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Tag Heuer Connected review: $1,500 for a smartwatch?

Smartphone makers have churned out watch after watch in hopes of happening upon something game-changing. If nothing else, they’re getting good at making pretty gear. Still, none of them have the clout that horological giant Tag Heuer does, which is why our collective ears perked up when we heard that the Swiss company was making an Android Wear watch. The result is the Tag Heuer Connected, a watch that looks like some of the company’s most iconic models … and works just like every other Android Wear device out there. At $1,500, it’s also the most expensive Android Wear watch around, but — spoiler alert — it’s hardly worth the price.

Hardware

As you’d expect from a watchmaker with a storied history, the Connected is a remarkably well-built piece of kit. For one, it’s almost shockingly light — thanks to the fancy Grade 2 titanium Tag Heuer used for the chassis and lugs. I honestly wasn’t expecting the Connected to feel as trim as it did just based on looks; it’s a distinctly masculine piece that takes cues from a handful of the company’s existing chronographs, specifically models like the relatively new Calibre Heuer O1. Its waistline measures a plump 12.8mm, for one, making it the thickest Android Wear watch, in addition to the most expensive.

Of course, the body had to have a little extra meat to accommodate the 1.5-inch (38.1mm) LCD display running at 360 x 360. All told, the dial measures a full 46.2mm wide. That screen is also covered with a piece of sapphire crystal that does a fine job fending off scratches, though it didn’t keep the panel from getting smudgy after lots of tapping.

So yes, it’s a big watch — enough to make dainty wrists look totally ridiculous. At least the vulcanized rubber strap made for some comfortable wearing. It’s dead simple to adjust the size for bigger and smaller wrists alike; you just move the titanium clasp up and down along the band to fit just about any size. In any case, I really can’t overstate this: The Connected’s fit and finish are the finest of any Android Wear device, even if the look won’t be for everyone.

While the Connected earns points for build quality, it lacks a few of the niceties we’ve grown accustomed to on other Android Wear watches. It’ll track your steps, for instance, but there’s no heart-rate sensor on board. Other high-end watches, like the Huawei Watch, also come with speakers that will come in handy once Android Wear is updated to support them, but you won’t find any here. Sorry, runners, there’s no GPS, either (although, having taken the Connected to the gym a few times, I find it a little too bulky for running anyway).

Thankfully, the stuff you do get is more potent than you might expect. Rather than run on one of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 400-series chips, Tag teamed up with Intel and Google to get everything optimized for a dual-core Intel chip instead. A brief note on that silicon: It’s actually a 1.6GHz Z34XX Atom processor, though Tag says it’s normally clocked at 500mHz. The more you know! I’ll dig into performance more in a bit, but for now, suffice to say that Tag and its partners might be on to something here. Those processor cores are assisted by 1GB of RAM, and the watch sports the industry-standard 4GB of internal storage and a 410mAh battery.

In use

If you’ve read any of our recent Android Wear device reviews, you already have a pretty good understanding of what the OS is capable of. In fact, it’s matured quite a bit since it first debuted a year and a half ago. Still, as I’ve said before, there’s a pervasive sense of sameness that comes with Android Wear, as watchmakers aren’t able to fiddle much with Wear’s design and functionality.

After you plunk down your $1,500 and receive the watch, the first thing you’ll want to do is register it on Tag Heuer’s website. Yes, I know, I hardly ever bother with that either. This time, though, it’s a crucial step in making sure your watch gets all the functionality it’s supposed to. To wit: Of the four (yes, only four) included watch faces, one called “Themed” revealed a Weather Underground theme only after registering the watch. Even better, after setting that theme, the watch absolutely refused to load any weather information. Uh, thanks?

Tag’s touch is a light one, so the only other apps that come preloaded on the watch are a handsome alarm, a timer and a stopwatch. The stopwatch in particular is a neat touch, as it apes a bit of classic chronometer design by displaying multiple dials for minutes elapsed and tenths of seconds. In a bid to make the Connected more palatable, Tag also inked deals with the makers of apps like RaceChrono, Golfshot Pro, ViewRanger (for trail maps) and Insiders (for curated suggestions of fancy, neat things around you). These all run fine on other Android Wear watches too, but Tag promised that Connected owners would get free subscriptions to those apps’ premium features. Unfortunately, Tag offers no instructions for how to actually claim those free subscriptions, and Insiders in particular won’t even let you past a landing page without an invite code. Swell.

Of course, that’s just the situation right now. Tag Heuer has said that a slew of Connected-exclusive goodies would eventually come to the watch, including watch faces customized by celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and model Cara Delevingne. No, seriously. There’s no word on when those features will get added, but we’ll revisit them if and when they do.

Software stuff aside, the Connected still feels like a mixed bag. On the one hand, the Intel chip powering the watch is no slouch. Normally with Android Wear devices you’ll run into lag while swiping furiously through notification cards and a watch’s app list. There was hardly any of that here; the few instances where I did see some stuttering only underscored how fast the watch usually is. Qualcomm’s stranglehold on the mobile chip market means we’re probably going to keep seeing Snapdragon used in smartwatches, but I’d be happy if more device makers started pledging allegiance to Intel.

Too bad the display is a bit of a letdown. The 1.5-inch LCD panel isn’t nearly as crisp or pixel-dense as the competition’s. The Huawei Watch and the smaller of the two Moto 360 variants have sharper screens, making for text that’s easier to read and watch faces with a little more clarity. Even the ill-fated second-gen edition of the LG Watch Urbane had a screen that was better than what we’ve got here in the Connected, with brilliant colors and 348 pixels per linear inch. It was gorgeous; too bad you can’t buy one anymore.

Normally, this screen situation wouldn’t be such a huge deal — it’s still perfectly readable, after all– but c’mon: This is a $1,500 watch. I don’t think I’m out of line for expecting something more impressive. On the plus side, though, the screen brightness is respectable, and the Connected’s ambient display also does a nice job telling you the time even in bright sunlight.

Since the chipset inside is technically capable of faster clock speeds than the Snapdragon 400s inside most other Android Wear watches, battery life probably weighed heavily on Tag and Intel as they built the watch. Thankfully, while the screen fails to impress, there’s a lot of life in the Connected’s 410mAh battery. During weekdays when the flow of work-related notifications seemed endless, the Connected never lasted for less than 20 hours with the ambient display turned on and screen brightness set at half. And when the relative quiet of the weekend rolled around, that number surged: I’d routinely wake up the day after a full charge and have about 20 percent left to play with.

The competition

Honestly, nothing else in the world of Android Wear comes close to what Tag Heuer is offering. Setting aside how well-designed the device is, owners have the option of trading in their watches after the two-year warranty expires for a unique mechanical Carrera designed to look like the Connected. It’s a neat idea in theory, especially since it provides an escape route from the smartwatch age for Tag Heuer traditionalists. The caveat: You have to shell out another $1,500, which is what the Carrera starts at anyway. On top of that, since Tag hasn’t actually shown anyone what that replacement looks like, who knows whether that $1,500 fee actually constitutes a good deal.

While they aren’t as fancy as the Connected, the relatively affordable Huawei Watch ($349 and up) and the 2015 Moto 360 ($299 plus) are both strong choices if you’re looking for something running Android Wear. As I’ve said, Huawei’s watch has a sharp display, not to mention a boatload of attractive watch faces and an undeniable sense of style. Speaking of style, the Moto 360 comes in two sizes, including a 46mm variant for people who like the dimensions of the Connected’s screen, and it’s highly customizable, too.

Since the Connected’s price is so high, I can’t help but compare it to the upper-level Apple Watches. The closest thing pricewise in Cupertino’s lineup is the $1,500, 42mm stainless-steel Watch with a Fauve Barenia leather cuff by Hermès. Apple’s Hermès line and the Tag Heuer Connected share a sense of luxury and polish that befit their price tags, but man, their approaches seem totally different. Sure, they handle notifications, run apps and allow you to interact with connected phones with your voice. The thing is, the Connected feels more like a proper watch with additional smart features. Apple’s goal was to make something that acts like an all-encompassing digital concierge on your wrist — a smartwatch through and through.

Wrap-up

If you’re looking for a good Android Wear watch, you don’t need to spend $1,500. It’s completely unnecessary. That’s not to say the Connected is a bad device — far from it. Its build quality is fantastic, and it’s comfortable in addition to being stylish. It’s just that nothing about the experience feels worth that kind of money.

But maybe that’s just me. The lure of fancy, expensive watches stretches back to the very beginning of horological history. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who eagerly pull up their sleeves, itching to talk about their new Ulysse Nardin piece or the great eBay deal they found on a Rolex Submariner. For those people — ardent watch lovers — the Connected makes a little more sense. It’s a taste of the smartphone age wrapped in a familiar package, complete with a $1,500 exit strategy in the form of a trade-in. If that’s you, well, enjoy. Everyone else can stay away with no regrets.

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