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What are Apple and Huawei's new smartwatches like?

Phone makers are packing more into their smartwatches to give them greater stand-alone capabilities. But basics such as battery life, activity tracking and screen quality still win out when weighing up the smartwatch options. Peter Griffin reviews the new Apple Watch Series 5 and the new Huawei GT 2.

Top: Apple. Bottom: Huawei

Apple Watch Series 5 

Everything an iPhone user needs on their wrist

The new Apple Watch Series 5 is a marvel of design with a price to match ($729). Apple takes the smartwatch format about as far as it can until it comes up with a way to boost its battery life so it can be worn all night and only needs charging once a week. It’s weird to start a review with a gadget’s key omissions, but it’s largely perfect in every other regard, from the new always-on display to the presentation of apps. With battery life topping out at around a day and a half and a guaranteed 18 hours with the new display active, you’ll need to pop it onto Apple’s proprietary cradle beside your bed every night.

That leads to the second ongoing omission ‒ sleep tracking functionality. Apple doesn’t provide this as a native feature and while there are third-party apps, the same issue remains. If the Watch is on your wrist as you slumber, you’ll need to find time somewhere else during the day to charge it ‒ a full charge will take about one hour.

For me, taking off the watch every night and charging it is one action too far in my daily routine and sleep tracking is probably the activity function I value the most. Apple is doing its best to strike a balance between functionality and battery life and for now it seems, the trade-off is working, with the Apple Watch the world’s best selling smartwatch.

The key new feature in the Series 5 Watch is the always-on display. With the Apple Watch Series 4, you had to turn your wrist to activate the display, or a new notification would light it up. Now the display is always on by default, an incredibly useful function that does away with the empty black screen. Apple has used a new low-power OLED screen technology to dim the screen when your wrist is down, increasing the brightness when it is raised or a notification comes in. So now you can simply glance at the screen to see updates. The display is remarkable in its clarity and the always-on nature really makes an aesthetic and practical difference.

Elsewhere, the upgrades are more subtle. We finally get a built-in compass, which lets you see your heading, incline, latitude, longitude and current elevation. The Maps app has had a revamp, which lets you easily see what way you are facing in relation to everything around you.

New built-in app features on watchOS 6, the operating system which drives the Watch, include the Cycle Tracking app, to let women log their menstrual cycles. Based on the information entered, it will predict timing for the wearer’s next period or fertility window. The Noise app actively listens for loud background noise that may harm your hearing. It hasn’t gone off once for me ‒ even the U2 concert didn’t set it off. But if you are working in noisy environments, it could be a good indicator of whether you need to get rid of the noise source or don earmuffs.

The Watch also now has its own dedicated app store. This is pretty impressive. Before, you would have to search for apps and install them via your iPhone. Now you can browse a store of free and paid apps and download them directly.

Elsewhere, Apple continues its winning formula. For me, the app implementation and overall design, from the display to the responsiveness of the crown to the elegant straps, are what sets the Watch apart. I love how apps like ASB, Uber and Air New Zealand look on the Watch and how you can use it to pay at many tap-and-go terminals. For an iPhone owner, it’s the go-to smartwatch.

If the price puts you off, the Series 3, which is waterproof and contains a GPS receiver, is now a very sharp $349.

Mobile functionality

A cellular capable version of the Apple Watch Series 5 will go on sale from December 6. It has been available overseas for some time, but local mobile network operators have been slow to cater to it. Spark announced this week its One Number Wearable Plan. For $12.99 per month, you can add an unlimited data plan (speed reduced after 40GB) and it lets you share your mobile phone’s calling and text plan with your Watch.

This is currently exclusive to Apple Watch users. I don’t see it having massive uptake, but if you love the freedom of being connected without carrying your phone, it will have huge appeal.

Pros: Always-on display, dedicated app store, sophisticated health tracking features, great design, cellular capability (coming Dec 6)

Cons: Battery life, no dedicated sleep tracking, ECG functionality not yet available in New Zealand. Only works with the iPhone.

 Huawei GT 2

Huawei Watch GT 2

Less can be more

Last year, Huawei introduced the first Watch GT that was heavy on fitness tracking and light on most other things.

The GT was designed to work in tandem with a smartphone ‒ ideally a Huawei phone, such as the Nova or P30, but it will work with any compatible Android or iOS smartphone carrying the Huawei Health app. Its big advantage was its battery life ‒ an impressive two weeks or more between charges.

With the new GT 2 ($342), you get a number of upgrades, such as a stylish new display design which removes the lip between the screen and its surrounds. It has an AMOLED display that displays text, icons and notifications on a black background, much like the Apple Watch. It is crisp and easy to read.

The GT 2 now has Bluetooth calling, so you can pick up (and reject) calls from your wrist. I’ve really taken to this, having many conversations with people simply talking into the microphone built into the GT 2, rather than reaching for my phone. The audio quality is good, as is the call quality - callers haven’t noticed any audio quality difference with a regular smartphone. Pairing the GT 2 with Huawei’s new FreeBuds make for a great combo.

Huawei has now added 2GB (gigabytes) of onboard storage so you can download music or podcasts to listen to, letting you entertain yourself while leaving the phone at home. You won’t get calls or notifications as there is no cellular chip in the GT 2, but previously, in standalone mode, the GT didn’t have any entertainment options ‒ now it does.

What I would prefer, is a Spotify app ‒ who downloads music or transfers mp3 files these days? Here then is the big limitation of the GT 2 ‒ its lack of app support. It has great health tracking functionality, calling and push-notifications. But that ecosystem of apps Apple Watch users enjoy is missing here.

That’s the fundamentally different approach Huawei is employing. If you want that incredible battery life, which remains at two weeks between charges for the GT 2, you can’t have battery-hogging apps onboard. With my smartphone usually within arm’s length from me, this isn’t really a problem. The GT 2 upgrade allowing Bluetooth calling was the big one I was looking for.

In the health tracking department, little has changed beyond the extensive workout options of the GT, though there is now a stress monitoring function. It asks you a series of questions about your outlook on life and combines the data with heart rate monitoring to give you a stress rating. Mine was a “normal” 43 ‒ high is in the 80-99 category. You get the all-important sleep tracking which has allowed me to gain better insights into my sleeping patterns and help me figure out why I’m waking up during the night.

Overall, the GT 2 boosts Huawei’s credibility in the smartwatch world. It faces a fork in the road - does it try to become the Apple Watch of the Android world, or keep things simple and focus on improving design even further? I hope it is the latter as at this price and with two-week battery life, I’m squarely in the target market. Available in two size formats 42mm Elegant and 46mm Standard models).

Pros: Good price, excellent battery life, great screen, Bluetooth calling, decent health tracking app

Cons: Lack of app support, user interface is a work in progress

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