There’s a lot of misguided hype surrounding the smartwatches following the launch of the Apple Watch.
Smartwatches are not meant to be as functional as smartphones, nor are they meant to replace them.
They’re meant to be watches that connect to your phone so you can get some useful notifications, track your fitness, glance at some information, or even quickly reply to a text with an emoji or canned response while keeping your phone in your pocket.
Most importantly, they’re meant to tell the time whichever way you look at them, no matter what gestures you do or don’t make. Especially if it’s going to replace a watch you already own.
Android Wear is Google’s smartwatch operating system that only works with Android phones, and the $US349 LG Watch Urbane is the first smartwatch to run the latest version of Android Wear, which adds several features to compete with the Apple Watch.
The Urbane, which launches this month, is the most compelling option so far for Android users who don’t want to make the switch to iPhone just for the Apple Watch, but the relationship between the Urbane and Android Wear is too awkward for such a high price tag.
Android Wear’s new features
Is the Urbane a good smartwatch? In the sense that it’s currently the only smartwatch that tells you the time all the time like a normal watch, yes, yes it is. In fact, you could say it’s the best smartwatch available at the moment for that very fact and you wouldn’t be wrong.
Unlike many other smartwatches, you can choose to keep the Urbane’s screen on at all times, which makes checking the time a lot easier. (The Apple Watch screen only activates when you raise your wrist in an effort to conserve battery life.)
That’s a huge leap for smartwatches. Not even the Apple Watch can do this because of its limited battery life.
One of my biggest criticisms of the previous Android Wear version was that it forced you to make an exaggerated time-checking gesture to wake the display to tell the time. It was so unreliable that I often resorted to check the time on my smartphone instead, which other Android Wear smartwatches more like a wrist-worn companion devices for your phone rather than a smart watch.
To extend the battery life as long as possible while keeping the display on all day, the Urbane needs needs to slightly dim the screen’s brightness and do away with battery-sucking animations, like the the metallic background sheen effect and the second hand animation.
The battery-saving dimmer display is hard to see in bright outdoor situations, so you’ll still need to wake the display with the time-checking gesture to brighten up the face from time to time. Unfortunately, it’s still nowhere near as reliable as I’d like it to be. And even when it does work, it take too long to wake up and brighten.
With the “always on” feature enabled, the Urbane comfortably lasted me all day. I had 27% battery left from the moment I put it on around 8:00 a.m. to about 1:30 a.m. With the feature off, the Urbane had 57% left, which could technically carry you over to the next day, but I’d still recommend charging it every night.
Another key new Android Wear feature is WiFi.
It lets the Urbane switch to a wireless network so that it’s not entirely dependent on a Bluetooth connection with your phone to carry out its functions. It automatically switched to my apartment’s WiFi network pretty reliably when I was out of my phone’s Bluetooth range. But there were times when the Urbane was connected to a WiFi network, but I wouldn’t always get my notifications, so it’s not perfect yet.
You also get new gesture controls to scroll through your notifications with flicks of the wrist rather than swiping up or down with your finger. A quick twist of the wrist away from you enables the gesture controls, from which point you can flick your wrist up or down scroll up or down your notifications. It’s a nice touch that works pretty well for scrolling down, but flicking down to scroll up is awkward and barely ever works.
Android Wear clashes with classic design
One of the Urbane’s strongest points is that it looks like a traditional, normal watch, which inherently looks better than smartwatches that look like a pieces of technology.
At first, I thought it was a little plain and chunky and I wasn’t particularly excited by the design, but it’s grown on me, especially since the Urbane comes with some attractive watch face options, and there a bunch you can chose from in the Android Wear store, too.
The leather strap is nice, and you can change it if you like as it uses the 22mm standard, which sounds great in theory. But changing a 22mm watch strap requires tools and YouTube instruction videos if you’re going to do it yourself without a jeweller. There needs to be a new standard of quick interchangeable straps, especially for smartwatches which can be used for both casual and fitness purposes.
It will be a bit large for some of your tastes and wrists, but I wouldn’t go as far to say that it’s too large because there’s a market for big watches.
Helping you see your choice of watch face is LG’s 1.3-inch display, which is nice and bright with inky blacks that helps certain watch faces pop. While the display is sharp for a smartwatch, it’s still a little more pixelated than I’d like.
Beyond the pretty watch faces, however, there’s just no chemistry between the Urbane’s self-declared timeless classic design and leather wrist straps, and Android Wear’s utilitarian interface. Nor does it look and feel like it belongs on a $US350 smartwatch. It’s like LG gutted out a classic dumb watch and retrofitted it with components to make it smart and installed an OS that’s universal, but not necessarily designed with a classic dumb watch in mind.
But I still like it
Despite the lack of harmony between the Urbane and Android Wear’s interface, I loved getting notifications and controlling music on my wrist. I could check who was calling or texting me during lunch when my phone was in another room, or I could leave my phone in my pocket to adjust the volume and skip to the next track while I was in the subway.
Voice commands are pretty impressive. I opened with “OK, Google,” which activates Android Wear to listen for my commands. Then I asked “Where is the nearest Indian restaurant?” It took a few seconds, but it surprisingly told me exactly where the nearest Indian restaurant was, what its opening hours are, and offered to guide me there via Google Maps on my phone.
I don’t really use many apps on smartwatches apart from the timer or alarm clock, but I would use Google Fit, Google’s fitness-tracking app for runs and bike rides. But the Urbane’s leather straps would get pretty disgusting after a few sweaty workouts.
There are several apps available in the Android Wear store and I want nothing to do with them. Some of your phone apps will install themselves to the Urbane, like the Amazon app did on my review unit. I can safely conclude there is no reason, nor is it practical, to shop on Amazon on a smartwatch’s tiny screen. You may be able to find something you want to buy, but you’re directed to make the purchase through your smartphone anyway. Like my colleague Steve Kovach said in his Apple Watch review, developers are trying to hard to cram the smartphone app experience on a tiny watch screen. Simplicity is key.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way to manage apps in the Android Wear OS or on the Android Wear companion phone app, so I can’t delete the horrible Amazon app from the Watch. The Android Wear phone app is even more utilitarian than the OS, and it doesn’t look or feel like something that should be tied with the Urbane or anything costing more than $US50.
Conclusion: It’s too expensive
After wearing the Urbane for about five days, I took it off for a day to see how much I would miss it. Even though I loved the functionality and convenience of getting my notifications and controlling my music through the Urbane, I didn’t miss it that much. The thing I ended up missing the most was telling the time by quickly glancing at my wrist, but then again, I could do that with my $US10 80’s-style Casio.
At the moment, I couldn’t justify paying $US350 for a watch that doesn’t look, work, and feel like a similarly priced normal watch, and it’s largely Android Wear’s fault. But while the Urbane’s design grew on me, I also wouldn’t pick it out at a store, especially not for that price tag.
But don’t give up on smartwatches or Android Wear yet. It’s still the beginning and we can expect Google to dramatically improve Android Wear in the near future. If you’re interested in Android Wear, I’d recommend trying the $US200 Asus ZenWatch.