The G Watch R is LG's first circular-display smartwatch, following up on the original G Watch that launched alongside Android Wear earlier this year. While the original G Watch looked like a proof-of-concept brick out of an engineer's garage at some angles, the G Watch R very clearly got the full design and style treatment from LG - it looks nothing like its kind-of-predecessor.
A 1.3" circular P-OLED (plastic organic LED) 320x320 screen gives it the densest display of any Android Wear device yet announced, and its ability to stay always-on without drastically cutting into battery life provides it a clear edge on competitors that are struggling with longevity issues.
The G Watch R also looks like, well, a watch. Whether or not that is a good thing is purely personal, but this is without a doubt the most watch-like Android Wear device to date. It has a heart rate sensor, a Snapdragon 400 processor, 4GB of EMMC storage, 512MB of RAM, and basically resembles the G Watch / Gear Live as far as the guts are concerned. The G Watch R feels so much more refined than either, though, and I think with the right pricing, will absolutely give Motorola's 360 a run for its money.
Oh, and that's the one point I'm unable to speak to in this review, sadly: money. No one yet knows how much the G Watch R will cost in the US, though estimates seem to be in the $270-300 range, give or a take a few bucks. That would make it the most expensive Wear device yet. Even at the cheapest possible outcome, the G Watch R may have trouble attracting customers. But if any of the current Wear devices could make a case on the merits for their existence, it would be the G Watch R - not that I necessarily think it does, but that's more about Wear than the watch.
- Battery life: 2 days in always-on. LG says you'll get three if you forego that luxury. This blows away the G Watch R's only competition, round or otherwise, for the time being.
- Display: Bright with very good viewing angles, and also the highest pixel density of any Wear device yet, though that's by virtue of it being smaller, not having greater resolution.
- Quality: Aside from the band, which is in the meh-to-OK range in my opinion, the G Watch R is a nice piece of hardware, and I think it's pretty understated for the most part.
The Not So Good
- Wear isn't done: Wear is sometimes useful. I wish it was more useful, but I'm not even sure how I'd go about making it more useful. For the investment you're making, Wear is very much an idea-in-progress kind of product, and that's what you should expect when you buy into it: to be part of an experiment.
- Style isn't for everyone: Even the rectangle Wear devices we've seen are much more style-agnostic than the G Watch R, which takes a more traditional large-body watch approach to design. It's not everyone's cup of tea.
- Probably expensive: My guess is $300, but even at $275, the G Watch R is going to be a tough sell when the Motorola hypetrain is picking up LG's potential customers back at the $250 stop.
- Missing sensors: No ambient light sensor and no GPS. Those would have been nice additions.
The G Watch R has a very nice 100% stainless steel enclosure - it feels decidedly premium. Sure, it's no $500-1000+ designer watch, nor does it have that level of fit and finish, but it's quite good nonetheless. The button on the side of the body has a good action, being neither too stiff nor too soft in my opinion. The button twists, but twisting it doesn't do anything. Whomp whomp.
As some of you have asked, I would like to be clear on the subject of the outer ring on the watch: it does not spin. Yes, it would be handy to have (even better than the spinning button, perhaps), though I imagine it would make for a slight engineering challenge, this being LG's first round wristwatch and all. Plus, all the little tiny P-OLED guts underneath it (that's largely why the bezel exists).
Speaking of the bezel and outer ring, they don't look nearly as intense in person as they do in photos. The tick-marks for individual seconds are all but invisible in most light and at most angles, so all you really see are the 5-second marks and the text for 15/30/45. It is not that busy at all, and this coming from someone who hates busy watches. Yes, it is busy by the standards of the Moto 360, but a Braun is practically busy if that's the benchmark you're setting. If you want the most minimalist smartwatch humanly possible, no, the G Watch R is not for you. If you don't mind a smartwatch that looks like a watch - but is decidedly not a 'cheap Casio' - the G Watch R is more appealing than you'd think. In a world where this can be considered a fashionable wristwatch, the G Watch R still errs heavily on the side of aesthetic conservatism.
Underneath the body, you have a hard, textured plastic where you'll find the (slightly-recessed) pogo charging contacts and the heart rate monitor, as well as a little pinhole for the microphone. Four Torx screws, one at each corner, hold the lower part of the body to the metal upper, meaning the G Watch R should be pretty easy to disassemble, if that's your thing.
The strap / clasp
The G Watch R uses a standard 22mm spring-pin strap mechanism, so you can swap out the included genuine leather band for something else. It's a pain in the butt, but it can be done - with patience.
As has been pointed out to me numerous times, genuine leather is not actually very good leather, but rather the third of four grades of leather recognized in the industry (from best to worst, it's: full-grain, top-grain, genuine, and bonded). Except, the G Watch R is actually made of calfskin leather, which is very good leather, and quite desirable for a watch band. It's not overly stiff, and the extremely fine grain of calfskin gives it a very uniform texture and appearance.
That said, the leather band does seem to be painted, rather than tanned, black with the white contrast on the underside perhaps being the natural color. Stylistically, I like it! Functionally? It doesn't feel extremely premium, as the cracking on the most tensioned portion of the band after only a week of use is making abundantly clear. Because it is painted, this leather will also not really age or patina, and the cracks will just get more unsightly over time.
Still, this is probably better than anything you can pick up from Fossil in terms of general quality - it's not bad. But compared to the Moto 360's semi-aniline band, no, this is not the best leather watch band you can buy.
I also don't like the clasp. The hardware is metal, but it feels clunky and is kind of a nuisance to strap on. I've gotten more used to it now, and the leather has flexed a bit, but it's still not ideal. Couldn't we do something cooler with smartwatches? Like magnets? I don't know, it just seems a little too old-fashioned for me, not to mention a bit on the thick side.
Personally, I love the P-OLED on the G Watch R. Viewing angles are excellent, and because the battery life is so good, I just keep it set to maximum brightness at all times. Yes, in passive display mode while outside on a sunny day you're not going to be able to see the time easily at an off-angle, especially if the watch has finger smudges on it, but this is true of any smartwatch using a traditional color display (eg, not e-ink or Mirasol). Once woken up in active mode, though, the G Watch R is plenty bright enough to use even in direct sunlight. But no, it does not look like LG makes it in the advertisement dramatizations, because those seemingly ignore the fact that glass has this property called "reflectivity."
As for resolution, the G Watch R has the most pixel-dense display of any Wear device, largely owing to the fact that it also has the smallest display, at just 1.3". Is it too small? I mean, sure, the G Watch R could display more information if the screen was bigger - a la the Moto 360 or any of the rectangle / square watches that are out there. But do I find the screen so small as to greatly compromise usability? No. Would I prefer that the outer bezel ring be more screen instead of... a bezel? Yes. But that's a pretty obvious thing to want. If you're planning on reading long emails and endless text chains on your watch, maybe the G Watch R isn't the best bet. Then again, the Moto 360 wouldn't be a great choice, either, because round displays are inherently not good at displaying lines of text, since our text is arranged in a rectangular fashion. Of course, round displays on smartwatches are basically geek couture at this point, so screw rectangles.
This is incredibly subjective, but I'm seeing two days of normal usage out of the G Watch R without even trying. I have the brightness set to max, always-on mode enabled, and I have two Gmail accounts, including my AP one, synced to the phone Wear is connected with. I get a few dozen Hangouts IMs a day typically, plenty of Google Now cards, and I've even been using Wear to control music playback when I walk to the store. I also use it as, surprise, a watch! I used it to navigate last night, and the impact on the battery seemed negligible.
And by 2 days, I mean 40-50 hours off the charger. Day one goes like this for me, usually: off the charger at 9AM. After a day of using it, around 11PM I'm probably at 55-60%. By the time I wake up the next day, the watch is usually down to 50-55%. By 9PM that night, there's anywhere from 15-20% remaining, which is enough to make it through a pretty long evening without worry. Like I said, in the week I've used it, I've never once had to charge before the second night off the battery. It has been extremely reliable in this regard. LG says you can even manage three days if you turn always-on mode off.
So, how is LG getting so much more juice out of its watch than everyone else? First, there's the battery - it's a whopping 410mAh, 90mAh more than the 360 (though only 10mAh larger than the original G Watch). The next part is really just the screen. LG says they've taken idle drain in always-on mode from a constant draw of 130mW (on the G Watch) to just 13mW on the GWR, thanks in large part to the P-OLED screen's ability to sip power when very little movement is happening on the screen and most of the pixels are black. For now, LG is the only Android OEM manufacturing these panels. I think LG may have a pretty solid business selling these things in the future.
The fact that the screen is 1.3" while the Moto 360 is 1.5" and every other Wear device a bit bigger than that probably helps significantly, too. A smaller display just doesn't need as much power.
So, I'd say LG has Android Wear's first 2-day device, which to date is no small accomplishment. Still, I find myself longing for the - largely useless and not always-on, but still - three, four, even five days I got using Samsung's Gear 2. Let's make it happen, Google.
And as with any comments on battery life, your mileage may vary.
Android Wear is not something I have a huge amount of experience with to date. In fact, the G Watch R is the only Wear device I've used for more than five minutes. I feel, though, I've come to the conclusion many of my colleagues have with Android Wear: it's not useless, it's just not that useful. In addition, it's also buggy enough at this point that it doesn't feel like a consumer-ready product yet. It's not as bleeding-edge as something like Glass, but it's also still very much in the same ballpark, and I have a feeling that may not change any time soon.
So, setting up Wear - that part is pretty easy. Download the app, confirm the code on both devices, and the pairing process initiates. You can then set up some aspects of the watch on your phone, or do most of the configuration on the watch itself. The phone has a list of available commands and tasks your watch can be used for, so you get an idea which apps you already have installed that will see some level of integration.
Unfortunately, so far as I can tell, there is no "master list" of apps on your phone that integrate with Wear on a basic level. For example, only Lyft supports actually using a voice command to call a car to pick you up, Uber does not. But Uber does provide you notifications on Wear when a car you've ordered is arriving, via Android's notification APIs that allow integration with wearables. It would be nice to see those apps which do support something beyond basic notifications, such as actions you can take from a notification, as opposed to only apps with specific voice commands or contextual card-generation features. Obviously, Google hopes all apps eventually will support rich Wear notifications, but for the time being, I'd like to see which of the apps I actually use are going to get mileage out of this thing strapped to my wrist.
The most useful aspects of Wear for me so far have largely been the ones that are, frankly, terribly obvious. The time. The weather. Dismissing emails. Reminding me of appointments. Setting timers and alarms. Answering or declining calls. Reading texts. All things that the generally-loathed Samsung Gear devices do.
Android Wear does do these things a bit better, though. Cross-clearing of notifications is extremely reliable, the actions I can take on some notifications are significantly greater, and voice control is dead-to-rights accurate in most situations. Voice control is, I would argue, Android Wear's biggest advantage over any of its competitors at the moment.
I also find that Google Maps navigation turn-by-turn on a smartwatch is extremely useful. Yes, it's probably not good to glance at a screen on your wrist to see how much further you need to go before turning left, but it's less dangerous than picking up your phone and fiddling with it, or having it in your line of sight on your dashboard. Because no Wear devices have speakers, directions are communicated via the display and vibrations, with a double-vibration indicating you need to do something immediately, usually make a turn, whereas a single vibration just provides you an update on where you should be going. If it's loud enough, you can also usually just keep your phone in your pocket or a cupholder (or connect to your car via BT) and listen to the directions on the speakerphone while using your watch as a visual aid. Because Wear turn-by-turn doesn't actually display a moving map, navigation addicts probably won't find it very useful at first blush, but it might wean them off the nasty and very dangerous habit of constantly being dependent on distracting screens in their vehicles.
Wear actually has a good number of uses in the car, and this is largely because of voice control. You can call someone (or answer an incoming call), send them a text, play music, and a handful of other items just using your voice - never having to, technically, look away from the road.
And because Google Now has made voice actions so hugely important on Android (granted, you still have to actually use them in the first place for that to be true), voice commands on Wear provide a generally seamless experience coming from your phone or tablet. Want to know who starred in Rush Hour? Just ask - you'll get three cards for Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker, and Ken Leung. How many Euros in 200 dollars? Easy. The current time in London? Done. The weather in Taipei? Of course. Voice is, without a doubt, Android Wear's greatest strength, and will be for the foreseeable future.
Since Android Wear does not natively provide for text input or easily allow the launching of apps via interface (you have to tap, tap again, swipe up, scroll, hit "start," then hit the app), almost everything you do on Wear is either through your voice, notifications, or contextual awareness (typically via cards from Google Now). This is not the smartwatch experience everyone wants (see: Android Wear mini launchers, keyboards, etc.). In fact, this is much more hands-off than even what we're seeing from Apple, and obviously quite different from products produced by Samsung or Pebble. Android Wear is an aggressively simplified approach, one that requires you to behave in certain ways to maximize the usefulness of the product.
If you are vehemently against using voice commands to control your technology, Android Wear is probably not for you. If you do not use Gmail, Google Maps, Google Now (this is actually critical, I'd argue), or Hangouts, Android Wear is probably not for you. If you want a smartwatch with "real" apps, Android Wear is probably not for you. Yes, you can probably make Android Wear "useful" without any of these things, but it is abundantly clear that Google has no interest in making Android Wear more functional for you if that's the case - you will forever be reliant on 3rd party software makers to get what you need, subjected to the whims of what Google allows that software to do.
This is the polar opposite of what drew enthusiasts to Android smartphones. Android Wear provides very little freedom. It is not extremely easy to modify. It has a well-defined set of features, and you are expected to use those features, because if you don't, it's not very useful.
I'm sorry if this review has taken a turn for the slightly abstract, but I think it's important to point out that what will draw people to Android Wear devices is not the same thing that drew them to Android devices in the first place - this is decidedly a Google fan's product, not a general tech enthusiast's. Wear is at its most useful when you fully embrace Google services and, more specifically, Google Now. If you don't use these things a lot, I see no reason to own a Wear device outside of those who are just curious or want something to tinker with.
Getting back to the specifics, though, let's talk buggy-ness. I've already had three instances of the G Watch R losing a connection with my paired phone (a Note 4) and then not being able to reconnect, even when toggling airplane mode / killing the Wear app on the host device. Only rebooting the G Watch R would allow me to reconnect. I've also had a half dozen or more instances where the G Watch R lost connection and required me to toggle the connection switch in the Wear app on my phone in order to get it back.
A significant update is coming to Android Wear soon, though, and maybe some of these wrinkles will be ironed out. Let's hope so, because maintaining connectivity to the host device is pretty much critical for a smartwatch. Even if a disconnect only happens once a day, that's still way too often for a consumer product - this needs to be pretty seamless.
I've also had some bugs with cards sitting over the watchface in always-on mode. When behaving appropriately, the top-level notification or card should just be some white text along the bottom of the watchface while in always-on (sleep) mode. Sometimes, though, I get a chunk of white card background with black text, as it appears in active (awake) mode. This makes reading the watch difficult. It's not happened a lot - maybe three or four times - and just swiping away the offending card does fix it. Still, it's one of those things that is undeniably annoying. (Note: this issue has seemingly resolved as of the 4.4W.2 update.)
Since the Wear 4.4W.2 update, the number of disconnects seems reduced, though they still happen, especially if the watch has been out of the range of the phone for an extended period of time, which basically requires a manual reconnect. I have not had a disconnect needing a reboot since the update, at least.
I've also noticed a new bug - the minute hand on the watchface lags when the watch is idle. So, if the watch has been on my wrist and not woken up for 3-4 minutes and I go to use it, the minute hand will jump a minute or so to catch up with the current time. It's a weird bug, for sure. (Update: LG says this is an issue introduced by 4.4W.2, and Google is aware of it.)
Otherwise, I've not had any of the scarier issues that some early Wear adopters have reported (constant disconnects [more than a couple a day], having to re-initiate the pairing process regularly, reset the Wear device completely, reload the apps, etc).
I know a lot of people are interested in it, so here you go - we posted a photo gallery of every single watchface the G Watch R ships with. There are 24 in total. That's a lot.
The one likely to be most popular? Dress - it has a dedicated battery readout, complete with percentage, even when the watch is idle.
Personally, I like castle white, especially in ambient mode, because it's very easy to read and, to me, actually looks kind of stylish. The double tick-marks do seem a bit redundant to me, though.
The G Watch R is, I think, probably the safest buy as Android Wear devices currently go, for two reasons: battery life and watch-like styling. There is no real risk the G Watch R will not last a full day - that would only happen under truly unreasonable circumstances. And the styling, I think, gives it a broader audience in the watch-wearing world than the Moto 360 or the current crop of rectangles. Now, is it stylistically as forward-looking and bold as the 360? No. The G Watch R is pretty conservative, though I wouldn't call it staid or boring.
The divisive issue of the bezel and tick-marks is one that, after a week, I see no real point in debating. If you don't like them, fine, but in any objective sense, it's a pretty stupid reason to discard the G Watch R from consideration if you're in the market for a smartwatch, which is entirely different from being in the market for a watch. Subjectively, anything can be a deal-breaker, and I guess that a lot of people are apparently appalled by that bezel. It is what it is, but I'll stand my ground when I say that, in the grand scheme, it's really not important or even all that noticeable.
The watch strap could be better, but it could also be a lot worse. The leather is decent, but I think the 360 has the nicer band. Maybe Motorola will start selling them as replacements, and you could do a swap.
The screen is great, the watch itself seems to be of very high quality, and it really does look like a watch. The issue for the G Watch R is going to be, without a doubt, pricing. At $300, it's going to be hard to convince a lot of people to take the plunge, but I think those that do will be rewarded with probably the best Wear device yet, and by a significant margin.
Conclusion: Android Wear
This is the first time I've used an Android Wear device, and I have to say, some of my preconceptions ended up getting thrown right out the window after a week. Android Wear can be useful. I really like it when I'm driving - I hate looking at my phone, even at a red light, because it just feels wrong. With Wear, I can glance at notifications or even voice type an SMS without so much guilt (even though I still don't read notifications while I'm actually moving, unless it's bumper to bumper traffic).
Android Wear is basically the polar opposite to the approach we see Samsung taking with its new Gear S. Google doesn't want an app launcher, independent data connectivity, a keyboard, or even a control dial mucking with the Wear experience, and that's been divisive. Wear is quite a different beast from the Android OS we've come to know and love over the years. It very much wants to push back against the "smartwatch as tiny smartphone" narrative, something which I think gives the smartwatch concept more legitimacy, not less.
Still, the amount of usefulness a person can reasonably derive from a Wear device at this point remains staggeringly limited. 95% of the time you have this thing sitting on your wrist that makes an OK watch but is otherwise an idle lump. With $250+ seeming to be the popular price point for Wear devices, I find it extremely difficult to argue with any conviction that any Wear smartwatch can be worth the money. Then again, that's like asking if a $1500 navigation unit in a BMW is worth the money - of course it's not, but the people who want them are going to buy them anyway.
The problem in the broader market is that smartwatches are very visible pieces of technology, ones that we can't just hide away in our pockets constantly, and that's something the smartphone industry hasn't really had to worry about. No one wears a smartphone - so they're decidedly less concerned, at least in general, about how it looks. But a watch? People spend exorbitant amounts of money and time picking out watches. Some people are against wearing watches entirely. Some people have a watch for every outfit. Some people have watches for specific purposes or activities. This presents a substantial barrier to entry for smartwatches, and I do not yet think we are seeing a product in Wear that is compelling enough to get much such people's attention.
On the other end of the spectrum, for the people who are really passionate about smartwatches, it seems supremely unlikely that Wear will ever aspire to the levels of geekiness that the smartwatch community has to date been known for. Google's vision of the smartwatch comes from a place of attempting to make ordinary activities you'd use your smartphone for a little quicker and easier, to allow you to focus on what's going on around you instead of what's going on in your pocket. Wear is not meant to be a wrist-based command center. I mean, when you really get down to it, it's a glorified notification handler with Google Now and a microphone.
Google will undoubtedly try to make Wear be more, though, as time goes on, I'm just not sure how they'll do it. This is the issue with every smartwatch, I think, no matter what philosophy it was born out of: where do we go from here? I'll leave that to the experts, because I don't believe it's an easy question, not in the least. For now, I personally wouldn't be putting down my money on any Wear device. It's not that Wear is bad (well, it can be kind of buggy sometimes), it's more that Wear isn't a finished, fully-explored idea. It's an experiment in progress - the sort of thing Google has become infamous for, so who knows where it could be a year from now.
But plenty of people like to buy into experimental products. They can be fun, educational, and enriching experiences. I can understand that. And Wear is nothing if not an interesting toy to play with - I will absolutely give it that.