A fortnight with Android Wear: LG G Watch review
We have seen several smartwatches come to market over the years with few gaining any real momentum. Sony made a valiant effort with their Smartwatch and Smartwatch 2, as did Samsung with their (somewhat better) line of Gear-branded devices including the popular Gear Fit. The only real contender for king of the smartwatch up to this point however, in my opinion, is the Pebble. Yet even that has never particularly appealed to me given its basic display and limited interoperability with my smartphone(s).
Up to this point, smartwatches have been too expensive and/or lacking in real, useful functionality. Most struggle with battery life too (exceptions noted, though few they are). Over-all, they’re not very practical. As I sit here peering over at a Sony Smartwatch 2 that had all of a month’s use before I simply gave up with it, I can’t help but feel a smartwatch revolution has been required for quite a while.
Enter Android Wear.
Android Wear is a stripped-back version of Android designed purely for use on wearables, it allows the user to see what would typically be notifications on an Android phone on the wrist (or anywhere else Wear will debut in the future!) with a limited set of actions that can be performed there and then without the need to pull your phone out of your pocket (though admittedly almost all notifications that pop up include the option to open the respective app on the phone rather than trying to fiddle with it on a tiny screen). Using APIs, 3rd party developers are already integrating their apps to work with Android wear, already furthering its development and usability 10-fold.
The LG G Watch is one of the first of three devices to debut running Google’s brand new Android Wear platform. Announced in June at Google I/O, both the LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live began shipping at the beginning of July for £159 and £169 respectively (the aforementioned third, the Moto360, is to come later this year).
I ordered the LG G Watch a few days before shipping began and have been using it all day, every day since. I can honestly say it has been one of the most useful (and most-used) gadgets I’ve had the pleasure of tinkering with for some time. I’ve tested it with multiple smartphones (all Android) and have come to rely on it heavily, especially in situations where getting my phone out might have been impractical, illegal, or just plain rude.
Enough babbling, here’s my review.
There is absolutely no denying it; there is nothing special about the LG G Watch design. Depending on your preferences I suppose that could be either a good (modern, simple design) or bad (bland, lacking inspiration) thing. Admittedly when on the wrist it does stand out due to the sheer size and gorgeous (if a little small at only 1.65") display, but aside from the fact it's a rather large (37.9x46.5x9.95 mm) Android-powered watch, there is no outstanding visual candy to gawk at.
The button-less and port-less design comes with its own set of questions though, how do you turn it on and off? How do you reset it? How do you charge it? How does it work!? Well:
- The watch is turned on by attaching it to the included charger. It turns on automatically and stays on until the battery dies. The option to turn it off can be found in the settings and is just a few taps away.
- If it does throw a wobbly, there's a tiny button (the only button) on the underside that can be depressed with a paper clip. This will force it to reboot. Resetting it to factory settings is again a few taps through the settings menu.
- To charge it, you line the watch up with the charging cradle. There are a series of contacts on the underside of the watch that line up with pins on the cradle. The watch is held to the cradle using magnets. It's a really nice, well thought-out solution.
- In order to get any useful information out of the watch (aside from the integrated pedometer, that is) it needs to be paired with a smartphone. The Android Wear app can be downloaded from the Play Store and upon launch (and first-boot of the watch) you're taken through initial pairing and prompted to allow the watch to access Android notifications. From there everything just works.. at least, in my experience. (NB, trying to call a contact from the voice prompt requires you allow Google Now access to your contacts, but if you already call contacts with Google Now on your phone this will have already been enabled).
Out of the box it comes with a rubber strap, though thankfully uses a standard 22mm strap that is fairly universal. I'll be on the lookout for either a nice leather or metal replacement in the near future as the rubber does get hot and uncomfortable with extended wear from what I've experienced.
At 9.9mm the watch is by no means thin. I've found as it sits so high on my wrist I tend to knock it against things quite often (though have yet to inflict any damage thankfully). It is, in fact, thicker than most of the smartphones I've had recently! It isn't excessive though and as with everything, I'll get used to it in time. Aside from that, the watch is nice and light. It's quite easy to forget I'm wearing it.
The watch has a built-in vibration motor, but no sound. On receiving a notification or call the watch will vibrate on the wrist, a feature I've come to rely on quite heavily when my phone is on silent! This can be disabled by swiping down on the clock face.
As mentioned the screen is permanently on, but it will dim to conserve power. When dimmed, it will recognise the motion of looking at the watch (twisting your wrist and raising your arm) and automatically turn the screen up to full brightness which I've found is a really nice feature. The only downside I've noticed is turning the watch to silent will turn off this capability, something a number of people haven't realised based on what I've read around the net. On occasions when dimming the screen manually is required (accidentally activating it in a cinema perhaps?) this can be accomplished by covering the watch-face with the palm of your hand.
As has started to become the norm - particularly for watches - the LG G Watch is dust and water resistant up to 1 metre for 30 minutes.
As mentioned above the G Watch runs on Android Wear. Essentially the entire experience is very similar to the Google Now cards on the phone. The difference is each card is actionable with a swipe to the left, exposing the ability to reply by voice for emails/SMS/etc, control navigation/media (when the respective app is running on the phone) or simply remotely open the app related to the relevant notification on the phone. A swipe to the right will dismiss any notifications.
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One very small gripe I have is that when an notification is swiped away on the watch, things such as emails and SMS messages aren't marked as read. They're left to then be addressed on the phone at a later point. Of course choosing to delete an email from the watch will get around this assuming deleting is what you want to do, most of the time however I want to simply mark as read. I understand why this happens given it's effectively just an extension of the notifications on the phone (which equally don't mark as read when dismissed) but it would be nice to see some added functionality here.
The home screen, as you may have guessed, is a watch face. Android Wear ships with several built-in and manufacturers can add their own. I'll be honest and state the options currently available on the G Watch leave a little to be desired when compared to a few of the stunning options on the Samsung Gear Live, but they certainly do the job (and I understand APIs are being made available for other methods of obtaining watch faces, so that's great!). Tapping on the watch face will bring up a voice prompt from where you can say your command ("Call Jim"). Equally the watch responds to "OK Google", negating the need to touch it at all. I've found particularly in the car talking to the watch results in a higher percentage of understood queries, where as shouting at the phone on the dashboard isn't quite as reliable.
App developers can provide support for Android Wear through APIs. While some developers choose to integrate with voice commands, others have created apps that run on the watch itself. I'm quite fond of the tools available on the play store such as Android Wear Calculator; an app that hails back to the calculator watches of yesteryear, although there are apps ranging from fitness to business available.
Anyone with a keen eye may notice that although there are individual, unique watch faces available on both the LG and the Samsung, all other functionality, look and feel remains the same. This is due to Google locking down Android Wear with the intention of keeping the experience consistent across all Android Wear devices. To say this has been met with resistance around the Android community would be an understatement, but I like the idea. One interface on any Android Wear device guarantees a universal experience and, more importantly, no bloated skins/software overlays to have to familiarise yourself with.
For a device with only modest specs (Android 4.3, 500MB RAM, Snapdragon 400) it is incredibly smooth and snappy. Obviously the low spec and small screen contribute towards the fantastic battery life noted below!
I honestly wasn't expecting much from the G Watch in terms of battery life. Having seen first-hand the life of smartwatch batteries over the years I was prepared to expect the worst, especially as the little 400mAh battery pales in comparison to the 2500mAh+ behemoths in today's smartphones. Yet in using the G Watch I have found myself pleasantly surprised.
I can easily get up to 29 hours out of a single charge based on an estimated average over two weeks of use. That effectively means I charge the device once every one and a half days, or every two+ if I turn the watch off over night (not particularly convenient unless the cradle is around to power it back up).
For such a small device with an always-on display that is an excellent feat. If only all smartphones could accomplish the same (or, you know, better)!
I am absolutely not exaggerating when I state this watch has been one of the most useful gadgets I've had to date.
The ability to check notifications with a glance at the wrist rather than having to pull the phone from out of my pocket is simply excellent. Obviously taking my phone out of my pocket is by no means a challenging task and I realise how lazy I sound by using this as an example, but it's not the effort required that makes the G Watch a brilliant addition to my arsenal, it's the fact that I can still keep abreast of my digital world even when pulling my phone from out of my pocket isn't a good idea; Meetings, dinner, driving. A glance at the watch saves time and reduces distraction from the task at hand.
I've also found I miss far fewer calls - again when the phone is on silent - as the vibrations on my wrist will notify me of a call I would otherwise miss. I haven't found a use for the ability to answer a call from the watch yet (it still routes voice through the phone/headset) but I have definitely turned down a good number of calls.
There are a lot of things I haven't tried as yet (Strava is on my list) but for what I've used the G Watch for I'm very pleased with the result. It certainly won't be for everyone but as someone who has tried and failed to wear watches (smart and not) over many years, Android Wear has finally given me exactly what I've been looking for in a watch and I'm not planning on taking it off any time soon.
(I'll definitely be going for the Moto 360 when it arrives though, that is one good looking device!)