Huawei's $80 smartwatch isn't worth it

Inelegant software and limited use mean you're better off with a $100 Pebble.

Daniel Cooper/Engadget

You remember that adage about how if you want something cheap, fast and good, you can only get two? I'm too drunk to recall it properly, but Huawei's doing its best to tick all three boxes with the Honor Band Z1. It's a wearable from the company's Honor sub-brand that's designed to appeal to tech-savvy, budget-conscious shoppers. It's just gone on sale in the US for $80 and, up front, it's far too much for a neat but badly executed idea. It might be $20 less than the discounted OG Pebble and significantly more stylish, but the experience is so compromised that it's not worth the pain.

In many ways, the Honor Band Z1 reminds me of similar "budget" smartwatches like the first Pebble and Alcatel OneTouch's otherwise nameless Watch. Like those two, the Z1 is designed to run a custom operating system and is limited by comparison to its more expensive rivals. In addition, the trio are notably cheaper than the Apple Watch (which starts at $249) and most Android Wear devices, which run for $250 or so. And that's if you can pick up a bargain here and there. Finally, all three are hampered with some sort of compromise that reminds all of us you can't get a first-class ticket at a third-class price.

I'm always leery about defining watches as "masculine" or "feminine," because, hey, it's 2016 and we live in a more enlightened age. It's just a shame that most of the people who saw me sporting this device asked why I was wearing a girl's watch. That's down to the fact that the Z1 has a dainty case and slender strap, while my massive forearms could be described as anything but. It's also very pretty, with a round, 38mm body and a polished steel bezel that catches the eye and feels ultramodern in a '60s sort of way.

You can't get a first-class ticket at a third-class price.

It's a similar story with the strap, which is made from thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), a fancy-schmancy elastic plastic that's resistant to oil and damage. That said, it turns out the white band is quite vulnerable to dye from my jeans, which is why the pictures in this piece have a smudgy blue tint. Before I'd even noticed, the strap's subtle crosshatch texture was suddenly very visible so, uh, sorry about that, folks. If I have another objection, it's that the band is narrow, to the point where it looks more comfortable on my friend's 14-year-old daughter than it does on me.

If you've ever seen a Huawei Watch, you'll be aware that it and the Z1 were shot from the same gun barrel; they even use the same charging plate. The styling is where the comparisons end, however, since the flagship Android Wear–based model is powerful, hypermasculine and... uh, everything the Z1 is not. The firm is already remedying this issue by releasing a jewel-encrusted alternative for women, but the price will be a wince-inducing $500. By comparison, the Z1 is reminiscent of HTC's Rhyme, the company's attempt to appeal to women by launching a deeply compromised phone with a purple paint job.

One of the oldest tricks in the cheap-smartwatch-design book is to build one with a round case but put a smaller, square display inside it. Alas, much of the Z1's real estate is pure empty frippery, with a square 1.06-inch 128 x 128 OLED touch panel wedged inside. I'm not qualified to say how it performs in bright daylight -- because it's February in England -- but it should manage to struggle against the sun. Should. I say that because, as you'll spot in the above photo, the display is firing on all thrusters, and taking a visible picture became near impossible.

In order to sip its rather meager battery, the screen will only turn on when it senses you raising your forearm. In theory, this is fine, and at night it's a feature you can easily disable if you'd prefer that it only light up when you touch the display. Unfortunately, it leaves you wide open for accidental touches, even when you're asleep. More than once, I was woken by the glare of the display on my eyelids and so stopped using it for sleep-tracking after a few days. If I had another complaint, it's that the watch only shows the time for a fleeting moment -- if your eyes don't catch it, you have to tap to get another three seconds. Then there's the fact that a swipe is often incorrectly registered, leading you down a rabbit hole of no ... nope, no, no, that's not what I intended ...

All told, the Honor Band Z1 will tell you the time, how many steps you've taken, how many calories you've burned and how much sleep you've had. If, say, you go out for a run, you can activate a separate activity-tracking mode that will tell you the steps and calories for that specific burst of effort. The only other stand-alone option available on the device is the ability to change the face for one of four alternatives.

What separates this device from a bog-standard fitness tracker, though, is that you can read notifications from your smartphone. If you have multiple text messages or WhatsApps, for instance, it'll offer up a new icon on the menu to let you read those messages. Unlike with other devices, you not only get the preview but also can paw back and forth through the entire text until you decide to dismiss it. In addition, you can choose to dismiss or mute your phone's ring when you get a call.

The Z1 also offers up idle reminders if you've been still for more than an hour, although in practice this doesn't work that well. More than once I've been walking up a flight of stairs only to be told that I wasn't being active enough. Oh, and if your phone gets separated from your body, the watch will ping with a little "lost signal" alert that doubles as an ersatz Bluetooth tether.

The Z1 is connected to your phone via the Huawei Wear app, which offers basic fitness- and sleep-tracking facilities. On the home screen you'll see a large circle, the rim of which gradually fills up with a block of color the more you move (or sleep) that day. You can also tap to access your historical data and see how many calories you've burned off or what foodstuff that equates to. For instance, at the start of the day, you'll be told how many strawberries you can eat guilt-free with the calories you've burned off, as an example. Beyond that, the app lets you tweak some of the device's features, like activating or disabling push messages and idle reminders. But that's about it.

Not having an always-on display means that the Z1 sips rather than gulps its 70mAh battery. In a week of testing, the device lasted nearly six days before it had to go back on the charging plate. That's the sort of basic requirement for battery life that many other smartwatches fail to meet. But -- and it's a big but -- the three-second flash when the display activates is one of those compromises that really gets in your way. It's meant to be elegant and simple but winds up annoying you, especially if you're trying to passively tell the time.

When you look at a gadget, one of the first questions you should ask yourself is, Which particular set of people is this designed for? Because sometimes what the company intended and what happens in reality can differ. For instance, Huawei Honor advertising is chock-full of young women, but I'd say they're the wrong group of people. To me, it doesn't follow that if something is fashionable, you'll forgive it for being a shitty product, and indeed, from a tech perspective, the Z1 isn't great.

The display is cheap, not enough has been done to make it user-friendly and it cannot in any way compete with the Pebble, which is just $20 more expensive. Yes, the older watch is significantly uglier and no, it's never going to appeal to people who don't want to embrace the pocket-protector-and-glasses look. But considering how much more you get for very little extra and how underwhelming the Z1 is, it's a slam dunk. Maybe you'd consider the Z1 if you have a small child and want her to have a "my first wearable" that isn't made of yellow plastic. Maybe then, and only then, is the Z1 worth buying, but even that's a stretch.