updated 04:53 am EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
LG G Watch and Android Wear don't deliver a revolutionary wearable experience
There is a term in product development called "Minimum Viable Product," used to refer to products that are designed only to be sufficient for getting feedback or market testing a concept. Enter the LG G Watch. It is like a blank canvas that represents the minimum requirements to showcase Google's nascent Android Wear mobile platform. However, at $199, it represents a relatively affordable entry point into the world of wearable devices for early adopters who want to see whether Android Wear could be the next big thing.
The LG G Watch comes in two color choices, Black Titan and White Gold. Its styling is about as bland and inoffensive as one could possibly imagine, with LG describing its appearance as 'mimimalist.' As Apple has demonstrated time and again, a minimalist aesthetic doesn't not equate to a lack of design flair. In the case of the LG G Watch, it has little if any design flair to speak of, although its design is certainly minimalistic. It is a small, nondescript rectangular slab with rounded corners that is also slightly thicker than you might expect. Its band is similarly unfussy, although users can spice things up a little on this front by switching the band with any 0.86-inch (22mm) band of your own choice. If you believe your watch says a lot about who you are, the LG G Watch, tries very hard to say little, if anything at all.
Inside its anonymous exterior lies a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 CPU clocked at 1.2GHz, which helps to ensure that the LG G Watch has enough power to deliver lag-free performance. This is matched with 512MB of RAM, while onboard storage is capped at 4GB less whatever space the operating system consumes. The LG G Watch uses a 1.65-inch IPS LCD display, which is adequate, but is not up to the standards that we have become accustomed to from our smartphones in terms of color gamut or pixel density. Connectivity is enabled by the latest Bluetooth 4.0 LE specification, which should help to minimize power drain. The battery is relatively large at 400mAh, which explains its relatively thick proportions; but it needs to be - with an always-on display, the LG G Watch is only good for a day of regular use, but it will need to be charged on the included 9-pogo pin micro-USB charging cradle. It is also rated IP67 for water and dust resistance.
I am writing this article from the perspective of someone who is a reasonably regular smartwatch wearer. It first experimented with the original Sony SmartWatch (another example of a 'Minimum Viable Product'), and subsequently the Sony SmartWatch 2. Sony has been dabbling in the wearables space for nearly three years without really cracking it, so it was with interest that Sony was absent from those launching an Android Wear device on launch. Its SmartWatch 2 runs a Sony Android implementation for wearables and the company has indicated that it will stick with its own platform for the immediate future. After using the LG G Watch, for the past few days I can see why Sony might be reluctant to jump straight in, particularly after it has invested considerable time and resources in developing its own smartwatch Android-based OS and related developer and applet ecosystem.
My first impression of the Android Wear user experience on the LG G Watch is set against the backdrop of my experience with the Sony SmartWatch 2. I've enjoyed wearing the Sony SmartWatch for a few reasons. Firstly, Sony made something of an effort to give the SmartWatch 2 a little flair with its design, using a nice blend of aluminum, chamfered edges and attractive power button to give the device some aesthetic appeal. In the photos, you will see that I have added an after-market carbon fiber-look wrist band, enhancing its overall look. I'm not one to get a lot of notifications, but getting text messages and mail notifications delivered to your wrist can be quite useful. For those who get frequent notifications it could easily start to get annoying, however.
When driving, riding a bike or carrying a bag in one hand, the Sony SmartWatch makes it convenient to just glance at your wrist, instead of potentially breaking the law and/or creating a dangerous situation by fumbling for your smartphone to read a message. It also vibrates for incoming calls and for reminders, which can also be very handy. For example, when I go to functions or social outings, I rely on limited public transport options of an evening and getting the vibrating reminder delivered to my wrist is priceless - setting a similar reminder on my smartphone can easily go undetected in a busy environment. Similarly, being able to see who is calling on my smartphone while attending a meeting by simply glancing at my wrist is less disruptive and allows me to dismiss the call discretely, or take it, if needed.
Android Wear on the LG G Watch replicates many of the functions already seen on the Sony SmartWatch 2 and does not really add a whole lot more to the Sony Android wearable mobile OS equation. What this means is that if you didn't really find the need for having a smartwatch before Android Wear, you probably still don't need one now. If the idea of having notifications and other information delivered to your wrist, and having your wrist buzzing accordingly isn't appealing, then Android Wear (as it stands) is not going to convince you otherwise. Android Wear is probably a little slicker in terms of its new 'Material' UI, but the only really new functionality it adds is Google Now notifications and voice actions.
Getting Google Now notifications delivered to your wrist as a 'front and center' feature is an interesting decision that Google has made. If these sorts of notifications were really useful as a headlining feature for a smartwatch, why wouldn't they also be a headlining feature for your smartphone too, pushed in your face as they are on the LG G Watch? As it stands, Google Now is a feature that you can activate on your Android smartphone with either a full swipe up from the bottom of your device, or with a swipe to the left. The difference is that these notifications only appear when you call them up, and they can certainly be useful in some situations - they don't just appear on your homescreen as they do on Android Wear. In the context of Android Wear, seeing this additional information delivered to my wrist, without prompting, gives me a distinct feeling of information overload. Android Wear, with its Google Now emphasis, takes Android wearables in a new direction; but whether that is a direction that many of us want to go is certainly up for debate.
Furthermore, even though the Android Wear UI is simple to use from the perspective of swiping, it isn't necessarily simple to navigate. It remind me of Windows 8 in that the swipe gestures and navigation aren't intuitive, but take a short time to learn. Once you know how everything works, then getting around the Android Wear UI is relatively straightforward. Sony's more standard, smartphone-style Android UI for its SmartWatch 2 may not have the design flair of Android Wear, but it is certainly easy to use because of its familiarity. Google voice actions are generally accurate on the LG G Watch, but as with smartphone enabled voice actions, you need a quiet area to deliver them. They will work in public, but as with smartphone voice actions, you may feel self-conscious delivering them in front of others.
Another major issue with the LG G Watch is the matter of battery life. You will only really get a day out of it with regular use. Part of the problem is that when in 'Always on' mode, it uses the backlight constantly to show the watch face. Sony's SmartWatch 2 lasts several days because it uses LCD technology to cleverly constantly show the time without using the backlight. You can turn off the G Watch watch face to save battery, but it then requires you to tap the display to see the time. This is where Sony's early experimentation with wearables has paid off in terms of overall usability. It is already inconvenient to keep all you mobile devices charged, the last thing you want is to have to constantly recharge yet another device as you do with the LG G Watch. Sony's SmartWatch 2 also includes in in-built microUSB port for charging, while the LG G Watch requires a dock, making it that much less convenient again than the Sony.
If you're interested in wearable technology, the LG G Watch is worth a look, but I doubt very much that is going to be the spark to ignite the wearables revolution. The Samsung Gear Live, also now on sale, adds a OLED display and a heart rate monitor to the mix, giving that device an edge in functionality. The most interesting of the Android Wear devices announced is the yet to be released Motorola Moto 360. It is easily the most classy looking of the three; but it does not have a launch date as yet. As it stands, Android Wear is very much a version 1.0 attempt by Google to establish a pre-emptive presence in the wearables space. It seems increasingly as though everyone in the consumer technology space is waiting to see what Apple does with its iWatch. Like the iPhone before it, the forthcoming Apple iWatch could well be the piece of wearable technology that sets the benchmark for everyone else to follow. Why? The iPhone was in development for many years, quietly being finely honed before it saw the light of day. It's likely that the forthcoming iWatch will follow the same formula for success.
By Sanjiv Sathiah