Android Wear: Getting better every day, but still a bit messy
Things keep improving for Android Wear, a platform that's been studded with subtle and continual upgrades since last year's debut. Offline music playback, fitness software synced with Google Fit, lots of apps and watch faces, and now the latest version of Android Wear, which adds the aforementioned Wi-Fi connectivity between phone and watch, and a few other tricks.
Emoji are now onboard, and you can either draw them with your finger or pull up a list of weird Google-ish emoji. The "emoji helper" was a little trigger-happy for my tastes (it started suggesting ideas when all I had done was make two dot-eyes).
Getting to apps is a lot easier. Pressing and holding the side button now brings up a list of apps, and it's wonderful. It's what the Apple Watch should allow for, too (in a way, it does, but the Apple Watch app grid is far too dense and lacks app names). The list of "suggested actions" that normally greeted Android Wear owners after tapping the screen has been buried behind a few swipes of the app page. That's a good idea, because you don't need it: just say "OK, Google" anytime, and you can pull off a voice command.
Pull-down notification settings have been tweaked, too: easy-access silencing, or even "theater mode," allow the buzzes to be put on hiatus. There's also a screen-brightening assistant for very sunny moments, rather than needing to fumble through the submenus.
Still, Android Wear insists on serving up notifications as big, screen-filling cards. These cards are huge -- needlessly so. I'd prefer simpler, tinier notifications, and ones I could flick down and access in a list. Swiping through each Google Now card/notification on Android Wear feels like a waste of screen space. Some Google Now cards are predictive and keep coming back no matter how often you swipe them away. Estimated commuting times, weather, sports scores -- I still don't love the odd mix of cards that get thrust on you in Android Wear.
It's still not all that intuitive to customize notifications in Android Wear, either. There's no handy list of options to toggle on and off: it mostly mirrors your phone settings, which you can tweak in your phone's notification options.
But, the growing list of Android Wear apps -- many of which act mainly as extensions to your phone, much like Apple Watch apps do for iOS -- at least offers promise.
LG includes a few specific new apps on the Watch Urbane, including Call, which dials back a number you've already received or made. You can't actually make a voice call through the Urbane watch, but this acts as a call-back dashboard.
Fitness: Better, not fantastic
A built-in heart rate monitor on the back, just like the LG G Watch R, allows for on-the-spot or continuous heart-rate tracking. That, and the Google Fit fitness app, track steps and active exercise and sync the stats back to your phone.
Apps on Android Wear are still weird, though -- many of them pop up like cards, versus opening and staying open. Google Fit is a decent Fitbit-type activity tracker, but it's not very deep. Fitness feels like a secondary feature on both Android Wear and LG's dressy Urbane: it's not a combination I'd love to use. But it's better than Android Wear was a year ago.
The built-in 410mAh battery lasts pretty well, for a smartwatch. With an always-on display that powers into a dimmer ambient mode after a few seconds, the Urbane lasted more than a day. With the ambient always-on display mode off (you have to tap the display or raise your wrist to see the time), battery life extends towards two days.
Fancy OLED smartwatches still aren't good enough to last more than a day or two, not without heavy power management. This watch is better than some, but not by much.
Keep that charger cradle nearby. LG's charger attaches with magnets, satisfyingly snapping onto the back and lining up its metal contacts. A wall charger and Micro-USB cable can be detached from the charger puck and used to charge your phone, too. It's nearly the same design as the LG G Watch R's charger.
Why you should wait
This might be my favorite Android Wear watch yet. But you should wait before leaping on the LG Watch Urbane, at least for a couple of weeks. Or longer.
Why? Because Google's biggest developer conference, Google I/O, is just around the corner. The latest version of Android Wear -- and new Android Wear watches -- could be unveiled. The Urbane won't be alone in showing off the latest features Android Wear can offer. Wait to see what else debuts, just to be safe.
Also, price: the Urbane is expensive. The G Watch R looks sporty and costs less. Other watches are going on sale. The Moto 360 costs less.
Finally: Android Wear, and most smartwatches, are works in progress. It's clear that LG is a frontrunner in designing nice-looking wristgear, but Android Wear as a platform still feels diffuse, unclear, and hard to navigate. It doesn't do as much as I wish it could.
I want to see what the next version of Android Wear, and all of its promised smartwatches, can do. The Urbane is a good next step, but it feels like a baby step. If you want a smartwatch right now that looks classic, however, and price isn't an object, this is definitely it.