Hello, Android Wear - we’ve been expecting you. And we see you’ve brought your new friend the LG G Watch with you too. Right then, you’d better come in and introduce yourself properly. Yes, Google’s bold new wearables platform has finally arrived in the form of the not-quite-so-bold G Watch.
It’s not LG’s first smartwatch, but a lot’s changed since 2009’s GD910 “3G watch-phone” and much of that is down to the software it runs on. Android Wear cleverly pushes useful location, search and calendar-based info through to the devices it runs on, as well serving up notifications as every other smartwatch does.
Google’s hoping to get Wear on to millions of wrists before the Apple iWatch potentially becomes reality this September. And as the first smartwatch to run it, the G Watch has a useful head start over the competition. So is it a worthy vehicle?
Smart and Subtle but no Moto 360
While smartwatch designers seem to be aiming for either ‘secret nerd’ or ‘stylish nerd’, the G Watch could best be described as ‘subtle nerd’. It looks smart enough to wear with a suit and unless you get an email or phone call when someone’s glancing at your wrist, it won’t get much attention.
It’s taller and slightly chunkier but otherwise very similar to last year’s Sony SmartWatch 2, with a plain, rectangular glass front and stainless steel frame that’s waterproof for up to 30 minutes in 1m of water. LG hasn’t even stuck its name anywhere apart from inside the device and there are precisely zero buttons, not even a power button. This actually isn’t a problem day-to-day – just don’t power off then lose the charging cradle or you’re done for.
Like most smartwatches it ultimately ends up looking like a mini smartphone with two watchstraps attached, but the metal sides of our Black Titan version catch the light nicely and there’s a slightly blingier White Gold model should you wish to match your smartwatch to your gold LG G3. Plus, the straps can be swapped out for any 22mm watchstraps, and though it sits oddly flat atop the wrist it’s fairly comfortable to wear.
In summary, it’s inoffensive rather than stunning. Maybe the forthcoming Motorola Moto 360 will be the first true smartwatch icon.
Screen - Lovely (in an ordinary sort of way)
Android Wear’s colourful cards and icons look great on the G Watch’s fairly big 1.65in screen and make the e-paper Pebble Steel seem even more retro. The IPS display is easy to see even when not fully tilted towards you and contrast is decent.
That’s as far as it goes for good news, though. It’s not exactly sharp at 290x290 and with its 1.63in 320x320 display the incoming Samsung Gear Live will make it look positively archaic. The Samsung will be AMOLED too so it should be easy to read even in direct sunlight - the G Watch is tricky to make out in the sun. Still, there’s a brightness toggle with six options in the settings, which helps a bit.
Our biggest problem with the screen is that the G Watch’s motion sensor is supposed to wake it up from dimmed whenever we tilt our wrist, but this is really hit and miss. More often than not, we’ve been tapping the screen to wake it. It’s also a fingerprint magnet, so you’ll find yourself wiping it with your sleeve throughout the day.
Screen: 1.65-inch LCD IPS (280X280)
OS: Android Wear
Processor: 1.2GHz Snapdragon 400 processor
Water & Dust Resistance: IP67
Battery: Li-Polymer 400mAh
Strap size: 22mm (Interchangeable)
Dimensions: 37.9 X 46.5 X 9.95mm
Runs Fast, Drains Faster
LG’s done a good job making sure Android Wear performs excellently here. There’s no stutters when opening agendas or swiping away notification cards and the Bluetooth connection is steady.
That’s no surprise considering the G Watch is as powerful as some mid-range phones. It runs on the same processor as the HTC One Mini 2, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 400, which you might think is overkill considering all it has to do is display Google Now cards and take care of voice input.
So that’s that. Smooth sailing. Battery life, though, is a problem. LG’s stuffed a big (for a smartwatch) 400mAh battery into the G Watch; that’s larger than those in the Gear Live and SmartWatch 2. But even though LG quotes 36 hours for it, we haven’t managed that yet, instead getting no more than 24 hours of use out of it. And that’s a pain.
It’s not entirely LG’s fault - Android Wear is busy, colourful and designed for mini LCD screens such as the G Watch’s, so it was never going to compete with the e-paper Pebble Steel’s five-day battery life. Nor do we expect the Gear Live to last any longer. But that Snapdragon chip was probably unnecessary - the Pebble gets by just fine on a 80MHz ARM processor - and we’re sure more can be done by Google to optimise Wear for smartwatch batteries.
Having to charge it once a day is bad enough but there’s a charging cradle to contend with, too. While a little annoying - heaven help you if you lose it - it’s a well designed bit of kit, holding the G Watch securely in place via the magic of magnetism. Plus, its inclusion means there’s no need for a microUSB port to ruin the G Watch’s sleek lines.
Android Wear - defining the smartwatch
After living with it for a few days, it’s obvious that Android Wear is the future of smartwatches. Yes, it’s rough around the edges and needs tons of tweaks before it’s perfect, and yes, it’s early days for third-party apps. But the basics are so exciting that you won’t care.
We’ll dive into more detail in our full review of Android Wear - coming very soon - but for now, here’s what you need to know. Like any Android Wear smartwatch, the G Watch pairs to an Android phone running Jelly Bean and above via Bluetooth. Wear pushes phone notifications - calls, texts, emails, social media, calendar appointments - to the watch and manages everything in the free Android Wear app.
But unlike other smartwatch operating systems, Wear also displays ‘cards’ - basically Google Now, miniaturised - containing info on anything it thinks you might need. That means handy weather and calendar cards first thing in the morning; bus times for the bus stop you’re heading towards; the number of minutes it’ll take you to walk to the pub you looked up on Google Maps (on your phone) a few hours earlier.
That’s not to say it always gets it right. Google’s making educated guesses on what you might find useful and when you’re being buzzed by the G Watch 100 times a day thanks to work emails, being told you’re ten minutes away from home for no reason can grate. That’s not helped by the lack of granular control over which notifications come through - something we hope Google fixes quickly. For now, it’s all or nothing.
It’s more than just a mind-reader, though. Gmails, for instance, pop up on the screen and can be opened with a tap then read in full by scrolling down. It’s also damn good looking, with full-screen photos behind the text, colourful icons and big round action buttons such as ‘Open on phone’ accessed by a swipe to the left. And there’s a decent, if not huge, selection of watchface styles to choose from.
And then there’s the voice control...
Voice - the best we've used on a wearable yet
Proof that this is the most impressive voice control we’ve seen on a wearable? We’ve used the feature every day we’ve had the G Watch so far. On our sofa and on the street. And for the most part, it’s worked.
The G Watch doesn’t need to be millimetres from your mouth to pick up your commands, which helps. ‘OK Google’ launches voice when the screen is awake but we found a tap to wake (if the motion sensor doesn’t kick in) and another tap to access the ‘Speak now’ screen works best.
So what can you do? The most used app here will probably be navigation - just say ‘How do I get to..?/Navigate to’ and Google will pull up the route on your phone. It hasn't worked everytime on our review unit but hopefully this will get more reliable and maps will make the leap over to the watch itself.
Also useful are ‘Text/email Mum’ type commands which work better for short messages where you don’t care about punctuation rather than for full-blown emails. The voice recognition isn’t 100% spot-on but it’s good enough to use - just be careful with hard-to-pronounce names and be prepared to swiftly hit the ‘x’ if it chooses the wrong contact.
Of course there are lots of times when you won’t want to use voice, so with one tap on the watchface and a tap of the arrow you can access your calendar, steps and settings without uttering a word. It doesn’t speak back to you like a Gear 2 does, but it can do if you hook up LG’s Tone+ Bluetooth headset.
Apps - Give It Time
There aren’t a whole lot of third-party apps for Android Wear yet, but if it doesn’t overtake even the thriving Pebble app store in a matter of months we’ll eat our microSIM.
The big essential that’s missing right now is Spotify control, something that can be done with a Pebble. Album artwork and a play/pause button appear onscreen when listening to the service on the paired smartphone but that’s it. Google Play Music, on the other hand, gets voice control to start and skip tracks.
Elsewhere, the FlyDelta app supports QR code boarding passes, Bunting takes care of voice tweeting and RunTastic is the first of the third-party fitness apps to get onboard. And with the likes of Pinterest, the Guardian, IFTTT, Duolingo and Hue Control for Philips Wi-Fi bulbs updating apps to support Android Wear, it’s by no means a wasteland.
LG G Watch Verdict
The G Watch gets a lot right and not that much wrong. And in Android Wear, it has the best smartwatch OS we’ve seen: it’s somehow incredibly simple and awesomely ambitious at the same time.
But while we’d definitely choose the G Watch over the Samsung Gear 2 or Sony Smartwatch 2 on the strength of its software alone, we can’t see any reason to go out and buy one right now. Samsung’s Gear Live, which is due any day, has a higher resolution screen, while the circular Moto 360 looks like it’ll be the first device to nail the smartwatch design problem. Both will also run on Android Wear and it makes sense to wait until they arrive before choosing between them.
And of course there’s also the Pebble Steel, which kills the G Watch with its five-day battery life and for many represents a more appealing take on the smartwatch concept: a way to augment your smartphone rather than display it on your wrist.
Ultimately, while the G Watch is a neat enough bit of kit to show off Android Wear’s capabilities, it’s just not as bold as the operating system it was built for.