The LG Watch Urbane serves as LG’s third Android Wear smartwatch. LG first cut its teeth with the LG G Watch, which suffered from serious design flaws. It later released the LG G Watch R, which corrected many of the G Watch’s flaws, but entered a market hushed by the announcement of the Apple Watch. So is the $350 Urbane worth buying?
At this point in the wearables game, Android Wear suffers from weak technology compared to the Apple Watch. The Urbane doesn’t represent anything new, doing little more than retread well-travelled territory. However, within the growing pool of Android Wear devices, it ranks high. At the end of this review you can enter to win your own LG Watch Urbane!
If you’ve never heard of Android Wear, first look at the various Android Wear smartwatches available now.
Hardware and Design
The LG Watch Urbane comes housed in a chrome body, with a metal knob on its side. Its 22mm band comes in leather by default, but is replaceable, and buyers can also choose metal bands. The rear section appears to be metal, but in reality, it’s plastic, with a faux-metal brushed surface. Overall, it’s a great looking watch — one that might get mistaken as the Apple Watch.
- Operating System: Android Wear 5.1
- CPU (System-on-a-chip): Snapdragon 400 (1.2GHz, single-core)
- Memory: 512MB of RAM, 4GB eMMC storage
- Sensors: 9-axis inertial motion, and PPG heart-rate
- Microphone: Dual, noise-cancelling
- Wireless: Bluetooth 4.0, WiFi (802.11n)
- Battery: 410 mAh lithium-ion battery
- Screen: 320×320 AMOLED screen
- Ingress Protection (IP) Rating: IP67
- Watchband: 22mm, replaceable leather strap
- Ports and connectors: Pogo pins for magnetic cradle charger
The most interesting components in the Urbane are the sensor suite, which consists of a 9-axis internal motion sensor and a PPG heart-rate sensor. After that, the 320 x 320 Plastic Organic Light Emitting Diode (POLED) display, also used in the G Watch R, and then the dual, noise-cancelling microphones. The least interesting component is the Snapdragon 400 system-on-a-chip (SoC).
By interesting, I mean that the 9-axis internal motion sensor and the PPG heart-rate sensor might warrant additional scrutiny. After all, every Android Wear device includes a 9-axis sensor cluster, which technically consists of three different motion sensors (gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer) rolled into a single package inside the Snapdragon SoC. In fact, pretty much everything the Snapdragon SoC does, your phone could replicate. The PPG heart-rate sensor, on the other hand, offers an interesting take on heart-rate sensor technology. PPG sensors aren’t true heart-rate sensors. Rather, they measure blood oxygen by bouncing a light off the user’s skin, measuring how blood capillaries engorge and disgorge with blood. This method offers an easy to deploy, although less accurate, means of measuring pulse.
The Plastic Organic Light Emitting Diode (POLED) display looks gorgeous. On a technical level, POLED displays differ from conventional LEDs in their durability. POLED, while offering great flexibility, burns out faster than OLED displays. Within an always-on screen, this might spell disaster. However, after weeks of testing with ambient screen switched on, the display did not show signs of burn-in (how to prevent burn-in) — so we must assume that LG ironed out the technical issues with POLED. Even so, these screens might degrade faster than OLED in the long run.
The biggest failing of the LG Watch Urbane is that its internal components seem almost identical to the majority of other Android Wear watches on today’s market. The Snapdragon 400 system-on-a-chip hasn’t changed much since the original LG G Watch. Manufacturers should ask the question whether or not consumers need new devices with near zero internal upgrades. Although catering to an entirely different demographic, the Apple Watch uses a custom system-on-a-chip, purpose-designed to operate as a wearable. The Apple Watch also includes a fairly sophisticated sensor suite, leaving Android Wear’s ecosystem behind in the dust. The LG Urbane’s weak specifications symbolize a general malaise afflicting smartwatch designers, in that all of the Wear watches revolve around internal components designed for smartphones. Even though the Snapdragon 400 SoC includes provisioning for GPS and WiFi, few Android Wear smartwatches make use of either wireless feature. For example, the G Watch didn’t’ even include a WiFi antenna.
The value proposition of the LG Watch Urbane falls short of its competition. Within its own ecosystem, the watch costs more than any other device in the Android Wear stable of devices. Compounding its sky-high pricing is the fact that the Urbane doesn’t offer software or hardware components that exceed its competitors. Compared to the Sony Smartwatch 3, it offers inferior internal components (noticeably, lacking GPS, despite including hardware provisioning for it) and weaker daylight readability. And the Smartwatch 3 includes a larger battery and better software options, such as Sony’s Lifelog app – all while costing around $150 less.
As with all other Android Wear smartwatches, the LG Watch Urbane doesn’t require a lot of effort to set up and use. To set it up, first download Android Wear for your smartphone or tablet — though the experience of using Wear on a tablet leaves a lot to be desired. It’s best paired with a smartphone.
After downloading the app, users configure the device with Google’s Android Wear app. If Bluetooth is turned off, Wear will flip Bluetooth on. The app then initiates the pairing process. Users then initiate the connection on both the watch and the smartphone, which finalizes the pairing.
Once paired, there’s a tremendous number of ways to use an Android Wear smartwatch, the most salient of these includes GPS navigation, phone calls, Hangouts (which is the best messaging app), reminders, and Google’s personal assistant software Google Now. Here’s six of the best Google Now commands.
Activating these apps comes with little effort. Just swing the watch up, which activates the screen and microphones, then speak the activation keyword: OK Google. After that, the full suite of apps with Google Now integration can leap from your wrist into the real world. For example, if you desire navigation directions, you would say: Navigate to Walmart.
The watch then displays the nearest Walmarts. Tapping on any of these options initiates turn-by-turn directions on your wrist. As a destination nears, the watch vibrates for each turn. On the downside, despite its WiFi capabilities, the Urbane remains useless without an Android smartphone. I tried using a portable WiFi hotspot for smartphone independent navigation and found that the watch needs its paired smartphone on the same WiFi network.
Once the battery taps out, recharging the Urbane just requires plopping it onto its magnetic cradle charger. The cradle itself can attach to most any microUSB cable. There’s not much to say about the charging method, other than that it’s inferior to the Sony Smartwatch 3’s direct microUSB charging and the Moto 360’s use of Qi wireless charging. Those who travel often might find themselves without their cradle and, thus, without a functional smartwatch.
Like a handful of other Android Wear watches, such as the G Watch R, the Urbane comes with a knob-like button. Holding it down brings up the menu. Tapping it once switches the device on. Double-tapping the knob switches the watch into theater mode, which disables the screen. The button offers the kind of simple, and intuitive, functionality that many of its competitors lack. In my opinion, every watch should include a physical button of some sort.
On the other hand, LG got a lot wrong. The heart-rate sensor simply doesn’t work properly – but then it’s never really worked as advertised on any Android Wear device. Without adequate light isolation, outside light sources contaminate heart-rate readings, rendering them inaccurate. The Urbane gets around this by setting a baseline heart-rate. So even if users don’t wear the watch while running the heart rate app, it still spits out a heart rate. It’s inaccurate and thus useless as a dedicated fitness tracker. For the occasional estimation on your heart rate, though, it works fine.
Comparisons to Other Android Wear Devices
There’s no real innovation in the Urbane. It retreads territory already covered by other Android Wear smartwatches, although does it with superior aesthetic design.
Within the Android Wear ecosystem, the Urbane’s immediate competition includes the ASUS ZenWatch, the Sony Smartwatch 3, and the LG G Watch R. To these the Urbane compares favorably, although its biggest competition is the Sony Smartwatch 3. The Urbane’s only advantage over the Smartwatch 3 is its even more inaccurate heart rate sensor. It falls behind in terms daylight readability, and lack of GPS. What kills the Urbane as an alternative to Sony’s device is the astonishing price difference.
Although somewhat heavy, the Urbane looks fairly small compared to even the sleek ZenWatch. In a side-by-side comparison, the ZenWatch appears noticeably bulky. Although much of that bulk is simply bezel on the ZenWatch. Overall, I prefer the design of the Urbane.
Is the Urbane Any Good?
It’s good, but it’s not good enough.
The value proposition lurking behind the LG Watch Urbane is that users can increase their situational awareness and responsivity – but it’s a double edged sword. Users do augment their awareness of the apps on their phone, but it’s to the detriment of their actual life.
Even though the Urbane offers the second most sophisticated variation of the Android Wear ecosystem, it comes at a high price. Simply put: it’s definitely not worth $350.
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