Is it fair to judge a device on factors that a manufacturer can’t control? Unfortunately, yes: while tech junkies might recognize that the problems with Wear OS aren’t the fault of an individual device, that doesn’t make the problems go away.
Now that I’ve given away the crux of this review let’s talk about the TicWatch S2. It’s at the top of Mobvoi’s current product line, which still puts it on the budget end of Wear OS watches. And based on its hardware, style, and price, it might warrant a hesitant thumbs up.
But even on its own merits, the S2 is merely mediocre, with connection issues and poor battery life dragging down an otherwise serviceable design and good value. With Wear’s clunky interface, not to mention its uncertain future as a platform, it just isn’t getting a recommendation.
What Makes It Tick
Let’s get the bad part out of the way first: the TicWatch S2 uses a Snapdragon 2100, the last-gen Qualcomm wearable chip, instead of the newer, more efficient 3100. That’s a bummer to be sure, but not a total dealbreaker given the price. And it might be hoped that the S2’s 415mAh battery, enabled by its chunky size, could make up for it.
Other highlighted features include the near-ubiquitous heart rate monitor, 50 meters of water resistance (an upgrade over even cheaper TicWatch designs), and built-in Wi-Fi and GPS. That last one is particularly rare—you usually need to step up to a much more expensive device, even among less flexible fitness trackers, to get access to dedicated GPS.
As a Wear OS device, the TicWatch S2 pairs best with any recent Android phone and will benefit from easy access to the Play Store and more robust notifications. Technically Wear OS works with Apple’s iPhones too (a relationship that isn’t reciprocated), but iOS users have much better options even at this price point. To put it bluntly: spring for an Apple Watch or use a fitness tracker if you use an iPhone.
4GB of on-device storage for apps and music (for the apps that support it) and 512MB of RAM are pretty standard for Wear OS devices. The TicWatch S2 does without NFC for easy payments and does not include a 3G or LTE radio for an independent connection outside of a Wi-Fi network.
Style That Won’t Turn Heads
Like many Wear OS devices, the TicWatch S2 tries to mask its relatively large size with a “sporty” aesthetic. A big, chunky plastic case surrounds the circular screen, complete with a molded bezel bearing entirely superfluous second markers at the cardinal directions. The single control button is at the three o’clock position, where a crown would be on a regular watch.
It looks like a big “Ironman” sports watch from Timex or a G-shock from Casio, and while that might not be your cup of tea, it certainly nails the look it’s going for. Note that, at almost 50mm wide, it’s going to wear big even on a large wrist—smaller people of either sex will find it very bulky.
That look, thankfully, isn’t spoiled by the circular display. The “flat tire” cutout seen on too many smartwatches is nowhere to be found, so you get a surprisingly large and unbroken 1.4-inch OLED screen. It isn’t the brightest one around, and unfortunately, that’s a tic against it if you’re continually trying to use the watch outside. But on a watch of this price, it’s an appreciated feature.
The S2 comes with a silicone band—not particularly stylish, but plenty functional. If you prefer something else, this can be swapped out with any 22mm band you’d prefer, and using the included quick-release strap pins makes it quite easy. All in all, no one’s going to mistake it for a “luxury” watch no matter what band you put on it, but it’s not bad-looking in the realm of chunky, masculine timepieces.
Wear OS is Long in the Tooth
Wear OS gets a lot of hate as of late… and it’s not entirely undeserved. The system is complicated for a wearable device, juggling a lot of apps and features with a series of swipes and taps that’s less than intuitive compared to alternatives from Samsung, Apple, and FitBit. The TicWatch isn’t doing Wear any favors here. Though its included control button makes things a little smoother, it’s frequently unclear whether a press of the button or a swipe is what the OS or app wants you to do.
Older hardware is a mixed bag. New apps will take several seconds to launch or switch, and the screen often hangs when going back to the main watch face. In the watch’s favor, that home screen equivalent is generally pretty snappy once you pull it up, and the “black and white” low-power mode is easy to read on most of the watch faces. That is unless you use one that adds too many complications, but with nigh-unlimited options via the Play Store, you should be able to find something that suits your fancy. It’s also hard to see in direct sunlight on anything except maximum brightness, like most OLED screens.
While accessing the quick settings menu, Google Assistant, and Google Fit are relatively easy via a swipe down, left, or right, respectively, notifications are another manner. Notifications pop up on the watch quickly and are then moved to the down-swipe menu, where you’ll have to scroll through possibly dozens of entries looking for something you might have missed. It’s easier to grab your phone and use the big screen—which is a damning statement for a smartwatch.
Mobvoi includes a suite of sports and fitness apps in the watch, but I never found a reason to use them instead of Google’s also built-in services. That might be music to the ears of Google’s app designers and pique the interest of antitrust regulators if, indeed, either of them still cares about Wear OS at this point. Recent developments make that seem less than likely. Trying to set up the much-ballyhooed “wrist gestures” for frequent use was a huge disappointment, as they worked perhaps one time out of ten. It doesn’t seem like this will be fixed anytime soon.
While I didn’t have any problems using the watch itself in terms of size, my wrists are on the bigger side of average. Anyone smaller (or, admittedly, thinner) than me will probably find that the lugs on the top and bottom overhang their wrist, potentially causing wearability problems.
Short Battery Life and Bluetooth Issues
Wearables live and die on their battery and, unfortunately, the TicWatch S2 does the latter. I’ll admit I’m spoiled by up to a week of battery life on far-simpler FitBit devices, which are designed to do much less. But the fact is that TicWatch’s promotional materials promise “two days” of battery life. Battery life estimates are always a bit wishy-washy and contingent upon use, but the S2 just doesn’t live up to the claim in any way.
Using the watch solely as a notification machine and a, well, watch, I was able to squeeze about 24 hours of use out of it. That’s with an average level of brightness, Bluetooth connected to my phone only (no Wi-Fi), and the screen “always on” with the power-saving black-and-white watch face enabled most of the time. Using any more advanced apps, like remote controls or music management or just playing around with the settings, cut that time down significantly, necessitating an overnight recharge. That means the watch can’t be reliably used for sleep tracking, which is not as bad as it sounds since it doesn’t include that feature anyway.
Using the watch as a fitness tracker was an exercise in frustration. With the watch tracking my location and time on my nightly bike ride, stepping up its heart rate detection to every few seconds, I would see the battery life drop 30-40% in an hour. So, any significant exercise tracking, even if it’s just a brisk walk, could put your watch into a low-power, press-a-button-just-to-see-the-time mode well before your day is through. And keep in mind, that was without using the much-advertised on-device GPS, which will drain the battery even more rapidly.
It doesn’t help that during these rides, I discovered a pretty major bug: using the watch at the same time as Bluetooth headphones made it inadvertently pause music in some apps. Pandora is my go-to music service, and while paired with the TicWatch S2 and a pair of Bluetooth headphones, my songs would pause without prompting every ten seconds. This didn’t happen when paired with my car’s Bluetooth instead, and a bit of trial and error indicated that it was indeed the watch doing it. Between this and the rapid battery drain, the S2 makes a very poor workout companion.
A Poor Wearable Choice
On paper the TicWatch S2 makes a compelling case as a mid-range smartwatch, with a big, truly round display, dedicated GPS and Wi-Fi, and a waterproof body. It has a competitive price putting it closer to fitness trackers than full smartwatches and a style that, while not especially impressive, isn’t actively repelling.
But in use, the watch starts to lose its appeal almost immediately. A lot of that is down to Wear OS and Google’s lack of attention to its platform, particularly in terms of usability and performance. But you can’t lay the TicWatch S2’s connection or battery life woes entirely on the software. And even if you could, it wouldn’t make using the watch any easier.
The TicWatch S2 is, in a word, a disappointment. Whether that’s an indictment of Wear OS or manufacturer Mobvoi is something I’d need more time with both to determine. But as far as the S2 itself goes: skip it, in favor of a more expensive Samsung smartwatch or a less expensive FitBit tracker, depending on your specific needs.
Here’s What We Like
- Excellent value
- Big, circular screen with no "flat tire"
And What We Don't
- Poor battery life
- Low performance
- Bluetooth connection issues
- Wear OS has poor usability