IKWear IK8 Chinese Watch Phone Review

The IKWear IK8 is a standalone Android-based watch phone (or smart watch smart phone as it likes to call itself on its welcome screen). It has almost identical hardware and the same Android 4.0.4 version as the ZGPAX S5 which I recently reviewed, so this review will be short and be mostly a comparison between these two models. You should read the ZGPAX S5 review as well if you want to get a more complete idea of the capabilities of a watch phone like this.

The IK8

My overall impression of the IK8 before I started reviewing it, is also my final conclusion. The IK8 is a bit like “the ZGPAX S5 done right”. It came to market later, but it shows: it does not contain the blatant flaws that I found in my S5, the overall build quality is visibly better, and thanks to better radio hardware it generally lasts twice as long on a battery charge. Unlike the S5 which I would not recommend due to all its problems, I can recommend the IK8 as a fairly cost-effective watch phone.

Specifications and features

The list of specifications is almost identical to the one from the ZGPAX S5. The only real difference is not listed here, because I do not know what GSM radio chips both models use, I only know they are different and the one from the IK8 wipes the floor with the crappy one in the S5.

The dimensions are nearly identical to the S5 fitted with a 700mAh battery: about 60×42×16.75mm, making it very wearable under clothing. Originally it only existed in black, but a silver version has become available as well.

The IK8 runs the same Android 4.0.4 with Play store access as the S5. It comes with a very similar but improved stock launcher and clock screensaver as well. As on the S5, the clock screensaver engages every time the screen wakes from sleep, but unlike the S5, swiping the clock to the left will put you back in the app where you left off, instead of sending you back to the launcher. The launcher provides access to the notification bar, and allows setting custom wallpapers, including live wallpapers (the default has animated bubbles that react to swiping).

The accessories are the same: microUSB cable, USB mains charger, headset that plugs into the microUSB port, and a short instruction manual. As usual, the FM radio needs the headset as an antenna. Holding down the ‘back’ key can give access to a volume slider just as on the S5.

Although the batteries look very similar to the ones from the S5, they use a different casing and are not interchangeable.

SIM, microSD slot and battery

What I like about the IKWear IK8

Many of these items are identical to the S5, due to the similarity between these two phones. However, when comparing the two reviews, you'll see that unlike the S5, the list of likes for the IK8 is longer than the list of dislikes.

  1. It looks pretty good, better than I anticipated from photos. I only do not care about the shiny bling-bling sides with the big logo, the watch would look so much better without those.
  2. Overall build quality is good, visibly better than the S5. The parts fit together tightly. The screen is not loose and looks less vulnerable to water than the S5, although the phone obviously is not waterproof at all with its gaping USB port.
  3. None of the horrible buzzing sound during calls that plagues many Chinese watch phones. The microphone is placed pretty close to the loudspeaker but there is no trace of echo either. The people who designed this obviously knew what they were doing.
  4. Very good cell signal reception, noticeably better than the S5 and many other phones.
  5. Much better battery life than the S5. The IK8 easily lasts twice as long under the same kind of usage pattern. When using it mostly as a watch only and turning it off at night, it can easily last three days. Also, the battery level indicator is more reliable although still not perfectly linear.
  6. The battery is easier to remove thanks to a more accessible clip system.
  7. The size is OK. It is at the upper limit of what I consider small enough to wear on a daily basis.
  8. Standard microUSB instead of some proprietary plug, and no external cradles or adaptors necessary to charge the phone or connect it to a PC, just ‘any’ standard µUSB cable. There is a catch however, see the ‘dislike’ section.
  9. Play Store access, and a large fraction of all apps just work, despite the fact that the 240×240 resolution is below the minimum requirements for the App store at this moment. There are workarounds to get less cooperative apps to work (see S5 hacking section).
  10. It is quite usable as a watch, because it will always display the clock face whenever the screen wakes, and the Android interface always shows the time in the toolbar except for a few full-screen apps. Of course, the fact that a button needs to be pressed to show the time is annoying for a watch, especially because it can take up to three seconds for the screen to wake.
  11. It is pretty lightweight, out-of-the-box it weighs 60.00 grams (no kidding).
  12. Like ZGPAX, there seems to be an actual company ‘IKWear’ behind it with a website. The website is entirely in Chinese though.
  13. The capacitive touch screen is responsive and does not suffer from the ‘dead zone’ problem as the S5. It does have one drawback: it only reacts well to touches if your body makes contact with the underside of the watch. This is always the case when you're wearing it so this is only a minor problem, but one needs to remember it when holding the watch in one's hands.
  14. The CPU is pretty insanely powerful for such a tiny device, and the user interface is very smooth overall.
  15. The camera is of pretty good quality and points away from the top side, making it much more useful than the one from the S5. It can record decent 720p video albeit with heavily compressed audio. One drawback is that it is mounted in portrait mode, so taking landscape photos from the wrist is a bit awkward. Also, photos get flipped when pointing the camera to the ground due to lack of support for sideways-pointing cameras in Android.
  16. WiFi signal reception is just as good as on the S5, and is on par with more expensive smartphones.
  17. GPS is even better than on the S5, which was already pretty good. It is generally able to get a fix within a dozen seconds, and will keep tracking satellites even while being indoors for a while. Of course, it still suffers from the typical problems inherent to the MTK6577 chipset.
  18. Very good loudspeaker that puts out a lot of volume without crackling.
  19. The display brightness has a wider range, meaning it can be set even darker and is therefore easier on the eyes at night, and will consume less power.
  20. All the electronics are contained within the main body. There are no microphones, antennas, speakers, etc. embedded in the strap, which would risk making the construction more fragile.
  21. After performing the necessary tweaks and installing the right apps, the device is more practical than one might guess from its looks. I can check the weather or traffic information in about 20 seconds without having to dig for phones in my pockets.
  22. Due to the similarity, almost all the tweaks and hacks reported for the ZGPAX S5 by the community in the XDA forums and Joe's Tech Review, can also be applied to the IK8.
  23. Performing firmware-level hacks does not require soldering custom cables or disassembling the phone and poking the PCB with needles. Everything can be done through the standard microUSB cable. Performing software hacks is as easy (or hard, depending on skill level) as with any Android-based phone.
  24. No defects at all on the unit I received. In fact, this is the very first watch phone that I have not yet taken apart, and I see no reason to (especially because I plan to resell it as new). Although I am a hacker at heart, I almost forgot how deeply I can appreciate a well-made product that simply works out-of-the-box.
  25. It comes with a manual in decent English, and the manual is specifically written for this model and is actually somewhat useful. This one also uses the word “swastika” though, which makes me suspect that most of it was copy-pasted in typical Chinese fashion.

What bothers me about the IKWear IK8

This list is also similar to the one for the S5, albeit shorter thanks to the overall better quality. Issues that I managed to solve through a hack or tweak are marked with a [Hacked] or [Tweaked] link to their corresponding fix.

  1. Not detachable from the strap, and due to the tang buckle, taking the watch off the wrist when receiving a call is not practical. See the paragraph about detachability in my watch phone rant article if you don't get what I am talking about here. [Tweaked]
  2. Not water-resistant, although it probably wouldn't suffer as much as the S5 thanks to better sealing. The biggest hole is the USB port, which unfortunately cannot be plugged with the typical rubber microUSB plugs due to its shape.
  3. Although the touchscreen is better than the one from the S5 aside from the requirement to have something conductive under the phone, it will still go crazy from a few drops of water.
  4. Although multi-touch seems marginally better than on the S5, it still is awkward.
  5. Although battery life is much improved compared to the S5, you'll still struggle to reach two days when using the IK8 more actively than as a mere wristwatch. I would like to have at least 5 days.
  6. Disgusting clock faceThe clock screensaver lacks date and weekday display. The previews show them, and space is obviously provided on the clock faces, but the date simply is not displayed at all. [Hacked]
  7. The default clock face is hideous! It is a darker version of the ugly face that was also present on the S5, only the lack of date display makes it even more obvious how the hour indicators are spaced utterly incorrectly. It is pretty much impossible to read the time on this crap. [Hacked]
  8. The 2×2 grid of the stock launcher is conservatively large, a 3×3 grid would not be less practical and would fit many more apps on a single screen. [Hacked] The launcher also has the same bug as the one from the S5, that can cause one app to disappear from the grid.
  9. GPS suffers from the same problems as any other smartphone based on this Mediatek chipset: one needs to jump through quite a few hoops to get the most out of it. [Tweaked, see S5]
  10. The microUSB port is deeper than on most phones, meaning that some cables with a shorter plug will fail to provide a USB connection. Most cables go deep enough to allow charging however.
  11. It is impossible to use bluetooth keyboards or mice. They can be paired, but the phone will not respond to key presses. This is a pity because especially a mini external keyboard could be tremendously useful for texting etc. This seems to be a fundamental problem with the BlueTooth stack on this particular combination of Android version and Mediatek hardware, because I have a smartphone with almost identical specifications that exhibits the same problem.
  12. The screen cannot be locked with a password nor pattern, except after rooting the phone and installing a custom launcher. On the other hand, the need for locking is somewhat moot on a device that is almost always worn, and could be more bothersome than useful. If locking would be added, it must be easy to toggle.
  13. No home button, despite the fact that there is a duplicate ‘back’ button (one hardware, one capacitive). It would have made much more sense if that hardware button had been a Home button. Again, Pie Control is highly recommended to provide a virtual home button and other shortcuts.
  14. Removing the microSD card is marginally easier than on the S5, but still nearly impossible without some sharp tool.
  15. The standard Android keyboard is usable for people with not too thick fingers and a sense for precision, but its tiny size can be an ordeal to other people. It is highly recommended to install an alternative keyboard with larger keys. [Tweaked, see S5]
  16. Not readily usable as a smartwatch that acts as a companion device to a smartphone. I do not really care about this, but I know there are quite a few people who do. It is possible to get smartwatch functionality through installing the right apps. I refer to the XDA forums for more details. (SWApp Link is not guaranteed to work at the time of this writing, but if you get in contact with the developer, he can probably fix it.)

Tweaks and Hacks

No Dr. Lex review is complete without hacks! The hacks are almost identical to the ones I did for the S5, although this time there was no need at all to fiddle with the hardware. For more tweaks and hacks, I again refer to the XDA forums and Joe's Tech Review.

As with the S5, don't bother with the protective plastic that is factory-installed on the screen, it is not worthy of the name ‘screen protector’. You could cut a larger protector to about 35×35 mm size, but I recommend screen protectors for the iPod Nano 6th generation, which are a near-perfect fit.

Engineer mode is accessed through the usual *#*#3646633#*#* dial code, or an app like MobileUncle MTK Tools. Only use this if you know what you are doing!

Due to the near-identical hardware, the TWRP recovery image for the ZGPAX S5 works perfectly on the IK8. See the XDA forum post for instructions. Place my tweaked ui.zip file [Download, 72kB] in /sdcard/TWRP/theme/.

Due to the similarity with the S5, it is in theory possible to exchange Nandroid backups between these phones. However, due to the different cell phone chip, you should never do a full restore from the other model. Not only will you have no cell network connectivity, the wrong driver can cause the phone to continously attempt to initialise its radio chip, making the phone heat up and drain its battery quickly. Restoring the System and Data partitions should be safe.

You should do the same GPS tweaks as for the S5 to get the most out of the GPS.

Making it usable as a telephone

Unlike the S5, there is no need to take out your jeweller's screwdrivers and soldering iron. The phone works pretty well as-is. The only tweak I highly recommend, is replacing the cumbersome tang buckle with a deployment clasp. The band size is 21mm.

Battery life, rooting and making backups

The IK8 should ship with a 700mAh battery, but it is not unlikely that some resellers will ship it with a 500mAh battery. Unfortunately the batteries are not interchangeable with the ZGPAX S5, despite the almost identical shape. I also have not found anyone that sells separate IK8 batteries yet, but I expect this to change soon.

The IK8 is much less prone to heating up than the S5. Yet, it still is worthwhile to apply the same tweaks to get the most out of the battery. I refer to the ZGPAX S5 review for details, as well as instructions on how to root the phone and create a Nandroid backup.

Fixing the clock screensaver

Improved clock faceThe clock screensaver has two problems: the default clock face is horrible and all of the five available clock faces (which can be set by long pressing) lack the date display they should have. I fixed both problems. Because the clock screensaver is based on the same source code as the one from the S5, I could simply copy the polished clock faces I already made for the S5. To get the date display working, I had to do some more advanced voodoo with decompiling, editing smali code, and recompiling, but the result is that I now have the best of both worlds.

You can download the improved APK here [786 kB]. To install, use a root explorer app to overwrite the existing /system/app/SzKctBclLock.app (obviously, make a backup of the original). Ensure permissions and owner are set correctly (rw-r--r--, root:root), and reboot. Only do this if you have a backup and know how to unbrick your phone. I give no warranties whatsoever!

Tweaking the launcher

Hacked launcherUnlike the S5, in the IK8 the clock and launcher are split across two separate APKs. Yet, they are still obviously based on the same source code. This made it trivial to apply the same hack to obtain a 3×3 grid. I also spiffed up the text styles a bit with drop shadows.

Download this improved launcher [464 kB]. The same instructions apply as above: copy this in place of the existing /system/app/SzKctBclMain.app after making a backup, ensure the permissions are correct, and reboot. The same disclaimer also applies of course.

Conclusion

Between the ZGPAX S5 and the IKWear IK8, the IK8 is obviously the better watch phone, and the one to get if you are looking for a reasonably priced model with these specifications. It has better build quality, surprisingly good cell signal reception, fewer bugs, and it does not require an engineering degree to make it usable. The people who designed it either know more about electronics or spent more time fine-tuning their product.

I still would hesitate to recommend this to the general public however, due to my pet peeve of lack of detachability, as well as the still unimpressive battery life and the general lack of support in Android for tiny screens like these. Moreover, I heard of someone who received one with obvious defects, which is probably due to the typical lack of decent quality control in Chinese products. I also have not tested this phone for a prolonged period so I cannot make any promises about durability.

Most of the points I ended the ZGPAX S5 review with, are still valid here. The user needs to train themselves some discipline in always disabling WiFi, Bluetooth, etc. when unneeded, to avoid draining the battery too quickly. Although a large number of apps just work as-is, some are downright unusable with the small screen. Others can be tweaked with special tools, or used in an awkward fashion by knowing what the app is supposed to do, despite the fact that it cannot fit its interface on the display. For a techie who is aware of these problems and can work around them, the IKWear IK8 is a very decent gadget that I would recommend, although I would rather recommend to have a look at the Abardeen F80…

©2014/07-2015/01 Alexander Thomas