I spent the first half of this summer driving around the heat and humidity of the American south, living at campgrounds and the occasional hotel room or guest room. It was a trip borne of madness and masochism, but the last week was a little bit easier than the first four. That's the week I was wearing LG's Android Wear-powered G Watch on my wrist.
If you've seen any of the early reviews of the G Watch, one of only two currently available smartwatches running Google's Android Wear platform (see Gizmag's review of the other one, the Samsung Gear Live), you've probably read that it is a little plain and boring aesthetically, and it's true. Of the three initial Wear smartwatches we'll see this summer (Motorola's round-face Moto 360 should be released sometime soon), the G Watch is certainly the most basic. But if/once the price goes down (more on that later), it also represents the most subtle and easy way to try out a smartwatch.
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Wearing it for a week and journeying through parts of the country known for their friendly folks who were happy to chat me up about my truck, vintage camper or daughter's hair, no one – not a single soul – mentioned the 1.65-inch touchscreen strapped to my wrist with a bright white band, even when I swiped and tapped away at it momentarily. Much like the Martian Notifier, the G Watch represents a no-frills, no-nonsense introduction to the world of wearables, particularly for the Android-inclined.
My loaner G Watch was delivered to me in the lovely and underrated tourist destination of Hot Springs, Arkansas where it instantly began to make life and travel just a bit easier. With a single tap or by saying "Ok, Google" I suddenly was able to text, navigate and keep up with all sorts of incoming information on the go.
In my truck I also had a standalone GPS unit that offers quite a few more navigation features than Google Maps, but after I put on the G Watch, I didn't turn it on for the rest of the trip. By simply uttering two sentences into my wrist, Dick Tracy-style, the G Watch would open Maps on my phone, locate my destination and initiate turn-by-turn directions. When I lifted or flicked my wrist, the G Watch would light up and tell me where and how soon to turn next. I also get a little reminder vibration right before the turn. It was far more pleasant than the slightly irritating digital voice on the GPS unit that was constantly talking over my daughter's audiobooks during our long journey.
A Little Bit Goes a Long Way
This is what people in Silicon Valley mean when they talk about "frictionless" functionality. It's a buzz phrase that means nothing to the average consumer. What it really is is a more efficient way of doing things that, no matter how small the improvement in efficiency, it makes you wonder how you ever lived without it before.
The G Watch and Android Wear bring a number of these tiny improvements to daily life and travel: Easily archiving emails in a fraction of a second, replying to texts without lifting a finger, settling bets in mid-conversation without losing momentum while pulling out your phone, unlocking it, locating the right app or summoning Siri....
Wearing the G Watch, I also feel like I finally understand the full value of Google Now. On my phone, I tend to forget to check those useful cards, but Android Wear is clearly the platform those cards have been aiming for all along. At random intervals along my trip, my G Watch would update me on how far I was from home, the time and weather there, and which packages had just been dropped off on my porch that I might need to ask the neighbor to grab for me.
The examples go on and on. The G Watch greatly reduced the most irritating part of my travel: Those long moments before putting my truck into drive when I would spend 2-5 minutes in the greenhouse heat of the cab searching, Yelping and mapping our next moves on my phone.
Always Room for Improvement
Alas, the G Watch is not a perfect piece of hardware, either.
Let's start with the uninspired design. I really want to stick up for the look of this watch that I found so useful, but it's just too plain to even try. Small screen, plain rubber band and rounded edges that are considered a design feature – that's it. The G Watch is the Toyota Camry of wristwatches, smart or not.
The lack of any physical buttons at all I also found strange. I understand it's a touchscreen world, but something a little more tactile would add a little style and make the thing feel a little more like a watch than a wrist computer. To start it up, you need to attach it to its magnetic charging station, or locate a thumbtack to press a tiny, depressed reset button on the back. Shutting down also takes some effort and multiple swipes.
And about that charging station – it's kind of cool, but the last thing I need in my life is another proprietary charger; either give me a universal micro-USB port or give me a hand finding my lost charging station.
So far, I've found the screen size to be less clunky than I expected on my wrist, but I'm also a little taller and bigger than most folks. For many people of smaller stature, I can imagine that the touchscreen could actually be slightly wider than the wearer's wrist. The screen is also pretty worthless in direct sunlight. This isn't surprising, and the screen can be brightened up in the settings, but not without affecting battery life, which is another issue.
To my surprise, the G Watch is absolutely a one-day charge device. In my experience, I ended the day with between 10 and 30 percent of my battery remaining. I've heard it can be stretched to last two days, but to be sure it won't go dead in the middle of the day, it needs a daily charging. The upside is that it can be charged fully in an hour or so, but you'll need to have that magnetic charging station with you...
So who should buy the LG G Watch? Well, if you're paying the current retail prices, the answer is nobody, only because the Samsung Gear Live launched for $30 less and has comes with two advantages over the G Watch – its superior display and added heart rate monitor. So far as I can tell, the only thing the G Watch has on the Gear Live is a few extra watch faces to choose from, which is probably only a temporary advantage as the Wear ecosystem develops.
But if the price came down below the Gear Live or you could find a G Watch for less, I'd recommend it for wearable beginners and minimalists. Bottom line: If you're an Android user who lives and dies by notifications or Google Now, you'll wonder why you let your wrist go naked or covered by a dumb watch for so long after strapping the G Watch on for the first time.
The LG G Watch is available now, for US$229, from Google Play and Best Buy. For more on Google's new wearable OS, you can hit up our initial Android Wear review, along with our Samsung Gear Live review.
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