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LG G Watch review: One of the first Google watches, but not the best

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.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Specs

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.

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James Martin/CNET

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.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Fitness?

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.

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Josh Miller/CNET

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.

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Josh Miller/CNET

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.

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