The LG G Watch is one of the first Android Wear wristables to reach the arms of those anxiously waiting for a smartwatch that's more than hype. Until now, the options have all been a little clunky, lacking either beautiful hardware, usable software or both. This is better. But that doesn't make it good enough -- yet.
NOTE: While we were told by Google reps that the software on the smartwatches we tested would be the exact same as the software that will roll out on July 7 (when the Samsung Gear Live and the LG G Watch both start shipping), there's definitely some stuff missing. We'll be updating and revising as things progress.
What Is It?
A $249 smartwatch running Google's newly launched Android Wear operating system for wearable devices. It pairs with devices running Android 4.3 or later over Bluetooth, and sends notifications from your phone to your wrist. You can also use it to retrieve select information from the apps on your phone.
Why Does It Matter?
The smartwatch as we know it today is still in its infancy, so we can maybe forgive the first batch that dropped over the last year for being, well, dumb. Or at least, we can look past their dumbness to a better future when smartwatches are a little more fully developed.
And there's every reason to hope that they're finally just that. The G Watch -- along with the Gear Live, reviewed here -- is the first to be powered by Android Wear brains, which looks very much like the first truly evolved platform for smartwatches. Great-looking hardware and slick software is just the proof of concept smartwatches need.
The G Watch has a rectangular, minimal design, one that reminds me a bit of this reissued Braun digital watch I got a couple of years ago. (This is probably an intentional homage, as one of the selectable watchface designs is "Dieter," an obvious reference to the great Braun designer Dieter Rams.)
It's handsomely retrofuturistic in its cloak of stainless steel and glass, and while some people might prefer the blingy leanings of devices like the Pebble Steel or any of Samsung's Gear watches, the G Watch is indisputably more elegant, with subtlety that draws and keeps your focus on the content on your screen.
That said, the 280 x 280 IPS LCD doesn't shine which quite the impressive brilliance of the AMOLED display on Samsung's Gear Live. The screen's papery appearance is functional but a little drab; worse, though, is that I couldn't see it in the noon sun. According to LG's engineers, the older screen technology was chosen for improved battery life. That's fair, but a watch isn't much good when you can't read it.
The G Watch ships with standard 22mm silicon strap, which you can swap out for another of your choice, regardless of whether or not it comes from LG. Unlike competitors, the G Watch has no physical buttons, and you won't miss them.
The on-screen display is customisable with many faces, like the aforementioned "Dieter" design. You can set your screen to glow the time constantly, or to shut off after a short interval. In general I prefer to have the watch face on at all times -- like a watch! -- but it's nice to have the option to turn it off if you're at a rock n' roll concert and the radiating LCD is blowing up your spot, or if you want to keep the battery chugging as long as it can.
The hardware has a slight weight and size to it, like a standard matchbook that weighs about as much as a few slices of deli meat. It's twice as heavy as an old plastic Casio Calculator Watch, but not nearly enough to be a burden.
Like any good timepiece, the G Watch water resistant. In this case, it's IPX67, which means you can splash and spray it, but it's not suitable for diving.
The G Watch uses Google's new Android Wear OS, and so much of the functionality reflects not LG's industrial design, but instead, Google's UI. Google has said that it's not going to let manufacturers customise its smartwatch platform the way it has Android on phones and tablets, and it shows here. Given LG's previous adventures in Android skins, that's a good thing.
After downloading the Android Wear companion app on your phone, pairing the G Watch over Bluetooth works exactly as you'd expect Bluetooth setup procedure to go: A few taps on your phone and watch and you're ready to go.
Android Wear acts as a card-based information center for apps on your phone. Right now, third party app support is pretty limited: I was able to get successfully get notifications from Twitter and Facebook, but that's it. If I bark "Tweet" at my phone, it Googles it instead of asking me what I want to post to Twitter. As the platform rolls out, we expect broader support for commands from more apps.
In addition to surfacing notifications from other apps, the G Watch serves as dashboard for Google Now, as well as a pedometer (integrated with Google's newly announced "Fit" tracking service), and a wrist controller for a few phone functions like music playback, text messaging and phone calls. Android Wear is entirely controlled by voice, taps and swipes.
When you give the phone's screen a tap it wakes up, and starts listening. Say, "OK Google" and you'll get a Google Now screen, similar to what you see on your phone. From there, you can perform a basic voice search or speak one of a series of preset commands. In general, the voice recognition is excellent, picking up even slang and uncommon phrases.
Here are some examples of things I asked Google:
- "How many calories are there in a slice of pizza?"
- "What do I have going on today?"
- "Navigate to Prince Street Pizza"
- "Text Brent Rose"
- "How many steps have I taken today?"
Commands worked most, but not all of the time. Sometimes nothing would happen, and the G Watch would be stuck in an apparent loop that would eventually time out. Other times, the watch would simply refuse to hear what I was saying, even though it had just responded to the very same command a moment before.
In addition to trying to retrieve certain information, you'll also get Google Now notifications based on your usage of Google services on your phone and computer. Swiping up opens a notification, or moves on to the next if there are multiples. Swiping to the left inside a notification lets you dig deeper, offering you the option to reply to messages or to open a notification on your phone. Swipe right and the notification goes away. (Be mindful, this is an opposite dismiss/more scheme from the one on Tinder, in which swiping left means you're not interested, and swiping right means, "yes please, more!")
Here are some notifications that I got while testing the G Watch:
- New emails
- New text message
- Incoming phone call, with an easy option to dismiss or answer the call
- I reached my daily goal of 10,000 steps
- The score of the Giants game
- My package has shipped
- An event on my calendar is coming up in a few minutes
- Public transportation options from the location I was three blocks ago
- Estimated time to get a restaurant I looked up on my phone.
- Estimated time to get to a bar I looked up on my computer.
At its very best, Android Wear does an excellent job of keeping my phone in my pocket and my brain on the world. It's nice to know at a glance that the vibration on my wrist is just a crappy public relations email or a Twitter @reply from my colleague rather than having to reach in my pocket hundreds of times a day. I love walking around and listening to music, and being able to control playback from my wrist. And if I get really into walking, the built-in pedometer gives me a nice little congratulations vibration when I hit my daily step goal. (Unlike the Gear Live, however, the G Watch doesn't have a heart rate monitor.)
Still, the UX still feels like a beta that's full of bugs and and dumbness. Let's take the case of simple messaging. Sometimes, the watch will fail to respond to a simple command like "text Leslie" because it can't figure out who you're asking for and other times it will work. When you press the reply button in the Twitter interface, you just get a big checkmark like you responded, but nothing at all has happened. Then, assuming you actually get a dictation dialog for Gmail or Google Hangouts or Google Keep when you ask for it, you can't pause to think about what you're saying at all or the message will send. I've already sent a dozen unintentionally terse responses. Why not wait for a "send" command so I can flesh out a response? These hiccups persist across the entire operating system.
And notifications can be excessive. Each time you get a notification the watch buzzes, and at busier times of the day the deluge of wrist vibrations gets irritating. If it's really annoying or you're in a situation where you'd prefer to be left alone, swiping down from the top of the screen allows you to easily mute all notifications, but there's no easy way to turn off notifications for individual apps except to kill them from each app on your phone.
Speaking of simple gestures, I'm fond of "take me home" gesture: Just cover the watch face with a few fingers or your palm and the watch goes back to the resting state, like a pet canary with a blanket over its cage. Flick your wrist like you're looking at your watch, and wakes it up.
The phone is waterproof, and I ran it under a faucet for a few minutes. The impact of the water acts puts the phone to sleep, so I wouldn't count on being able to check your email in the shower.
The G Watch charges wirelessly in a little magnetic cradle that I've already almost lost a few times. On full charge you can expect more than a full day of average usage with the screen set to always on. If you set the screen to turn off when the phone is inactive, your battery efficiency goes way up.
Thanks to smartphones, a lot of people don't feel the need to wear a watch, since they can get the necessary time and date information from the device in their pockets. I'm not one of those people. I always wear a watch, and in the LG G Watch, I've found, at long last, a smartwatch I would actually wear. It's good-looking enough not to offend the sensibilities of watch people, and importantly, it's got enough battery life to last you through your day. It seems like an overly obvious thing to say, but a smartwatch's first job is to be a watch, not a dead chunk of circuits strapped to your wrist.
Additionally, Android Wear's Google Now integration does an admirable, if imperfect job of surfacing information that I want to know. It's definitely the best smartwatch platform out there, keeping in mind that's not saying much.
Buggy software. Sometimes commands work, sometimes they don't. Android Wear lacks polish. Third party app support is minimal. We expect this all to improve. Although the way software development goes, we could be on the next version of hardware before all of Android Wear's kinks have been sorted out.
I understand the need for a charging cradle, but I'm going to be really sad when I forget it in a hotel room and I have to order another one.
Should You Buy It
Not yet. If a smartwatch is a thing you desperately want, the LG G Watch is the prettiest hardware you can buy right now, but you should definitely wait until the end of the summer to see if the stunning Moto 360 is any good. You should also wait until Android Wear's various quirks have been ironed out.
As I said before, smartwatches are still new, and like most new technologies, they're not good yet. Realistically, it might be some time before they're good enough to be worth it. Luckily, a smartwatch is far from something you need, and at this stage, it probably shouldn't even be something you should want, given the current state of the technology.
Of course, if a smartwatch is something you can't possibly wait to buy, you could certainly do far worse than the G Watch. It's the best we've tried seen so far. That's encouraging for the future of smartwatches, if not exactly encouraging enough to throw down your dollars for just yet.
LG G Watch
• Network: Bluetooth 4.0 • OS: Android Wear • CPU: 1.2GHz processor • Screen: 1.65-inch 280x280 IPS LCD (240 PPI) • RAM: 512MB • Storage: 4GB • Camera: None • Battery: 400mAh • Weight: 63g • Price: $249 in Australia
Pictures: Michael Hession