A watch featuring everything but the kitchen sink; the LG Watch Sport truly has it all.
When google launched the Android Wear platform nearly 3 years ago, they partnered with LG to create a watch that wasn't big on style or flair, but would showcase the OS that the watch ran on. The LG G Watch was a simple black square, and didn't have much in the way of extra features like a heart rate monitor or OLED screen. What it did provide, however, was a groundwork for improvement that has been made over these many years, and now Google and LG are back with the official launch of Android Wear 2.0 and two new watches. The LG Watch Style and LG Watch Sport feature what’s become the norm in Android Wear watch design: round faces, metal chassis and lots of features. The LG Watch Sport is the biggest and most expensive of the bunch, featuring everything but the kitchen sink in its spec sheet. Is it worth the cash? Let's take a look.
Google and LG have designed the absolute most cutting edge watch you're going to find in almost every area, and it starts with the chipset inside. Sporting the latest in wearable SoC's, the LG Watch Sport packs Qualcomm's Snapdragon Wear 2100 processor, 4GB of storage and 768MB of RAM. The casing here is rather large and fits in with the big sport watch style many folks wear nowadays, measuring in at 45.4mm wide, 51.21mm tall and 14.2mm thick. It's an IP68 water and dust resistant body made if 316L stainless steel, and the strap is made of TPU (Thermoplastic Polyurethane). The watch ships in both Titanium and Dark Blue colors, retailing for $349.99 from the Google Store, or you could get the Titanium version for the same price at a Verizon or AT&T store near you.
The watch is also quite a bit larger than many smartwatches out there too because of everything else that's packed inside, including a 430mAh battery, a bevy of sensors including an accelerometer, gyroscope, PPG, barometer and an ambient light sensor. In addition to these sensors, LG packed a heart rate sensor on the underside, an NFC sensor for Android Pay support, GPS for offline stat tracking, and even LTE radios that work on most US-based carriers and many GSM carriers worldwide. The display on the front is a fully circular 1.38-inch diameter P-OLED screen with 480 x 480 resolution (348 PPI), and Gorilla Glass 3 for scratch resistance.
When choosing the LG Watch Sport, be sure to select the color you're willing to stick with for the longest, because there's no way to easily switch out the straps for others, as we've become accustomed to on smartwatches. The Dark Blue color features a black crown and buttons, with a darker gray band, while the Titanium color is lighter all around. The reason the straps aren't removable is pretty simple; the LTE radios are housed inside them for optimal signal coverage. Without an easy pin-out connection to let consumers replace the straps, Google has opted for a hex screw design on the sides instead, giving areas where the watch can be fixed, if needed.
Because they're so thick, these straps are rather rigid for being made of TPU, and I found that they were a bit uncomfortable for my tastes. Either the strap was too loose or too tight, and I couldn't ever quite find an optimal spot that wouldn't irritate my wrists after having worn it for a few days at a time. The straps work very well, and in general seem to hold their place better than some other strap designs out there. The clasp on the band is a nice strong metal as well, and the free loop that holds the end of the band in generally keeps in place since both the loop and strap are made of TPU, which generally hold together well without slipping.
The watch itself is bulky, there's just no way around it, and it's clear this is going for the over-sized watch crowd more than anyone. While the design here is possibly due to technical limitations of having to cram so many components into a watch body, the LG Watch Sport has been styled to feel over-sized in every other way, and is rather heavy to boot. The large crown, centered on the right side, features a power button function via clicking in, while rotating it interacts with menus and other content by scrolling instead of having to swipe on the screen. Above and below the crown, positioned at about 2 and 4 o'clock, are customizable buttons that can launch apps or functions of your choosing. A speaker/microphone hole sits alone on the left side at the 9 o'clock position, while the screen sits just slightly recessed at the top.
The smooth, clean metal finish of the body is very attractive and quality looking, while the circular brushed metal around the display gives it a slightly edgy look. On the underside you'll find the heart rate monitor, and it's this back plate that actually unscrews, via an included triangular tool, to reveal the SIM card slot. The SIM card is the only removable component here, and the door that keeps it in place is sturdy and locks tightly, which is good since the circuitry of the biometric sensors becomes exposed when the rotating door is opened.
The fully circular P-OLED display on the Watch Sport is nothing short of gorgeous, and features one of the nicest OLED panels we've seen on any wearable device on the market. The glass on top is completely clear, like a smartphone's glass, and doesn't give away that jewelry sheen that we saw on the ASUS ZenWatch 3. This isn't a positive or negative attribute, but it keeps the Watch Sport looking more like a smartwatch and less like a piece of jewelry. The only actual negative to this glass is that it's quite the fingerprint magnet, and you'll find yourself constantly wiping off fingerprints throughout the day as you touch the screen. Colors are brilliant on the display and don't exhibit any signs of shimmering or rainbowing effects when tilted to the side, delivering a clean image at any angle.
As an OLED display, you should expect perfect black levels that look brilliant in any light, no matter the brightness level. This also helps save battery when always-on display mode is used, as black pixels will not display any sort of light at all, providing inherent battery savings. Brightness is impressively automatic, which was something of a limitation in previous generation watches. Many round smartwatches up until this point have either featured a fully round display with manual brightness, like the Huawei Watch, or featured a "flat tire" at the bottom to house the ambient light sensor. The latest generation wearables now have fully round displays and ambient light sensors, all without having to sacrifice the considerably more attractive fully round display. The automatic brightness settings here are excellent too, providing plenty of light to see outdoors, while dimming enough to be easy on the eyes in dark conditions.
As a way to debut Android Wear 2.0 to the public, the LG Watch Sport specifically features a number of new tie-ins with the updated platform. Android Wear 2.0 is a massive facelift of Google's 3 year-old wearable OS, and one that's been quite a long time coming. Originally shown off many months ago, Wear 2.0 went through a series of delays until its final release with the launch of this product and the LG Watch Style. Since the nearly button-less LG G Watch launched 3 years ago now, both Android Wear and its accompanying hardware products have evolved considerably since then, adding in tons of features, sensors, radios and all sorts of other ways to entice customers into buying these products.
Navigation in Android Wear was largely two dimensional since its inception, scrolling vertically through cards and swiping to the left to get more information, or swiping to the right to dismiss them. Wear 2.0 completely changes the game though, bringing the navigation into the third dimension by requiring users to "enter" each card instead of generate more. The main screen still feels similar, with vertically scrolling cards full of snippets of information, however this time around swiping either left or right will dismiss each card. If you want more information you'll be presented with either a quick action button at the bottom of each card (which is now a full screen element instead of an actual card), or each card can be tapped to go into it. From here each app, or notification group, will behave slightly differently, but for the most part you'll still find vertically nested cards with quick actions at the bottom.
This allows apps to generate far more information than before, and cards that require more quick actions on the front face of the watch, like music playback for instance, can place all of the needed controls on the first card, providing more information if needed by entering the card or app when clicked. This also allows developers to create more colorful notifications, ones that can immediately tell a user what is displaying a notification rather than relying on words or icons on a tiny screen. Animations are also considerably smoother, and overall performance of the scrolling is far more appealing and beautiful.
Google has learned over the years that the small screen of a smartwatch is a tricky thing to design a UI on. Having changed the way we access quick toggles on our watches, Google has decided on the idea of more icons is better for this section, providing quick toggles for airplane mode, sound, theater mode, do not disturb and settings. All of these icons are now present in the single drop-down shade at the top of the watch, giving access to these critical functions without having to scroll through large cards for seconds at a time. Similarly apps are accessed by pressing the crown on the right side of the watch, which brings up a vertically scrolling menu that hugs the left circular edge of the watch from top to bottom. Similarly the rest of the menus in the UI have received this kind of circular update, and information is no longer presented in a form that's normally better read on a square screen.
What's really impressive is the way Google has evolved the messaging system within Android Wear. Originally you could only respond to messages via voice reply, or by quick reply messages and emojis baked into the system. Now Google gives you three ways to respond to any messages or notifications; classic voice reply via Google's excellent voice speech to text algorithms, freehand drawing of emojis and other characters, or via a full keyboard. These first two have been around for a while now, and the freehand drawing of emojis will automatically pull up emojis it thinks you were trying to draw, making it easier to send a smiley rather than scrolling through rows of tiny icons. The keyboard is brand new, and works remarkably well despite the size. Keys can either be tapped or swiped, with swiping being the preferred method of input since it's far easier to do this on a screen that's smaller than 1.5 inches. As with Google's GBoard on the phone, the keyboard here has excellent personalized recognition of swiped words, allowing you to completely respond to any conversation via your watch without taking the phone out of your pocket or using your voice in awkward public situations.
Paramount to the Android Wear experience is customization, something the platform has heralded as one of its greatest strengths since its launch 3 years ago. In addition to having dozens and dozens of different hardware to choose from, users can also change out watch faces to their liking. There are thousands upon thousands of watch faces on the Play Store, and plenty of apps with subscription services that deliver professionally designed faces too. Instead of having to long-press the face for an annoying 5+ seconds at a time, Google has redesigned the watch face selection screen to be accessible with a single swipe, and displays the last handful of faces used right on this screen for quick access.
Google is dubbing this as a way to quickly and easily change your style without having to fuss through the dozens, or even hundreds of watch faces you might have installed. As with the previous version of Android Wear, a quick settings button is located under each watch face in the quick change mode, and allows you to further customize many faces you have installed. There's an even greater degree of customization with the built-in faces than ever before, and it's clear that Samsung's Gear S line of smartwatches has inspired Google to ramp up their face selection and customization efforts. These faces are simply stunning, and offer more information than ever too, tying deep into Android's built-in widget support to offer selections that link to your account's calendars, system information and more.
Apps, Payments, Security and Fitness
Google debuted the concept of bringing Android Wear-powered wearables to iOS devices back in the Fall of 2015, but the limitations of iOS made it difficult for Google to truly tie into that ecosystem the way they could with Android. The original concept of apps in Android Wear called for "companion apps" instead of full fledged ones; if you had an app installed on your phone that also featured an Android Wear component, the app would automatically install its "companion app" onto your watch, without your approval and without any way to control the process. While this was nice for automation, it sometimes caused hiccups in the process, and there was no way to tell when the app would eventually make it onto the watch in some situations. The problem further developed if you used an iOS device, since iOS devices can't run Android apps and therefore cannot have a native "companion app" to push to the watch, leaving iOS users without any way to add more apps to their Android Wear-powered watches.
This time around Google has completely decoupled the Play Store from the phone/watch pairing process, and now the full curated Google Play Store is present on every watch running Android Wear 2.0. Having a curated version of the Play Store ensure that you only see apps made for Android Wear, and having a dedicated Store means you don't need a phone running Android to get the full wearable app experience. The Internet connection that apps need is handled either via the Bluetooth connection to your phone via the Android Wear app, or through WiFi or LTE connection. This stroke of brilliance opens up a world of devices for the poor iOS folks that have been starved of choice for so long, and while it won't be bringing deep iMessage integration or some other proprietary Apple things, it still offers compelling alternatives to Apple's bland watch hardware.
Along with Google Play Store integration right on the watch means that your full Google account is also present on the watch, something that could cause concern for some over security. Google introduced screen locking some time ago, but it works better than ever here with Wear 2.0. Screen locks can be passwords, pins or the traditional Android pattern, and the screen will lock itself the moment it doesn't detect presence on a wrist via a combination of movement and biometric sensors. This assures that the watch won't stay unlocked if you leave it somewhere or someone else tries to use it, but that it won't lock all the time while you're still trying to actually use it for daily actions. Some sort of fingerprint scanner or other biometric recognition is certainly the best way to do this, but for now this is as good as it gets without that technology being readily available.
One of the other biggest additions to Android Wear 2.0 is official Android Pay support, and as the first Android Wear-powered watch with an NFC chip inside, the LG Watch Sport debuts this functionality for the platform. Google has ensured the best security possible by both linking the Android Pay component to your Google account, which requires secondary approval to activate, as well as requiring a screen lock for those that have Android Pay enabled on the watch. This means there's no way for someone to accidentally, or maliciously, use your watch to pay for things without knowing your security code. Payment is done via wireless NFC transfer, just like a phone, and all it takes to pay is to place the watch within a few millimeters of any NFC terminal that accepts Android Pay.
To make things as quick and easy as possible, Google has added a dedicated physical Android Pay button to the watch itself, residing at the 4 o'clock position below the crown. This launches Android Pay instantly and enables the NFC functionality for fast and easy payment. The interface is simple too, swipe through the list of cards on your account and tap away to pay. A confirmation of the final price appears, and a simple yes or no accepts or denies the charge before it goes through. Similarly there's another button located above the crown that launches Google Fit, along with a fast selection of workouts that are both common across users, as well as prioritized by the ones you use most. Google Fit is no different here than you'll find on any other Android Wear-powered watch, but the biometric sensors and GPS radio on the Watch Sport certainly make it more appealing for use with fitness than some other watches might be.
Performance and Battery Life
As a device that packs a tiny battery, yet tries to do all the aforementioned things and still last an entire day or more on a single charge, you might be surprised to learn that there are almost no performance issues at all with Qualcomm's Snapdragon Wear 2100 chipset. It's likely that a combination of software and hardware updates have achieved the fluidity jump we see in this watch when compared to many others out there, but whatever the specific reasons, the LG Watch Sport is a fast and fluid beast that doesn't slow down for anything. Menus scroll by at perfect locked 60FPS, and load times for apps and other snippets of information are nothing short of instant.
Part of performance too is the latency between when you receive a notification on your phone, and when it makes its way to the watch. Since the Android Wear companion app has to be present for anything to make its way to the watch, you might find this particular piece differs depending on what phone you are rocking as your daily driver. Some phones restrict background apps by default more heavily, and you might find you need to disable the "battery saving" features for the Android Wear app to receive timely notifications on your watch. Outside of this notifications are generally instant, and we almost never encountered a time where the watch would take more than a fraction of a second to display the content from the paired phone.
Battery life is also a concern, and as we've seen in the past few years, this means more than just lasting a full day. The Snapdragon Wear 2100 was supposed to not only bring performance enhancements to the table, but significant battery life enhancements too. While the performance aspect of the equation definitely came through, the battery life one doesn't seem to have really come to fruition at all. The LG Watch Sport easily lasts a full day on regular Bluetooth and WiFi connections, regularly making it to the end of the day with anywhere between 20-40% battery left depending on your usage with things like GPS or screen on time.
Turning on the LTE radio will diminish the battery life slightly more than that, and just like any phone the battery will be considerably worse in areas with poor coverage. This is especially true with the watch, as the tiny 430mAh battery inside is around 1/8th the size of a standard smartphone's battery, and searching for a signal on a constant basis will kill the battery in half a day or less. One of the days with the watch I spent in a building with little to no signal strength indoors, and as expected the watch died right around noon, or about 5 hours off the charger. Having a quick toggle for LTE mode would drastically help with these sorts of situations, or at least an automated way of shutting the radio off when signal strength is low would help too.
Charging is also pretty standard, and for a watch with a battery of this size that sort of measurement just isn't great. It takes nearly an hour to charge the watch from empty to full, something that is annoying when compared to something like the ZenWatch 3's ultra fast 60% charge in just 15 minutes. Having an ultra fast charge for the watch is essential on days when the battery gets too low to continue through the day, or an evening event, and will likely mean going without the watch on these types of heavy use days. Thankfully the watch uses a standard wireless charging dock, meaning you can wirelessly charge the watch on almost any wireless charging accessory that supports the tech, so if you've already got portable accessories that do this, you might be in luck.
Google's first openly branded watch sets the stage for what to expect from big name Android Wear watches this year, and while it gets many things right, this watch isn't for everyone. It's the only Android Wear-powered watch so far to support Android Pay via the built-in NFC radio, and as such the only option right now for those that want such a feature. It's also one of the few that sports an LTE radio for true phone-free smartwatch capabilities, all while having biometric sensors, GPS functionality and Android Wear 2.0 built-in. $349 isn't cheap for a little gadget, but it's not expensive for a nice watch, and certainly offers more bang for your buck than some other smartwatches out there, all while looking pretty snazzy for those that love the over-sized watch look.