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Buying a smartwatch these days, much like buying a smartphone, goes two ways: WatchOS or Android. It all funnels down to your preference of operating system and what device(s) you're pairing the wearable with.
If Android is your OS of choice, Samsung and, now, Google tend to be your best options. But every now and then, a challenger brand comes along and absolutely wrecks our bias lists -- or, mine, at least.
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Currently, that honor goes to Mobvoi's new $350 TicWatch Pro 5, a smartwatch model that should ring a bell with Android enthusiasts more than anyone else.
A no-frills Wear OS watch that's powered by the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon W5+ Gen 1 processor.
This is the successor to 2020's TicWatch Pro 3, which delivered a snappy Wear OS experience in an affordable, attractive hardware package.
At the time, before Google even released its own Pixel smartwatch, the TicWatch was arguably the best device running on Google's wearable platform. It was very responsive, supported more Play Store apps than Samsung's popular Galaxy watches, and covered the usual gamut of fitness and health features.
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Three years later, I got to spend the past week testing the new TicWatch Pro 5 -- Asia-based manufacturers tend to skip model names with the number "4" due to negative connotations -- and I'm left feeling very pleased.
A big part of that has to do with how little Mobvoi has changed in terms of the hardware of the watch. It's still in between a rugged, sporty look and something you'd wear to more formal occasions, but the watch just looks and feels good on the wrist.
The TicWatch Pro 5 is only available in one size (50.15 x 48 x 12.2 mm) and color (black), but even for someone who prefers wearables that are designed more for morning jogs and city commutes than for rock climbing and conquering 15K Tough Mudders, the larger-than-average size of the wearable is bearable.
However, I'll give the TicWatch Pro 5 two zonks for its design. 1) Although the texturized bezel surrounding the surface of the watch face gives the wearable a premium aesthetic, it can't be dialed or turned like some older Samsung Galaxy watches offer. 2) And if you plan on working out with the default rubber watch band, expect it to leave a grimy imprint on your arm. My suggestion is to buy a more breathable, sweat-resistant band if you plan on taking the TicWatch on runs and all.
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Back to features that I'm glad Mobvoi has kept: The TicWatch Pro 5 still has the company's ingenious dual-layer display, which sets an ultra-low-power panel on top of the OLED one underneath. This melding of displays allows the TicWatch to cycle between a battery-efficient watch face when the device is inactive and a more colorful, contrasty visual when it is.
Mobvoi's taken things up a notch with the new dual-layer display by applying six backlight colors to indicate what heart rate zones you're in during workouts. So, as I'm running outdoors, a quick glance at what color the low-power display is showing gives me an idea of how much less or more intense my exercise should be.
Ultimately, I got an average of three days of usage before needing to charge the watch, which is just as impressive as its roughly 50-minute fast charge time. Mobvoi says a half-hour charge takes the watch from 0% to 65%, and I can attest to that. Had I forced the TicWatch to stay in Essential Mode all day, which limits the display to the ultra-low-power visual, I could see it lasting for significantly longer.
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The user experience of the smartwatch, while relatively bare-bones compared to the ecosystem-driven benefits of Apple Watches and Samsung Galaxy Watches, has been refreshing to use. Most, if not all, on-device features that I'd want in a smartwatch are here, like heart rate and sleep tracking, timers, calendar and message notifications, and even Google Maps navigation.
In fact, it was during my taps, swipes, and pinches in services like Google Maps that I noticed just how snappy the smartwatch was. Thanks to the new Snapdragon W5+ Gen 1 processor powering the unit, street names and directions were loading as soon as I zoomed in and out of maps.
The looming question with Mobvoi smartwatches has to do with software support. Three years after the release of the previous TicWatch Pro 3, the company still hasn't updated the wearable with its promise of Wear OS 3. And while the Pro 5 model that I've been testing is running on the latest Google software, its most recent security patch happened four months ago.
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When asked about Mobvoi's commitment to software updates with the latest watch, a spokesperson said an OTA update will arrive as soon as the launch date, which is today. I'll see if that holds true or not, and whether there will be more consistency moving forward.
Updates aside, there's plenty to explore with Mobvoi's latest TicWatch, and it's very much capable of running the most strenuous Android applications thanks to the upgraded processor. For $350, the Pro 5 competes squarely with Google's own Pixel Watch. But unless you prefer a fancier, more elegant design and a better update cadence, I'm finding it difficult to justify the latter.