I’m a watch guy. I’ve worn an analog chronograph every day since 2003. But with the release of Android Wear, I’m finally willing to ditch the timeless beauty of a traditional timepiece, and slap an all-digital smartwatch on my wrist. Android Wear is simple to use, and its focus on glanceable, contextual information makes other smartwatch platforms look convoluted to a fault.
But which hardware makes the best vehicle for Android Wear’s context streams and voice-control features? I’ll have full reviews of both the Samsung Gear Live and LG G Watch soon, but for now, let’s focus on the very small differences between the two watches. All Android Wear hardware will offer the same basic software experience, so when choosing among competing models, we need to steer the conversation toward aesthetics, comfort, convenience features, and price.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering: Both the Gear Live and G Watch come with 1.2GHz processors, 512MB of RAM, and 4GB of storage. Both watches offer fast, fluid interfaces, so typical performance metrics won’t even appear in our decision tree.
Two watches, singular design
Wow. For their very first Android Wear efforts, Samsung and LG delivered exceedingly snoozy industrial designs. The Gear Live is a slightly oblong rectangle with a brushed-metal chassis. The look is unremarkable if inoffensive. Then we have the G Watch, which is just a boring, featureless, almost perfectly square tab. It almost suggests a manufacturing sample that a steel supplier might give away to prospective clients: “Take a swatch—this is what our material looks like in black!”
Both watches have soft, rounded corners. Are these trademark design cues, or are Samsung and LG just trying to protect us from pointy edges? Fashion can be polarizing, so I can understand why the two companies might be playing it safe with tame aesthetics—especially when so few consumer understand the basic smartwatch concept, Android Wear or otherwise.
You can decide for yourself which watch better suits your personal style, but I can tell you now that neither one trumps the other in terms of day-long comfort. I’ve worn each watch for a number of days, and neither it noticeably heavier, larger or more physically cumbersome than any of my analog wrist watches. The G Watch is a bit heavier than the Gear Live (63 grams to the Live’s 59 grams), and also a bit thicker (9.95 mm to the Live’s 8.9 mm). But to choose either watch for its weight or dimensions would be splitting hairs.
It’s not available yet, but the Gear Live will eventually come with a “wine red” strap. The G Watch also has a color option: You can opt for a “white gold” color theme that gives you a white strap and watch body (though the bezel around the display remains stark black). And you can also outfit either watch with any 22 mm replacement strap you choose.
Winner: I’m reluctant to dole out kudos for such a boring design, but the Gear Live is a demonstratively more interesting-looking watch. Too bad I couldn’t include the Moto 360 in this style showdown, as it would demolish Samsung and LG’s offerings (more about that soon).
Yep. Square displays. Yep
A Samsung mobile device wouldn’t be a Samsung mobile device without a Super AMOLED display, and thus the Gear Live has a screen based on Samsung’s trademark technology. It offers slightly—slightly—more vibrant colors than LG’s IPS LCD display, but during real-world use, the differences are inconsequential.
Same goes for display size. The Samsung display is 1.63 inches. The LG display is 1.65 inches. If you can notice the difference, you’re a piece of equipment, not a human being. Ditto display resolution. With its 320x320 grid, the Gear Live has better pixel density, but you really can’t tell in a side-by-side comparison with LG’s 280x280 display.
I wish I could say one watch performed better than the other in sunlight, if only to tease out some type of clear-cut winner in the display category. But, sadly, both watches are usually illegible outdoors. It’s bad. It’s really, really bad. For this reason alone, the first Android Wear watch to come with Qualcomm’s Mirasol display tech will have a compelling story indeed.
Winner: This is another category that really doesn’t deserve a winner. But indoors, and under the moonlit sky, the Gear Live looks just a tad more brilliant. That said, if we could have thrown in the circular display of the Moto 360, both Samsung and LG would be licking their wounds right now (and, yes, more about that soon).
Straps and chargers
If the prospect of buying an aftermarket strap doesn’t appeal to you, you’re stuck with what Samsung and LG include right out the box—and LG’s strap is clearly superior. It’s just a squishy, rubber band with a buckle fastener, but it’s comfortable to wear, and is really easy to put on. Have you used a buckle before? Yeah, it’s that simple.
Samsung, meanwhile, has gone with the same type of band it uses for all its other wrist wearables, and it’s a complete pain in the ass to put on. You have to stabilize the watch body against your wrist, line up the two ends of the strap (much easier said than done), and then mash two metal prongs on one end into two stubborn holes on the other end. If you choose the wrong holes, you have to start over. After two days of use, the inside of my wrist was a bit red and abraded from prong-mashing. I would not make this up.
I also prefer LG’s approach to charging. To recharge the G Watch, you simply lay it in a magnetic cradle, which gracefully accepts the hardware without any drama. The cradle sits flat. It’s something you can lay on your nightstand. The Gear Live’s charging adapter is much less convenient. It attaches to the back of the Gear Live with a vague snap, and every time I removed it, I was worried I was treating it too roughly. But the worst part is that Samsung’s charger is just a loose dongle. It will flop around your nightstand, and you have to work just a little bit harder to get the Gear Live charged.
These may seem like picky criticisms, but consider that you’ll probably be recharging these watches every night. The G Watch has a higher capacity battery (400 mAh to Samsung’s 300 mAh), but in actual practice you’ll still need to recharge the G Watch every day before bed-time. (Ars Technica has the definitive report on battery life here.)
Winner: Here we have a hands-down victory for LG. Between a blissfully simple watch strap and a pain-free charging caddy, it bests Samsung on both counts. It even has a higher-capacity battery. So if you turn off the G Watch’s always-on feature, reduce display brightness to low, and avoid excessive use, you might be able to get two days of battery life on a single charge.
Differentiating extras, small and large
Samsung’s mobile team is obsessed with heart rate monitors, so of course the Gear Live needs a spectroscopic heart-rate sensor. It’s one of very few hardware features that differentiates the Gear Live from the G Watch, but it’s not very accurate—and even if it were accurate, I wouldn’t find it useful. It’s really only appropriate for measuring one’s resting heart rate, but I’m only interested in tracking my heart rate during exercise. I trust most people feel the same way.
Beyond the heart-rate monitor, different sets of watch faces could push or pull you in either a Samsung or LG direction. Google is intent on offering a common, reliable Android Wear experience on all watches, so you won’t find any OEM-customized skins or tweaks to core system functions. But the manufacturers are welcome to offer bespoke watch faces, and Samsung currently has 13, while LG offers 24. You’ll find a mix of analog looks and pop-art styles in both watch face collections.
Is one collection clearly better than the other? I don’t think so. But it’s always nice to have a wide set of options, so LG gets the nod when it comes to the relatively trivial matter of watch face choices.
The same cannot be said for LG’s price. The Gear Live currently retails for $200, while the G Watch ups the ante to $230—for no discernible bump in value or features. Now, $30 isn’t a lot of money in the world of cutting-edge consumer electronics, but when you’re looking at two devices with exactly the same OS experience, and samey-samey industrial design, why pay more?
If I had to choose one of these watches today, I’d buy the Samsung Gear Live, and quickly swap its strap. But heed caution: You should think twice before buying either watch today. The Gear Live and G Watch might put you in the Android Wear club this month, but if you really care about aesthetics, you’ll wait for the Motorola Moto 360 and its breathtaking circular display. It’s due to arrive “later this summer.”
I’ve spent a few minutes with the Moto 360, and it’s nowhere near as large as it looks in some photographs that have been bobbing around online. (Look to the image above for a more accurate portrayal.) And there’s no denying the Moto 360’s cool factor. That round display is a guaranteed conversation starter, and Motorola’s watch faces are sure to accommodate traditional analog wristwatch enthusiasts like myself.
“Later this summer” can’t come soon enough.