Imperfect Harmony

Huawei Watch 3 promises much but highlights problems facing Chinese firm

I’ve recently been testing the Huawei Watch 3, the latest flagship wearable from the Chinese firm as it continues to grapple with trade restrictions. On the surface, I think it’s an impressive product, but one that represents in a nutshell the challenging place that Huawei finds itself in. Although the watch has its merits, it shows how difficult it is to build a great piece of tech if you don’t have the software and user experience to back it up.

Let’s start with the physical design. The Huawei Watch 3 is lovely to look at. The curved glass front and polished back, which is made from ceramic and stainless steel, are beautifully engineered and measure up to rival smartwatches. The screen is bright and vivid, and the new digital crown — which works similarly to the one found on the Apple Watch — provides some welcome haptic feedback when in use.

Huawei Watch 3. Source: Huawei

The Watch 3 sits heavy on the wrist, which I noticed immediately when switching from the Garmin Forerunner, a lightweight running watch. Frankly, it looks enormous on wearers with smaller wrists. Smartwatches obviously need to strike a balance in size, as a bigger watch usually means better battery life. But I can’t help but feel that Huawei’s timepiece is built with larger and, let’s be honest, men’s wrists in mind, so may not attract a broad audience.

Looking under the surface, the watch is powered by Huawei’s HarmonyOS. The company has been excited to promote its new platform, describing it as a seamless connected experience, uniting devices ranging from watches to smartphones to TVs. On the Watch 3, HarmonyOS certainly runs smoothly and provides some lovely-looking animations in features such as health monitoring and exercise tracking.

But this is where the cracks in Huawei’s grand design begin to show. Huawei has typically excelled at offering superb battery life on its watches — the Watch GT 2 Pro lasts a good week or two in my experience — but the Watch 3 offers only two to three days of battery life, and even less if you turn on the always-on display. This is probably because of the more power-hungry nature of HarmonyOS, as opposed to the LiteOS platform that preceded it. You can choose to extend the battery life to two weeks, but this restricts some features and services.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be a problem if the Watch 3 offered an all-singing, all-dancing smartwatch experience like the Apple Watch does. But this is where Huawei really falls short, as it’s completely lacking in apps and services. Although the company has confirmed its support for third-party apps such as Fitify, very few are available at present, and there’s an absence of popular services like Spotify, Strava and Citymapper. This exposes the device’s limitations, making it seem more like a fitness tracker than a smartwatch.

These problems are enough without mentioning the workarounds I had to find to pair the Watch 3 with a smartphone. At first, I was unable to connect it to my Samsung Galaxy S21 using the Huawei Health app and resorted to using a Huawei phone to get it up and running. I was eventually instructed to install Huawei’s AppGallery on my Galaxy S21, which isn’t available on Google’s Play store, and then had to download and install the app file through my browser. It may have only been a few steps, but for more casual customers, it’s a confusing process that requires you to ignore warnings about installing apps from unverified sources.

All of this feels like a shame because there are some great aspects to the watch. It supports tracking for more than 100 sports — and in my testing, the GPS accuracy for running is reliable — and includes a wide range of health-tracking features such as a pulse oximeter and skin temperature measurement. But the bottom line is that there are more questions than answers, and the problems with the user experience overshadow the great work that Huawei has put into building the watch and its new operating system. With the Apple Watch going from strength to strength and Google’s new Wear platform just around the corner, it feels like time could be running out for Huawei in the smartwatch space.