Watches are functionally boring. Their primary task of displaying the time has been figured out for centuries, which is why modern wristwatches are celebrated for their complications, the extra things they can do beyond mere timekeeping. No complication has been more fundamental or profound than the present rise of the smartwatch, as embodied primarily by Google’s Android Wear. So long as there’s a smartphone nearby, an Android Wear watch will receive notifications, control music, take notes, count its wearer’s steps, and generally be much more useful than the typical wrist-worn timepiece.
In the space of a few months, Android Wear watch designs have gone from the utilitarian LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live to the thoughtfully designed Moto 360 and now the LG G Watch R. Even for the rapidly moving world of personal electronics, the improvements between these devices and the pace at which they’re being introduced are quite extraordinary. It’s an evolution of the smart mobile device happening at revolutionary speed.
The G Watch R is LG’s Android Wear watch. It’s the product of a three-year development program to produce a perfectly round OLED display and tens of thousands of hours of design research. Whereas the original G Watch was essentially a proof-of-concept device, the G Watch R looks like a legitimate contender. To justify its $299 price, however, this watch must first rely on Android Wear's appeal as a desirable complication before proving itself as something more than a dress watch with a techie side — which is a position already occupied by the cheaper and classier Moto 360.
It's a branch of the smartphone experience rather than a whole new tree
To find out what I can do with a smartwatch that I couldn't do without one, I have to jump through a few Google-mandated hoops. Like all Android Wear watches, the G Watch R won’t even show the time without being synced to a compatible Android handset. The sum of Android Wear functionality for owners of iPhones or Windows Phones is zero. Once I have the watch up and running, I’m also encouraged in the strongest possible terms to enable Google Now, which brings in a lot of potentially useful, ambient information such as weather updates and sports scores. By the end of the relatively quick setup process, I find myself that little bit deeper enmeshed in the Google information ecosystem, which is intentionally built into the heart of every Android Wear smartwatch.
For Google, the point of smartwatches isn’t to do unique things but to make the things I already do with my phone quicker and more convenient. Android Wear is a branch of the smartphone experience rather than a whole new tree. Most commonly, that means the watch taking over as the primary notification station of my online life. Beside the obvious Gmail messages, other apps that deliver push notifications — such as Twitter and Trello — also make an appearance on the G Watch R. Some include a limited ability to respond directly from the watch, but more often than not they leave the user with just an "Open on phone" option.
Voice commands and dictation are a major part of the extra functionality that the G Watch R offers over conventional watches, but they are too limited and consistently frustrating. Android Wear is really good at handling requests like "set an alarm for 5 minutes from now," but trips over itself anytime I want to say more than a couple of words at a time. My transcribed email replies and Google Keep notes are punctuation-deprived run-on sentences because any pause is interpreted as the end of a recording. I can totally see the benefit of being able to just twist my wrist, tell Google to take a note, and jot down my latest recipe idea while I’m busy preparing it in the kitchen. Hands-free interactions are exactly the thing that smartphones are worst at and represent the greatest opportunity for smartwatches. Alas, Android Wear only has the right idea, not the right execution. Using voice commands is more often aggravating rather than assistive, and the casual responses of "Didn't catch that" from the watch feel patronising instead of friendly.
Right idea waiting for the right execution
Two other functions of the G Watch R stand out for me: the music and camera controls. The camera stuff is easy and fun: I just open the camera app on my phone and the watch buzzes on my wrist and turns itself into a big handy shutter button. Once a photo’s taken, it can be previewed on the watch as well. As to music playback, Android Wear can control any audio app, skipping between tracks and adjusting volume. Google’s attention to detail is shown in its color-matching of the music controls to the album art of whatever song is playing. Both the camera and music additions are neat and pleasant to use, however there’s nothing in them that can’t be reproduced with something as simple as an in-line remote control in a set of earphones.
The Google Now cards that appear on the watch are also not implemented too well. Firstly, while I appreciate the roundness of the G Watch R and Moto 360, these circular displays are really terrible for showing the square Now cards. Email notifications float up from the bottom of the screen, which would be more reasonable with a square display, but leaves me with just a snippet of the sender’s name on the G Watch R. The same happens with the weather, which this morning was "9 degrees, Mostly Clou…" Whether it be LG or Google, someone should have reworked these alerts to make better use of a round screen.
Perhaps more than anything, though, my disappointment with Android Wear stems from how much I’m still using my smartphone even with the smartwatch on my wrist. The watch’s remote music controls become redundant when I’m reading or playing something on the phone, and all too often a search or an interaction on the watch will direct me to "Open on phone" anyway. Turn-by-turn navigation is available on the watch, but it's of dubious added value relative to just using my phone. What Android Wear represents right now is a great basis on which to build a true smartwatch platform, but it feels like a distinctly unfinished product in its current state.
While LG has done next to nothing to improve the software proposition of Android Wear, it has thrown pretty much everything at giving it the best possible hardware. A thick leather strap connects to a chunky steel case that feels rigid and substantial. The underside of the watch is plastic, accommodating LG’s heart rate sensor and magnetic charging connector. The whole device is waterproof and feels extremely durable. LG has clearly aimed for a classical round-face design that would make the G Watch R suitable to be used as a fancy dress watch, but that ambition has not come at the cost of ruggedness. The elevated bezel that surrounds the display and shows minute indicators adds an extra layer of protection.
The G Watch R is well built and, for its size, surprisingly comfortable
I’m less enthused about some of the other practical implications of LG’s G Watch R design. Android Wear expects a lot of swipes from the edges of the screen, which this watch’s protruding bezel makes more awkward than on the minimalist Moto 360. LG has openly admitted that it needs the extra space around the screen to accommodate the fully circular display’s electronics, though that will be of little consolation for anyone looking for a compact smartwatch.
I didn’t enjoy the G Watch R’s fit on my wrist when I first started wearing it, but once the leather strap relaxed a little and I got used to its presence, it was comfortable to wear for days at a time. This surprised me somewhat, having previously used the much smaller and lighter Pebble smartwatch and expecting the sheer dimensions of the LG watch to be overwhelming. That wasn't the case. Bonus points go to LG for using a standard 22mm strap that can be swapped with any from the vast variety already available on the market. The wide selection of watch faces and straps should allow the committed G Watch R user to customize this device to perfectly match any occasion or outfit.
With the software running on the Moto 360 and G Watch R being essentially the same, the choice between them comes down to how they look and feel, and the general consensus seems to be in favor of the 360 right now. I think otherwise. LG’s watch has a Snapdragon 400 processor inside it, which is considerably faster and smoother in rendering animations than the Moto’s ancient Texas Instruments chip. Its higher efficiency also helps the G Watch R’s battery last longer: I am able to go a full 24 hours, even on active days, before this watch’s battery is fully drained. That hardly eliminates the added anxiety of knowing I have yet another gadget to charge every day, but it brings the G Watch R into the realm of being plausibly usable on a regular basis.
LG wins the spec battle as usual
The G Watch R’s OLED display is another big advantage it has over the Moto 360. Everything looks better on the LG watch, with nice deep contrast, strong saturation that isn’t over the top as with most AMOLED screens, and typically great viewing angles. Because of its perfectly black background, this watch does a much better job of simulating old school analog watch faces than does the Moto. Brightness is no problem for the G Watch R and neither is outdoor visibility. As the hardware centerpiece of a modern device, this display is almost perfect. I’d only ask for more resolution than the 320 x 320 available on this 1.3-inch screen, which is noticeably grainier than most other devices that people use nowadays.
To like the LG G Watch R, you must like chunky watches. It also helps if you’re into analog watch faces since digital ones fit awkwardly with the roundness of the watch and its permanent minute markings. My favorite digital face has a battery indicator wrapping around the periphery of the screen, which looks cool, but is confusing if you try to read it in conjunction with the watch’s bezel. This sort of disjointed and not yet refined synergy between hardware and software is characteristic of the Android Wear experience.
The good news is that that particular watch face came as part of a recent software update from Google and LG, and the two companies are committed to aggressively keep improving and enhancing their collective offering. So while the present state of this watch’s software can be considered resolutely incomplete, there’s good reason to anticipate that it’ll keep getting better as time wears on. The universality of the Android Wear platform across manufacturers and the G Watch R’s strong basic hardware make it a good bet to remain a relevant device for some time to come.
Owning an Android Wear watch today is an early adopter’s luxury. The LG G Watch R is a front-row ticket to the ongoing evolution of Android Wear, however it doesn’t add enough either as a smartphone accessory or as an evolved wristwatch to justify its price on practical grounds. The software is promising, but incomplete. The hardware is good, but bulky. Refinement is the thing required of both LG and Google. File away some of the device’s heft, flesh out the features that are currently available only in skeletal form, and then we can start talking about the G Watch R as a truly smart instrument of productivity and fun.
As of right now, the LG G Watch R’s greatest appeal is to be found as a fashion accessory. It’s a high-tech wearable that combines some of the retro charm of classical timepieces with the allure of expanded, modern utility. It could be both smarter and more charming, but as a step along the path to developing a real smartwatch, it’s a solid stride forward.