time you’ve spent in different heart rate zones, how many calories you’ve burned, and even your resting heart rate for the day (and a graph for viewing all the spikes and valleys over the last six hours). Many of these data fields can be integrated into your favorite watchface, too. It will also advise you to get up and move if you’ve been inactive for more than an hour, and it will even show you some stretches you can do.
Unfortunately, battery life is extremely variable and unreliable. The Watch 2 has a 420mAh cell in it (up from 300mAh on the previous model), and there were times when I used the watch to track a couple of activities with GPS and it still made it nearly two full days. The next day, I used the watch very lightly and it drained to 12 percent after 24 hours. The day after that, it was down to 12 percent after just 18 hours. There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to it. You can use it in a low-power mode — which Huawei claims will get you 21 days of battery life — but the only thing it can do in that mode is tell you the time of day and how many steps you’ve taken. This kinda defeats the point of wearing a bulky smartwatch.
Maybe “bulky” isn’t fair, at least not when compared to behemoths like the LG Watch Sport, which at 45.4 x 51.2 x 14.2mm is handily wider and thicker than the Huawei Watch 2 (48.9 x 45 x 12.6mm), but it’s not exactly svelte, either. It seems that Huawei was hoping to sway some daintier-wristed individuals with this iteration, but I don’t think they’ve quite cracked the code here. I think it looks fine on me, personally, but my wrists are on the larger side of the spectrum. On thinner wrists, it protrudes a bit awkwardly, and I can’t see it bringing many fashionistas into the fold.
Overall, I found that the Huawei Watch 2 was one of my more frustrating Android Wear experiences. Trying to read the tiny screen while exercising made me want to chew off my own hand. (It was even worse when I was wearing polarized sunglasses.) I actually found the watch to be pretty comfortable, and it was surprisingly accurate for the things it could track. That said, for a watch this big and sporty-looking, I want it to be, well, sportier. I want it to be waterproof and capable of tracking my swimming or kayaking. And if it’s trying to be a smartwatch, then it simply needs to work better —without glitches or precipitous dives in battery life.
Ultimately, it feels like Huawei was trying to make a watch that could be right for everybody, and it ended up with a watch that isn’t really right for anybody.
Photography by Brent Rose for The Verge
Brent Rose is a freelance writer, actor, and filmmaker, currently traveling the US living in a high-tech van, looking for stories to tell. Follow his adventures on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and at ConnectedStates.com.