Moto 360 2 review: Motorola plays it safe

The 2nd gen is an improvement but not where it matters

I never wanted a smartwatch until I realised that Android Wear was essentially a Google Now dashboard on your wrist. As someone who makes heavy use of Google’s personal assistant, I was eager to get my hands on one of the first compatible watches on the market. Unfortunately I didn’t like the look of any that were available when Android Wear launched. They all used the same Android software but the hardware was so ugly.

That changed when Motorola released the Moto 360, a relatively stylish, round-faced smartwatch going up against chunky, square competitors. It was a good smartwatch, one of the best, but definitely had its issues. I recently got my hands on the 2nd generation Moto 360 and was eager to see if they had made the obvious changes that customers wanted. There’s no doubt the upgrade is a better watch, but not in the ways that really mattered.

What’s new?

Android Wear smartwatches are glorified Google Now notification centres, so they don’t need intense processing power or memory. Even so, the original model felt slightly less responsive than some of the other Android smartwatches and there was usually a delay when interacting with cards. It wouldn’t grind to a halt, but it wasn’t as smooth as the demo videos would have you believe. The original’s single core processor has been replaced with a quad-core Snapdragon 400 and it’s obvious. It has paused a handful of times when starting an app, but general navigation on the watch feels as fluid as it really should be considering it’s just showing notification cards most of the time.

I think it’s fair to say the biggest difference is that you have more freedom in choosing your watch’s appearance. The 1st gen model had black, silver, and gold options that were all the same size. When designing your 2nd gen Moto 360, you have to choose between a men’s model and a women’s model. The men’s comes in two different sizes: 46 mm (more or less the same as the original, which is a but chunky) and 42 mm. The women’s model is only available in 42 mm. What’s the difference between the 42 mm for men and women? A slightly thinner band and the colour pink. Seriously. Men get black, silver, or gold colour options; women get rose gold instead of black. Rose gold is pink. I’m not knocking the colour, my rose gold iPhone is beautiful. I just despise colour coding by gender. I happen to like pink but I also like black, which means I’d have to buy a man’s model if I wanted that colour.

The new model is slightly slimmer so it feels a little smaller even if you chose the 46 mm option. My favourite improvement to the body is that Motorola moved the side-button from the 3 o’clock to 2 o’clock position. It wasn’t a huge problem on the original but this new placement feels much more natural. Now my fingers are already in the correct place when I reach across to the watch. With the original I needed to bend my hand back slightly to grip the watch and press the button. It’s the type of thing that you just live with at the time but that I would hate going back to now that I’ve used the improved placement.

The screen resolution has improved slightly. The larger model’s screen is 233 ppi, which is similar to the 1st gen’s 205 ppi. I’ve been using the new smaller model, with a 263 ppi resolution, and the difference is noticeable if you’re looking at the watch faces closely. Motorola stuck with Gorilla Glass and an IPS LED display. There are no other changes to screen in terms of hardware, but the visual experience has seen some software tweaks.

The original’s screen could either be fully on, fully off, or on ambient mode. When ambient, the time and other information is displayed but costs less power. It was designed to be viewed at a glance only. If you lifted the watch much nearer your face, the screen would activate fully. But turn your wrist just a tiny bit to glance at it and it would display in ambient mode.

This sounds great in theory but sometimes the watch wouldn’t realise when you did or didn’t want to glance at it, so sometimes I’d check only to see a black void. Then I’d have to tap it or bring it closer to get some info, which defeats the point. On the 2nd gen it seems that ambient mode is always running, meaning the screen always displays at least some information unless you turn the feature off. It’s better seeing a dark watch face than an empty black hole.

Not the changes we wanted

In all the important ways the watch could be improved, Motorola has missed the mark. It’s better, they’ve improved it, but only in relatively superficial ways.  Both generations of the Moto 360 have an annoying black bar running along the bottom of the screen, which is particularly noticeable and distracting on a circular device. The bar contains the ambient light sensor, which is important but surely could be placed elsewhere in the bezel. It’s not a deal-breaker as the watch still looks good and works well but it seems absurd that Motorola would choose to cover some of the screen. A pixel-less area on a screen that’s already small can’t really be forgiven. Reviews of the original model were generally positive but almost all were disappointed by the black bar and I wonder why Motorola wouldn’t make the one change everyone requested.

The wireless charger is one of the best and worst things about both models. With light use you can keep the watch running for a couple of days before it needs charging. With heavy use you’ll be charging it when you go to sleep. This isn’t a problem at all because the wireless charger works beautifully. Just sit it on the dock and it’s your bedside clock. No messing with cables or plugs; it’s wonderful. The downside is when I’ve stayed with a friend or at a hotel, especially short-notice, and didn’t have the little charging dock with me. You can’t plug the watch itself into anything at all. The micro USB cable connects to the wireless dock only, so you have to bring it if you aren’t returning home that night.

Worth the upgrade?

I’m frustrated that some of the obvious problems haven’t been fixed but I do like the new models. I’m not as keen on smartwatches in general as I was last year but I still use them and the 2nd gen Moto 360 is the best Android Wear option I’ve seen so far. It has the annoying black bar; there’s no GPS; the heart rate monitor is more or less a gimmick as usual; but it looks great and it works beautifully with Android and the Google ecosystem.

I realise how much I like it when I least expect it. Sometimes I’m baking, covered in ingredients, and I need to set a timer. My phone is in my pocket. I just speak out loud, “Ok Google, set timer for 3 minutes” and we’re in business. This works even if I’ve left my phone in another room. When I receive a text while cycling, I just take a quick glance to see if it’s important or not. Without it, I’d probably stop the bike and check my phone only to realise it wasn’t important. The smartwatch makes me use my phone less, which is a good thing. I find that Android Wear helps me live more in the moment without giving up the convenience of having a smartphone with me. I spend more time interacting with people and things around me, less time with my head down staring at the “black mirror.”

The 1st gen was £199 when it released in 2014. The 2nd gen options start at £229, which is good value for money when the watch is well-built and more stylish than most of the Android competition. Once you start adding extras like a metal strap rather than leather, the price starts to soar. The starting £229 is only for the smaller models too, so you have to pay an extra £40 for the original size. Add £30 for a metal band, add £30 for a gold body, add £20 for a different texture on the bezel… you get the idea. I don’t feel many of these are worth the extra cost but I’ve had leather and metal straps for the Moto 360 and definitely prefer the metal, especially with its one-touch release.

If you’re looking for a smartwatch, ask yourself how much you use Google Now. If you make the most of it, then this is going to be a useful device to have and might improve your phone habits. Motorola haven’t made changes where it really matters, but they have improved what was already the best option out there without breaking the bank. If you don’t use Google Now, I would seriously reconsider getting an Android Wear smartwatch at the moment.

You can design your new Moto 360 on the Moto Maker website, starting at £229.

Main image © Motorola