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Android Wear 2.0 review: Google's second swing at smartwatches

Are Android Wear 2.0 and two new watches from LG enough to get you to care about smartwatches?

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Are you wearing a smartwatch? Not likely. Despite the fact that modern wrist computers have been available for over three years, most people have not found them to be as desirable or necessary as the ubiquitous smartphone. They’ve gone from being "the next big thing" to becoming just another thing, and not a thing most people want.

That, of course, hasn’t stopped companies from trying to sell them to you. If you are wearing a smartwatch, odds are it’s either an Apple Watch or a Samsung Gear. Google’s been in the smartwatch game since 2014, but its Android Wear platform has yet to break out of the niche and into a mainstream audience, even though it’s been offered on countless watch designs over the years.

So last year, Google went back to the wearable drawing board to develop Android Wear 2.0, the biggest update to the platform since its launch. Wear 2.0 has a simplified design, new features, and, perhaps most importantly, more ways it can work independently of your phone. It’ll even let you do nearly as much with an iPhone as you can when the watch is paired to an Android device.

Wear 2.0 is launching first on a pair of new watches from LG that were designed in conjunction with Google: the $349 Watch Sport and the $249 Watch Style. And if you happen to be one of those people who did buy an Android Wear watch before, it’s likely coming to your wrist, too.

The Watch Sport and Watch Style are meant to showcase all of the new features found in Wear 2.0, from Android Pay, to LTE connections, to the improved Google Assistant. They are the cutting edge of Google-powered watches, but they won’t be alone for long — you can expect many more Android Wear watches running the platform to arrive this year.

The changes here make Google’s smartwatch platform modern and capable enough for those that already know they want to wear a wrist computer. For everyone else, is there enough here between Android Wear 2.0 and LG’s new watches to convince them? The only way to tell is to strap on these new watches, so I did just that.

Smartwatches were originally pitched as newfangled computing devices that would free us from looking at our phones so often. But they’ve proven to be best at simple things: tracking fitness, showing notifications, and displaying little bits of information on the watchface, such as the current weather or an upcoming calendar appointment.

Android Wear 2.0 is designed specifically to improve upon those simple things. It has better fitness-tracking features, including automatic workout detection, easier access to your notifications, and customizable complications on the watchfaces. It’s a pattern followed across the industry — Apple’s watchOS 3 update from last fall similarly focused on these specific functions.

Android Wear 2.0’s support for LTE also builds upon those existing functions. Most often, if you are wearing the watch and don’t have your phone with you, it’s because you’re out for a run and carrying around your smartphone is cumbersome and awkward. Android Wear 2.0 means you don’t have to give up any connectivity to do so, letting you track your run, receive notifications, look up a map, buy something at a store, and send a message or make a phone call all while your phone and wallet are back at home.

LG Watch Sport

The Sport is the watch that has all of the hardware to support these new functions. It’s loaded with support for LTE connections, NFC for Android Pay, GPS and a heart rate monitor for run tracking, and a speaker for phone calls.

As a consequence of all of this stuff, the Watch Sport is a big watch. Its name should be a dead giveaway: this isn’t the type of watch that pairs nicely with a dress shirt or formal occasion (and it doesn’t fit under a good number of my shirt cuffs). It’s a big, honking timepiece on your wrist that’s thick, chunky, and has a stiff rubber strap that can’t be swapped out. It isn’t particularly comfortable to wear, either, even on my medium-to-large sized wrist. (Big watches don’t necessarily have to be uncomfortable: the absurdly priced Tag Heuer Connected is a big watch that’s remarkably easy to wear.)

The Watch Sport is a big, honking timepiece

That large size comes with certain advantages, however, including a big, sharp display (the entire face, bezel included, is roughly equivalent to a 46mm analog watch) and three buttons with a rotatable crown. The fully circular display (no "flat tires" here) has an ambient light sensor for automatic brightness adjustment and can be easily read outdoors. The watch body is encased in stainless steel and there’s Gorilla Glass 3 covering the screen. You can’t go swimming with the Watch Sport, but it does have IP68 weather sealing, so it’s fine to get wet or wear in the shower.

Two of those buttons are customizable — by default the top one launches Google Fit’s workout detection and the bottom one is set to fire up Android Pay. The middle button is the most interesting one, though, as it is your main interaction point with the watch (aside from the touchscreen). Push the button and you get a list of your apps, push it again and you’re back to the main watchface. Spin it and you can pull up the notification tray, scroll through text or your list of apps, or zoom in or out on a map. It’s a complete copy of the Apple Watch’s Digital Crown, but it’s both convenient and easy to use. It might just be my favorite thing on these watches.

LG Watch Style

On the other end of the spectrum from the Watch Sport sits the Watch Style. While the Sport is loaded with features, the Style is largely stripped of them: it lacks LTE, GPS, NFC for Android Pay, a heart rate monitor, and a speaker. Basically, it’s the same watch you could buy two years ago from Motorola or Huawei, but slightly smaller and with a nicer display. It’s much smaller and thinner than the Sport, and is significantly more comfortable to wear. Instead of a fixed rubber strap, the Sport comes with a leather strap that can be easily swapped out for something else (using either Google’s Mode system or a standard 18mm watch strap). The Style’s smaller screen is still fully circular, has the ambient sensor for automatic brightness control, and is just as readable outdoors as the Sport’s.

But while the Sport echoes the look of other aggressive watches, the Style just looks kind of cheap. It has a large bezel around its display that makes it look even smaller than it is, and the mirrored finish on the sides clashes with the matte finish on top. The Style doesn’t have the two extra function buttons found on the Sport, but it maintains the rotating crown, which works the same here as it does on the bigger watch.

The Watch Style just looks cheap

Both watches have responsive performance for their interface, but apps can still take a long time to load, especially if they haven’t been updated to support Wear 2.0. Even Google’s voice-powered Assistant, which can be used to look up information, send messages or place calls, or control smart home gadgets, still takes a frustratingly long time to respond and process.

And finally, the battery life for both watches is well... not great. The Watch Style is able to make it through a full day for me, starting around 7AM and just lasting until I go to bed around 10PM. That’s not as good as I’ve seen in other smartwatches, including other Android Wear models, and doesn’t provide a lot of confidence that the Style will be able to handle any variations in my routine.

The Watch Sport is even worse: it frequently would tap out before the end of the day, sometimes at 5PM, sometimes at 8PM, and that’s without using the GPS to track a run or do anything out of the ordinary. My colleague Dieter Bohn has also been testing the Watch Sport and has seen better battery life than I did, but it’s clear that the Sport’s extra capabilities are taking a toll. Either way, these are smartwatches that you’ll be charging every night and maybe even more often than that, which is unacceptable.

Android Wear 2.0

But specs and performance aside, the raison d'être for these watches is to showcase Android Wear 2.0. There are a lot of new features in Wear 2.0, but the ones that matter the most are its refreshed design, redesigned watchfaces, improved fitness tracking, notification handling, support for Android Pay, and the ability to install apps directly to the watch.

The new design is a welcome update over Wear’s previous versions. It’s simpler and more obvious to use, with less reliance on hard-to-find gestures. There’s your watchface, which you can swipe left or right on to change; your notifications, which you swipe up from the bottom to see; your settings, which you swipe down from the top to access; and your list of apps, which pop up after a single press on the watch’s main button. You can launch the Google Assistant with your voice (the familiar "OK Google" command), or by long-pressing the button. And that’s all you need to know to use an Android Wear 2.0 watch.

Customizable complications are one of the best new features

You might want to learn how to customize your watchface, though, because it’s one of the best new features in the platform. Watchface complications can now support third-party apps, so you can have one displaying current weather conditions, stock prices, nearby places, or a favorite contact. Android Wear has long offered third-party watchfaces, but third-party complications were always missing. Now you can have both. (Google’s almost comical wrist gestures are also still available for one-handed control, but they are disabled by default.)

Since fitness tracking is one of the main reasons people actually do buy and wear smartwatches, Wear 2.0 has improved its features greatly. Watches with GPS, like the Wear Sport, can track locations without the aid of a phone, and the Google Fit app can automatically detect workouts and even give you guidance on proper technique for various exercises.

Notifications, the other big thing smartwatches are useful for, are easier to access and manage in Wear 2.0. Like notifications on Android phones, they are grouped by apps and have actionable options, like deleting an email or replying to a text message. Google has included a Smart Reply feature that provides contextual canned replies based on which app you’re using and what time of day it is (i.e., a Slack reply will provide business-focused options like "I’ll take a look after lunch," while an SMS reply at the end of the day might be "How was your day at work?"). If none of the canned responses suffice, you can dictate a reply or use Wear 2.0’s new tracing keyboard and handwriting recognition, both of which are surprisingly useful and accurate, silly as typing on a tiny screen may seem.

Android Pay finally brings Wear up to speed with Apple and Samsung

Android Wear has lagged behind both Apple and Samsung in providing a way to buy things with your watch, but Wear 2.0 rectifies this with support for Android Pay. It works just like Apple Pay on the Apple Watch: it’s NFC-based and can be used at contactless readers at point of sale. Push a button, Android Pay loads up, and then you can tap your watch to the reader to pay for your purchase.

The whole process is a bit awkward for both you and the cashier, and while it worked numerous times in my testing, launching the Pay app on the watch often takes longer than I’d want to wait. But the bigger hitch is that your watch needs to have NFC to use Android Pay, which none of the existing models have and only one of LG’s new watches offers. Android Pay might be the best reason to buy an Android Wear watch this year: it’s something I definitely like having on my wrist and gives me another reason to charge and wear a smartwatch every day.

The biggest, most conceptual change in Wear 2.0 is how the system handles apps. Prior to this, the only way to install apps on a Android Wear watch was through an Android phone, and there was no way to corral which apps were installed on the wearable. And if you had your watch paired to an iPhone, you couldn’t install third-party apps on it at all, making it a glorified step counter.

Wear 2.0 solves this problem by letting you install apps directly on the watch itself. There’s an actual Google Play Store on the device which lets you browse and download apps and watchfaces. Looking for and installing an app on a screen the size of a quarter is exactly as tedious as it sounds, but fortunately you can use the Play Store’s website on a computer to remotely install apps to the watch.

Apps can be installed from the Play Store on the watch itself

You can have different apps on your watch than your phone, so if The Weather Channel is the only weather app with a Wear complication (as was the case during my test period), I can still rely on Dark Sky on my phone without a redundancy. Developers will need to update their apps to support this functionality, so for a while, a lot of apps will work the way they always have. But you don't have to worry about them automatically installing to the watch if you don't want them there. (Bye, Delta’s terrible Wear app.)

If you are using a Wear 2.0 watch with an iPhone, you’ll be able to install apps on the watch without having to go through Apple’s App Store. This makes Android Wear a much more feasible option for iPhone users than before, but it still doesn’t support iMessage, so not everything is golden.

Android Wear 2.0 is also buggier than it should be, especially given the fact that it had an extended public beta period and its launch was delayed by months. Beyond them taking a long time to launch, it can be hard to tell when an app is actually launching, because the screen will flicker back to the list of apps before it will launch the one you just tapped. The Google Assistant also crashed often, forcing me to repeat my inquiry multiple times (or more likely, I just get frustrated with it and pull out my phone).

There’s no doubt that Android Wear 2.0 is a nicer, friendlier, easier to use system than before, especially if Google irons out those niggling bugs mentioned above. And the LG Watch Sport and Watch Style are good, if not quite perfect, vehicles to showcase the platform. But Wear 2.0 is less of a reinvention and more of a refinement, and in a lot of ways, it’s just Google playing catch up to what Apple and Samsung were already doing.

Nothing here changes the conversation around smartwatches

If you were already on board with smartwatches, and Android Wear, you’ll certainly like Android Wear 2.0 and you’ll probably be into these new watches from LG. Smartwatch and fitness enthusiasts both have a lot to like here. But Android Wear 2.0 and the Watch Sport and Watch Style don’t change the conversation around smartwatches and don’t really give a great reason for the unconverted to jump aboard.

Which means that the next time someone asks "Are you wearing a smartwatch?," you’ll likely have the exact same response as now.

Update February 8th, 2:20PM ET: App install behavior clarified.

Photography by James Bareham / The Verge

Video by Phil Esposito / The Verge