TicWatch E3 review: A cheaper way of getting Wear OS 3
In something of a coup for Mobvoi, the company behind the Kickstarter success story TicWatch, it’s been announced that the TicWatch E3 will be one of a handful of smartwatches to be guaranteed an upgrade to Wear OS 3. That makes it one of just three watches named by Google and, potentially, also makes it a bit of a steal.
But are you better off waiting for a device designed for the new OS, rather than one that will merely accommodate it? Let’s find out.
TicWatch E3 review: What you need to know
As you’ll read in a moment, while the TicWatch E line has suffered from quite severe price inflation over the years, the specs have at least tried to keep up. As such, you have the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 4100 chip – the same as with the more expensive TicWatch Pro 3 – and 1GB of RAM; specifications that ensure it qualifies for the upgrade to Wear OS 3 at some point next year.
Crucially, it also fixes the two downsides we found in our four-star TicWatch E2 review: it now has both a built-in speaker, and NFC for contactless payments via Google Pay.
TicWatch E3 review: Price and competition
There’s a “but” coming, though. The TicWatch E3 may be everything we’d want in an upgrade, but it comes at a price. The TicWatch E3 costs £180, up £34 on the E2, which in turn was £26 more expensive than the original.
Make no mistake, that still makes the TicWatch E3 competitive in the world of smartwatches, especially those that run Wear OS, which in recent years have begun to feel like an endangered species. There’s the Fossil Gen 5 watch that, theoretically, once retailed for £279, but nowadays comes in at £189, or the expensive fitness-focussed Suunto 7 at £429, although available for a bit less.
Then there’s Mobvoi’s more premium offering, the TicWatch Pro 3. It sells for £290 and offers the same internal performance, but has a larger AMOLED screen, a premium stainless steel build and longer battery life.
You’re not obliged to buy a Wear OS watch, of course. Although the TicWatch E3 works with iOS, iPhone users would be smarter to get a £269 Apple Watch SE, and Android users could be tempted by the £200 Fitbit Versa 3, too. For the budget sensitive consumer, Amazfit makes some impressive smartwatches on the cheap as well.
TicWatch E3 review: Design and features
While the TicWatch E3 isn’t exactly ugly, you wouldn’t mistake it for a regular smartwatch or, indeed, as coming from the high end of the market like the Apple Watch Series 6 or Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 Classic.
For starters, it’s astonishingly thick, sitting a good 12.6mm off the wrist. Nothing in millimeters sounds dramatic, of course, but that’s about a third thicker than my ageing Samsung Galaxy S10e smartphone when placed alongside it.
The screen – a 360 x 360 number – is bright and punchy enough with its colours, but has a thick 4mm thick bezel all the way around the edge. That’s not unusual with smartwatches, especially cheaper models, and most hide it with black backgrounds on all their screens. That trick doesn’t work as well here, however, because the screen technology is LCD rather than OLED, which means the contrast between the screen and bezel is pretty obvious.
Mine also managed to pick up a scratch pretty quickly. It’s barely noticeable, but I have no idea where it came from, given I can’t recall any drops or scrapes. It doesn’t bode well for overall build quality.
To complete the design criticism, from a subjective point of view, this is one of the most uncomfortable smartwatches I can recall wearing, and I routinely found myself taking it off for a break despite the fact that I was supposed to be wearing it at all times for this review. By contrast, my own Garmin Forerunner 245 has barely left my other wrist for the duration of the review, so it’s not just an aversion to wrist wear.
Again, I appreciate this critique is subjective, and my main issue may be the cheap feeling silicone rubber strap that my review unit arrived with. Fortunately, these can be removed by easily accessible spring pins, and any standard 20mm strap should fit the mechanism.
Indeed, out of curiosity, I tried subbing in my Garmin strap and found the whole thing a lot more comfortable. It still wasn’t quite as comfortable as the Forerunner, suggesting that the 32g heft of the watch itself may be at least partly responsible.
Fortunately, what the TicWatch E3 lacks in design, it makes up for in features thanks to its use of Wear OS. The operating system certainly has its detractors – it’s pretty damning that quite so many smartwatch makers have abandoned it for their own software – but it has come on in leaps and bounds and has a mature app store to expand the already pretty impressive functionality. Want Google Maps, Strava or Outlook on your wrist? They’re all available, albeit nowhere near as useful as the smartphone versions.
Plus, this time around Mobvoi has improved the hardware to open up even more useful functionality. There’s a speaker and microphone, allowing you to dictate messages, get quick translations for phrases in the language of your choice or quiz Google Assistant about anything you want. The speaker is a bit tinny, but it does the job – you’re getting speech responses, not listening to a symphony after all.
The TicWatch E3 also introduces NFC for contactless payments via Google Pay. It’s nice and easy to set up, although bear in mind that doing so means you have to unlock the watch with a code each time you put it back on. That’s entirely sensible, given how easy it would be for your watch to be stolen, but I did find it rather tiresome.
TicWatch E3 review: Performance
All of this whizzes along nicely thanks to the included Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 4100 processor and 1GB RAM. Hopefully, it will remain as zippy when the Wear OS 3 update comes through, and Google seems confident the wearable is up to the task.
The speedy performance wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Past TicWatches have been generally well built but known to scrimp on the innards, causing laggy performance. Indeed, users were forced to suggest workarounds to boost the first-generation TicWatch Pro’s performance on the company’s own forums, and it will be a relief that no such remedy is required here.
Along with the solid array of Google-built apps, and the ability to read notifications as they come through, Mobvoi has included some extra software of its own. Generally, these work well: the breathing exercises (TicBreath) are a nice distraction from the stresses and strains of everyday life, and the fitness ones (TicExercise and TicHealth – you’ve probably figured out the naming convention by now) work well enough – although, personally, I’d switch to Strava, at least for running and cycling.
Others are less successful. The stress measurement tool – TicZen – intends to measure your stress levels, but it involves you sitting still for minutes at a time in order to get a result, which is something that might make you more stressed than you were before.
And, generally, I think it’s safe to say that if there’s a good use for a smartwatch, it’s already been done somewhere on the app store. One new Mobvoi contribution – TicHearing – uses the new built-in microphone to give you an estimate of noise levels around you. Suffice it to say, it’s not that useful, especially as it seems to dramatically overestimate what’s dangerous on the ears, including when I put the watch down next to a tiny desktop fan.
It’s pretty clear from the list of apps that Mobvoi sees the TicWatch E3 as a health and wellbeing product, so how does it function for tracking exercise? Well, the TicExercise app certainly starts well, offering 21 different workout modes on the app.
They’re an eclectic bunch with table tennis and taekwondo both listed alongside football and basketball but, as with most watches, tracking these exercises simply boils down to time, heart rate and a calorie estimate. Some also include an estimate of distance travelled but, as they don’t ask for a GPS lock, it’ll be guesstimated from steps. In other words, all of these are just a fancy way of categorising various types of exercise.
Only running and cycling use the built-in GPS, meaning you can run without your phone if you like but, as is often the case with smartwatches moonlighting as running watches, I found it to be slightly off the pace. While it locks on to a GPS signal faster than anything I can remember using, the results suggest it should probably take a bit longer to ensure accuracy.
Compared to the Garmin Forerunner 245 on my other wrist, I found the watch usually recorded between 0.3km and 0.4km less distance over 5k, which is not insignificant. This was the case over eight runs, each of which was run over a similar route: a mix of streets and parks with some tree cover. On only one run did the E3 record a more respectable difference and, even then, it was 0.1km off the pace.
That’s a pity, because the data is all displayed nicely on the watch face, with four metrics visible, and more available via a quick scroll. If that’s not to your liking, you can grab something like Strava from the Wear OS app store.
The Mobvoi smartphone app is also basic and not at all intuitive. Thankfully, you don’t need to use it that much, as all data is visible on the watch. But it’s a good reason to use third-party apps rather than the various Tic-apps that come pre-installed, as studying data is certainly more straightforward on a bigger screen.
TicWatch E3 review: Verdict
I find myself pretty ambivalent about the TicWatch E3, then. On the one hand, it’s the cheapest way of getting yourself a watch capable of running Wear OS 3 (the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4, lest we forget, starts at £249) and it offers a snappy experience with all the issues of its predecessor corrected.
And yet, I’m pretty pleased that I won’t have to put it back on again after finishing this review. It’s simply not very comfortable on the wrist and, for something so focused on health and wellness, tracking down your results isn’t a brilliant experience, either on the wrist or in the very weak companion app. Wear OS, despite its improvements, is still very much an acquired taste, too.
Add all that together and £180 feels a bit much, even if it is cheapish as far as smartwatches go. For me, buyers would be better off getting the Fitbit Versa 3 for a touch more, a Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 for a lot more, or fully embracing budget restraints and getting something from Amazfit. The TicWatch E3 undoubtedly has a lot going for it, but with competition this fierce, I’d argue it’s ultimately not good enough.