Huawei Watch 3 Review: Strong Commitment is Needed

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Huawei Watch 3 review: To achieve perfect Harmony, you’ll need to commit to it

“The Huawei Watch 3 is a beautifully designed, fast, and accurate health-tracking smartwatch, but you’ve got to get past a seriously off-putting setup experience.”

  • Great-looking and comfortable to wear
  • Accurate, in-depth health tracking
  • Fast GPS connection
  • Fluid, fast software
  • Short battery life with all features active
  • Limited eSIM support
  • Poor setup experience

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, 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 device to officially launch with the software on board, and while it’s fast and well designed, it takes a great deal of effort and commitment to get it working with your phone. Assuming you’re prepared to put in the time, is it worth it?

Design

The Huawei Watch 3 is one of the best-looking smartwatches you can buy. It’s thoughtfully designed and very comfortable to wear, with a case made from 316L stainless steel and a ceramic case back featuring a high-quality, luxurious finish. Huawei has long proved it knows what it’s doing with design in both phones and wearables, and the Watch 3 continues that tradition. Its clean and understated, yet still exciting, style is highly watch-like and miles ahead of most Wear OS smartwatches.

Huawei Watch 3 on the wrist
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The 46mm case suits my 6.5-inch wrist, and the 65-gram weight makes it wearable throughout the day, although I found it too big to wear overnight. The use of ceramic is important because it feels so good against your skin. It reflective nature looks classy and doesn’t get sweaty or itchy like plastic. On the side is an offset, neatly textured crown above a single button at the four-o’clock position. Neither dig into your wrist, but I did find the button is a little too low on the case, making it slightly awkward to locate and press.

You control the Watch 3 using the touchscreen and the crown. The 1.43-inch AMOLED screen with its 466 x 466 pixel resolution is beautiful, and is at its best when showing off colorful watch faces. It’ll sound strange to say, but the hardened glass used over the screen has a wonderful texture, and the 2.5D curve around the bezel makes swiping pleasingly tactile, while giving the front of the watch shape and visual interest. The crown’s stylish texture has grip and is therefore easy to rotate with your finger.

Huawei Watch 3 button and crown
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

If I was feeling uncharitable, it would be easy to turn the Huawei Watch 3’s positives into negatives, as most of the aspects that make it a winner — stainless steel, ceramic, low weight, textured crown, a single button, curved screen bezel — are the same ones that make the Apple Watch a winner. If anything, the Huawei Watch 3 is a fairly close depiction of what a round Apple Watch could be like, and the similarities with the Apple Watch don’t end there either, but we’ll come back to that.

The sum of the Huawei Watch 3’s parts work so well, I’m not going to come down on it because the design echoes the very best smartwatch you can buy, particularly because there are so many disappointing smartwatches out there and a good model should be applauded.

Software

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

The app grid menu on the Huawei Watch 3
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The Huawei Watch 3 is the first device to use HarmonyOS 2, and you can forget all about Wear OS, or Huawei’s own LiteOS, which it has used on its wearables in the past. It’s a world apart and way better than both of them. The speed, fluidity, and smoothness is astonishing. There are no pauses and no slowdown, just instantaneous response, a lovely “bounce” effect when swiping between screens, and seriously fast scrolling. It’s attractively designed with bright colors, large icons, clear text, and some pretty watch faces, too.

I quickly slipped into using HarmonyOS 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 fluidity, speed, and pretty design — HarmonyOS on the Watch 3 is a a bit like a “greatest hits” of wearable software.

Press the crown to see the main menu, which 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, complete with haptic feedback. This is the default setting, but it can be changed to a 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 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.

Granted, there are limited design directions you can take with software on such a small screen, which has to be used with one finger, but the similarity to WatchOS in particular doesn’t do it any favors. I changed the launcher to show a list of icons and spent time choosing the best watch faces, just so I could give the Watch 3 its own identity, which HarmonyOS 2.0 is slightly lacking at the moment.

Huawei Health app

The Huawei Watch 3 earns some goodwill through being attractive and having speedy software, and it needs every last bit of it, because getting it started and using the app can be very frustrating. It’s here where HarmonyOS 2’s newness is exposed, and we see the challenge ahead of Huawei if it wants to attract widespread adoption.

The Huawei Watch 3 earns some goodwill through being attractive and having speedy software.

To sync the Watch 3 with your Android phone, you have to download Huawei Health, but not Huawei Health from Google Play. That version is out of date, and doesn’t work with any brand-new Huawei devices. Instead you have to download the Huawei App Gallery and get Huawei Health from there. This means downloading an APK file, accepting system permissions, signing up with Huawei to use the App Gallery, downloading another new file, accepting other new permissions, providing notification and location access, and more.

It doesn’t stop there. To make Huawei Health work properly, you have to install another app called Huawei Core, though it isn’t really explained why. To keep Huawei Health up to date, you have to keep the App Gallery — an app that’s not very welcoming, to the point where you’re forced to look at an ad every time you open it — on your phone. It’s all very off-putting, and a massive barrier for anyone who isn’t familiar with sideloading apps and using alternative app stores.

The worst part is, if you miss a step or don’t activate the right permissions — which is very easy to do because of the fragmented, multistep setup process — the Watch 3 and the Huawei Health app will not work properly, and it’s very difficult to work out why. It’s a little easier using an iPhone, as an up-to-date Huawei Health app is available directly through the App Store. Huawei indicates you’ll get worse battery life connected to an iPhone, plus like any non-Apple Watch, it won’t support all features, including Apple Messages.

HarmonyOS 2

The fluidity of HarmonyOS 2 makes navigating the software pain-free, and there are apps for all the main features including access to the compass, breathing exercises, the music app, and if you activate the eSIM, phone functions. If you want to use the eSIM and are in the U.K., it only works with Vodafone’s network. Huawei does not sell the Watch 3 with connectivity already active. Remember, adding an eSIM will cost extra on top of your current monthly package. Even without the eSIM, calls can be answered on the Watch 3 with its speaker and microphone, although it’s not particularly loud.

Huawei Watch 3 lugs
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

I received notifications with average reliability, although none can be interacted with when they do show up, but they are at least formatted correctly and can be expanded to see more detail. However, when notifications arrive on the watch, it doesn’t show a preview immediately, which is frustrating. I’ve found if you leave it for a few seconds before raising your wrist, there’s a far greater chance the preview will show. It’s extremely annoying, because if you happen to raise your wrist too early, you’ve blown your chance of ever seeing it without waking the screen and swiping up.

Huawei’s virtual assistant, Celia, is available by long-pressing the lower button, and it works well for basic commands including starting a workout. There are some apps and features missing, such as Huawei’s own MeeTime video call service, which doesn’t work in the U.K, There’s also no contactless payment system and no onboard maps. Huawei informed me that its own Petal Maps service will be available on the Watch 3 in the future.

Frustrations aside, HarmonyOS 2 works well on the Watch 3. It’s an evolution of the already decent Watch GT2’s software and a step beyond Wear OS, but despite the visual similarities with WatchOS, still way behind the Apple Watch.

Activity tracking

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.

Activity tracking screen on the Huawei Watch 3
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The workout tracking screens on the Watch 3 are clear and very easy to read, and filled with helpful information. I found the Watch 3 acquired a GPS signal very quickly, far faster than the Fitbit Versa 3, and its overall accuracy regarding step count, heart rate, and calories burned matched the Apple Watch SE. I also liked the prompt to end a workout if the Watch 3 noticed I had stopped moving around.

What I don’t like is the incredibly irritating voice-over added to workout tracking by default. “WORKOUT STARTED!” the Watch 3 shouts when you tap the start button, letting everyone around you know what you’re doing. It’ll also shout out your heart rate, time elapsed, and other information at various intervals, all in the worst accent imaginable. I despise it to my very core. There’s a volume button in one of the menus so you can turn the hateful thing off.

That gripe aside, data is quickly synced to Huawei Health, where there is a wealth of information presented in a clear, easy-to-understand way, with plenty of depth for the serious sports addict. Key datasets are shown on the main page, which can be tapped for more detail, while on the watch, you can see VO2Max data, training load, and recovery time recommendations. The Huawei Watch 3 overall is a very effective, accurate, and feature-packed health and fitness tracker. Apart from that voice-over, which is one of the worst “features” I’ve ever come across.

Battery life

Huawei estimates three days of battery life when connected to an Android phone, or up to 14 days with a special battery mode active. Whether these estimates are achieved very much depends on how you use the watch, and so far I haven’t achieved either. If you have the heart rate, SPo2, and skin temperature monitoring active, and track a single workout with GPS for an hour, the battery will last a day, for example, and that isn’t very good at all.

The heart rate sensor on the back of the Huawei Watch 3
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

With only the heart rate monitoring active, and a single workout tracked on one day for less than an hour without GPS, the battery lasted me about two-and-a-half days. That’s better but not class leading. It’s recharged using a plastic plinth, which magnetically attaches to the case back. It’s quite slow, taking more than two hours to go from zero to 100%.

Price and availability

The Huawei Watch 3 costs 350 British pounds, which converts to around $483, for either the Classic version pictured above or an all-black version with a rubber strap called the Sport. It’s sold through Huawei’s own online store or from Amazon. It’s not officially available in the U.S., but could be purchased as an import.

Our take

For all its design polish, classy materials, and hyperfast software, the Huawei Watch 3’s onboarding process is less than ideal, and is a poor introduction to what is otherwise a very good smartwatch. Tech novices, or anyone whose experience ends with linking Bluetooth headphones to their phone, will find the setup process using the App Gallery and Huawei Health filled with complication and uncertainty, and if it’s not performed correctly, the watch may not work in the expected way. It’s absolutely not befitting of a smartwatch that costs this much.

Anyone who has used alternative app stores before, or owns a current Google-less Huawei phone for that matter, will find it far less arduous, and committing to the Watch 3 will actually pay off. It’s supremely comfortable, very well made, and packed with accessible health and fitness features. Like using a Huawei smartphone today, though, you’ll have to get used to doing things differently, using different apps, and being patient as HarmonyOS grows.

Adopting the Huawei Watch 3 doesn’t require the same level of commitment as using a Google-less Huawei smartphone, but it still doesn’t feel like a product that’s absolutely ready for the masses. It’s very close, though, and anyone who does feel confident in navigating the awkward setup process and dealing with a new app store going forward will be rewarded with an excellent smartwatch.

Is there a better alternative?

Yes. If you own an iPhone the only smartwatch you should be buying is the Apple Watch. If you’re considering a smartwatch at around 350 pounds (up to $480), that means the Apple Watch Series 6 will be within budget. It’s the best smartwatch you can buy, and an excellent choice.

If you own an Android phone, the situation is a little different. The Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 and the Mobvoi TicWatch Pro 3 are our recommendations because of their strong performance and good battery life, but unless you really have to have a smartwatch right now, we’d suggest waiting to see what happens with the next Galaxy Watch release, which will have the new Google/Samsung Wear software on board. It’s expected to arrive during the summer, and promises to deliver a far better smartwatch experience than Wear OS.

How long will it last?

The Huawei Watch 3’s stainless steel case, ceramic case back, hardened glass, and 5ATM water resistance should make it very durable. The strap is attached using quick-release pins and measures a standard 22mm, so replacements will be easy to get. Huawei is committed to HarmonyOS, meaning the software should be supported for a while, but as it’s quite new, some features you may expect may not be there just yet, such as Petal Maps.

Having the option for an eSIM is also helpful for the future, should you find such a function to be beneficial and are with the right network. There’s no reason the watch shouldn’t still be fresh in design in two years time, and in theory, the software and experience should only have improved over that time. If you’re prepared to commit, there’s plenty of life in the Huawei Watch 3.

Should you buy it?

No, most people will find living with an Apple Watch or a Wear OS smartwatch easier and more in line with their smartphone. But if you’re more adventurous and understand its drawbacks, the Huawei Watch 3 is a risk worth taking.

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