Review : TAG Heuer Connected smartwatch

The luxury Swiss watch industry’s first salvo back at Apple.

One of the TAG Heuer Connected’s three selectable face and colour styles.

The fact that just quit using my Apple Watch and I stone cold don’t miss it says something about a device category that’s still finding its feet, however it’s important to also note that I ditched the Apple Watch for another smartwatch, so I’m still sold on the idea of smartwatches.

I got my Apple Watch on the day they became generally available in the UK last April, and once the first couple of weeks of novelty had passed, its primary utility seemed to coalesce around a core set of functions which were in no order; the step counting activity stuff, the ability to display multiple time zones and a note of my next calendar event all on a single modular watch face. Occasionally the ability to use Siri to dictate alarms on the go were useful for my Dad taxi duties, and app notifications from a few apps were handy even if they just saved me the not very arduous task of fishing my iPhone from my pocket.

Apple Watch owners will be familiar with the level of curiosity the Apple Watch often provokes from people who notice you wearing one. I’d fairly often get asked ‘Do you love it?’ and I never said that I did, it was always just a case of liking it but never love. Not in the same way I love my iPhone.

Of the things I didn’t much like in the Apple Watch; I never really forgave it for choosing to lose months of Activity history and a bunch of Activity achievement medals I invested a ton of effort in getting just because I decided to setup a new iPhone as a new iPhone rather than restore from a backup (major whole there, Apple), and I became bored with the limited range of watch faces. They’re fine if you happen to like them but I found myself just about tolerating them.

I also found that the stainless steel case shows scratches too easily (you can polish them out, but still) and I found myself regularly changing bands in a bid to keep the flame alive. And while I love Apple Pay as a feature, I always tend to use the iPhone for that because it’s less socially awkward than using your watch. And using Apple Pay on the watch is nigh on impossible to use in certain situations in the UK in particular, a good example being places like a Starbucks dive-thru because the cashier window is to your right and your watch is on your left wrist.

Further, I suspect that the ability to easily change watch faces and bands could turn out to be a bit of a doubled edged sword for the Apple simply because we’re accustomed to our watches never changing their appearance from the day we buy them, and I think this possibly results in a stronger bond being formed with the wearer. Traditional watches can become a bit like familiar old friends and I’ve acquired a few mechanical Swiss watches over the years where a big part of the pleasure of owning one is when you occasionally glance down to your wrist to just admire how it looks. I never did that with the Apple Watch, and in truth I was never really sold on the rectangular design even if Jonny Ive believes it better suits displaying pages of information compared with a circular face.

I do wonder if this inbuilt changeability of the Apple Watch could turn out to be a slippery slope to early abandonment, particularly if you find the looks on offer it a bit meh. And on this last point, I don’t hold out much hope for the looks to get more interesting any time soon. Yes, Apple and the fashion brand Hermes have done a joint design thing where Apple have licensed the Hermes brand to offer a custom Hermes branded watch face (and different leather bands) to create a premium priced version of the steel Apple Watch, but Hermes is a fashion brand and not a quality watch brand.

I expect we’ll see other fashion labels like Hugo Boss lend their brand power to future special edition Apple watches just like Hermes have, but I doubt we’ll see elegant Rolex, Jaeger-LeCoultre or Omega flavoured Apple Watch faces any time soon, if ever. And I imagine that copyright and trademark worries will kill the prospect of third-party facsimile faces based on famous watch makers appearing for Apple Watch, particularly if Apple can make money instead by licensing fashion brand partnerships as a result of keeping the watch face system closed.

I should say that none of the aforementioned wrinkles were even collectively strong enough motivators for me to abandon the Apple Watch because as I said in the opening paragraph, I’m fundamentally sold on smartwatches and the Apple Watch scored way higher than any other first generation alternative available.

The TAG Heuer Connected watch I replaced the Apple Watch with is also far from perfect.

At £1,100 it’s twice the price of my steel Apple Watch, has no sound emitting capability (although my Apple Watch was always muted anyway) and on account if it running the Android Wear OS it feels about a 33% crippled functionally speaking when paired with an iPhone. Its nightly charging dock is clumsy compared with the Apple charging experience and the USB cable it ships with is criminally short.

I think I like the classical sports watch look of the TAG Heuer Connected a lot more than the simple elegance of the Apple Watch and while my sense is that the TAG Heuer brand definitely resides at the prosumer, low end of the luxury watch market, the combination of the brand plus the high price and the fact it’s the first ever Swiss smartwatch means I’m unlikely to bump into someone else wearing one anytime soon. If bragging rights are worth anything.

However beyond all that fickle stuff, what I particularly like about the TAG smartwatch is that while it more or less handles the same limited set of core functions that I came to depend upon the Apple Watch for — even if Android Wear is obviously much less polished than Apple’s WatchOS — for me what’s particularly striking about it is just that, it is just more striking to look at compared with the generic, unisex look of the Apple Watch.

The combination of its black bezel, the moody tone of the titantium case and the darkened face it displays when it’s in standby suggests it wouldn’t look out of place in a special forces context. Which if you like butch, technical man-watches like I do, (I bought an Omega X-33 about fifteen years ago) then that’s a plus.

And the way it digitally renders three distinct flavours of what you’d expect a regular TAG Heuer watch face to look like makes for both an experience that is both beautiful and nerdy in equal measure.

The TAG Heuer Connected feels like it’s what you’d get if you asked a Hollywood sci-fi movie prop designer to design a watch for remake of Bladerunner. Equal parts old and new world in a single, distinctive experience. This may be a smartwatch just like the Apple Watch is a smartwatch, but it’s a example of how the established luxury watch maker industry gets the importance of desire as much Apple gets the importance of design.

And finally, TAG Heuer is going out on a limb by offering Connected owners the chance to get a sizeable discount on a mechanical equivalent of the Connected if after two years you’ve fallen out of favour with it, or with smartwatches in general.

In terms of the TAG Heuer Connected being the very first salvo to be fired back at Apple from the Swiss watch industry, this is a bloody good shot and bodes well for the next couple of years.

What’s good : It’s distinctive retro/sci-fi looks, the relative rarity, it handles notifications reasonably well, a basic set of voice commands activated by saying “OK Google” and about the same battery life as the Apple Watch a just over a day. And if you don’t like it you can trade it in for a mechanical TAG Heuer after two years.

What’s bad : A price of £1,100 puts it in the same territory as the Apple/Hermes special edition Apple Watch, the Android Wear OS is just about passible when paired with an iPhone but with limited apps other than what it ships with (if that’s important to you), no sound capability, you can’t customise the faces other than colour and at 46mm it’s huge which won’t suit everyone’s taste.