A More-Than-Bearable Wearable: The LG G Watch

Warning This article was written over six months ago, and may contain outdated information.

Yesterday I read Christian Heilmann’s article Bearable Wearables, a review of the Samsung Gear Live and Android Wear. Christian’s overall opinion was that it’s too flawed for him to currently find useful. I’ve been using an LG G Watch for the last few weeks, and have come to a different conclusion; that being the case, I thought I’d give my own opinion. Consider this my review of the G Watch, in the form of a response to some of the issues Christian raised — meaning you should first read his article in order to get the most from this one.

Christian and I are using different watches, but I think some of the problems with the hardware are directly comparable, and obviously the software is the same. It must be stressed I’m not trying to say Christian is right or wrong: his requirements and expectations are different from mine, so our reviews are entirely subjective. What I want to say is that my experience is positive, Christian’s is not, yours may accord with either one of ours.

The Hardware

I didn’t find the size uncomfortable; I’m used to wearing a watch, and this is certainly no bigger than something like a large G‑Shock. Likewise, as a long-time user of the F‑91W, the rubber strap doesn’t feel too unpleasant to wear. However, Christian notes that he uses his when running, whereas I’ve only used mine while walking and cycling (for transit, rather than sport), so perhaps that’s the problem.

The brightness of the watch is an issue. In bright direct daylight it’s hard — not impossible — to read. And in darkened settings it can be too bright — I was very conscious of it when I wore it in the cinema. There are brightness settings, but what it could really benefit from is a light sensor with automatic brightness adjustment (I understand the Moto 360 has this).

The battery life is about 36 hours for my level of use. To me, that’s acceptable. I charge it every night, like my phone, and have never run out of battery on the same day. Of course I’d like better battery life, but I’m satisfied with that.

The watch depends on a Bluetooth LE connection to the phone, and without that connection it gracefully degrades to become a watch. Could that be improved? Maybe, but I think battery life would be considerably worse if the watch had, say, built-in 3G. I don’t want to use my watch to play games, or anything that my phone can do better. Speaking of the phone, any battery drain from BLE is offset by fact that the screen — the number one energy drain — is off for more of the time.

The Software

Christian compares this type of wearable to “a headset with a screen”, but that’s not how I look at it: to me, it’s an outboarding of Google Now and the Android notification tray. This is the most important point and bears emphasis: it’s an extension of your phone, not a replacement. Some things are done better on the watch, and some on the phone.

I don’t expect to be able to read a full email on my watch. I see the same amount of information as I see in the Android notification tray, which is usually plenty. It’s almost like a triage device: I see who the email is from and the subject line, and I decide if it’s worth taking my phone out to read the rest; if not, I swipe it away and deal with it later.

In my opinion, if you feel overwhelmed by the number of notifications you receive, that’s a problem for you to manage, not the watch. I’m strict with my notifications: if it’s not something I might want to see, I disable it — and that’s something I did even before owning the watch. It requires a little effort, but results in fewer unnecessary distractions.

The voice input control is one of my favourite features, and it works fine for me.  It worked especially well when I wanted to reply to a text while cycling; I could quickly stop, give a short reply, then continue, while my phone stayed in my bag or pocket. It’s also very useful for taking quick notes or setting reminders: “remind me to [do X] when I get home” is a really nice feature. I haven’t used it much for doing Google searches, although it seems to work well for that.

I did feel self-conscious when using voice input in public; I suspect that’s something I’ll get used to. And background noise hasn’t seemed to be a big issue; I’ve used voice input in the street and in a bar, and my words were, for the most part, recognised without trouble. I do find the undo feature harder to use than I’d like, so I generally only use voice to make short SMS replies: “I’ll be there in 10 minutes”; “sure, see you then”. For anything more complex, I use my phone. Again, the watch is an extension rather than a replacement.

The Conclusion

My phone stays in my pocket a lot more. That’s the most important thing, the reason this works for me. Rather than try to use this a phone replacement, I use it as a phone extension, and adapt my behaviour accordingly. This way, I feel that it’s an improvement on what I had before.

I owned a Pebble before this, and when I accidentally left it at home, I didn’t miss it. With my G Watch, I do. I’m not going to pretend this is for everyone, that it’s a quantum leap in technology, or even that it’s a necessity: it’s a convenience. But for me, it’s a convenience that works well and fits in with what I want to do.

The field of wearables is young and still developing: some, like the FuelBand, will do a single job (health tracking) and do it well; some will very likely end up being for specialist use only (e.g. Glass); some will be multi-purpose convenience devices, and in my opinion the Android Wear watches are the best effort yet at getting this right. On the smart watch hype cycle I’d say many are rolling down into the trough of disillusionment, but I’m climbing the slope of enlightenment. There is still plenty of opportunity for watches to get better, but the G Watch is — again, for me — an actually useful device, rather than a concept piece. And I’m really excited about seeing how future generations evolve.

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