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Are cellular smartwatches worth the extra subscription?

While most of the connected world looks at smartwatches in general and tries to figure out if they're worth the investment, a subcategory of these watches is emerging. A watch that's connected to your phone has some uses for sure, but what about a watch that offers most of the same connected features without needing that Bluetooth connection? Perhaps more important, what if the reason you didn't need Bluetooth was because that watch had its own cellular radio built in, adding the ability to make phone calls to the list of things it can do?

Cellular smartwatches have only just started to become available, and on top of the cost of the hardware you have to pay for a separate mobile subscription to use the cellular radios. Asking folks who aren't sure about the value of the hardware itself to pay a monthly fee as well is a big ask, but first it requires a better understanding of what you actually get with that cellular connection.

Samsung Gear S2

No strings attached

The big benefit of these connected watches is the ability to not have your phone on you but still be able to wander off without missing anything. This is most commonly demonstrated through some sort of workout, meaning you can go for a run without missing something important. While the fitness aspect of this is significant, and those armbands that hold your phone really do look absurd on everyone, the primary purpose here is to keep the act of checking your phone from completely halting whatever you are doing. You can listen to music, and not just music stored on your never large enough watch storage. Streaming music services that support the watch naively — of which there are not many yet — work great, especially with Bluetooth headphones connected to the watch. Just having your phone sitting inside while you are working on a project outdoors or playing with your kids is remarkably freeing.

For the most part, having a cellular radio in your watch is peace of mind for those who need to be connected. If you don't use a land line in your home and don't want to keep your phone on you at all times, a cellular watch ensures keeps you from being tethered to your WiFi. It's a small thing that clearly doesn't apply to everyone, but having the option is a lot nicer than it may seem on paper.

Gear App Remote

Remote notifications

An idea that started in Android Wear over WiFi and is now also available in cellular form with cellular Android Wear watches and the Samsung Gear S2 is remote notifications. You can leave your phone somewhere, wander far away with your watch, and still get every notification the phone would normally pass to the watch over Bluetooth. This means you still get text messages, emails, Hangouts, everything. As long as you have the feature enabled before you are disconnected from your phone, your watch will receive notifications from your phone in the exact same way it does when connected via Bluetooth.

Interacting with those notifications is nearly as functional as it would be if you were connected via Bluetooth, on both Android Wear and the Gear S2. You can reply to Hangouts, triage email, and in most cases access all of the same data you'd normally be able to access from your phone if you were connected via Bluetooth. The biggest difference you'll see is speech to text translation, which is noticeably slower when relying on just the watch to do translation on Android Wear. On the Gear S2 the experience is slow no matter what, so it's not quite as noticeable.

Gear number

Still early days

Having a cellular connected watch connected to your cellular connected phone means things can get kind of weird when it comes to making calls and sending text messages. Your watch has its own phone number, and depending on how you set it up on Android Wear or Tizen can make calls from either your phone number or your watch number. Same goes for text messages, which as you can imagine gets super confusing for the people you're sending messages to. This can be fixed with appropriate forwarding configurations, most of which will be set up for you if you're buying your cellular watch from your carrier, but out of the box it can be a little confusing.

There's also a significant difference in call quality over your watch. It's not quite as bad as talking via speakerphone on your phone when it's a couple of feet away, but your watch microphone is incredibly sensitive. There's not a lot of tech there to isolate your voice, so even something as simple as having an air conditioning vent in your car pointed at your wrist can have an effect on call quality. If you're sitting in a room alone and everything is quiet, the call quality is often good enough to be passable on both sides of the conversation. If you're outside on a jog and you get a phone call, you're probably going to wish you had something like Bluetooth headphones connected to your watch.

Smartwatches

Worth the monthly cost?

Ultimately you're going to be spending anywhere from $10 to $15 extra every month for the privilege of accessing your phone without actually touching your phone. That adds up quickly for something that is a largely unnecessary convenience for most people, but it's also highly functional for what it is right now. Over the next year, as Android Wear and Samsung's Gear line continue to draw in developers, these connected platforms will create experiences that justify themselves for more people.

It won't ever be everyone, there will always be people who can't possibly fathom why you'd spend that money on something so frivolous, but convenience will always drive adoption for some people. If you're one of those people, you may consider taking a closer look at a cellular connected smartwatch.

Russell is a Contributing Editor at Android Central. He's a former server admin who has been using Android since the HTC G1, and quite literally wrote the book on Android tablets. You can usually find him chasing the next tech trend, much to the pain of his wallet. Find him on Facebook and Twitter

85 Comments
  • Just because AT&T makes it IMPOSSIBLE to find this information: The monthly cost for the LG Urbane 2nd Edition LTE on AT&T is about $16 after taxes. Taxes are not included in the $10 advertised rate. All fees for normal phone lines like 911 fee, administrative fee, etc apply. It is NOT just $10/month. And if you buy it on contract they tack on a $45 "activation" fee. The good news is the AT&T model is unlocked. Just buy it for full price and stick a SIM card in. I bought a Truphone SIM card. It costs $29 and includes $15 worth of credit. Data is $0.09/MB and minutes are also 9 cents outgoing and free incoming. Android wear network connectivity is prioritized as follows
    Bluetooth -> wifi -> cellular. That means you only use cellular data when you are out of bluetooth range and not connected to WiFi. You will use zero data when near your phone or in wifi, so this method ends up being quite cheap. Android wear also has no way of manually entering APN information in as of 6.0.1. The APN for Truphone IS preloaded, so you'll be good there. It was the cheapest SIM I could find for AW, and I'm estimating it'll cost less than $5/month, but if anyone has a better suggestion I'm all ears!
  • Good stuff Posted via the Android Central App
  • If you have a post-paid line on t-mobile, the watch line (500mb / unl call/txt) is 15$ minus a 10$ credit. So for those on tmobile, adding a "wearable" to an existing plan, is only $5/mo.
  • They likely have another $3-$4 in fees because it's a voice line. I'm not sure about that though, maybe they don't.
  • Great info Posted via the Android Central App
  • Are there any watches that offer this outside of the LG and the Samsung S2? Posted via the Android Central App
  • The original Samsung Gear S does
  • NO! Posted via the Android Central App #6P Android/Google Forever!
  • For me? Nope. I won't be buying one any time soon.
  • No Posted via the Android Central App
  • I have an LG G Watch R and its awesome, but I don't want anymore added onto my cell bill for a notification mirror. It'd be great if LG would make another smart watch without the cellular radio.
  • You don't need to use the cellular function of the Urbane 2. It's still a pretty good deal at $360 (full price you can buy at the AT&T store for without activation)
  • Why pay for a cellular radio when you don't want one? Why waste precious hardware space in a watch with radio and SIM slot when you don't want a cellular connection and would rather that space used for a larger battery? Posted via the Android Central App
  • Because they might like the watch?Also,certainly no more expensive than most Android wear watches(moto,huawei,fossil,etc.),at least when bought from at&t Posted via the Android Central App
  • Pay as you go is the best way to go for wearables assuming you don't use it for lots of calling (good luck with battery life) and are often connected to wifi or BT, though really probably not using much data on a watch.
  • I agree. I plan on getting the Urbane 2 and a T-Mobile pay as you go SIM.
  • Dick Tracy made it look easy. Posted via the Android Central App
  • No Posted via the Android Central App
  • I thought with At&T Numbersync, your lte lg g watch has the same number as your phone?
  • Heeellll No!!! If I'm in an environment or circumstance that I still feel it important enough to not miss calls/texts/emails/etc.. then my phone is on my person. Even if I'm on a run or in the gym. It's not like it's all that hard to keep your smartphone on your person during those activities (people do it every day). Heck, my tablets aren't cellular devices anymore. WiFi only. And I don't suffer for it. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Cool story bro. What works for you might not work for everyone. I'll enjoy the fact I can leave my phone in my car when I run into the store or go to the gym. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Some of us work in an environment where we can not have a cell phone out because of sensitive information (financial, medical, ect...) This creates a solution for us that our phone can be locked in our desk or locker, but can still receive notifications from family or others. I love my Ne, but could see the benifit or being connected as I roam the office and not being disconnected by the limited distance of Bluetooth appeals to me. I am ok with the monthly cost add on to my plan of 5-10, but the initial $500 is a lot for a device that will degrade. Posted via the Android Central App
  • That doesn't work if your in a even more sensitive environment that disallows all transmitting devices, and uses faraday shielding, that won't work.
  • I still rock the gear s. Love it Posted via the Android Central App
  • I have the lg 1 st edition and I'm OK with my phone not taking call their is no way i would pay for data plan for a watch. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Seems a bit over the top, at least for me Love my first gen Moto 360, though.
  • Its so worth the $10 with AT&T because it has numbersync as well. I have owed the LG Watch Urbane 2 since November and its the best watch I used. Other then being BIG.
  • It's $16 extra on AT&T though not $10. $10 doesn't include the taxes and fees which are about $6.
  • No. And I also don't want to have to deal with the crappy watch band due to the integrated antenna.
  • I think it depends on the person and the situation. If you have young kids in school (maybe 3-5 grade) I could kinda see. Being able to keep in contact would be a plus but I also know that a kid with a smartwatch is asking for trouble. From an adult standpoint I could see it being used for ease of getting through checkpoints but the cellular piece....I don't know. Again I think it depends on the situation. I could see runners or people who hike/bike/trail that could eliminate weight by having it instead of carrying a phone. I'm all for the smartwatch but not quite needy of one that can make calls or that monthly tag that comes with it.
  • I have the Gear S on Verizon. It costs $5 a month and I love it. I would like Tizen to have Pandora and the battery to have better life. It's new stuff so I'm sure it will catch up. Still love it. I leave my phone at home or in the car while at the gym and don't have to worry about a phone on me. All calls are connected to my bluetooth headset crystal clear and I either listen to Milk or music I have on the watch. So cool.
  • Set your watch to auto switching between stand alone cellular device and tethered device.Works without fail and no thinking about it beyond the initial setup.Improves the hell out of battery life,such as it is,because when you are around your phone the cellular radio(by far the biggest drain) is not drawing battery.Samsung gear s2 classic 3g- $5.00/month,no contractual obligation,no etf.I paid for the watch outright and got $100.00 back off that.No way would I buy one of these with a contractual obligation to save $50.00 and then be subject to a big,fat ETF.Yes,mostly a toy I like playing with and the looks of ,but also surprisingly,genuinely useful. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Almost forgot,also no activation fee in my case. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Well worth it! only cost 5$ extra on Verizon to have my gear s2 3g. Like being able to leave my phone at home to go on runs or quick trips to the store. Can't be without a network connected watch now.. S7 edge will make America great again!
  • Can you use a Google Fi data sim for the watch?
  • No we get gouged enough as is... Should be included if on the same number. I didn't even read the blog post lol Posted via the Android Central App
  • Why comment on an article you didn't read? Posted via the Android Central App
  • Of course not. The cost for the watch and the monthly subscription is not worth it. Posted via the Android Central App
  • If you're the type to buy a decent watch here and there,the cost of the watch really isn't much of a factor,and $5.00/month is pretty much nothing.If you're not into watches though,then yeah. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I got my Gear S2 3g for free yesterday for purchasing the S7 edge on Verizon and it came with a $5/month fee to use it on my data plan. Totally worth it.
  • I'm still unconvinced that any smartwatch is worth the cost, much less a connected one that costs even more.
  • Got a free gear S2 and it's awesome!
  • Verizon is actually only $5 a month more. Totally worth it. But they also tend to charge more for the watch up front. And the newest Gear S2 Classic 3g looks the best and has interchangeable watch bands, unlike the regular S2. Had the Gear S before this. Once you experience remote notifications, responses and messaging as if from your phone, and call forwarding (which is automatic on AT&T but has to be manually activated on Verizon), I doubt you will go back. And the S2 3g does support streaming music from the Watch speaker or BT earphones, but only through Milk Music. It is actually a pretty good service, better than Pandora by a lot, but not as good as Spotify. The sound quality is actually quite good because the S2 also supports the apt-x audio codec.
  • I had the Gear S on T-Mobile for $5 a month and it is most definitely not worth it. As soon as I was able to I get rid of it and stop paying that monthly fee I did. Whenever the cellular radio was activated the battery was practically worthless as it would only last an hour or two. On top of that I would rather just have my phone with me because it has all the apps that I use. It just wasn't worth it for me. A regular smartwatch is the way to go in my opinion. Posted from my S7e/Note 4/iPad Pro
  • Radically different experience from mine.It sounds as though you had the GPS on at all times too.Did you ever try the auto switching under connected settings? Posted via the Android Central App
  • GPS was off. I used it completely standalone without a connection of any sort to my phone other than the initial setup. I was all over the forums looking to improve the experience any way possible but I ended up realizing it wasn't for me. Posted from my S7e/Note 4/iPad Pro
  • Sorry about your experience with it.If you happen to try out another(though it doesn't sound like you will) change it to the auto switching instead of always on cellular connectivity. It really does make a big difference in battery drain.my first two days with the watch I would finish the day at 12-15% and I wondered if that was good enough and considered sending it back in my two week window for the urbane LTE.I'm glad I didn't. Running mainly in auto switching I finish days in the 40%+ range.Have a good one. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I put off buying the gear s2 sport for months because I thought the classic looked so much better.The wait paid off,they finally came out with the classic with 3g.Very happy with mine. Posted via the Android Central App
  • The popularity of cellular watches will take off when:
    1. You can confidently leave your main phone at home and spend the day without becoming concerned about the watch battery dying before you get home.
    2. Reception is on par with a decent phone. It does not have to be so good that you can make calls from the third basement of a 75 year old theatre (like the Siemens S66 could), but good enough that you don't lose coverage where you would have adequate signal on your regular phone.
    3. The carriers wake up and offer reasonable packages recognizing that you will only be making a call on one of them at a time in most cases. When this happens, I'm in.
  • I can leave my phone home with confidence,with the cellular radio enabled I make it from up in the morning to in bed at night, $5.00/month in cost.What do you want them to do?Pay you $5.00/month to use it?Just kidding,man.It works. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Kevin - Sounds good. Which watch and carrier do you use? Posted via the Android Central App
  • Verizon is my carrier.My watch is the Samsung gear s2 classic 3g (what a name,that's as bad as lg's full name for the urbane lte).Hope this helps,have a good one. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Agree with Altema22 100%. Posted from my S7e/Note 4/iPad Pro
  • I know wireless carriers are for-profit companies looking for different ways to generate revenue. Welcome to capitalism. There's nothing wrong with that, but in no way is having a cellular connected watch worth $240 over 2 years. Just isn't. I pay enough, AT&T. If I can add it as part of my services for free, I'll buy a watch from you. Until then, nope.
  • Don't forget to add another 5 or 6 per month for taxes and fees just like a normal line.
  • More like $2.30 extra on my bill. So only $7.30 still cheaper than anything else I buy lol Heck I buy good aged cheese for 40 bucks a pound, and don't get me started on good prosciutto lol...
  • Very US centric article. Americans are being screwed bigtime.. I don't pay extra for multiple sims, and I'm sure I'm not alone.
  • Americans are screwed with Sims,data cost,internet speeds,caps,and a whole lot more in this area because the decision and lawmaking bodies are bought and paid for by a handful of giant corporations. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I feel ya.. I really do.. must be so frustrating.
  • I have a free 3G Gear S2 (Thanks VZW) but I'm not paying an extra 5 dollars for something I can do over WiFi and Bluetooth for free. I already hate talking on the phone so texting is basically what I do with the watch and it works fine example at no additional charge.
  • I haven't owned a watch in 20 years and lean against going backwards in time. But when I looked I was unable to determine which if any supported Google hangouts. I use my GV number primarily and want to be able to use hangouts. Otherwise I'm definitely not seeing any use for a smartwatch. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I used Google Voice when I had my gear s. Basically all I did was add the gear s phone number to the list of numbers that my Google Voice worked with. Didn't use hangouts though. Posted from my S7e/Note 4/iPad Pro
  • Not to me. Posted via the Android Central App (Motorola Nexus 6 - US Cellular)
  • Nope Posted via my Motorola Startac
  • No. Should be free
  • Absolutely. Not. Posted via the Android Central App
  • If you want a stand alone device. But the original gear answer the phone bluetooth speaker on watch no need for additional plan but the phone had to be on you. The rip is their not putting in the speaker mic so you can answer the call , it's leaning towards the 3g radios for a monthly fee.
  • I almost bought the gear s2 to use as slave device some months ago as l did/do with my zenwatch2,but when Verizon only wants $5.00/ month to activate it's independent cellular capabilities I said sure.It would be really nice if Samsung would put a speaker and Mic in the non cellular versions.I guess it's a sales tactic. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Not at all I came from the gutta now it's all butta
  • I came from using a Martian Notifier (which in my opinion blows every other watch on the market away as far as notifications go) to a Gear S2 Classic, and find the $5 extra for t-mobile "wearables" plan quite worth it, I'll leave my phone in my room, or on my desk at work, and knowing that i'm in contact even if I go outside the BT range, I can still receive important calls.
  • Yep Posted via the Android Central App
  • I have the gear S2 on T-mobile. I think its worth it, but the battery life on it is a huge hit or miss. Posted via the Android Central App
  • No. Not until battery life improves. I had a gear S2 and it wouldn't make fa half a day before needing to be plugged in. It was fine when it was paired with my phone. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I didn't notice your comment until just now. I had this same experience. Battery life was not good, so I took it back and got a standard S2 and have been happy ever since.
  • I recently got a Note 5 from AT&T. At the time AT&T offered a Gear S2 for "free" if you pay the $10 subscription for two years. Seemed like a good enough deal. I needed a new wearable anyway, my MS Band was on its last leg. I had nothing but problems with NumberSync (AT&T's solution for phone-free notifications). My first unit didn't work at all, and overheated on me, so I swapped it out and at least solved the overheating problem. I never got NumberSync notifications it to work fully, and neither could AT&T. I decided to just turn it off and use it like a normal S2, but the battery life was horrible (depleting 9% per hour, even with screen turned off, gestures turned off, heart-rate monitor off, and like two apps sending notifications). I learned that a co-worker of mine also got an S2 at the same time, but his was not the GSM version. He had no battery problems, and his was noticeably thinner than mine. I took mine back the next day and bought a standard S2 outright. I haven't had problems with battery life since. Very happy with my decision to ditch the GSM version.
  • It would be a great fix if the regular s2 had a speaker in addition to it's microphone, like the zenwatch2 and the huawei watch.It's not as though they don't know this.It's done without the speaker to steer sales to cellular model.It would be a nice option,though. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Has anybody tried this with Project Fi data only SIM yet? You get the data only for free. I'm not sure how calling would work, I assuming through Hangouts as a data call. If the data only SIM works then that would be a great way to use the free companion SIM card.
  • Holding out for the shoe phone. Posted via the Android Central App
  • No because the smart watch is just a device. It should just be a watch that you can customize
  • So you're saying if it can make a phone call that removes it's ability to be "customized" in whatever way you're referring too?odd. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I pay for two subscriptions already. Will not add a third, but might transform one of them into a watch subscription. Fundamentally though, it will likely be a pay-as-you-go cash card, where I'll only pay for the actual usage. However, best would be if my regular call and data subscription would include a secondary card for the watch (same number etc). Obviously that won't happen as the whole idea for pushing cellular smartwatches is to assist the operators in selling another subscription.
  • "available in cellular form with cellular Android Wear watches and the Samsung Gear S2" Which cellular Android Wear watch are you referring to? The LG? Is it back? Does it work? Will it be deja vu retracted?
  • Yep,the lg watch is back.Maybe they finally got it locked down where you couldn't buy it at AT&T for much cheaper and then take it to Verizon where they may as well be holding a gun on you for what they charge. Posted via the Android Central App
  • So when they cancelled due to "image problems" that's what LG meant? Nothing wrong with the device, it was image in the market place? Confusing.
  • Nothing ever confirmed.Very shady to finally mumble something about"display" and just hope no one ask any thing more.It could be tested now if someone bought an at&t model ($360.00-full retail) and tried using it on Verizon($500.00-full retail).I also believe that originally the price discrepancy was even greater at $200.00. Posted via the Android Central App