The Apple Watch won but TAG Heuer is keeping a certain kind of smartwatch alive

With the launch, last week, of the slim, polished, aluminium and square Oppo Watch, it became clear that Apple had won. The Apple Watch is now not only the biggest selling smartwatch but, like the AirPods with wireless earbuds, the blueprint for successful and covetable smartwatch design. It’s not just Oppo; other tech companies such as Xiaomi spin-off Amazfit have closely followed these hardware and software design cues, too.

Not so TAG Heuer. Its Monaco watches are square so it’s conceivable that we could one day see a square smartwatch from the brand, but the new TAG Heuer Connected shows that we’re unlikely to get a device that doesn’t look and act like a conventional watch. That’s unsurprising from a Swiss watchmaker, but it’s also notable in that it makes TAG Heuer one of the only genuine alternatives to Apple remaining.

Five years after its first smartwatch, the 2020 edition of the TAG Heuer Connected isn’t dramatically different. The team of 30, up from four and now based in Paris, is doubling down on the idea of watch craftsmanship, both on the hardware and in the digital watch faces, and adding its own custom Sports app for golf, running and cycling.

In our hands-on, the 45mm Wear OS watch is as premium-looking as ever; nothing apart from the Apple Watch and a few other luxury options from the likes of Louis Vuitton can match it on fit and finish. With stainless steel and a lighter, matte black titanium case, aimed at sportier users, available and a very slick chronograph design, it’s a familiar look. There’s three new pushers, to help wearers use it while running, for instance, and a number of tweaks including a 1.39-inch OLED 454 x 4545 display that’s closer to the sapphire, a screwed back case and ceramic bezels.

TAG Heuer has also simplified its initial proposition of a fully modular smartwatch. Now, you can’t change up the lugs but there’s a range of rubber straps – including a very intriguing alligator option – and stainless steel bracelets that are both more affordable and easier to clip in and out. (Leather options are coming later this year.) There’s more custom watch faces, ranging from an impression of the Heuer 02’s skeletonised dial to a digital animation of a neural network, with colour customisations and recommendations and regular updates to the collection.

“We realised that people were changing straps a lot more than lugs and really interested in the watch face part,” says Jade Ferreol, product manager for TAG Heuer Connected. “For each of the straps that we have, our designers spent a lot of time making sure that everything we’re doing on the digital and watch face side is really matching what we have there.”

The built-in GPS seen previously has been joined by a heart-rate monitor, a compass plus an accelerometer and gyroscope for gesture detection. But the real work on sports has been done on the software side. Following last year’s Connected Golf Edition, there is now a custom suite of fitness and sports tools for golf, running and cycling with a paired down design with a focus on bombarding the user with the real-time stats as you might see on a Garmin.

It’s all very streamlined, with watch faces that show your daily steps when you press on them, useful integration of the pushers and thoughtful touches such as the heart-rate stats being displayed when you stop running, while everything else pauses. The battery life from the slightly bigger 430mAh unit is still “all day”, though TAG Heuer says this now includes one hour of activity with GPS and heart-rate turned on. Ferreol also says that the team is working on “an even better optimisation” that will be rolled out soon after launch.

The price has increased slightly on the previous generation with prices starting at £1,495 for the stainless steel model and £1,950 for titanium from TAG Heuer. With Apple locking down almost the entire sub-£500 market, though, TAG Heuer’s approach to add sports features while refining the watch-like smartwatch experience makes a lot of sense.

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