Hot on the heels of the LG G Watch, the Korean company has released a new version of its Android Wear device in the G Watch R. It certainly looks the part too: blurring the lines between traditional watch design and modern smartwatch functions.
As the latest Android Wear device to hit wrists, is the operating system, which is still in relative infancy, good enough to warrant the extra expense and time spent charging another device?
We've been living with the LG G Watch R to see if it is the wearable device to finally put a strong leader at the helm of the smartwatch revolution.
Design and build
When the G Watch R was first unveiled we were pretty certain it was going to be our favourite Android Wear watch so far based on its looks alone. And since receiving the device that viewpoint hasn't changed.
The LG G Watch R manages to look like a classic watch while still offering the variation of watch faces that can be expected from Android Wear. The outer dial looks nice but unfortunately is fixed in position, but then this isn't a diving watch so what does that matter? It is IP67 rated for water-resistance though, so no worries in that department.
LG clearly knew the G Watch R was going to be a chunky device and so has adapted the style perfectly. The telling factor was people's comments: everyone we've spoken to has remarked about the style rather than the concept of smartwatch, whereas all other Android Wear devices we've tested have drawn operating system questions. The LG G Watch R is the first Android Wear watch we've used that can pass for a classic watch, which is a hugely positive merit.
The leather strap that comes included was a little tough to start with but has since softened nicely. It doesn't have the outer edge stitching you might expect but this lends itself well to the chunky aesthetic of the watch's design. Should it not be to your tastes it's easy enough to swap out as the watch will accept any standard watch strap. Hurrah.
The large button on the side of the G Watch R was clearly placed there to further enhance that classic look, but it also proves useful in practice too. Unlike other Android Wear devices we've tested where the button is hidden, or an afterthought, this is accessible and makes navigation easier. This was especially helpful when on a bike or walking where touchscreen control wasn't always as easy as a button press.
Although it must be said for its size it should have more uses - double and triple touches, for example - as at the moment it simply locks and unlocks the device or can be held to access settings.
For some the G Watch R might be a little too thick, but no more than some classic watches that can't manage all the smart actions this watch can. If a chunky watch getting stuck outside of your cuffs annoys you then this isn't for you, but if a solid wrist ornament is what you like then it's perfect.
Longevity has been an issue that's plagued smartwatches since their inception. The LG G Watch R is the first smartwatch we've seen that's thwarted the battery life issue, offering usage that can outlast your phone.
Using the G Watch R for navigation, messaging, heart rate checks, as a constant step counter and a music control point it still lasted for two full days. One of those days started at 7am and ended at 1am with a 7am start the next day. So with moderate use we could see battery life extending beyond that.
For an Android Wear device this is head and shoulders above the rest which manage a day and maybe a bit more at best. The hefty 410mAh battery on the G Watch R, along with the latest 2.0 OS update (4.4w2 for its full name), make this a smartwatch you don't have to worry about charging every evening. At last.
When it does come to juice-up the watch it slips onto a plate which any microUSB charger can plug into. We found leaving the plate and charger connected was a good idea as otherwise misplacing the little plastic piece could become a real annoyance.
The screen on the G Watch R makes it the only true round-faced Android Wear device. Although the Motorola Moto 360 has a round face, there's a black band along the bottom which cuts off a chunk of the circle. It's really enjoyable to see a watch looking like a classic with plenty of watch faces on offer on the Android Wear Store, and all for free.
READ: Moto 360 review
The resolution of the 1.3-inch P-OLED screen is 320 x 320 - which is more than enough for a screen of its size. The result is an ability to see ample finite detail, such as on a navigation map without needing to zoom in. It also means using photos as background images is plenty clear.
The brightness of the display goes all the way up to six, which is what the G Watch R was set to for the photos you see in this very review. That's great for photos but in real life dropping the brightness to four means it looks vibrant and defined for inside and out conditions. However, there's no auto-brightness - you have to select the setting and that's that.
If you opt to leave the screen on it will dim into a power-saving mode when not in use which is useful. This is great for taking a glance at the time without chewing through power.
What we found could get annoying is the screen lighting up with the twist of a wrist or when touching the button by mistake. In a pub with friends it kept lighting up and distracting people which was a little annoying - we ended up turning the screen to off when in stand-by mode and this seemed to make it less sensitive to wake up. Perhaps it was a sub-conscious effort not to twist the wrist too but it wasn't a big deal in the end.
Android Wear overview
The idea of Android Wear is to connect with your Android smartphone via Bluetooth to act as a go-between device. No need to always drag your phone out to receive that message, Tweet, email and so forth. But it's more than that too, as the wrist-based position of the watch makes it ideal for apps that benefit from a quick glance, such as Strava for sporty types.
You'll have to download the Android Wear app from Google Play, which then works as the interface between to two in a similar way to Samsung's Gear Manager or the Pebble app for those respective devices. Through the Android Wear app you'll be able to manage your connection, as well as define what apps react to which voice commands - which is the key way that system is controlled.
We're not entirely sold on the level of voice command that Android Wear needs to make it really useful, because it's built around Google Now. Although you can manually get to some elements via touch control, there are lots of things you can't do without talking. Voice recognition, and the understanding, is refined - but you probably already know that from using the "Ok Google" command on your smartphone - but that doesn't mean talking to your wrist in the street doesn't look weird. Not that you can make phone calls, as there's no speaker on board.
Android Wear doesn't fill your watch with apps from the off, instead it acts as a companion, giving you basic functions such as the time, stopwatch, alarms and the step counter. It pulls across notifications from your phone - but not all, as you can turn apps on or off - and the level of interaction available varies depending on individual apps.
That sounds all well and good, but the operating system might be the G Watch R's greatest weakness due to some features that don't pull things off as well as they could. That's not to say Android Wear is terrible, though, it's just not great yet as it's clearly still in its infancy. That said, the latest 2.0 update has brought some new options that are most welcome.
One extra is the ability to put music on the watch's 4GB storage for use when away from the phone. Simply pair a Bluetooth headset and music can be played while out jogging, say. This update also added the ability for Android Wear to work with GPS in the watch itself. Unfortunately the G Watch R doesn't have GPS built-in - only the Sony SmartWatch 3 and various wearable sports tracking watches do at this stage. But for the sake of battery and price we can see why it's not included.
Another problem with the offline music support is that it only works with Google Music, an issue since the conception of Android Wear and one that remains in the updated software. So if you use Spotify, for example, it means going back to the days of downloading songs and transferring them. The transfer process happens automatically which should be a good thing but just means you can't see when it will happen or how long it will take. One song took use several minutes for us.
Software and apps
There is still plenty to be said for Android Wear and its applications.
Google Maps for navigation works really well on the G Watch R, with alerts for turns and distances at a glance on the screen. Making verbal notes, receiving notifications for calls and from social apps, and seeing weather and sports updates from your Google Now cards are all welcome too.
Setting an alarm is as easy as twisting the watch toward your face to activate, then saying "OK Google" along with your query and away it goes. Voice control does recognise commands very well for activating apps, but not so well for messaging - as a result we were forever cancelling message replies in favour of digging out the phone.
Other apps, like IFTTT (If This Then That) also bring some quick and fun solutions, like being able to instantly post your location to Facebook.
App integration is still a long way from perfect though. Searching for bus times, for example, would be a nice option but all you get is a link to a website which requires you to view it on your phone. Sometimes even the "navigate to" command brings up a webpage rather than the mapping app, which can be frustrating.
It's fair to say Android Wear still has a long way to go before it will allow your phone to stay tucked away for the majority of the day. And with the Apple Watch due early next year the pressure is on Google to get this fixed soon.
For the active
Like its rival Moto 360, the LG G Watch R also includes an optical heart rate sensor to the rear, along the same lines of that found on the Samsung Gear Live or Apple Watch. It emits a green light that can measure the flow of blood and calculate heart rate with a high level of accuracy.
Although there's no specific LG app, the heart-rate monitor can feed info into Google Fit where you can view all your activity data in one place. To check your pulse, simply ask the watch with the usual "OK Google" query and it will show you.
There's also an integrated step counter and being able to keep track of how well you're doing to achieve a goal is easy given the watch's wrist-based position.
The LG G Watch R is the best looking Android Wear watch you can buy. That round face is attractive and finds a place between classic watches and the future of the smartwatch.
A battery life that outlasts your phone is refreshing and kept us using the G Watch R more than any before it. If navigating from your wrist or tracking training from a Google platform appeal, as well as at-a-glance notifications, then the LG G Watch R could be the smartwatch for you. Plus the integrated heart-rate monitor is great for those looking to achieve fitness goals, even though this side of things could improve further yet with enhanced software support.
Which is indicative of the main letdown of the G Watch R: the limitations of the Android Wear operating system. However, since this will be an ever-improving software platform it still makes the LG a good investment. As it stands there's no finer Android Wear device than the G Watch R. It's a solid sign of progress.
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