Huawei Watch 3 Hands-on : The Smartwatch, Harmonized

The Huawei Watch 3 isn’t just another smartwatch, it’s one of the most important products to come from Huawei in a while. The Watch 3 ditches the old software used on the Watch GT2 for HarmonyOS 2.0, Huawei’s self-developed operating system we’ve heard a lot about, but until now have not had a chance to use.

The Huawei Watch 3 is the first mobile device to officially launch with the software onboard and is therefore our first proper real-world experience with the software that will define Huawei’s future device range. Huawei has chosen to debut HarmonyOS on a beautiful smartwatch too, emphasizing how much it needs to make a good impression. I’ve been wearing the Watch 3 for a couple of days, not enough for a full review yet, but more than enough for an in-depth hands-on.

Software synthesis, and familiarity

HarmonyOS is Huawei’s response to being unable to use Google Services on its mobile products, due to restrictions introduced by the U.S. government, making it impossible for U.S. companies to work with Huawei. It’s an entire software ecosystem, designed to work on, and seamlessly across, everything from internet-of-things hardware to smartphones.

Huawei hinted the first major product, outside of televisions, to launch globally with HarmonyOS would be a smartwatch when I spoke to the company at the end of 2019, and now it’s here. Let’s talk about the best parts first. The speed, fluidity, and smoothness are astonishing. It’s absolutely nothing like Google’s Wear OS in this regard. There are no pauses and no slowdown, just instantaneous response, a lovely “bounce” effect when swiping between screens, and seriously fast scrolling.

It’s also attractively designed, with bright colors, large icons, clear text, and some pretty watch faces too. I quickly slipped into using HarmonyOS 2.0 on the Watch 3 without any period of adjustment or a necessity to learn new layouts or icon styles. While this is a good thing, there’s also a good reason outside of the decent design — HarmonyOS on the Watch 3 is a “greatest hits” of wearable software.

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The main menu, accessed by pressing the crown, is presented as a grid of circular icons and looks just like Apple’s WatchOS. You can even twist the crown to zoom in and out of the grid. This is the default setting, but it can be changed to a more standard list layout if you’d prefer. Dig into other menus, like the workout list accessed using the lower button on the case, and options are shown as a vertically scrolling list that stretches and adapts to the circular screen, reminding me of Tizen on the Galaxy Watch 3. Swipe left on the screen and you get information panels, just like Wear OS and Huawei’s own LiteOS on the Watch GT2.

There are only limited design and ergonomic directions you can take with software on such a small screen, which has to be used with one finger, but the out-of-the-box similarity to WatchOS in particular doesn’t do it any favors. It’s a shame because that aside, HarmonyOS is faster and more pleasant to use than WearOS, and even Tizen sometimes too, and at no time does it feel like a first release.

Watch design done right?

Tech companies find smartwatch design quite hard, and rarely come up with anything you’d want to wear all day, every day. The Huawei Watch 3 is beautiful, and a significant step forward in wearable design for Huawei. The 1.43-inch AMOLED screen is covered in a curved piece of hardened glass, and it’s a joy to swipe and to feel under your finger. The complete lack of bezel means your finger has the entire front to swipe over, making it easier and more precise to use than some others, and the glass itself is warm to the touch with a high quality finish.

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The screen is attached to a 46mm case made from 316L stainless steel, with a ceramic case back. The use of ceramic is very important because it feels so good against your skin. It looks very classy and doesn’t get sweaty or itchy like plastic. Huawei has made three versions all differentiated by the type of strap. The leather strap seen in the photos is joined by a fabric strap, a silicone strap, and a metal bracelet. Huawei has also announced a larger 48mm Watch 3 Pro with sapphire crystal over the screen, and a titanium case.

On the side of the case is a single button at the four o’clock position which by default opens the workout tracking mode, but can be changed if you prefer, plus a crown at the two o’clock position. The crown rotates to move through menus, has a texture to make it easier to grip with your fingertip, and Huawei Watch branding etched on it. It’s closer in operation to Apple’s Digital Crown on the Apple Watch — complete with some haptic feedback — than it is to rotating crowns on Wear OS smartwatches, with greater responsiveness and feel.