Google’s foray into the world of wearable technology isn’t a single smartwatch – it’s an entire operating system, dubbed Android Wear. The first of a likely long line of devices is LG’s G Watch. At present, only two Wear devices grace Google’s Play Store, the other: Samsung’s Gear Live. The Gear Live costs a little less at $199 and comes with an AMOLED screen, worse battery life and a heart-rate sensor. In other respects, the two devices appear as near clones of one another. While Motorola and HTC will introduce Wear devices in either the later Summer or Fall, the prices and launch days remain a mystery. HTC is rumored to offer better build quality and Motorola’s Moto 360 includes wireless Qi charging.
So does the LG G Watch suck or does it manage to justify its $229 price tag?
Aesthetics and Design
I prefer LG’s minimal approach to smartwatch design over Samsung’s. Unlike the Gear Live, the G Watch employs a traditional watch strap, rather than metal plugs in Samsung’s wearables. The G Watch also features an all-plastic, rectangular watch-face and a complete lack of buttons. There’s two kinds of plastic used in the G Watch: First, a black, plastic, matte back, and second, a glossy, black (or white, depending on the model) bezel. The wrist-strap is fashioned from a spongy-soft silicone rubber.
As a complete unit, it feels great to wear – reminiscent of the Basis B1 Health Tracker, which we reviewed. The wrist strap feels like a second skin and doesn’t chaff or disturb my wrist in any way. The weight and heft feel similar to that of a standard, non-smartwatch. I suggest wearing the watch with the face on the inside of the wrist, which will help prevent accidental contact with many objects.
- Chipset: Snapdragon 400
- Display: 1.65-inch LCD IPS (280 x 280)
- Memory: 4GB eMMC/512 RAM
- Battery; 400 mAh
- OS: Android Wear (requires Android 4.3 or later)
- Size: 37.9 x 46.5 x 9.95mm
- Weight: 63g
- Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.0
- Sensors: 9-Axis gyro/accelerometer/compass
- Available Colors: White Gold and Black Titan
- Ruggedization: Dust and water resistant (IP67)
- Charging: Magnetic, micro-USB charging cradle
Making Use of the LG G Watch
Using LG’s G Watch isn’t hard. There’s no obvious power-on switch. Hidden on the back is a tiny stud, which requires a small metal implement (not included with the watch) to access, such as a pen-tip or paperclip. Inserting the implement and depressing the stud for a couple seconds turns the watch on or off. Bluetooth is automatically switched on, so pairing just requires connecting through one’s smartphone. The rest of the configuration process is guided through the watch’s configuration wizard.
The only app required to sync a smartphone with the watch is the Android Wear app. It’s fairly minimal, with only a few tweakable options. Just install it on your Android device and begin the Bluetooth pairing process.
- Agenda: This function allows users to schedule calendar events using Google Now’s voice activation system. It relies on the installation of the Calendar app (which phones include by default). It’s simple and easy to use, although it requires a fairly precise and clear utterance of the appointment time and date.
- Set a timer: You can set a count-down using the phone’s clock and Google Now’s voice recognition feature.
- Set an alarm: You can set alarms using the phone’s clock app and Google Now’s voice recognition feature.
- Show alarms: This displays all of your upcoming alarms.
- Show me my steps: Another default app, the pedometer counts the number of steps you take each day. It appears to be accurate, although I did not count my individual steps.
- Start stopwatch: You can start and stop a stopwatch through the Google Now interface.
- Take a note: This interacts with the Google Keep app. Google Keep records all your text (with varying degrees of accuracy).
- Call a car: This requires a special app. You can call a cab from the watch. Most users won’t actually need this feature, but it’s useful knowing it there. It requires the installation of a secondary car-rental app — Uber, for example, offers Android Wear compatibility.
- Keyboard: The Minuum keyboard offers a simple means of responding to text messages, directly from the watch. Although still in beta, the Minuum app requires a minimal number of screen presses to create words. You can sign up for the Minuum beta, here.
The Android Wear app ecosystem continues to evolve at an astronomical speed. While at present, most apps only display watch notifications, many on the horizon offers far more impressive features. Already a custom ROM exists, which improves battery life. Some apps hack Google Now, adding additional functionality. The future for Android Wear looks bright. I would dare say, Android Wear is the future of wearable technology.
As of 2014, Android Wear allows remote triggering of your smartphone’s camera, a variety of third party apps (as of 2014, more than what’s available for Google Glass) and more. Clearly, the Android Wear ecosystem’s design aims at creating synergy with Google’s, still-in-beta, Google Fit.
Snapdragon 400 Chipset
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 400 chipset in the LG G Watch offers a quad-core Cortex A7 CPU. It also includes an Adreno 305 GPU, integrated wireless-AC, Bluetooth 4.0 and a great deal more. Unless the included chipset is some kind of custom or semi-custom silicon, it’s massively over-provisioned for a smartwatch. It’s one of the beefiest chipsets ever used in a smartwatch.
Unless I’m missing something, it seems that the Snapdragon 400 isn’t suited for use with Android Wear. The majority of wearable tech use purpose-designed chips (such as MIPS, ASIC or FPGA) which use less energy, although they typically specialize in just a handful of functions. According to teardowns, about 50% of the Snapdragon 400’s chip space is occupied by features it could never use. The Snapdragon 400, by default, includes a large number of features handling mobile data. Unless the particular chipset used in the G Watch is semi-custom (similar to how the Snapdragon S4 Pro in the Moto X received customization), I fail to see why LG went with Qualcomm and not MediaTek, which sells chipsets specializing in smartwatch operation.
The current generation of Wear products, including the G Watch, seems hastily cobbled together. While aesthetically beautiful, the highly reflective glass screen makes viewing in direct sunlight difficult. The brightness appears adequate in most environments, but it’s clear that the Wear platform would bernefit from outdoor-viewable screen technology, such as electro-wetting or inteferometric modulator display (known by its trade name of “Mirasol”). Daylight readable screen technology offers superior durability to LCD screens, and extremely low drain characteristics. Unfortunately, no Android Wear device includes daylight readability.
Android Wear offers an optimal platform for daylight readable technology, such as Qualcomm’s Mirasol technology or Amazon’s Liquidvista screens. While LCD screens produce the necessary amount of brightness for outdoor reading, it comes with an appreciable hit on battery life and diminished screen quality. As it stands, the LCD screen used in the G Watch falls short of adequate.
Another design flaw: Proprietary charging cradles. While the magnetic clasp works fantastic on the G Watch, snapping it securely into place, you can’t actually buy the cradle anywhere (as of July of 2014). Furthermore, as a device requiring constant recharging, taking the proprietary charger along may result in its loss or breakage. Had LG gone with wireless Qi charging, as Motorola will do with the Moto 360, this issue wouldn’t have been so damaging.
The G Watch gets about two days of battery life during normal operation. LG clocks it at around 36 hours – considering that the screen is on the entire time, the battery life isn’t bad. However, I consider two days of battery life as sub-optimal for a wearable device. Wearables shouldn’t require as much battery charging as a smartphone.
I managed to charge the device in well under an hour, from around 20%. Most chargers output at around 15 mAh per minute. That means, from bottom-to-top, the 400 mAh battery should recharge in about a half hour. That’s not bad at all, but not everyone wants to lug a charging cradle around with them.
Android Wear’s coup over other wearables: It brings the Moto X’s “always on” feature to all Android smartphones and tablets. Just swing the watch up to view the screen and say “OK Google” – you can now input any voice command from the OK Google menu. As of July of 2014, there are only a few dozen apps with Android Wear compatibility. But this number grows daily. Over the next year, we should begin seeing some amazing innovations in apps. Unfortunately, at present, not many apps exist.
What’s criminally bad about the G Watch is its bugginess. I found that while using the phone for GPS, it was impossible to send text messages through my phone using the Google Now command. For some reason, Bluetooth kept disconnecting, despite the device being inches away from the G Watch.
While I imagine LG will very rapidly fix the G Watch’s firmware, even with a seamless operating system, the entire Wear device ecosystem suffers from serious design flaws.
It Feels Like Navigating a Maze
Android Wear’s user interface lacks the intuitive feel of Android. The user interface feels like a mess; pulling it out-the-box, you won’t immediately know how to get to your apps. For example, the default screen, when idle, is a digital clock, with sunrise and sunset listed. Switching the screen “on” (it’s always on) requires either touching the screen or swinging your arm up into a viewing position. Turning it “off” (it’s actually still on) requires touching your palm to the screen. The process is easy to pick-up, but if you don’t like an entirely new user interface, Android Wear isn’t for you.
Swiping from top-to-bottom, you can change apps. Apps installed on your smartphone automatically install themselves on your watch. This is rather pointless, as one should choose between installing on the smartwatch or the smartphone/tablet. If you go to Google’s list of Android Wear-compatible apps and attempt to install on the G Watch, you won’t be able to. It’s confusing.
The — for lack of a better term — Launcher of Android Wear is Google Now. To add scrollable apps, you need to enter Google Now (through vocal command) and scroll to the bottom. Users can access all settings and features of Android Wear through Google Now.
I found that many of the features weren’t very useful. The notifications feature eclipses all other companies, though. You get notifications and status updates for nearly everything. On the downside, and I’m not entirely certain about this, there doesn’t appear to be any way to get battery life notifications from your paired device on the G Watch. For me, that’s a big deal, as users will likely be relying on their watch entirely for notifications. If the phone hovers near unconsciousness, we need to know.
Should you buy the LG G Watch?
The G Watch is among the only wearable tech devices, emphasizing notifications, that’s actually useful. On the downside, it feels very much like a beta project. The device itself offers poor battery life (although all Wear products have poor battery life), buggy software and a mismatched screen technology. Unfortunately, at the moment most of the apps compatible with the G Watch aren’t particularly useful. I loved having constant access to Google Now and if you want the touchless, voice-activated feature of the Moto X on your arm, strongly consider the G Watch as a companion to your phone. If not, then this most assuredly won’t impress you.
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