Notifications on your wrist. Pop-up information from your phone. The potential to interact with a lot of phone apps from your watch. This is what owning a Google watch feels like. Android Wear is the name of the software, and the first watches running it have arrived: the Samsung Gear Live , and the LG G Watch.
Read our deep review of the Samsung Gear Live and know that the LG G Watch is essentially the same experience under the hood, minus the heart-rate monitor, in a differently designed body. Also know that other Android Wear watches will come in the future, in particular the hotly anticipated round-faced Motorola Moto 360 . A lot of this review is the same as my Samsung Gear Live review. That's because they're nearly the same watch. The differences are slight indeed: the G Watch has a less-impressive design, a less-impressive screen, lacks the heart-rate monitor of the Gear Live, and costs $229 (£159 in the UK, and AU$249 in Australia), $30 more than Samsung's offering. But it also has slightly better battery life and a better charge dock.
The LG G Watch is like the opening act to a headliner you're waiting for: this isn't the star of the show, and never will be. It's a solidly built piece of hardware, but it's extremely generic-looking, as if it was designed to be a blank slate for Android Wear. It feels like a developer's tool more than a watch you'd want to show off.
To wear the future on your wrist means submitting to a present that can't quite get us there yet. In the case of Google's new Android Wear watches, it also means confronting an odd number of compromises: in particular, some pretty bad battery life.
If you're really serious about Android Wear, you should wait. For future watches, and for software improvements. But if you're curious about what Android Wear is all about, read on.
What is Android Wear, and what will it become?
Android Wear is Android, on your wrist. But it's really like Google Now on your wrist, or Google Glass on your wrist minus a camera: it pushes notifications, can use voice commands ("OK, Google"), and also has a touchscreen for swiping and tapping cards or menu commands. It also allows compatible Android phone apps to load bits of themselves onto your watch, and add on extra features.
Indeed, iPhone users are out of luck -- but we can safely assume Apple's rumored iWatch will be iOS-exclusive, too -- welcome to the increasingly segregated ecosystems of the Apple/Google Cold War. Android Wear is voice command-driven, like Google Glass, but the watches don't have any cameras or speakers: just a microphone, a touchscreen, and a vibrating motor. Android Wear watches can be round or square, but they all need to be connected to an Android phone running 4.3 or later. And they're all supposed to work roughly the same: same operating system, same-looking software. So, no matter what Android Wear watch you choose, it looks like they'll end up feeling like the same type of watch.
That doesn't mean they're all utterly identical: the LG G Watch has different watch faces than the Samsung Gear Live, the other first-out-of-the-gate Android Wear smartwatch.
I tested both the Samsung Gear Live and LG G Watch using a prerelease Android Wear app on a Samsung Galaxy S5 , and running a handful of prerelease apps alongside it.
Android Wear pushes cards, just like Google Now, onto your watch face: they could be notifications like incoming emails, Facebook updates, Google Hangout chats, texts, Twitter interactions, or phone calls: it could be the score to a local game, the weather, directions to a place you've been before, or a reminder that music is playing on your phone. Each card can be swiped away, or you can tap to read more, as well as occasionally swipe to reply.
In some cases, you'll need to do the rest on your own phone: with Twitter or Facebook, I clicked a "open on phone" icon and then had to wake up my phone in my pocket. The thing I was trying to read popped up immediately on the phone, but I sometimes wondered whether this defeated the purpose of using a smartwatch in the first place.
You can dictate a lot of things to the watch -- write a note, send an email, ask for directions -- but it doesn't always mean that Google will understand you. And if it doesn't, you'll have a hard time correcting what you said, or canceling that mistaken message before a quick timer expires and it's sent away.
Some of the first Android Wear apps show extra promise: Tinder's Android Wear app has you swipe pictures like you can on a phone. DuoLingo has quick language-learning flashcards. Eat24 lets you quickly order food. Lyft can call a car service. Runtastic can start and track a run. Thomson Reuters Eikon gets quick business headlines and stock prices. Spendable and PayPal are offered for quick finance tools, but PayPal wasn't working for me yet in its early build. Wink will have an app to connect to its smart-home app and connected-appliance controls. That's already more than most smartwatches can boast, and Android Wear should get lots more apps in short time. How useful they'll be remains to be seen, but the potential for Android Wear to transform beyond what it seems to be now could be sky-high.
At the moment, though, it still feels like a hobbled version of Google Glass: notifications, but without the fun ability to record video hands-free.
Pushing notifications has its ups and downs, too: I tried navigating via Android Wear while driving and nearly caused a car accident. Basic vibrations and no speaker mean the display randomly lights up, and upcoming turns weren't clearly indicated. And, it kept losing the GPS signal from my phone even though I was in an unobstructed town in New Jersey.
And if you're saying to yourself, "How's this any different from what I get on my smartphone?" you're right. It all comes down to whether or not you think interacting with a smaller screen on your wrist is more convenient than always whipping out your phone.
The LG G Watch just isn't attractive-looking. Its big, plain black face and rubber wristband feel like the sort of generic smartwatch nobody really wants to own. It's reminiscent of the plastic chunkiness of the original Pebble watch . The G Watch comes in either white/gold or black; my review model was black.
The funny thing is, it's actually well-made, and feels better to wear than it looks. Metal construction on the body with plastic underneath, a glass face, clean lines, and a comfy band mean it actually feels good to wear. The plain look grew on me after a while, but I'm not going to sugarcoat its bland approach. Future Android Wear watches will trounce it on design.
There is one area of design the G Watch does nicely: its included charging dock has a gummy backing, sits solidly on a desk, and the G Watch magnetically locks into it. It's small, works with any Micro-USB cable, and is a lot better than Samsung's odd clip-on charge dongle for the Gear Live watch.
The LG G Watch is IP67 water- and dust-resistant, like the Samsung Gear Live. You should be able to wear it in the rain, while washing your hands, or even in the shower (I did), but not for swimming. And showering with it all the time might not be the best idea if you don't want to tempt fate.
The G Watch has a 1.65-inch 280x280-pixel IPS LCD display, as opposed to the Samsung Gear Live's slightly higher resolution 1.63-inch 320x320 Super AMOLED display. But, I can tell you, having used both side by side, the actual difference is slim. Both, unfortunately, are terrible in direct outdoor sunlight, becoming nearly unreadable even at maximum brightness. Not smart at all, for a watch. The LG watch's screen definitely doesn't look quite as crisp and vivid as Samsung's, but it's not bad.
The LG G Watch doesn't have any external buttons at all, except for a reset button on the back. To turn it on or off, you use the touch-screen menu or plug it in to charge, and tap or move the watch to trigger the display to turn on. I prefer the comfort factor of one real button.
The G Watch has a 1.2 GHz processor, 4GB of onboard storage, and 512MB of RAM, just like its current competitor, the Samsung Gear Live. True, 4GB isn't a lot, but it's similar to what Samsung's other Gear watches offer, and the same as the LG G Watch. I don't know what app file sizes will end up being in the future, so it's hard to tell if 4GB will be limiting or not; right now, most of what Android Wear does involves pushed notifications, which probably don't take up much storage space at all.
Living with the G Watch
Using the G Watch on a daily basis feels exactly like the Samsung Gear Live: it's like a super-powered Pebble watch, or a Google Now watch. Android Wear is supposed to send context-specific messages throughout the day, automatically. I gave it a try, and after a few days it started hitting a certain odd rhythm. Weather in both New Jersey and New York City, where I work, were delivered to the display. Emails popped up as quick thumbnails, which I could respond to using my voice to transcribe. If it misunderstood me, I'd have a second or two to cancel, or the message would send as is.
Google Hangouts, to my surprise, came through intact: work-related chats popped up, and I could respond with voice-to-text. Incoming phone calls can be answered or dismissed with preset messages, but you'll need to grab your phone to actually talk; the G Watch can't make phone calls.
I started getting train times for the train I normally take, but also bus times for stations I passed on my train ride, which was odd. Maybe I'm not used to training Google Now to work for me, but Google Now's odd habits also feel like they need pruning or evolving to work perfectly on a wearable.
The G Watch was quick to recognize and transcribe most things I said to it. But I felt like I needed to speak to do most things, and that didn't always work well in public. Scrolling down to other features, settings, or connected apps was awkward. And swiping and interacting with cards could get confusing: sometimes I ended up swiping away cards I meant to keep, but once cards are gone they're gone for good. Unless they come back later, which they often did. But it's out of your control. Cards pop up when they pop up, in an often odd order. Facebook and Twitter send compressed notifications, requiring me to open my Android phone for more details.
The LG G Watch will work with any Android phone running 4.3 with Bluetooth 4.0, but its fitness features aren't actually that complex; it really just counts your steps. At the moment, Android Wear doesn't work with any significant social, calorie-counting, or other lifestyle fitness apps.
Those might be added in future Android Wear-compatible apps, but it's not clear how, yet. Right now, your step count pops up randomly as one more card in the continuous flow of pop-up cards that Android Wear ends up serving up throughout the day. Google has announced its own open fitness platform called Google Fit, which aims to knit together all fitness apps and accessories. We'll have to see how Android Wear watches end up dovetailing with Google Fit in the future, but it could get interesting.
Android Wear, the app
The LG G Watch (and all other Android Wear watches) pairs with a simple app companion that lives on your phone. It connects easily via Bluetooth, one watch at a time. From there, you can check available compatible apps on Google Play, adjust alarms, watch faces, and a few other settings, and mute notifications. By default, whatever apps ping notifications to your phone also send cards to Android Wear. Turning them off one by one is the way to fine-tune your watch's pings.
Battery life: Not great
The LG G Watch, just like the Samsung Gear Live, has poor battery life. How poor? It only lasts a day. It has a 400mAh battery, a little better than the Samsung Gear Live's 300mAh battery. But it still means recharging every night. That's not helpful if you're planning on using the watch to wake you up with an alarm, or like wearing a watch at night.
That daylong battery life is with all functions running, and the screen display set toward the higher end, with a nearly always-on screen. By default, Android Wear dims the smartwatch display down to a low-power black-and-white screen after a few seconds: watch faces transform to cool, basic designs, and notifications turn to plain text. Lifting your arm or tapping the screen brings back full color and brightness. This also depletes battery life, of course. You can choose to keep the display completely dark after a few seconds instead, and light it up by tapping, or triggering the accelerometer by lifting your arm to look at the screen. That'll get you more juice, but it also defeats some of the purpose of Android Wear as an always-on watch.
At least LG included an easy-to-use, flat magnetic charge dock for easy charging on a desk or night table.
Conclusion: Not the answer (yet)
Google's new Android Wear watches strive for a future of automatic information on our wrists, connected to a growing universe of apps and things. The result right now ends up being a pretty rough and mixed bag: features that don't feel useful; software that's a weird mix of "automatic" and interactive, but often too voice-driven for its own good; and a battery life on the G Watch that's painfully short.
Android Wear is clearly a work in progress; my review was on early software without many connected apps, and as more apps arrive, Android Wear could turn into something pretty interesting. What Google's doing in wearables is more advanced than anything else out there, but it doesn't result in a watch that's fun or easy to use yet. The future of Google, and Android, may lie in a world of connected devices; right now, though, it boils down to a couple of middling smartwatches that have some interesting perks, but just aren't smart or good enough. Yet. You're far better off waiting: for better software, and maybe better watches. The Moto 360 is just around the corner.