LG can’t like its smartwatch story arch.
Two months ago, LG was the presumptive leader of the Android Wear pack. Most tech pundits (myself included) expected Google to tap LG, its long-time Nexus smartphone partner, to introduce Android Wear to the world. We expected Google to give away free LG G Watch models at Google I/O, making LG an agenda setter in the larger Android Wear conversation.
But then Samsung crow-barred its way into the spotlight.
As it turned out, both LG and Samsung distributed Android Wear watches at Google I/O, and both the LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live are available for purchase today. The two watches are remarkably similar—a function of Google requiring a consistent Android Wear experience across all devices—but the Gear Live is $30 cheaper, and bests the G Watch in the all-important style department.
Samsung’s hardware story is just enough to nudge the G Watch into the number-two spot in what is currently a two-watch race. And that’s a really bad position for LG to occupy when consumers still aren’t sold on the basic smartwatch concept, and Android Wear hasn’t yet become a household name.
Giving a voice to smartwatches
Android Wear accounts for the sum total of the G Watch feature set, and that’s not a bad thing considering what Google has done for smartwatch software design. The wee OS eschews the traditional home screen layout entirely. Instead you summon apps with voice commands—a simple approach that really only causes problems when you want to keep your software habits quiet.
The voice commands will be familiar to anyone who already uses Google Now on an Android phone. For example: Utter “OK Google... show me my steps,” and the G Watch will whisk you away to one of Android Wear’s famous context cards, revealing the step data recorded by the watch’s accelerometer. It’s a UI that respects the sheer teeny-tinyness of smartwatch displays, and makes these gadgets more managable than ever.
You can also use voice commands to solve math problems; record personal memos; spawn weather reports; call up driving directions; receive sports scores; and enjoy many more Googly treats. But by far the best voice control trick is finger-free texting. Conducting entire Hangouts conversations by speaking into the G Watch has been revelation—and it’s the Android Wear feature that makes me think about ditching analog timepieces the most.
Of course, Google’s platform also sends a steady stream of Google Now alerts and smartphone notifications to the Android Wear home screen. These are useful too, and you can read more about them in my Android Wear walkthrough and review of the Samsung Gear Live. For now, let’s focus just on the G Watch, and how well it interprets the Android Wear promise.
The G Watch is so bland-looking—so featureless and devoid of visual interest—it looks like a not-for-retail-sale development kit. This is a problem for a $230 gadget that straps to a very public body part. It’s a watch, for rice cakes. We should expect it to make some kind of statement.
Are soft rounded edges a “design feature”? I don’t think so. And spec’ing the watch in “white gold” instead of “black titan” only gives you a white band and half a white case; the G Watch’s top bezel remains jet black regardless of which color scheme you choose. Mind you, Samsung’s smartwatch vision is almost as stylistically bankrupt, but the Gear Live’s brushed metal finish and vaguely oblong shape are concessions, however small, to a world that cares about aesthetics.
LG’s watch strap is as unremarkable as the G Watch itself. It’s just a dull, blank, squishy rubber band that looks more like sporting equipment than wrist fashion. Still, against all odds, I prefer LG’s strap to Samsung’s slightly more classy band: It uses a traditional buckle instead of the vexing metal stud system that Samsung prefers, and it’s much easier to put on correctly, with just the right circumference, every single time.
Oh, well. At least both companies’ stock straps can be replaced with any 22mm watch band you desire.
The mobile display for vampires
Based on specs and specs alone, LG’s 1.65-inch, 280x280 LCD display should look less sharp and less brilliant than Samsung’s 1.63-inch, 320x320 Super AMOLED display. Both screens are essentially the same size, so Samsung’s finer pixel pitch might conceivably pay dividends. Likewise, Samsung’s Super AMOLED screen tech always looks brighter and more saturated than pedestrian LCD displays, at least on Galaxy smartphones.
But when writ small on a smartwatch, Samsung’s spec advantages are all but imperceptible. Sure, the G Watch looks a little less bright and colorful compared to the Gear Live, but who really cares? On displays so tiny, I’d be happy with only black-and-white visuals to save on battery life (more about that later). No, the bigger problem with the G Watch—and this goes for both devices—is atrocious legibility outdoors. It’s difficult to read these displays under cloudy skies, and near impossible when the sun is shining.
The G Watch and Gear Live basically share the exact same power train: 1.2GHz processors, 512MB of RAM, and 4GB of storage. This silicon keeps Google’s context cards moving with speed and alacrity as you swipe through the interface. Throughout more than two weeks of testing, I never felt one watch was “faster” than the other.
More juice, but still not enough
The G Watch has a larger capacity 400 mAh battery—Samsung’s is just 300 mAh—but I never sensed LG offered better battery performance, and here’s why: During normal use at their default always-on display settings, neither watch can guarantee a full two days of battery life. As a result, I always place the watches in their charging hardware before going to bed each night. It’s a hassle sure, but having a watch completely die on me after 36 hours would be even worse.
The battery life dilemma is compounded by the watches’ proprietary charging hardware: You can’t simply plug an off-the-shelf USB cable into these things for a recharge. That said, LG offers the lesser of two evils. Samsung’s system is defined by a loose, lightweight adapter that requires a jarring physical snap onto the back of the Gear Live. But LG uses a flat, somewhat heavy, magnetic charging cradle. It sits confidently on a night stand, and all you need to do is lay the G Watch on top of it for a recharge.
One of Android Wear’s hallmarks is the always-on display, which guarantees that your gadget will always be a functional timepiece, even when it’s not showing Google’s contextual information. But this approach costs precious battery life, and it’s an issue that the hardware manufacturers really need to fix.
Price. This is about price
There are only two Android Wear watches available today. Both make snoozy fashion statements, but LG’s design message is downright catatonic. Both have displays that are impossible to read in sunlight, but Samsung’s screen is just a bit more brilliant than LG’s screen under indoor lighting or the night’s sky. The G Watch strap is much less frustrating that Samsung’s awful two-pronged band, but because it’s so unremarkable in its own right, I advise you to replace it with something a bit more classy.
And of course both watches run nearly identical versions of Android Wear. Samsung’s OS build supports the Gear Live’s built-in (and practically useless) spectroscopic heart rate monitor, and LG’s build includes more digital watchfaces than what Samsung offers. But neither of these “wins” are germane to the final decision concerning which watch to buy. The bottom line is that the two watches are so similar, we have to look to pricing and aesthetics to make the final call. And at this point in time, Samsung wins on both counts.
LG’s plight need not be permanent. If the G Watch dropped to $180 tomorrow, my buy recommendation would flip to LG. And if LG released an Android Wear app that showed heart rate data from its own Heart Rate Earphones directly on the watch, that too would sway my opinion. But LG will need to move fast, because the Motorola Moto 360, complete with its stunning circular display, is poised to join the Android Wear family. And even if the Moto 360 costs considerably more than $230, it will be a difficult watch to beat.
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