Review: Zepp E fitness smartwatch

Despite the much-publicised failures of Android Wear and the equally publicised successes of the Apple Watch series, the smartwatch/wearables world is still exploding - almost everyone seems to be experimenting with some form of band or watch - and I'm no different. Although I'm more a smartphone guy, I've tried a number of wrist options. The Fitbit Versa got very close to my perfect wearable (I reviewed it here) but ultimately the tension of a band on my wrist wasn't something I could stand for multiple days at a time unless there was a single huge benefit.

The arrival of the Zepp E, made by Huami, also makers of the Amazfit range, presented quite a benefit though:

  • Compatible with any Android or iOS phone (so many other accessories are limited to a particular platform, manufacturer or version)
  • A built-in SpO2 (oxygen saturation) sensor (now matched by the top end Apple Watch in the last week or so, and a few others, mind you)
  • Sleep quality monitoring (also tied into SpO2)
  • An emphasis on health rather than phone notifications - the watch shouldn't be, I contend, an extension of the phone, but should have its own role in your life
  • Stylish looks and thin form factor, so it doesn't feel like there's a tech-block on your wrist, but rather a traditional watch

My review was delayed several weeks, i.e. I've had this thing for almost a month now, because of several major software bugs in the Zepp E, now thankfully resolved. The core heart rate sensing, for example, tended to go haywire during exercise, putting 58-year-old me at 190+ bpm, at which point I should have been dead! 

I'm not too worried over the buggy nature, since this smartwatch is only just available now to buy, i.e. I had a pre-release sample and thankfully the device is stable and reliable for users now.

The photo above shows the new update installing on the Zepp E - I've had two updates in a month, so Huami does seem on the ball. Some features rely on server-side data, so there are bugs to look at there too, but the end result is something stable now, as I say. 

At just over £200 this is going to be a fairly tough recommendation, but the materials and style are appropriate to the price, while the core health features are pretty impressive.

The AMOLED display is just gorgeous - not the highest resolution, but clear and high contrast in all light conditions.

First up, it's worth pointing out that there are dozens of watch faces, not just changing the look of your watch but also the data presented - some watch faces surface data that others don't, and vice-versa. So you'll see a variety of faces in this review. Thankfully changing faces is simply a long press on the screen and then swipe to the face you want. Easy to change on the fly if your preferences or needs change.

You can also change watch faces and download more through the companion mobile app:

The core data on the faces is time and date, obviously, with current heart rate, PAI (physical activity indicator, based on a 10 day rolling average), steps taken, calories burned and watch power standard, then various face options offer weather summaries, day of the week, seconds, and more. It's a lot of fun.

The Zepp E is stainless steel and, turning the watch over, you can see the pair of charging contacts (with magnets, to auto-align them on the supplied lead), then two pairs of sensors (red and green LEDs). One pair for heart rate, which is effectively continuous, the other for SpO2 measurement, which needs a little more care.

You see, measuring SpO2, oxygen in the blood (of which you want more, not less, so a low reading means that something's wrong with your lungs or body in general), using sensors on the wrist isn't trivial. Most commercial 'pulse oximeters' work from a fingertip, where the blood flow is more reliable - doing this on a wrist, where the exact position of the watch relative to your veins is a lot less precise, is much harder. As a result, SpO2 can't be measured automatically through the day, since you're moving too much. 

There's a dedicated SpO2 measuring function, requiring you to lay your fore-arm horizontally for a minute and stay rock still - this works, but is rarely convenient. So there's no real way to get a 'your blood oxygen is too low' warning from the Zepp E, understandably, though at least you can measure it in a minute if you're worried.

Happily, SpO2 measurement works much better at night and there's a 'sleep breathing quality' function that I turned on - this samples SpO2 during the night, when you're still most of the time anyway. In addition to giving you data points about your blood oxygen generally, this also gives you extra information about your sleep pattern - I'm all about getting the best sleep possible (here's why) and the Zepp E is a pretty good tool for the job.

A press on the single button brings up the 'apps' - such as they are, but don't get the wrong impression here. I'm not after a smart watch that has an app store or has counterparts to services on my smartphone - that's just too much duplication and too many notifications for my brand and body to handle. 

The apps that are here are just fine, in a swipe-scolling list: PAI (summary), Heart Rate, SpO2, Workout, Weather, and so on. Not that this menu is needed much, since all you really need is a long press of the button to start a workout, such as walking, cycling, swimming, etc. These then tie into your smartphone's GPS location system and the Zepp E's own accelerometers and gyros and heart rate sensor, to work out what you're doing and how long - and how effectively - you've been doing it.

With a typical use of screen only on when you turn your wrist or interact with the watch, with daily exercise, heart rate through the day and no sleep breathing monitoring, the Zepp E is claimed to last for a week on a charge. In practice, I contend that the sleep breathing is a key feature/USP and so I left this on, with the result that I was getting 3 to 4 days on a charge. Which is fine, and still a lot better than having to charge a smartwatch every night.

Also available on the watch faces are a swipe down, to bring up tools such as brightness control, a basic torch mode, and 'find my phone', while a swipe up brings up notifications, if any. By default, there are no notifications enabled at all, which is bliss - the Zepp E tells the time, monitors heart and blood and gets on with what it's good at, leaving everything else for the smartphone. Other smartwatches tend to default to everything connected and on, but I appreciated here having radio silence, as it were. I did, after a few weeks, concede slightly and manually turn on SMS and Whatsapp notifications, since these are handy to see when driving, but that's the limit. For me.

Over on the phone (in my case an iPhone 11 Pro, though the Zepp E works with just about anything, right back to five year old Androids), the companion Zepp E application syncs all the watch data quickly and reliably through the day, and this application is where most of the analysis of how healthy you are (or aren't) is done. I've annotated screenshots from this, to give you an idea.

How lovely to see the default be everything off and to have a silent watch until you actively choose to turn notifications on! Here I relented eventually and added Whatsapp.

On iOS and Android, there's plenty of integration with built-in health metrics - here on the iPhone, sleep and steps are passed through to Apple Health, for example; (right) looking at my sleep score summary, I'm not doing too badly.

During exercise, you're kept informed of duration, steps, distance, pulse rate, and buzzes for time per kilometre (or mile)

A swipe to the side when exercising gives you music (or podcast!) control, including volume, saving you getting your smartphone out of your pocket or holster

Afterwards, there's full analysis in the Zepp E application on the phone, in gory detail, exploring whether you pushed yourself hard enough and whether going faster or longer would have burned more fat, etc.

As a fitness smartwatch, the Zepp E is competent though expensive, given that there are many 'bands' which provide the same functions at half the cost. So a lot comes down to the SpO2 functions, almost unique when the Zepp E was conceived, still unusual when the Zepp E appeared for review, yet now present in an Apple Watch, following the launch last week, meaning that more and more manufacturers have been scrambling to mimic this feature set.

The Zepp E scores well in terms of looks, scores competently in terms of functionality, but I can't help but feel that there's more that could be done in software. In particular, the alternate UIs of swipe-down, swipe-up, scrolling apps, quick access apps, workout functions, and so on, could all be simplified and rationalised. 

And I'd really, really like to see SpO2 readings on the watch faces. I get that measuring this while the body is in motion is too hard, but there are many times in the day when I'm sat down having a rest, watching the news, talking to someone, on the phone - there are time windows when a sneaky SpO2 measurement could be attempted rather than having to rely on manually remembering to do it or waiting for reports of sleep breathing the next day.

Caveats aside, and with the disclaimer that I received the review sample for free, the Zepp E is still a recommendation, especially if you want a smartwatch that has classic, slim looks - the stainless steel, single crown and quality leather strap are all striking. By all means look at the sister smartwatches in the Amazfit range at slightly lower cost... but they won't look as cool on your wrist.

The Zepp E is currently just over £200 on Amazon UK.


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