TAG Heuer Connected Review

For 2020, TAG Heuer has released an all-new smartwatch, simply known as “TAG Heuer Connected,” and while superficially it’s an updated and more refined version of prior Heuer smartwatches, the third-generation is the biggest overhaul yet. Join me as we do a deep dive into the watch, from the styling of the case and bezel, to the operating system, and to the hardware inside that makes it all work.

Perhaps the most obvious and noteworthy change is the end of the “Modular” motif that typified the 2nd generation Heuer smartwatch. While smartwatches are intrinsically more customizable than their mechanical counterparts, due to the vast variety of watch faces a wearer could choose, the Connected Modular took a radical approach that even allowed owners to replace the entire smartwatch component with a mechanical watch if they wanted. Interesting and cool those features might have been, but they do create design constraints on how the watch is ultimately put together. By moving to a non-modular design, Heuer was not only able to create a thinner watch, but also one that more closely resembled their Carrera line of mechanical watches, arguably their most attractive. It’ll be interesting to see if the Modular was merely an experiment that has come and gone or if it’ll make a return at some point in the future. Personally, I’d like to see it again, if only because it was a very unique option.

Aesthetically, the 45mm Connected closely resembles the Carrera Heuer 02 chronograph, both from the perspective of the case and bezel, but also in the choice of digital dials. That’s a fairly self-evident choice, not merely because the Carrera is probably the best looking line of TAG Heuers today, but because it’s one of the most popular luxury watches in the world. Monaco fans might disagree, of course, and I’m sympathetic to their view, but adopting a square case would be counterproductive in trying to achieve a mainstream appeal and separating it from its most noteworthy rivals.

Where it does differ from those new Carreras is with the pushers and crown, which makes perfect sense since the functionality of these is radically different than that of the mechanical watch. TAG has apparently made a priority of giving the user the ability to avoid the touchscreen if they’d prefer more tactile operation, and in practice, this works quite well. For instance, from the watch face start location, the top pusher is a shortcut directly into TAG’s fitness application, while the bottom pusher goes straight to a chronograph/lap timer. As is often the case with smartwatches, pushing the crown either takes you to a list of apps or, if in some place other than the watch face, back to the default watch face. Most interesting, however, is the ability to scroll up and down from the watch face screen, either to adjust settings or to see notifications. The latter is much more useful than the former, and in future versions TAG should consider swapping the swipe down and scroll down function from settings to Google’s screen, which gives you context-sensitive data like weather and calendar entries. That said, on many smartwatches, like the Apple Watch, the functionality of the crown is extremely limited on a watch face, unless you happen to be using the Siri face, forcing users to use touch instead. With the Connected, you at least have the choice, and it’s a non-trivial one because the tactile feedback of scrolling or using a pusher is a lot more confidence-inspiring than dragging your finger across the screen, the same reason why most people prefer physical keyboards to touch screen keyboards.

Thickness has decreased from 13.7mm to 13.5mm, this despite increasing battery capacity from 410 mAh to 430 mAh, significantly more than some competitors, such as the Apple Watch Series 5, which has just under 300. The slimmer watch will be appreciated by all, although I would have preferred an extra few tenths of a millimeter for greater battery life. Still, I’m clearly in a tiny minority, as virtually all smartphone and smartwatch manufacturers favor thinness over battery life. Battery life for the Connected remains rated at around 20 hours, fairly ordinary for the segment.

The lack of battery life increases despite a larger battery is probably due to a superior always-on display with a higher resolution than its predecessor. The Modular also had an always-on display, but it was using an older generation of hardware that reduced it to simple monochrome displays when not active to conserve battery life. Improvements in the CPU (which is completely different in this generation, more on that later) has allowed the watch to have a relatively complex colorful passive display when inactive. In a fashion-forward watch like the Connected, these little touches count.

Some of that thinness was made possible by a more conventional non-swappable case, but some techniques were more clever. For instance, the new antenna(s) are placed underneath a ceramic bezel, which, despite being far harder than steel, is much less radio-opaque. The ceramic bezel is standard across all four versions of the watch (today we’re looking at the SBG8A10.BT6219), although one version, the SBG8A12.BT6219, appears to have a steel bezel. This is apparently some sort of coating on the ceramic itself to give it a convincingly metallic look without interfering with radio connectivity. As to the connectivity itself, you’ve got Bluetooth 4.1, 2.4 gHz Wi-Fi, and GPS, a fairly standard complement for a smartwatch in 2020.

The panel on the new Connected is very nice. PPI was acceptable on the Modular 45, at 287, but that’s way up in this generation to 326 a number that, I’m sure by pure coincidence, is identical to the current generation of Apple Watches. In either case, from the normal distance that we look at our watches from, the screen won’t look pixelated, but rather smooth and seamless. Regardless, the panel has extremely high contrast and vivid colors, no doubt thanks to its OLED design. Furthermore, unlike its Apple competition, this is a truly edge to edge display. The Apple Watch does a good job of hiding this with a true black backdrop and the perfect contrast of its own OLED panel, but a black border remains. The edge of the Heuer’s display is likely hidden underneath the the ceramic bezel, eliminating any visible black border, and doing a better job of appearing as a simple watch, which is essentially the entire point of the Connected: to look like a “normal” Carrera, not like a miniaturized smartphone on your wrist. This it accomplishes well.

While the Connected runs Google’s Wear OS, the de facto operating system for Android-friendly smartwatches, it does receive a lot of customization from TAG Heuer that makes it a different experience than that of competitors. The first and most visible sign of this is the legitimately very cool custom watch faces that come pre-loaded on the watch. This one, for instance, titled Orbital, can present either a stylized digital readout (my preference, and seen above) or an analog one, but more interestingly, the background is a fully-animated constellation of points designed to resemble some sort of neural net. That’s cool enough, but the seconds hand is actually indicated by the “net” reaching out to the bezel, here seen around 9:00.

My favorite is underwhelmingly titled “Timekeeping,” which resembles the clocks the brand uses at various sporting events, or perhaps the old Microtimer, one of my favorite TAG Heuers. Not only does it look awesome, it has a lot of useful information right on the display, from battery life and status indicators to the number of notifications you haven’t seen yet. This, for me anyway, is perhaps the sweet spot for smart watches, designs which embrace their fundamentally electronic nature but do so in a useful and legible way.

By far the most popular will be the Heuer 02, seen here (and seen in another photo of mine earlier). This, of course, closely resembles the Heuer 02 and is the face that gets closest to just wearing a Carrera. Three subdials can be selected to give whatever information you prefer. Here I’ve chosen a step counter, the day, and the temperature, but you could put almost any information the watch has available in those spots. In this sense, this is the converse of the “Timekeeping” dial, where the watch attempts to look exactly like an existing mechanical watch yet preserves some of the advantages that smart watches have. For instance, this face is highly customizable, and here I’ve chosen gold accents. You can choose different hour markers, colors, “complications,” and even the color of the seconds hand to create a personalized look, or just to change the look when you get bored of the last one. This also ensures that, while there will undoubtedly be many Connects in the wild, owing to the brand’s immense popularity, your Connected is almost guaranteed to be unique. This customization is available for all of the faces in varying degrees. Also keep in mind that there are other faces on the watch, but for brevity I’ve stuck to my favorites.

One of the unique applications that’s very central to the new Connected is TAG Heuer Sports. Fitness tracking and athletics has become somewhat core to the smartwatch mission for every manufacture, so success in this area is pretty much vital. TAG’s approach is bespoke and quite good looking. Currently it has modes for running, cycling, and a broader category for fitness, but I think the golf mode will be by far the most interesting for Heuer fans. It interfaces with the TAG Heuer Golf phone application, available for both Android and iOS, and possesses a wide variety of tools to track your golf performance. Also nice is that all of this can be accessed without using the touchscreen or without going through a lot of menus. A single use of the top pusher from the watch face will bring you to the sports app, where you can scroll with the crown and select again with the top pusher. You can, of course, do all of this with touch if you’d prefer, but re-introducing a physical, tactile interface makes using this watch much more like using a conventional watch than that of a smartwatch, again, advancing TAG’s agenda of making the smartwatch more, well, watch-like.

Pushing the lower pusher from the watch face will take you here, to a very cool-looking lap timer. This can be used either as a simple chronograph or something more akin to a rattrapante, and again, requires no touch interface to use. The ability to jump right to a chronograph quickly and easily makes it a lot more likely that people will actually use it, as opposed to hitting the crown, scrolling through menus alphabetically until you find the timer, touching the timer icon, and finally getting to the screen. With the Connected, this is just a single button away from your watch dial. It’s clear that the Connected was built with sports and fitness at its heart, which is in-line with the broader brand philosophy of TAG Heuer.

Although TAG Heuer’s custom interface is layered on top, at the watch’s heart is Google’s Wear OS. Because Heuer opted to use this more common operating system rather than create their own, you get access not only to a huge variety of apps, but also to Google’s powerful features and ecosystem. For instance, swiping right at the dial will bring you to a Google readout of contextually relevant information based on your Google account. This could include simple things like weather forecasts and temperature, reminders, upcoming calendar events and many other useful or fun pieces of information. In 2020, the argument for best digital assistant has narrowed primarily to between Alexa and Google Assistant, with Siri falling into third place while Bixby and Cortana languish far behind the pack. I won’t debate whether Alexa or Google Assistant is better (or even Siri), but rather, I think what’s best depends on the tech ecosystem you currently live with. Certainly, coming with built-in integration for one of the two leading digital assistants is a good start for most people.

While several tech blogs have incorrectly reported that the Connected has no microphone, the watch will respond to OK Google inquiries with ease. Because of the incredibly limited interface necessitated by a tiny screen on any smartwatch, voice interfaces become far more practical. OK Google is disabled by default, which perhaps threw those reviewers off, but you can access it by holding down the crown for 2 seconds. If you find yourself using OK Google frequently, there is a setting which enables OK Google (i.e. you can simply say a command and the watch will hear you without touching a button first). I personally find this somewhat necessary for any smartwatch, principally because there are so many times your hands are occupied by whatever you’re doing that you don’t have a hand free to use a button.

The new sensor array finally includes a heart rate tracker, pretty much essential to be taken seriously as a smartwatch, but this also gives us a good look at the strap and bracelet changing system Heuer is using. A small spring-loaded slider on the underside of each strap can be moved down to unlock the strap and remove it. This is extremely fast and easy, even more so than the Apple Watch’s popular strap changing system. Inside the watch runs the Snapdragon 3100, the latest and greatest watch chipset from Qualcomm. This is a huge change from the unusual Intel Atom CPUs that powered prior Connected watches and puts it more in line with other premium Android Wear devices, even if it ultimately does make it less weird and special.

The 3100 itself is an interesting chip, combining an older quad core Cortex A7 with a lot of updates and refinements, the most important of which is the far more sophisticated QCC1110 co-processor. Unlike the aging A7 cores, the new QCC1110 uses a superior manufacturing process (the very contemporary 7nm versus 28nm for the A7) which contributes to its power-sipping nature, as well as a much lower-performance design. That might not sound particularly exciting, but the co-processor basically offloads passive functions from the less efficient, but more powerful, cores, allowing the watch to run longer while doing background functions like using the always-on screen and monitoring the various sensors. The 3100 has played a big part in why the battery life rating didn’t suffer even though the new Connected is thinner than its predecessor while running a significantly higher resolution screen (454×454 vs 400×400), monitoring a heart rate sensor, and using a more complex always-on display.

While we’re here, it’s a good time to talk about the included charging puck for the Connected. Like other Android Wear devices, TAG’s chosen to use a prong-based connection rather than Apple’s wireless approach. It works fine in practice, but it does mean you have to pay attention to the watch orientation in a way you simply don’t need to with a conventional wireless connection. I’d like to see TAG switch to that kind of connection in the future because these little touches add up as you do them every day, or perhaps even multiple times in a day. That said, TAG’s charging implementation does have one key advantage over Apple’s, namely a removable USB-C cable. This makes it much easier to travel with, particularly if you’re already using a modern Android phone (which will very likely also use USB-C), as you don’t need to double up on cables. Many modern laptops even charge over USB-C, like the Macbook Air or Dell XPS 13, so in theory, a single cable could be all you need to charge your watch, your phone, and your laptop. In the Apple sphere, you’ll need a puck for your Apple Watch (with the cable permanently attached), a USB-C cable for your laptop, and a Lightning cable for your phone, a minimum of three cables for most Apple devotees. Just as having to worry about the orientation of the watch as you place it on a charger is a small, but repetitive, annoyance, having to make sure you always travel with at least three different cables is also a small but frequent annoyance. Of course, your mileage will vary, depending on the smartphone and laptop you happen to use, but as we enter 2020 and 2021 approaches, a USB-C powered world is already emerging, so this will apply to more and more people by the day. Also please note that, although it’s not in the photo, the Connected does come with a small wall adapter (as one would expect for $1,800).

The new Connected is available on either this rubber strap or a bracelet, but I’d recommend getting the rubber. Smartwatches are almost invariably aimed at fitness and active living, in which case, the watch will be lighter, more comfortable, and have some ventilation through the strap. I also happen to think it’s a very good looking strap. Because these straps are so incredibly easy to change, I’d probably also consider picking up one or two extra straps from TAG, as they’re available in red, orange, or “khaki” (olive drab, in my book), as well as my favorite, the “Black with a Touch of Red” rubber strap with a leather look.

At $1,800 (on strap, $1,950 on bracelet), the Connected is one of the highest-end smartwatches in the world, but not one without a role to play. In my opinion, the Connected is perhaps the ideal “transitional” smartwatch, either from smartwatches to luxury mechanical watches like a Carrera or a Seamaster, but also from those mechanical watches to smartwatches. For up-and-coming young people may be far more comfortable with smartwatches than with mechanical ones but want a higher-quality and better-looking case than they get from other manufacturers. In that scenario, the Connected allows them to jump into Carrera styling without giving up their smartwatch utility, and I’m sure TAG hopes that they will eventually jump into a mechanical watch from there. Conversely, fans of mechanical watches, particularly fans of TAG Heuer, may want to try smartwatches but not want to give up the look and feel that they’re used to. The Connected offers a transition for them, as well, and this is more than merely superficial. The design of not only the case and strap, but also of the dials, the interface, the apps, and a newfound reliance on conventional pusher and crown interfaces provides less of a hurdle than conventional smartwatch design, which amounts to a smartphone on your wrist with a clock face.

Furthermore, well-heeled fans of Android phones (although the Connected works fine with iPhones, I should point out), forever cut off from the ubiquitous Apple Watch, may simply want the highest-quality Android Wear watch they can get, which is arguably the Connected. This would be even more true for people deeply embedded in the Google ecosystem. Finally, I think golfers in particular might find special use in the Connected, as the Golf phone and watch apps seem extremely sophisticated. Not being a golfer myself, I’m in no position to evaluate them, but I can tell TAG Heuer has put a lot of time and money into the app, as demonstrated by a 5 star average review at the time of this writing in Apple’s App Store.

The Connected, therefore, is a niche product, but it’s for a niche that exists. A huge number of people are turned off by conventional smartwatch design, most notably the Apple Watch’s unusual (although I, and apparently Moser, find it attractive) gently rectangular case, but also that of many other smartwatches which were designed by tech companies first, watch companies second. TAG Heuer, conversely, is very much a mainstream design leader when it comes to watches, with broad appeal among the masses, not merely watch collectors, so it’s in a unique position to incorporate better design into smartwatch functionality. It takes time to appreciate the Connected, because at first glance you’re tempted to think of it as an ordinary Android Wear watch in a nice case, but the differences are deeper. The way the watch modes look, in addition to their reliance on pushers and the crown, actually make it feel quite a bit different from your everyday Android Wear watch. Whether or not that’s worth it to you is another question, but it is a distinction with a difference. For Android Wear enthusiasts looking for an upgrade, or for TAG Heuer fans who want to give smartwatches a shot, it offers something unique, and it does so while improving in many ways over its own predecessor.

The new Connected is currently available in 4 designs, including a blacked-out titanium one, and you can see them all here. My favorite is the one in this review, the SBG8A10.BT6219, which also happens to be the most affordable.

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