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Tag Heuer Connected Modular 45 Smartwatch Review: Digital Haute Horology

Tech Reviews Smartwatches
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Tag Heuer Connected Modular 45 Smartwatch Review: Digital Haute Horology

Tag Heuer’s first generation premium — and also expensive — Android Wear smartwatch was such a successful product that the company was back earlier this year with a second generation launch. Like its predecessor, the Tag Heuer Connected Modular 45 maintains its position as Android Wear’s most premium tech adornment for your wrist.

This year, though, you’re getting some natural upgrades that comes with Google’s update to the Android Wear 2.0 operating system, and the Tag Heuer Connected Modular 45 adds hardware that takes full advantage of the OS’s new software features, including GPS tracking for workouts, NFC for mobile payments and even further customization and personalization options. The last feature actually makes the Modular 45 feels more like a piece of jewelry — or digital haute horology, as I’d like to think of it — rather than a piece of digital technology that serves as a tool for notifications and activity tracking.

Combining luxury with technology keeps the Modular 45 true to Tag’s avant garde heritage, melding its history of timekeeping with the digital future. With the Modular 45, you’ll get true Swiss craftsmanship and luxury materials, elements that few smartwatches can match. And priced starting at $1,550, you’ll really need to have an appreciation for the finer things in life or be a true watch aficionado to appreciate Tag’s take on the digital watch. And if you really want to splurge, there’s a packaged $17,000 option as well.

Design


tagconnected45_1.jpgWith a round face and angular lugs, the Modular 45 looks the part of a true watch, and Tag Heuer doesn’t disappoint. Few wearables can attract the same kind of inquisitive, lustful glances as the Modular 45 on the wrist, Like Tag’s mechanical offerings, the Connected comes with the company’s same signature logos on the crown, bezel and digital watchfaces.

At its core, what sets the Modular 45 apart from rival smartwatches from technology powerhouses like Huawei, LG, Motorola, Samsung and ZTE is the modular design, allowing you to customize virtually every element of the watch. Most smartwatches already allow you to swap out the straps, but the Modular 45 goes a few steps further, letting you choose your own buckle, straps and lugs. This allows you to choose how elevated you want to take your wrist aesthetics — for example, the lugs come in titanium, black ceramic, rose gold coated titanium or diamond-encrusted options.

Unfortunately, the bezel isn’t modular. Available in the same materials and color options as the lugs, you have to choose the bezel and watch body design at the time of purchase. Our review option, for instance, ships with a black rubber strap, black titanium buckle, rose gold lugs and a black watch case with a matte black ceramic bezel. This upgraded option is priced at $3,200. At a launch event in San Francisco, Tag Heuer representatives informed me that up to 56 different combinations can be obtained with the Modular 45 system.

tagconnected45_2.jpgAdditionally, if you want to go with a mechanical experience, the watch body can be swapped out. You won’t be able to gut out the Intel Atom microprocessor and cram in your own winding watch gears, but you’ll be able to take out the entire digital module and swap in a mechanical module or a pricier Tourbillon.

And the number 45 actually indicates the size of the watch body, which is 45mm, just a hair smaller than the 46mm case on the first generation Connected. While Tag was able to slightly shrink down the watch case, it’s still a large smartwatch with a somewhat chunky 13.75mm thick body that’s likely more suited to larger wrists. Unless you’re into big, bold watches, I doubt many women will gravitate toward the Modular 45, but its design and feel on the wrist still makes it an appealing option in spite of its size.

tagconnected45_3.jpgPart of the reason is that the watch is light, thanks to its titanium build. I never felt like the watch was hollow or too light when worn, however, and it feels very well balanced. In fact, the weight of the Modular 45 digital module is similar to the weight of the mechanical Calibre 5 module, which contains an automatic three-hand movement. The Calibre 5 module alone (without any straps, buckles or lugs) is a $1,650 add-on accessory to your Modular 45 experience.

Given its Swiss heritage, the Modular 45 feels like a traditional watch. Its titanium body gives its a premium feel that most other smartwatches haven’t been able to replicate, and the sapphire crystal display is a premium feature that helps keep the watch looking scratch-free. Even the digital crown — which serves as a multifunction button to turn on the watch, activate Google Assistant, jump to apps list or go back home to the main watch face — feels like it could belong on a traditional watch.

Sadly, however, you can’t turn the crown to navigate through menus on Android Wear’s interface, and at times, I found myself yearning for an additional one or two buttons. Had Tag created a chronograph equivalent of a smartwatch with three physical buttons, I think the experience may have been more pleasant. Two of those buttons, in this case, could be mapped to shortcuts for frequently used apps, like your favorite fitness tracking app, Android Pay or start music playback.

Hardware


tagconnected45_4.jpgUnlike other Android Wear smartwatches on the market, Tag Heuer chose the road less traveled and partnered with Intel, rather than ARM Holdings’ partners, to power the Android Wear 2.0 experience. Inside, you’ll find Intel’s Atom X34XX processor, 512MB of RAM and 4GB of storage. Compared to watches that use ARM processors, like the wearable-focused Snapdragon processors from Qualcomm, the experience on the Modular 45 feels similarly fast. Apps loaded quickly, and I encountered little, if any, sluggishness. I did notice that navigating through menus on the preloaded Google Play Store on the watch can sometimes be slow, but day-to-day operations was on par with other newly released watches.

In terms of radios, you’re getting Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and NFC. Android Pay support is nice, and I found that the Modular 45 had no problems maintaining a connection to my Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus smartphone or to my home’s WiFi network, a terrific feat of engineering considering that metal is known to be harsh on radio signals.

When I tested Android Pay at the few retailers in my area that support NFC payment terminals, I had no problems with it. The only cumbersome experience with NFC is that there isn’t a dedicated hardware shortcut to call up the Android Pay app, making it somewhat time consuming to scroll through the app list to launch. This is a limitation of the Modular 45’s hardware design, with only the one hardware button as I mentioned above. For comparison, pressing and holding the top button on Samsung’s Gear S3 quickly activates Samsung Pay without having to launch the payment app from the watch’s app list.

tagconnected45_6.jpgGPS tracking is fairly accurate, and I had no problems using the Tag Heuer with Google Fit and a number of Android Wear fitness apps. And even though Tag Heuer is positioning the Modular 45 as a watch for the active lifestyle, the lack of a heart rate sensor may be bothersome to some. Still you can still achieve heart rate tracking if you pair the watch with Bragi’s Dash or Dash Pro connected hearables. With this setup, you’ll be able to track your distance and heart rate, and if you store music on the Dash, you can even listen to music on your jog and leave your phone behind.

tagconnected45_5.jpgStill, the Modular 45 makes some surprising omissions that watches that cost a fifth of the price include. One example, as I previously mentioned, is that the digital crown on the Modular 45 disappointingly doesn’t rotate to work with Android Wear 2.0’s interface. Another omission is that even though the Modular 45 comes with a microphone to access the Google Assistant, it doesn’t come with integrated speakers. With speakers, you can leave your phone in your pocket while on a jog and still answer important calls from the watch, with the watch serving as a connected Bluetooth speakerphone.

It’s not a big omission — I typically don’t get too many calls, and I don’t like using the speakerphone feature while I am running around out of courtesy for others and to maintain a private calling experience — but it’s one that could help extend the watch’s usefulness. Audible chimes from a speaker, for instance, can help with alarms and notifications. If you buy into the Modular 45, you’ll have to rely on the watch’s vibrations to gently nudge you when you have an alert, notification or alarm. Additionally, there isn’t a standalone 4G LTE connected variant of the Modular 45.

Display, Software and Battery Life



tagconnected45_7.jpgOne big upgrade this year is the display. The 1.5-inch fully round screen uses an AMOLED panel with a 400 × 400-pixel resolution. Compared to other watches, I found the screen to be large and bright. Huawei’s Watch 2, for example, only comes with a 1.2-inch display, while Samsung’s highly rated Gear S3 comes with a 1.3-inch display with a 360 × 360 resolution. Compared to the TFT LCD panel on the first generation watch, the AMOLED screen on the Modular 45 is brighter, looks sharp and has deeper blacks.

For watch enthusiasts, the AMOLED technology means that with the always-on watch face display, you’ll likely be able to give the illusion that you have a much more expensive mechanical timepiece on your wrist. From afar, it almost looks like you’re not wearing a digital watch, but when you get notifications or want to track your runs, you’ll have all the conveniences that a smartwatch affords on the Modular 45.

With a gorgeous display, Tag Heuer has ported many of its watch faces from its mechanical line to the Connected experience. With a swipe across of the watch face, you’ll find a number of preconfigured watch faces, but you can personalize the experience even further with the Tag Heuer Studio selector tool on the watch itself.

tagconnected45_8.jpgThe Studio tool allows you to choose the color of the watch dial, the hands and how the hands glow and light up. You can even set up your complications as well. It’s a clever tool that helps make it easy to extend the Modular 45’s hardware customizations to the watch face through software. And although the experience is easy and highly personalizable, I found that the limits Tag placed on the Studio tool means that you’re going to always end up with a tasteful, Tag-approved watch face, and one that’s not too gaudy or tacky.

Android Wear 2.0 delivers many refinements over the first generation of the wearable OS that was used on the original Connected smartwatch. With a dedicated Play Store, you’ll be even less reliant on your phone to download apps, and it helps to make the experience of using an Android Wear smartwatch for iPhone users feel more on par with what Android phone owners get.

tagconnected45_9.jpgYou’ll primarily navigate through the watch menus, dismiss notifications and launch apps by swiping across the watch’s 1.5-inch display. It’s a great thing that Tag Heuer equipped the Modular 45 with a sizable display. Additionally, you’ll still be able to use wrist gestures to flick through notifications without having to interact with the display, which is useful if you’ve got your hands full.

tagconnected45_10.jpgAnother benefit with going to an AMOLED display is that it tends to lead to better battery life. Since the Modular 45 isn’t lighting up the entire watch face — it’s only powering the pixels that aren’t black on the display — you should get up to 30 hours of stated battery life, up from 24 hours on the first model.

I found that with moderate notifications throughout the day, I got close to 18 to 20 hours of total battery life. This is good enough to last me from morning to night. Including fitness and activity tracking into the mix will likely have a larger impact on battery life, especially with the GPS running. Regardless, you’ll likely need to charge the watch every night on the magnetic, disc-shaped puck charger, which comes with POGO pins that make contact with the watch.

For tech enthusiasts, having to charge every night, versus two to three days on many competing tech offerings, may be cumbersome, but I doubt Tag’s demographics would find this offensive. Wearers of luxury watches already take their watches off every night and set these devices on their nightstands or in watch winders for automatic watches, so this fits into the routine naturally.

Verdict


tagconnected45_11.jpgGiven the avant garde principles of the Modular 45 experience, it’s difficult to objectively rate the Connected experience. On one hand, the Modular 45 doesn’t come as feature rich as some of its more contemporary tech rivals, but on the other hand, Tag’s legacy, prestige and build quality on the space of your wrist is unrivaled. The closest luxury brand to the Modular 45 is Montblanc with its Summit watch, which starts at $890, or roughly half of what Tag’s model starts at.

During a recent Los Angeles event where Tag Heuer announced a partnership with New York-based street artist and long-time Tag Heuer aficionado Alec Monopoly to unveil new jersey designs for the Amgen Tour of California, Monopoly pointed to his ability to receive notifications on his wrist as his favorite feature moving from a mechanical watch to Tag’s Connected experience.

And I think that’s precisely the demographic that Tag’s after. Given the traditional watch wearers that Tag is targeting, I doubt many current or potential Modular 45 owners who have committed to Tag’s experience will seek out tech-forward experiences like a heart rate sensor, 4G LTE connectivity or even a speaker, making the omissions of these features far less glaring on the Modular 45.

tagconnected45_12.jpgA wristwatch essentially tells time, which reminds us of events, appointments and meetings that we need to attend to. But with a connected experience, Tag is able to place more context with the time. Rather than forcing your memory to remember that you have a meeting at one o’clock, for example, the watch will notify you that you have a lunch appointment with a business partner at one o’clock at the restaurant down the street. By being connected, the Modular 45 gives a smarter display of time, along with other relevant notifications as it adapts to the digital age, like those from your favorite social networks, from your email provider, news services and more.

As Monopoly highlighted during our conversation, the connected experience allows him to manage his interruptions. He no longer needs to always glance at his phone, and the notifications allows him to choose what interruptions he needs to take. In the Modular 45, Tag isn’t looking to pack everything including the kitchen sink into your wrist, it’s just looking on how to evolve the ability to tell time and add context as technologies change and evolve. If that’s the watch wearer you are, then the Modular 45 delivers a handsomely made, well-designed package straight from Switzerland, the famed home of fine watchmaking.

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