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    ASUS VivoWatch review: a fitness watch with style and shortcomings

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    My wife often says I'm fat, but that's hardly a motivation for me to resume my exercise routine. Then the ASUS VivoWatch landed on my desk, so I had no choice but to get back on the treadmill for your amusement. To keep things short, it turns out that this fitness-centric smartwatch does have a couple of compelling features that made me interested in getting fit again -- more so than the other basic (as in no heart rate monitoring) fitness trackers that I've long left in the drawer. Also, the VivoWatch can pair with both iOS plus Android, and costs just under $150 in Taiwan, meaning it'll be going head to head with the similarly priced Fitbit Charge HR around the world. So is ASUS' first fitness device worth trying? Or should you stick to some more mature offerings? Let's take a look.

    Gallery: ASUS VivoWatch review | 9 Photos

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Elegant design
    • Highly visible heart rate zone LED
    • Automatic sleep tracking
    • Great battery life
    • Continuous heart rate monitoring
    Cons
    • Doesn't track distance
    • No app notifications
    • App still needs some polish
    • Can't export data to third-party apps

    Summary

    At $150, the VivoWatch manages to beat the crowd bycombining a handy feature set with an elegant design -- one that you could easily wear in the office. With a bit of polishing on the app side, this will make a compelling option for casual runners.

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    Hardware

    Compared to its $200 sibling device, the ZenWatch, ASUS' newer and cheaper VivoWatch is all about wellness: steps, calories, heart rate, sleep quality and even UV level. With the exception of caller ID (with vibration alert), you won't be getting any notifications from your phone. In other words, the VivoWatch is less of a smartphone companion and more of a fitness wearable. The company admits that both the ZenWatch and the VivoWatch "target distinct user groups with highly crafted, but varying features," thus implying that there isn't much overlap between the two groups.

    It's not every day that you come across a sports watch with such understated elegance.

    In terms of design, what you get here is a curved Gorilla Glass 3 touchscreen encased within a slightly rounded stainless steel frame. It looks similar to the bigger ZenWatch from afar, except it comes with a glossy metal finish instead of a brushed one. Over time, I became a fan of the VivoWatch's decent looks: It's not every day that you come across a sports watch with such understated elegance. But that's obviously subjective, and a couple of my friends did say they'd prefer something that looks a bit sportier to reflect its purpose. At the risk of sounding picky, maybe the glossy frame could use a brushed finish instead to keep fingerprints off it.

    The VivoWatch has decent protection against liquids plus dust -- IP67 versus IP55 on the ZenWatch, meaning it's both dust-tight and has been certified to remain intact under one meter of water for 30 minutes. For obvious reasons, the bundled strap is made out of plastic instead of leather, but you can swap it with any standard 22mm strap.

    For the sake of extending the battery life to up to 10 days, the VivoWatch uses a combination of ASUS' self-developed, real-time OS called KoodOS; a low-power processor; and a 1.28-inch, 128 x 128-pixel, low-power, black-and-white memory LCD. The screen works very well under sunlight, and it's also backlit for indoor usage. To juice up the watch, just snap the small charging cradle onto the back of the body and leave it there for between one to two hours.

    To use the watch, you need to click on the home button on the right to unlock it. From the watch face, you can swipe horizontally to cycle through the pulse reader, the alarm, the daily activity log (for steps and calories) and the UV level detector (a feature also found on the Microsoft Band and the Samsung Gear S). You can also swipe vertically to go through the daily exercise log (total exercise time and period of aerobic activity; more on that later), daily sleep log (total sleep time and period of comfort sleep) and a happiness index based on a combination of exercise quality and sleep quality, plus all-day heart rate monitoring.

    To fully appreciate the VivoWatch, you'll want to turn on its Exercise Mode, which uses a front-facing LED to indicate whether your heart rate is within the optimal range (green) or is too intense (red, with vibration alert), according to your profile. To toggle Exercise Mode, simply hold down the home button for about four seconds; when finished, you can do the same to quit this session, and then you can sync the exercise data to your phone over Bluetooth.

    Even though Mio is the true pioneer of the heart rate-zone LED indicator, ASUS improved upon it by using a much larger LED strip for easier viewing, and that, in turn, became a motivation for me. In this mode, you can also swipe horizontally to see a live chart of your heart rate, burned calories and steps, though I tended to just stick with the default stopwatch screen.

    Now, it's worth pointing out that despite its name, Exercise Mode can only track one type of workout for now: running. If you want to monitor specific types of exercises, then this isn't for you -- as is the case with many other fitness wearables made for casual runners with basic needs. On a similar note, the VivoWatch doesn't track your distance, so serious runners may want to look elsewhere (we'll explore some alternatives farther down in this review).

    While I didn't have other heart rate monitors on hand to do a direct comparison, I did notice that the VivoWatch's reading occasionally fell short while I was running, and then went back up when I stood still, instead of slowly decreasing as it was supposed to. My watch was definitely secure on my wrist, although not too tight as per instruction. Maybe it was the sweat? No idea. As it happens, our friends over at DC Rainmaker and CNET found the same problem with the Fitbit Charge HR and Fitbit Surge, so this is likely a common flaw on devices with the same type of optical sensor. The only thing we can do is to make sure that the sensor is clean, and that the watch is worn securely.

    When you're not exercising, the VivoWatch will poke you with a vibration alert if you've been idle for too long, and it'll also congratulate you when you meet your daily goal for either steps or calories, which can be set in the smartphone app. Toward the end of the day, the VivoWatch will automatically track your sleep. So far I've found it to be pretty accurate.

    Companion app

    Before you can use the VivoWatch, you have to first install the HiVivo app on either your Android or iOS device, set up your profile (including age, gender, height and weight) and then pair up with the watch. Every time the watch is paired, the app checks for firmware updates. When it's available, be prepared: The update process not only takes at least 10 minutes, but also requires you to keep the app active, otherwise you'd end up with an error (at least it did on our Android handset). It was very surprising to encounter such amateur hour coming from ASUS, but even throughout my testing period, the VivoWatch's firmware version went through several revisions -- from a buggy 2.05 to a more stable 2.11 -- so at least it's apparent that the company is actively fine-tuning the product.

    As you'd expect, the app gives you a good overview of your fitness parameters in the form of charts, so you can easily track your progress throughout the day or week. But of course, you can already see your basic daily data on the watch's reasonably sized screen. It goes without saying that your fitness data is synced to the cloud, so even if you switch to another phone, you'll be able to restore your charts.

    The extra bit of info that you do get in the app is a chart of your heart rate throughout the day, and an indication of how much of your exercise was aerobic and anaerobic. For those who aren't familiar: Unless you're an athlete or have specific fitness goals, chances are you only want to do aerobic training just for the sake of staying healthy, so you'll find the app's Exercise Mode chart useful for analyzing your performance. Unfortunately, ASUS says you can't export the data to third-party apps like RunKeeper and Strava, so you're stuck with HiVivo and its website counterpart that ASUS is still working on.

    Another interesting feature in this app is the Network section where you can view your friends' happiness index, as well as their workout time and sleep time. You can view this as a competitive element, but there's also a "Like" button next to each name for a bit of encouragement. Sadly, I didn't have any other VivoWatch users to add, which makes us wonder: Maybe ASUS should consider selling discounted bundles to couples and families? We'll let their business folks do the maths.

    Gallery: ASUS HiVivo screenshots | 14 Photos

    The competition

    Fitbit Surge

    You get the Fitbit Surge's form factor for the price of the Fitbit Charge HR.

    With its $150 price point and pseudo-smartwatch touchscreen, it's easy to place the VivoWatch somewhere between the Fitbit Charge HR and the $250 Fitbit Surge. In many ways, ASUS' device is a better buy: You get the Surge's form factor for the price of the Charge HR, and it's also prettier -- in such a way that you can actually wear it as your everyday watch. The large heart rate zone LED is a nice bonus as well. Having said that, hardcore runners may want to pay more for the Surge's GPS tracking to estimate distance, and some may want to take advantage of Fitbit's robust food database.

    Other similarly specced rivals include the $200 Basis Peak, the $150 Garmin Vivosmart and the $200 Microsoft Band. In terms of comfort, it's safe to assume that the VivoWatch beats the Vivosmart and the Microsoft Band, even though they offer more features like distance tracking, cycling mode and smartphone notifications. This leaves us with the Basis Peak, which, again, doesn't look as good, but the extra cost is somewhat justified by its support for smartphone notifications and automatic workout tracking.

    Wrap-up

    While this may be ASUS' first attempt at making a fitness watch, it's a surprisingly good one. At $150, the VivoWatch manages to beat the crowd by bringing in a handy set of features -- especially continuous heart rate monitoring and automatic sleep tracking -- all wrapped in a good-looking package that you could easily wear in the office. With the exception of the aforementioned app bugs and the occasional heart rate reading errors, the VivoWatch has all the right ingredients to get casual runners motivated. But if you consider yourself a serious runner, then you're probably better off looking at GPS-enabled alternatives, as well as those with super-accurate heart rate monitors -- namely the ones from Mio.

    Given that the VivoWatch is still actively being updated, we have a couple of suggestions for ASUS. How about a sleep cycle-based smart alarm as featured on all Jawbone Up bands? And smartphone notifications would be nice as well.

    Now, if you'll excuse me, apparently it's "time to move" again.

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