Huawei Watch 3 Hands-on Review: The Smartwatch, Harmonized

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The Huawei Watch 3 isn’t just another smartwatch, it’s one of the most important products to come from Huawei in a while. The Watch 3 ditches the old software used on the Watch GT2 for HarmonyOS 2.0, Huawei’s self-developed operating system we’ve heard a lot about, but until now have not had a chance to use.

The Huawei Watch 3 is the first mobile device to officially launch with the software onboard and is therefore our first proper real-world experience with the software that will define Huawei’s future device range. Huawei has chosen to debut HarmonyOS on a beautiful smartwatch too, emphasizing how much it needs to make a good impression. I’ve been wearing the Watch 3 for a couple of days, not enough for a full review yet, but more than enough for an in-depth hands-on.

Software synthesis, and familiarity

HarmonyOS is Huawei’s response to being unable to use Google Services on its mobile products, due to restrictions introduced by the U.S. government, making it impossible for U.S. companies to work with Huawei. It’s an entire software ecosystem, designed to work on, and seamlessly across, everything from internet-of-things hardware to smartphones.

Huawei hinted the first major product, outside of televisions, to launch globally with HarmonyOS would be a smartwatch when I spoke to the company at the end of 2019, and now it’s here. Let’s talk about the best parts first. The speed, fluidity, and smoothness are astonishing. It’s absolutely nothing like Google’s Wear OS in this regard. There are no pauses and no slowdown, just instantaneous response, a lovely “bounce” effect when swiping between screens, and seriously fast scrolling.

It’s also attractively designed, with bright colors, large icons, clear text, and some pretty watch faces too. I quickly slipped into using HarmonyOS 2.0 on the Watch 3 without any period of adjustment or a necessity to learn new layouts or icon styles. While this is a good thing, there’s also a good reason outside of the decent design — HarmonyOS on the Watch 3 is a “greatest hits” of wearable software.

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The main menu, accessed by pressing the crown, is presented as a grid of circular icons and looks just like Apple’s WatchOS. You can even twist the crown to zoom in and out of the grid. This is the default setting, but it can be changed to a more standard list layout if you’d prefer. Dig into other menus, like the workout list accessed using the lower button on the case, and options are shown as a vertically scrolling list that stretches and adapts to the circular screen, reminding me of Tizen on the Galaxy Watch 3. Swipe left on the screen and you get information panels, just like Wear OS and Huawei’s own LiteOS on the Watch GT2.

There are only limited design and ergonomic directions you can take with software on such a small screen, which has to be used with one finger, but the out-of-the-box similarity to WatchOS in particular doesn’t do it any favors. It’s a shame because that aside, HarmonyOS is faster and more pleasant to use than WearOS, and even Tizen sometimes too, and at no time does it feel like a first release.

Watch design done right?

Tech companies find smartwatch design quite hard, and rarely come up with anything you’d want to wear all day, every day. The Huawei Watch 3 is beautiful, and a significant step forward in wearable design for Huawei. The 1.43-inch AMOLED screen is covered in a curved piece of hardened glass, and it’s a joy to swipe and to feel under your finger. The complete lack of bezel means your finger has the entire front to swipe over, making it easier and more precise to use than some others, and the glass itself is warm to the touch with a high quality finish.

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The screen is attached to a 46mm case made from 316L stainless steel, with a ceramic case back. The use of ceramic is very important because it feels so good against your skin. It looks very classy and doesn’t get sweaty or itchy like plastic. Huawei has made three versions all differentiated by the type of strap. The leather strap seen in the photos is joined by a fabric strap, a silicone strap, and a metal bracelet. Huawei has also announced a larger 48mm Watch 3 Pro with sapphire crystal over the screen, and a titanium case.

On the side of the case is a single button at the four o’clock position which by default opens the workout tracking mode, but can be changed if you prefer, plus a crown at the two o’clock position. The crown rotates to move through menus, has a texture to make it easier to grip with your fingertip, and Huawei Watch branding etched on it. It’s closer in operation to Apple’s Digital Crown on the Apple Watch — complete with some haptic feedback — than it is to rotating crowns on Wear OS smartwatches, with greater responsiveness and feel.

It’s unquestionably a very comfortable watch to wear. The 65-gram weight, supple leather strap, and that ceramic case back mean it doesn’t get annoying on your wrist, while the position of the crown and almost flush-to-the-case button ensure they don’t dig into your wrist at any point. From the easy swiping screen to the sensible use of high quality materials, the Huawei Watch 3 integrates many of the design aspects that have made Huawei phones so pleasant to use, then neatly packages it inside a smartwatch that feels surprisingly close to a normal watch.

How about the technology?

I can’t fully review the Huawei Watch 3 yet because I haven’t spent long enough using it when connected to a phone. But I can tell you what’s notable, and the big feature here is an eSIM for connected use without a phone. eSIM technology is still quite new, and getting one for your Watch 3 does involve a little extra work, and in the U.K. at least most eSIMs are only available on a contract rather than a simpler pay-as-you-go plan.

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The Watch 3 uses Huawei’s App Gallery app store, streams music through Huawei Music, and tracks workouts using Huawei Health. It’s part of the growing Huawei ecosystem which is so important for the company, and similar caveats apply here as they do on its recent phones. Some apps and services may not be available, but that perhaps won’t make so much of a difference on a wearable. Mapping is a good example of where things are different, as there isn’t a pre-installed guidance app, and obviously no option to use Google Maps.

Huawei has packed the Watch 3 with sensors. There’s a heart rate sensor on the back, a blood oxygen (SPo2) sensor, and a skin temperature sensor too. Recently seen on the Mobvoi TicWatch GTH, a skin temperature sensor isn’t really suitable for monitoring core temperature, but can be helpful in understanding overall health over time. However, it’s equally as niche as an SPo2 monitor. There are 100 different workout modes, auto fall detection, and all-day activity recording.

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Huawei claims the battery will last for three days when using the eSIM for a 4G connection, or 14 days with the “ultra long” battery mode active. I have not used the watch long enough to assess battery life without an eSIM connection. The Watch 3 Pro has a larger battery and is expected to get five days 4G use, and 21 days from the ultra long battery mode.

Using the Watch 3

I’m only a short time into using the Watch 3 connected to a phone, but do have a few initial thoughts. Notifications from an Android phone are the same as the Watch GT2, with clear text but no way to interact with the messages. They’re also sporadic, and not all apps send a note to the Watch despite being on the approved list. The Bluetooth and Wi-Fi range is quite short, but the Watch 3 does quickly reconnected to both when it’s back in range.

Set up for me required the installation of the Huawei AppGallery to get the latest version of Huawei Health, as the Google Play version didn’t find the Watch 3. This may change following release though. Regarding the battery life, with the always-on screen active, and all-day heart rate and SPo2 tracking, I doubt it’ll last more than a few days before needing a recharge even without 4G connectivity.

HarmonyOS’s impressive performance and design tweaks haven’t made the Watch 3 operate all that differently from the Watch GT2. It’s clearly a more powerful device, with some lovely animation on the varied watch faces and reminders to get up and walk around, just don’t expect it to feel revolutionary if you’re coming from an older Huawei smartwatch. This isn’t a downside, it’s evidence Huawei’s wearable software has always done things right, and it sensibly didn’t throw all that existing knowledge out.

How much?

At the time of writing Huawei has not confirmed the price and availability of the Watch 3. At launch, the Huawei Watch GT2 Pro cost 300 British pounds, or about $425, and it’s unlikely the Watch 3 will dip under this figure considering it has 4G connectivity. That potentially puts it up against the smartwatch heavyweights — the Apple Watch Series 6, the Samsung Galaxy Watch 3, and the Mobvoi TicWatch Pro 3.

The design is thoughtful and attractive, the watch is comfortable to wear and easy to use, and the technology is right at the top end of the scale with the health-related sensors and the eSIM. The Watch 3 is also massively important to the company, as it shows off HarmonyOS publicly for the first time. However, the Huawei Watch 3’s success may end up being governed by the price, no matter how accomplished or important to the brand it is. We’ll update here when Huawei confirms the details.

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