Tiny, yet powerful, this smartwatch packs a big punch
Google recently launched two new smartwatches to coincide with the official launch of its completely redesigned smartwatch platform, Android Wear 2.0. With that new platform's design comes a new hardware design when comparing to the previous LG G Watch, or the first time Google and LG teamed up in the smartwatch game. This new design is not just sleek and slim, it's also round, something that's a wholly important differentiating factor when compared to the biggest smartwatch on the market, the Apple Watch. The LG Watch Style is the smallest and cheapest of the two new watches, but it's also the least feature-rich of the two as well. Did Google skimp too much here, or is it priced just right for the feature set? Let's find out.
Running in a similar vein to its bigger brother the LG Watch Sport, the LG Watch Style features the latest in wearable processing technology. The Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 SoC features a quad-core 1GHz CPU, and you'll also find and more standard 512MB RAM alongside 4GB of internal storage. The front features a sophisticated metal design with a 1.2-inch full circle P-OLED display, featuring a resolution of 360 x 360 pixels (299 pixels-per-inch), as well as automatic brightness built in. Gorilla Glass 3 encases the display, and that metal frame is made of 316L stainless steel.
The whole package measures a rather svelte 42.3mm x 45.7mm x 10.79mm, and is considerably smaller than most smartwatches on the market. Inside is a 240mAh battery, which is smaller than the average 300mAh battery inside other smartwaches. The LG Watch Style is IP67 water and dust resistant, and features an accelerometer and a gyroscope inside, as well as support for Bluetooth and WiFi connections. Google is selling the LG Watch Style on the Google Store or at Best Buy for $249, and the watch comes in Rose Gold, Silver, and Titanium, all shipping with a matching genuine leather strap.
At first glance it's pretty clear this is the cheaper of the two new watches. Although the face of the LG Watch Style is made of metal, it features a finish (at least on the Silver one we're reviewing) that just looks a bit cheap. In addition to that the entire underside of the unit is a flat grey plastic on this unit, something that only extends the cheaper feeling of the watch. Since there's no biometric sensors underneath the watch, the entire backside is this flat, grey plastic, and it extends up to about the halfway mark on the side of the body too, so it's clearly visible without taking it off. The watch is incredibly light too, which both feels great since it has to be worn all day, but also makes it feel a little cheaper than a heavier watch might inherently feel.
There are a couple other surprising disparities between this watch and the LG Watch Sport that don't make a lot of sense though, and they're all down to hardware changes. Aside from the missing biometric sensors on the underside, the Watch Style only features a single button on the right side of the hardware. This button still acts like a proper watch crown and spins, allowing users to navigate through on-screen menus and notifications without having to smear up the screen. In addition to this it doubles as a power button when short pressed, and long-pressing it brings up Google Assistant. You won't find other buttons for dedicated functions like Google Fit or Android Pay on the Watch Style the way you'll find them on the Watch Sport, and that's mostly down to the fact that these functions don't make as much sense.
Also missing when comparing the two are the GPS radio, external speaker for notifications and phone calls, as well as an NFC radio for Android Pay functionality. These two are easily some of the most disappointing pieces missing from the puzzle, especially since Android Wear 2.0 debuted Android Pay functionality in the first place. On the bright side the lack of LTE radios in the Watch Style mean you can change out the watch bands as you see fit, utilizing Google's excellent MODE interlocking mechanism, or via standard 18mm pins. The included leather strap is ultra comfortable though, and fits a large range of wrist sizes.
Google and LG have rolled out a new generation of fully circular P-OLED screens for the Watch Sport and Watch Style, and these fall right in line with what ASUS put out on the ZenWatch 3. These displays aren't just OLED displays, and they aren't just circular either; they also feature automatic brightness. In previous generations of round smartwatches, manufacturers had to choose between the flat-tire design with an automatic brightness sensor in this flat part, or pick a fully-circular screen without an automatic brightness sensor. No longer is this limitation an issue, and although there's a small bezel between the edge of the screen and the metal casing, it's small enough that it doesn't become annoying.
Resolution wise this isn't the highest resolution screen on the market, but it does the job well and still achieves a respectable sharpness to it. You'll clearly see pixel structure when holding it close too your eyes, but at normal wrist level it's difficult to tell such things, and often the elements on screen just look a little softer than they would on a higher resolution display. As an OLED display, blacks are infinitely black, and contrast levels are excellent. Brightness of the display is phenomenal, and there was never an issue of not being able to see it in the sunlight. The display is covered with Gorilla Glass 3, which in practice should offer great scratch resistance. The reality, however, is that the glass got scratched after just 2 weeks of usage, something that doesn't happen to sapphire displays, but has been an issue with smartwatches that feature Gorilla Glass in our experience. What works for a phone, in this case, simply isn't as good for a watch, which is all but guaranteed to be scratched against something during daily tasks.
From the platform's inception, Android Wear watches have specialized in having always-on displays to give users the ability to quickly see the time and other info without the screen having to come "fully on." Displays of late have introduced more colors to the always-on model, and as a whole you'll find new faces feature additional colors on their always-on portions instead of just a simple black and white display. There's still a slight flash when moving between always-on display and the full color one, as it has to switch color mode and refresh rate, but it's quick enough to not be a bother.
Android Wear 2.0 is a massive departure from the previous versions of Android Wear, and while this particular watch doesn't exhibit all the new hardware-driven features of the platform, the software behind it is still very much capable. The only new hardware feature that's present on the LG Watch Style is the crown, which has evolved from a simple power button to an actual rotating dial. This dial allows users to scroll through dialogues and notifications without having to smudge up the screen, and also provides a more "traditional" way of interacting with the watch then a touchscreen would.
The original design of Android Wear mimicked Google Now's card design, displaying notifications in card format right on the screen. These notifications have been completely redesigned in Android Wear 2.0, and now feature a small heads-up style alert at the bottom when they come in, essentially begging you to click on them or scroll down to see the notification. In the original Android Wear design, cards were snippets of information that could be expanded, and swiping to the left revealed more information, and sometimes additional controls to act on that notification. Google has completely turned this concept on its head in AW 2.0, and now swiping either left or right dismisses the notification altogether. Notifications themselves are now larger and generally feature quick actions right on the front, instead of requiring users to swipe for more information.
Navigation is now in three dimensions instead of two as well, as tapping a notification will open the app associated with the notification, normally revealing even more information as well as more controls. All information is organized in a vertical fashion too, with additional controls normally residing on the bottom portion of the app's informational screen, or the notification itself. It's a clear way for Google to deliver more information to your wrist without you needing to actually touch or interact with the watch itself, something that's a big departure from before, and a very welcome one too. There are also priority notifications this time around too; things like music playback, which are perpetual notifications and cannot be swiped away on the phone, sit at the top of the notification stack on the watch. In fact when you first receive a notification like this, it will actually pin itself on the face until you dismiss it, displaying the time in digital format at the very top, with clear, easy controls around the face.
Quick toggles are still found in the swipe-down menu at the top of the watch, and now display multiple icons in a single space instead of requiring users to swipe through pages of large icons to toggle what they want. It's yet another way that Google has learned they can add more information on screen without sacrificing usability; in fact these redesigns have significantly enhanced the usability of the OS, and make things easier, faster and more accessible than ever. Accessing apps is done by clicking the crown/power button in when on the watch face, bringing up a vertically scrolling list of apps that both show the icon and the name of the app. Google has redesigned this section, and many others at that, to fit better on a round screen instead of a square one adapted to a round display like the original Android Wear design was. This presents not only a more beautiful UI, but a far more useful one too, with icons and elements that fit perfectly inside of the round screen instead of being haphazardly squashed inside.
Messaging has been significantly enhanced in Android Wear 2.0 as well, now providing users with a full keyboard on screen in addition to the already present voice typing and emoji drawing that AW has had for a while now. While it may sound strange to have a full keyboard on a screen that's under an inch and a half in diameter, the swipe recognition of the keyboard is nothing short of excellent, and makes replying to messages and having a complete conversation right from your watch a reality. For me this actually kept me using the watch longer, and for more tasks than ever before. Replying to messages isn't just possible with this new interface, it's actually enjoyable. Keys can also be tapped if you need to make small corrections, and the keyboard features the full word prediction that GBoard provides on the phone.
Customization is still king when it comes to watch faces and similar settings, in fact Google has altered the behavior for how watch faces are changed and customized. Long pressing the face for 3 seconds will bring up the customization dialog, all of which has been reconfigured to allow for not only greater customization of the faces included, but an easier way to change separate pieces. Google has also added a new concept to watch faces called Complications, all of which add more information using a system-wide set of tools that behave very similarly to widgets on a standard Android home screen. Switching faces is faster than ever too, as a simple swipe to the left or right from the main watch face screen will bring up the last few faces you've used, allowing you to change your style in a single swipe and tap instead of having to scroll through dozens, or even hundreds, of watch faces.
The idea of apps on a smartwatch has evolved considerably since Android Wear's initial release 3 years ago. Google originally designed apps on a watch to be "companion apps," which resulted in a few limitations. First off there was no way to directly install an app from the watch, rather you would have to install an app on your phone, and if that app featured an Android Wear companion component, it would eventually install on your watch. This also created sync issues at times, as apps could randomly have their installations interrupted, and with no way to manually install these apps it became a bit of a headache to know what is supposed to be installed and what isn't.
In Android Wear 2.0, Google has included the Play Store right on the watch, delivering a curated list of apps that all work with your watch, and are downloaded straight to the watch rather than needing a phone's app to do the job. This decoupling from requiring a phone with the Play Store installed also means another massive change: proper cross-platform compatibility. This means that iOS users with an Android Wear 2.0 watch can actually access the full Google Play Store and download apps to their watch, effectively offering a viable alternative to the Apple Watch ecosystem that has been so locked down on iPhones. Upon initial setup, your full Google account is actually put on the watch itself, enabling you to browse the Play Store and utilize both in-app and full purchases from your watch, as well as be able to see installation history and the like. It's a significant improvement to the old system to say the least, and a huge step forward for the platform, and for the choice of users everywhere, no matter what phone you prefer.
Performance and Battery Life
Utilizing the latest in wearable SoC's (system-on-a-chip), performance on the LG Watch Style is nothing short of perfect. Screens load nearly instantaneously, only pausing if relying on lots of data to be pulled through a slow Bluetooth connection. Most of the time though it seems that apps cache data, or intelligently load only small amounts at a time, resulting in quick load times for apps that require a constant connection to the Internet. You'll find that scrolling through menus, animations, and everything else you'll be doing on the watch flies by at 60 frames per second without a hitch. I never once encountered any sort of performance issues with this watch, and that's a very good thing for platform approval ratings.
Battery life, on the other hand, leaves a bit to be desired at times. Most days I had no issue getting to the end of the day on a single charge, but many times I would find battery saver mode kicking in around 6pm, or around 12 hours off the charger. While the new SoC is supposed to be more battery efficient, the smaller nature of the battery inside this thin chassis doesn't help keep things going all day long. There's absolutely no hope of longer than a full day's use on a single charge, and unfortunately quick charge doesn't seem to have been on the list of requirements by Google, making the watch take an hour just to wirelessly charge the battery on the included charger. The included charger, which resembles a circular pebble, features a divot in the middle with a magnetic base. Dropping the watch on the charger automatically lines up to where it needs to be, thanks to this magnet, and I never had to worry about it not being charged because it wasn't aligned just right.
Android Wear 2.0 spells a massive change for Google's 3-year-old wearable OS, and not only its biggest update ever, but the best one by far. The LG Watch Style, on the other hand, isn't a bad watch by any means, but it doesn't do a whole lot to push the platform forward in the way the LG Watch Sport does. For only $100 less than the Sport you're losing a lot of features, features that really do make a big difference in the long run. Thankfully some of the big positive changes are still here though, including sleek hardware and a new multi-function crown that simply feels great. The LG Watch Style really is a great smartwatch, and the answer some were looking for, so if you're in the market for a sleek new design and don't mind missing the features of the Sport, this is certainly one of the better options available at the moment.