This AI startup may have cracked the code for an affordable, good-looking smartwatch. And it even works

The most honest tech reviews are always done by privileged brats in Chile. Picture: Peter Farquhar, Business Insider

If you’re a parent, there’s a very good chance you’re well sick of hearing your kids cry out the word “laggy”.

It’s the next generation’s byword for “Why do mum and dad hate me so much?”

It is also an excellent ratings system. Any new piece of technology that can make it through 48 hours with a 12-year-old and not force them to use the L-word has achieved a rare, and worthy, milestone.

I was about to start a two-week holiday in Chile, and the last thing I needed was the TicWatch Pro buzzing my wrist every minute, reminding me of all the not-at-all important things that still needed my attention right now.

So I gave it to my 12-year-old son who, like any 12-year-old, is as obsessed with any piece of touchscreen communication tech as he is disgusted with anything remotely “laggy”.

Brand? Meh.

Design? Whatever.

Battery life? Some tension evident as it approaches 60% and possible 24-hour ties with mates grow perilously thin.

Wait for more than half a second for it to respond? Drop it like a nerfed double pump strat. Google it.

Fortunately, the TicWatch Pro turns out, so far, to be not laggy at all. Mostly. I eventually got back to work and gave it an adult going over.

In my week with it, there was a single occasion where I got edgy waiting for a service which five years ago I could not actually imagine. For the first time in three weeks, a hard reset was required, and we were off and running again.

You might read a couple of Amazon reviews which complain about lag time, but they’re bundled with 12 other complaints in the kind of Amazon reviews which make you think of that kid in The Far Side trying to push open the door with “Pull” written on it.

You can allay a lot of those concerns simply by starting with the price. At $369.99, the TicWatch Pro is $70 more, but definitely still in the same market as the new Fitbit Versa – affordable.

It’s bang up against the likes of Samsung’s Gear S3 Frontier, but enough of a stretch away from the Apple Watch Series 3 ($459) to call it a “mid-priced” smartwatch.

The short review says it’s not a dedicated fitness device like the Versa, but it looks at least as good as the Gear S3, even on my lupine wrist:

Picture: Peter Farquhar, Business Insider

Unlike the Frontier, it’s powered by Google’s Wear OS. This is a good thing. In fact, Mobvoi is a Beijing-based artificial intelligence startup that specialises in voice technology, and as such, is backed to some extent by Google. And Volkswagen.

It’s taken a while, but smartwatches really are about to become a thing. Unit sales have roughly doubled from 19 million in 2015 each year and are forecast to approach 141 million in 2018. Apple is eating up about 50% of that, but there’s plenty of scraps left from the table for third-party developers.

Especially ones which have a trick up their sleeve, like Mobvoi. It’s this:

Picture: Mobvoi

Two watches. Woo.

Let’s finish on that crucial high note. First, you need to know that for well under $400, you’ll get a watch that’s a little on the thick side, but designed with a premium look, and is surprisingly light.

There are currently eight straps available, including a brown leather strap. The best option, if fitness and sweaty wrists are your thing, is the silicon strap with leather outer.

And then there are all the faces:

Picture: Mobvoi

Mobvoi says there are “thousands” of watch face options available on Google Play.

The top button opens a main menu to see apps and close apps. The bottom button can be set as shortcut for favourite apps such as Google Pay. (NFC is a bonus.)

Nuts and bolts

I’ve only ever worn smartwatches as review devices, so I generally need more time fiddling my way through them. I got lost for a day or two looking for things I needed, but that’s mainly because the fitness data gets stored in the separate Mobvoi app, not the Wear OS app. It takes some getting used to.

My son had none of these problems.

And fitness data is overrated anyway. My approach is to just stop when I’m out of breath, but if you are into that sort of thing, you’ll be happy to know that you don’t need to take your phone for a run.

The TicWatch Pro has GPS built in to do all your tracking, and you can store tunes. Bluetooth headphones pair easily and the heart rate sensor works well enough; better if you wear it tighter.

It’s IP68 waterproof, which basically means shower, but don’t swim. If get caught, it can handle up to 1.5 metres depth for 30 minutes, but you’ve probably had enough heartbreak experimenting with water and smartwatches by now to know not to push your luck.

Internally, it runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 chipset, and chugs along well enough on 512MB of RAM, with 4GB of storage for music and apps.

There’s no LTE model, but Mobvoi is thinking about a version down the track. You’re stuck with Bluetooth and wifi for now, and after three weeks with the TicWatch Pro, honestly, that seems to be the only downer. Sorry, Far Side kid reviewer on Amazon.

The only time I didn’t enjoy wearing the Pro was in the first few hours, after having had to lie to my son about “Mobvoi wanting it back” in order to prise it off him.

But then I figured out how to dial down the notifications with app controls or Theater and Do Not Disturb options.

And gesture controls. I actually turned some notifications back on just so I could dismiss them or scroll through messages with a flick or twist of my wrist.

No watch should take two hands to operate. It’s uncivilised.

Here’s something else no watch lover should have to suffer – taking it off every night.

Let’s talk about battery

In full power mode, the TicWatch Pro will give you at least two days of mucking about on its 1.39 inch OLED hi-res, 400 x 400 pixel display. That alone puts is close to top of the smartwtach battery life heap when it comes to running all the colours, music, fitness and Google Translates:

“How much for the llama empanada?”

Did I mention the two-week holiday was in Chile? That’s a week in the very finely-dusted Atacama desert and a week hanging out on a snow-covered active volcano the TicWatch Pro survived.

But look – here’s the other screen, under a full Tasmanian winter sun:

Picture: Peter Farquhar, Business Insider

Just horrifying for a generation that doesn’t know how cool Magnum PI is. But several reviewers soon learned that the payoff for information which is just that – information – can be huge. As much as 30 days.

When the TicWatch Pro is inactive, you get this basic 80s digital display, and despite looking otherwise, the dual layer is a very nifty bit of tech.

Its magic happens due to a thing called Film compensated Super Twisted Nematic (FSTN) LCD. You can see it from any angle, and it still gives you the important stuff – time, date, steps, heart rate.

Keep the TicWatch Pro in Essential mode and that’s where you’ll get the enormous battery life. Even when there’s not enough juice to keep powering smartwatch mode, Essential mode will still live on for weeks. You can lock it if you don’t want smartwatch mode to flick on every time you lift your wrist to check the time.

Mobvoi promises Over The Air (OTA) updates for the Essential screen are coming, including distance traveled, calories burned, speed and cadence, so that’s even less reason to switch to Battery Burn mode.

It’s basically a classic retro Casio that turns into a very competent, Google-powered smartwatch when you press a button.

What else do you need to know, other than Chile is a very, very nice place to spend two weeks away from work skiing and drinking excellent cheap wine in?

Mobvoi is moving fast – the TicWatch Pro is its third smartwatch release in a year. But in terms of the Wear OS platform, it’s got some serious competition coming in the form of a rumoured Samsung Wear OS watch later this year, plus the potential of a Pixel Watch.

But it’s given itself a great headstart by showing it can make wearables at a reasonable price, that work much better than can be reasonably expected.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.