Smartwatches have been a thing for quite some time now. Nevertheless, it's a product category still struggling to find its feet, not to mention a compelling reason for normal people — those who live outside the tech bubble — to buy in. In the case of Android Wear, the software's still pretty basic, and the early hardware has been much closer to a smartphone on your wrist than a true evolution of this centuries-old device category.
There have, however, been a couple of notable exceptions. The first was Motorola's Moto 360, a futuristic watch that scooped up its share of praise before it'd even landed on store shelves. The second is the LG G Watch R, a device which tackles the smartwatch problem from a slightly different angle.
As Motorola prepared to ship a smartwatch that could easily pass as a prop in a sci-fi movie, LG's first round wearable drew inspiration from the watches of the here and now, with a chunkier, more industrial look. Beyond the aesthetics, the G Watch R promised to address one of its predecessor's major functional pain points with a new, brighter plastic OLED display.
So now that we finally have the LG G Watch R in our hands, how does it shape up? Is this the Android wearable we've been waiting for, or just another imperfect smartwatch? Read on to find out, in the Android Central review.
About this review
We're writing this review after five days with a U.S. retail LG G Watch R (LG-W110) paired with a variety of different Android smartphones on alternating days — first, the HTC One M8, then the LG G3, then the Samsung Galaxy S5.
For most of this time our review unit was running Android Wear version 4.4W1, build KIW52H. On the last day before publishing this review, our watch received an update to version 4.4W2, build KNX01R, which eliminated some performance and stability issues we were seeing on the earlier firmware. (We've included more details on the 4.4W2 update in the software section.)
LG G Watch R hardware
The watchiest smartwatch
The LG G Watch R is a smartwatch masquerading as a more traditional timepiece. In contrast to the largely smartphone-led designs of competitors, LG has decided to make its circular smartwatch look like a real, actual watch — complete with a crown, minute marks and hefty lugs. At a distance, this thing could certainly pass as a regular wristwatch. It's not immediately obvious that you're walking around with a computer strapped to your arm, and for many people that's a big deal. Watches are a fashion item, and that means appearance is of paramount importance. And while the G Watch R is hardly the pinnacle of style, it's a vast improvement upon the boring, featureless rectangle that preceded it.
Despite its relatively large size, the black model we're reviewing sports an understated look. A stainless steel frame contains the whole package and extends to form sizeable lugs at the top and bottom, while the back is furnished in plain old black plastic. The front is dominated by 1.3-inch full-circle Plastic-OLED display, encircled by the (non-movable) minute ring. And hidden away on the bottom lug is a mic for voice input.
The G Watch R's new P-OLED display is an enormous improvement over the dull LCD of old, but there's a small catch ...
The display of the original LG G Watch was widely panned for being dull and unreadable in direct sunlight, and we're pleased to report that the G Watch R is a monumental improvement in this key area. Upping the resolution to 320x320 means everything looks a little sharper, though it's still easy enough to see individual pixels if you look closely enough. We're not about to lose any sleep over that on a wearable, though.
The lack of any ambient light sensor means you're still required to set the brightness level manually, and the quirks of Android Wear itself make that process more tedious than it needs to be. Nevertheless, with the brightness cranked up it's absolutely possible to view the G Watch R's display outside in daylight, even in the darker "always on" display mode. Colors also pop thanks to the use of an OLED panel, and there are obvious power-saving benefits associated with only having to light up the pixels you need.
Ironically, though, LG's gone from a smartwatch display that's too dark for daytime use to one that's sometimes too bright to use at night. Even on the lowest brightness setting, the "always on" mode is conspicuously visible in darker locations like movie theaters and bars at night, to the point where it can become a little irritating. One workaround is to selectively disable the always-on display in these places, but that's not exactly ideal either.
Overall, the display is a huge improvement, but we'd like to see some darker low-light options, and the lack of auto-brightness remains a persistent pain in the ass when moving between indoor and outdoor.
Elsewhere on the chassis, the button on the right-hand side gives you an easy way to toggle between sleep and wake modes, however Android Wear's touch controls remain the easier option. Regardless, it's a neat design touch.
Around the back is where you'll find the G Watch R's charging pins, for use with the bundled charging dock, along with the built-in heart rate sensor. (It's the same sort of charger as the original G Watch, only round.) As mentioned, this back section is furnished in run-of-the-mill matte plastic, which sort of betrays the device as a piece of consumer electronics, not jewelry. Most of the time you're not looking at it; nevertheless, it's there.
The watch is fitted with a calfskin leather strap that's an improvement on the basic rubber strap of its predecessor, but still a little plasticky overall, and nowhere near as nice as a good third-party strap. Fortunately, as before, you can swap out the bundled attachment for any 22mm watch strap.
This is a good-looking smartwatch, but not one with universal appeal.
The other side of the G Watch R's hardware is its look, feel and sheer size. This is not a small smartwatch. In fact, it dwarfs just about everything else out there, with the possible exception of Samsung's bangle-tastic Gear S. This sort of thing is largely a matter of personal taste, but needless to say if you've got particularly small wrists, the G Watch R might not be the device for you. The same goes for the bold, angular style of its body — that's not an accidental design choice, but it might not be the right fit for every occasion. We're still a ways off a smartwatch with universal appeal.
The other problem with the G Watch R's design is that it invites comparisons with much, much nicer looking timepieces. While LG's latest wearable an improvement on the largely boring smartwatch designs of the past — the beautiful Moto 360 being the main exception here — in person it's not even close to the feel of a premium watch. If that's what you're expecting, you'll come away disappointed. The stainless steel shell has a somewhat plasticky feel to it, and the device's relatively light weight makes it feel almost insubstantial. If we were to be particularly cruel we'd say it feels more like a toy than serious watch. It's definitely more gadget than jewelry, though we can't deny it's a step forwards.
On the inside ...
Smartwatch specs are almost incidental at this point, nevertheless it's worth mentioning that the LG G Watch R packs the same 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 as its predecessor, along with 512MB of RAM and 4GB of internal storage. The sensor loadout has been augmented with a rear-mounted heart rate sensor, as well as a barometer and 9-axis gyro. Right now many of the extra sensors only feed into some of the more exotic LG watch faces, however it's possible other apps may take advantage of them in the future.
On top of all that the device is rated IP67 for water and dust resistance, meaning you needn't worry about using it out in the rain, though you probably don't want to use it underwater for too long.
Read more: LG G Watch R specs
LG G Watch R battery life
All day, every day
Back when the rival Moto 360 launched, battery life was a major point of contention, leading some to speculate that round watches just didn't have space for batteries large enough to drive their large displays. The 360 has seen gains in battery life with successive software updates; nevertheless most of the time it's only just getting you to the end of the day.
By contrast, the G Watch R is a battery champ. Throughout most of our use (on the older Android Wear 4.4W1 firmware) we were reaching the evening after a full day's use with 45 to 50 percent remaining. That's with usage consisting of regularly checking and dismissing Gmail and Hangouts notifications, occasional Google Play Music playback (using the watch as a remote) and sparing use of voice controls.
The G Watch R's charging solution isn't quite as elegant as the Moto 360's Qi wireless setup, but it works pretty well. The device slots onto a hockey-puck-looking charging dock, which connects over microUSB. As with other Android Wear watches, charging times over USB are pretty darn fast.
Overall, we feel safe in saying that the G Watch R lasts at least as long as its predecessor between charges. That said, you'll still want to charge it every night. And it's unlikely you'll make it to the end of a second day without disabling the "always on" display mode.
We'll update this review with battery life impressions from the new 4.4W2 firmware if we notice any significant changes in longevity.
LG G Watch R software
A rounder Android Wear
For most of our time with the G Watch R we ran Android Wear version 4.4W1, and on that version the user experience is at best a mixed bag. We experienced frequent software lag, noticed some weirdness with notification readouts in the watch face view, and at one point the device spontaneously reset itself back to factory conditions.
We're happy to report that things are much, much better after the 4.4W2 update, however. As on the Moto 360, the update eliminates almost all the software lag, and we haven't noticed any of the other bugs that were present in the shipping firmware.
With that said, the core of Android Wear hasn't changed drastically in the three months we've been using it. You're still pairing the watch to an Android phone over Bluetooth 4.0, and the Android Wear experience is still primarily based around interacting with cards, most of which are tied to notifications on your phone. Google still wants you to interact with your watch using your voice, and if you don't then getting to a list of your apps is an unnecessarily tedious process.
The focus of Google's wearable OS remains fixed on doing stuff on your phone from your watch, not necessarily running apps on the watch itself. (Though the latter is, of course, absolutely possible.)
It may be rounder, but Android Wear is still Android Wear.
The G Watch R's full circle display (unlike the Moto 360's chopped-off circle) means you get a full 360 degrees of information, watch faces or whatever content you might be dealing with, and for the most part Android Wear adapts reasonably well to this form factor. There are a few instances where notifications and readouts feel oddly shoehorned into the circular display, though. At the top-level watch face view, notifications text is shortened way more than it would be on a square smartwatch, on account of less space being available further down. And text still has to flow in a rectangular grid, so messages appear in a squarish box within the round porthole of the G Watch R.
Google Fit is present and correct, and can read your heart rate using the built-in sensor. Unfortunately this, and your other exercise data is stuck on the watch until Google launches the companion app for smartphones.
Android Wear's 4.4W2 update introduces a handful of interesting features to the mix, including the ability to store music on the watch itself through Google Play Music through an admittedly protracted process. There's also the ability to hide the small notification preview on your main watch face by swiping it down, letting you see the watch face graphic in all its glory. And that's in addition to a bunch of under-the-hood improvements, such as the smoother performance we've already mentioned.
Beyond that, the biggest changes come through LG's custom watch faces, and the company has done a great job expanding the range of faces available. In keeping with the G Watch R's physical design, many of them emulate the look of traditional analog watches, complete with readouts for your step count and air pressure, measured using the built-in barometer. Another shows you your altitude, along with a miniature compass. "World Clock" shows you the time in two additional locations, and "Club" gives you a numeric readout with a circular battery meter around the circumference. So there's plenty to choose from.
But given the tight control Google exerts over Android Wear, it's going to take a substantial software update to take the OS to the next level, and to make it appeal to buyers outside of the usual early adopter crowd.
LG G Watch R: The Bottom Line
An improvement, but not an Android Wear revolution
As Android Wear watches go, LG G Watch R is a great device — a substantial improvement upon the platform's first-generation wearables. It beats the Moto 360 on battery life, and (literally) outshines the original G Watch in the display department. It seems like this is the watch LG wanted to make all along.
It seems like this is the watch LG wanted to make all along.
Whether the watch's large size and chunky aesthetics are a reason to buy or deal breaker will largely come down to personal taste. It's an item with a very distinctive look, and one that might not match your personal style, or even fit properly on your wrist.
And no, it doesn't come close to matching the quality of high-end timepiece, though it is one of the better-looking smartwatches available right now.
The G Watch R may well be a good buy for those already onboard with the idea of a computer on your wrist — hyper-connected individuals who can't afford to miss a notification, and early adopters eager to try out the latest gadgets. But this isn't the device to give smartwatches mass appeal. It's an improvement, sure, but there's really nothing game-changing going on here.
As good as it is, LG's latest doesn't address any of the underlying problems with the current crop of smartwatches, nor does it fundamentally change what it means to use Android Wear. Maybe it's unfair to expect a single device to do that. The OS is still in its infancy, after all, and it's going to take Google to move that boat along. Nevertheless, most of the software gripes present three months ago remain in the current release.
So we haven't yet arrived at the perfect Android smartwatch. However you could make a compelling case that the LG G Watch R is a less imperfect product than its major rival, the Moto 360. It looks decent. It has a bright, clear screen. And battery life is basically a non-issue, assuming you're up for charging it every night.
And if you're the sort of person who's down with Android Wear's various strengths and weaknesses, LG's second-generation wearable is definitely worth a closer look.
Read more: LG G Watch review, Moto 360 review
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