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(Pocket-lint) - It's hard to think of a time when rumours about a OnePlus smartwatch didn't exist. That it's been such a long time coming had made the anticipation all the more exciting. But this first attempt, the OnePlus Watch, serves as a significant disappointment.

OnePlus wanted to stand on its own two feet with the Watch and use its own software rather than Google's Wear OS. That's fair as it's a move also taken by Huawei, Samsung, Xiaomi and others - and with relative success on those counts.

Still, with all that competition there's obvious pressure on the company to get its own setup right. Especially since a couple of slight misfires in the smartphone market - the Nord N10 5G, for example, couldn't quite find its place - have already started to erode the image of a company that 'Never Settles'. Indeed, the OnePlus Watch feels as though the company settled too early, releasing a product that's unfit for its primary purpose.

Well rounded

  • Dimensions: 46 x 46 x 10.9mm / Weight: 45g
  • Finishes: Midnight Black / Moonlight Silver
  • 50ATM waterproof (to 50m depth)
  • IP68 dust/water-resistant design
  • Stainless steel case

There's a lot to like about the shape and design of the OnePlus Watch. The 'Midnight Black' model we were sent for review is glossy, dark and features lovely polished stainless steel. The entire case has a rounded edge, while the glass on the surface has subtle curving at the edges to make it seem almost seamless. 

Behind it is a completely round AMOLED screen that's as good as virtually any other round smartwatch display when it comes to brightness and colour - being easily visible in most conditions.  

On the right side of the watch are two slim and easy-to-use buttons. The top one launches your app/function list or takes you back to the home watch face. The bottom function button launches the workout mode and gives you a list of workouts to choose from. You can also change what that function button does, so if you'd rather it launched the compass or alarm clock or timer (among other choices) then you can arrange that.

The lug design is simple and classy, but also practical. It allows you to easily switch out the included 22mm strap for basically anything that's the right size. Plus, the quick-release design makes it simple to remove the strap. Although, you might not want to, as the strap is quite possibly the most well-thought out part of the entire watch. 

In design it's very similar to the strap that ships as default with many Apple Watch models. It has a pin at one end that fits into the holes running up the other portion, while the end tucks inside, hidden away. You'll never by annoyed by the strap's end flapping about. 

The only downside of the design, really, is the size. For some wrists the 46mm diameter is just too large to look right. OnePlus opted not to offer a smaller model. On our wrist it looked perfectly fine, but we're used to wearing larger watches of a similar size anyway.

Featureless flop or the right kind of minimalism?  

  • 1.39-inch AMOLED display
  • 454 x 454 resolution
  • Proprietary platform
  • 14 day battery life

Unless you're Apple, there seems to be two choices when building a smartwatch: use Wear OS or build your own platform. The former means putting up with 2 day battery life; the latter means time, expense and the cost building your own software from scratch. OnePlus took the latter route. 

What that means in daily experience is that some things you might see on a Wear OS watch, you don't get on OnePlus Watch. For instance, there's no support for contactless payments or downloading playlists from your favourite music streaming platform. There's also nothing in the way of real interaction with notifications. 

The last point we don't see as a major issue though. It still mirrors notifications from your smartphone, so you can use it as an "is this important?" machine. Check the alert, decide if it's worth your attention, ignore it if not.

Building your own platform almost always mean one more thing: no third-party app support. That means no checking your bank balance, no Strava, and - as mentioned already - no popular music apps.

You do, however, get handy at-a-glance widgets for things like real-time heart-rate monitoring, last night's sleep, weather and activity progress. It's a familiar interface. You swipe left to get to the widgets, press-and-hold the watch face to change it, or swipe up for notifications. 

The choice of watch faces isn't that extensive yet, but there are a few to choose from - although they're not really customisable. Adding more watch faces is something that typically happens once the software matures and develops over time, so that's no surprise. 

What is a surprise is that there's no always-on display option. On a watch with such good battery life, having a low energy always-on ambient watch face should be a no-brainer. Especially for an AMOLED panel, which can do this so well. Apparently the feature's coming in a later update - but, as we alluded to up top, that's part of what makes the Watch feel unfinished at launch.

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Another feature you'd expect as a minimum on any watch, be that smart or old-school digital, is the option to switch to 12 hour time format. You read that right: the OnePlus Watch only has 24-hour digital watch faces right now. That's not going to suit everyone. And, again, it makes us sound the "unfinished" horn once more.

Workout woes 

  • GPS, heart-rate, blood oxygen saturation
  • 15 workout modes
  • Sleep tracking

Not being a 'proper' smartwatch isn't necessarily a bad thing. We've seen competitive and affordable watches from the likes of Huawei and Amazfit that offer simple notification mirroring, but offer what people expect in terms of fitness and activity tracking. So as long as OnePlus nailed that, it wouldn't be an issue. 

Sadly, OnePlus didn't get this bit right either. 

Starting with the basics: step counting and GPS. We've had devices that do the former reliably for years. So you'd think the step tracking is one really easy thing to get right. But in our experience it just wasn't. Like, really wasn't.

We noticed some discrepancy when wearing multiple watches - the things we do for testing, eh? - and comparing the end-of-day results. The OnePlus Watch often finished a day with up to 1000 steps fewer than our other devices, even when wearing those devices on the same wrist. So we went out and deliberately counted out 100 steps multiple times and noticed a pattern: OnePlus Watch was always short, most times around 7-10 steps under the real count. 

Now, that might not seem like a lot, but that's anywhere between 7-10 per cent down, meaning on some days you could end up needing to do an extra 1000 steps just to hit your basic step goal. Seeing as this is usually guided by walking motion and judged by an accelerometer, that can't be doing its job quite right, or the way the software interprets the data is off.

We faced a more significant problem when tracking our running workouts: GPS. Firstly, it would take a long time to lock on to our initial location. On our first run with the watch it didn't seem to pick up our location until nearly 3km into a 10km run. Yes, three kilometres.

On a second run it picked up signal after about 1km, but then didn't keep hold of it, so the end result was that for both runs the watch was about 3km down on the true distance. That's no minor margin of error, that's huge - around a third - and made it completely useless for tracking sessions. 

We had better results when going on short walks where it was almost bang-on accurate compared to our Garmin Fenix 6. In the end though, when it came to dedicated activity tracking, the OnePlus was so unreliable it completely lost our trust. There's nothing more demoralising than completing your longest duration run and for your tracking device to effectively wipe out a chunk it. 

As for other basic health monitoring the Watch seems fine. Heart rate tracking appeared pretty much up to the same accuracy as any other wrist-worn HR sensor. There was the odd time we saw a random spike, but for the most part its results were the same as other watches we've been testing.

Similarly, when measuring cadence and elevation on runs, the results were accurate enough too. But those sort of measurements are only supporting acts for the main features you'd want to be tracked accurately: distance and pace. Without accurate distance you can't get accurate pace measurements. And it didn't. 

If what you want you're after primarily is a sleep tracker the OnePlus Watch is decent enough here - but suffers from the same flaws as many others. If you're still for a long period in the evening - say you're sat on the coach watching Netflix or reading in bed - then it will mistake this inactivity for sleep time.

The way we found to get reliable sleep tracking was to remove the watch before sitting down to relax at the end of the day, then putting it back on again before climbing under the covers to get some shut eye. 

It does a decent job of breaking down your sleep into easy-to-digest data. It tells you when you're not getting enough deep sleep and what you can do to try and help. 

Verdict

The most frustrating thing about the OnePlus Watch is that it just feels unfinished. And as if OnePlus knew it. It's never a good sign when a product is launched with "and we're adding these features that make it competitive" later down the line.

That it lacks 12-hour digital watch faces and an always-on display, has limited workout modes, and doesn't accurately track activities - not by a little, by a whole lot - just leaves this watch miles off the mark. 

Right as we were finishing our testing of this watch, OnePlus announced a software update to fix GPS and activity tracking issues. That hopefully means some of the problems we experienced can be fixed. However, that's not ready yet. And at this affordable end of the market there are stacks of much better options available right now.

Also consider

Pocket-lintalternatives photo 1

Huawei Watch GT 2e

Huawei's watch offers similar tracking capabilites and design in an affordable package. Huawei has been in the fitness game longer than OnePlus too - and that experience really shows, because this watch serves its purpose and actually works.

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Writing by Cam Bunton. Editing by Mike Lowe. Originally published on 12 April 2021.