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Looking 'round
It looks like the wearable tech revolution is finally under way. After years of undelivered promise it seems that suddenly everyone has a smart watch either in production or in the pipeline. After an initial batch of uninspiring rectangular slabs with straps on them we're finally starting to see a little thought go into the styling, and while I'd convinced myself that this was because we were finally seeing round watches replace rectangular ones, my first sight of the Asus Zenwatch reminded me that rectangular can be sexy too.

Motorola certainly warmed the bed with their undoubtedly classy Moto 360 but it seems LG have now climbed into that bed and stole the duvet. The G Watch R trumps the Moto360 in almost every area yet despite this some people still prefer the 360 and that should prove to anybody planning to release a smart watch just how important styling is.

Of course we're never going to see a smartwatch design that everybody loves much as you never find a dumb watch design that everyone loves, but if it's just plain ugly you won't even get a died-in-the-wool geek to open his or her wallet no matter what it can do.

LG have gone for a rather masculine design with a G-Shock-esque diver style case which is chunky and which suits my personal style to a tee. Unlike others I'm not going to congratulate LG on the completely circular screen or the lack of a dead-screen area like the one found on the Moto 360 because let's face it, you could hide a small family hatchback behind that chunky hour bezel. That however is all part of the illusion and testament to a little clever thinking. The flip side though is that the G Watch R's rugged deportment is now much less likely to find favour from the fairer sex. Some you win.

 

In The Box

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There's nothing terribly exciting inside the rather minimalist looking black and silver box. Alongside a miniature quick start guide and safety information booklet are the magnetic charging dock, the micro USB cable and the 3-pin 240v mains USB plug.

The Screen:

 The 1.3" plastic OLED screen is slightly smaller than that found on the 360. Resolution sits at 320 x 320 pixels which equates to 245 pixels per inch across its 1.3 inch fizzog. Debate still rages over whether the human eye benefits from anything over 250ppi at normal viewing distances but personally I'd like to see a few more pixels squeezed on there for optimal effect.

 

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Colours were relatively punchy but if I'm honest I was expecting better. There's a certain lack of finesse to the appearance which will no doubt improve on later iterations, but as someone who prefers the natural look of LCD on my phone it may just be my personal preference.

 

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One way LG have avoided technology from encroaching into screen real estate is by not including an ambient light sensor. This is a shame because I certainly think that bezel is wide enough to accommodate one, not that visibility is a major issue. In practice I found the P-OLED screen to be perfectly readable even in bright conditions outdoors. While screen brightness can be varied it seems the dimmed ambient brightness level can't and I found it little too bright at night for me.

 



So what is the screen made of? Beats me. LG clearly don't want to tell me, indeed they don't seem to want to talk much about the watch at all when asked questions about it. Their hardware may be coming on leaps and bounds but they've an awful lot to learn about keeping their customers happy and informed. Shape up LG!

The screen features an "always on" option whereby it dims after a couple of seconds. Different faces drop a different level of detail once dimmed. On some you're left with no more than two hands or perhaps two hands and the minute markers while others leave the date or other data on screen. Remarkably setting "always on" mode to off and having the screen black out completely doesn't seem to have a massive impact on battery life.

Swiping was smooth with surprisingly little lag. Animations also seemed quite fluid in use and the raised hour bezel, a definite plus for protecting the face, never seemed to get in the way. I was, by applying pressure than I was comfortable with, able to perform swipes with fairly thin woollen gloves on but again, I think gloved operation should be a default.

There appears to be at least some attempts at an oleophobic coating on the screen but it does start to smudge up after prolonged use.

 

The Case:

The case is apparently stainless steel though knowing this I expected the watch to be heavier. I have the black version here and there's apparently a natural stainless steel version available too which seems rather rare at present. I am curious to know what LG  have used to create the black coating and how durable it is in daily use. Ion coating would be my best guess but a guess is precisely what it is. You can anodize stainless steel but the resultant coating tends to lack durability so I hope this isn't the method they've opted for.


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Early reports seem to suggest that it doesn't take much of a knock to reveal the shiny stainless steel beneath that sleek matt black coating so a little care is in order. Also you may be able to notice that the minute markers around the bezel aren't indented but are more or less screen printed on there which may mean a tendency to wear off over time, especially with all that swiping.

The case takes any standard 22 mm watch strap so you can switch them to your heart's desire. The supplied strap, despite being leather, feels a little stiff and looks a little cheap to me. It would also benefit from a quick release clasp considering how many times the watch will need to be removed and refitted.

The look of the watch matched what I would normally buy so styling wasn't an issue but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little worried about the size. Fortunately I'm a little, well, chunky so in reality it looks and feels about right on my wrist. It's almost impossible to judge the size properly from a photo which, when planning to part with £200+ makes for a certain level of risk. It's certainly a large watch but not unnaturally so though on a thin or a feminine wrist it would probably draw a certain level of attention to itself. It's perhaps in these situations that the more futuristic 360 would be a better option as it tends to announce itself not as a watch but as a fashion statement.

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The Back

The rear of the watch is plastic and features a PPG (Photoplethysmogram) heart rate sensor and five charging contacts. There's no futuristic charging here. the watch must be placed in its proprietary magnetic charging dock to be resuscitated and this means the dock needs to travel with you when you're away from home for any length of time. I suppose what I'm saying is one dock isn't enough and I'd like to see two in the box. One to keep in the car and one at home. More so when you consider an extra dock will currently set you back around £25, three times the price a the Samsung dock.

 

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A major frustration for me was that the watch retained its normal watch face even when sat in the dock soaking up juice. How about a nice graphical representation showing battery charge level so I know when it's cooked? Charging took around 90 minutes from 6% to full charge but it seems keeping it in the dock after it hit 100% gave longer running between charges?

The manual warns against exposing the charging contact on the rear of the watch to sweat while charging and recommends they be wiped prior to placing the watch in the dock to stave off corrosion.

The Charging Dock:


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The dock is a magnetic, puck-sized plastic device with a set of five sprung pogo pins. It takes a standard micro USB connector so you can have your phone charger serve double duty. A feature I'd like to see would be a pass-thru micro USB connector so you can charge both your phone and watch off a single power socket by daisy chaining them. This would be particularly useful on your night stand for  overnight charging.


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There's a huge hole in the market for someone to create a charging dock with a rechargeable battery inside so at least if you're away from home for a couple of days you can throw the dock in your overnight bag and not worry about the cables.


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The Specifications:



Weight 62g
Battery 410 mAh
Screen 1.3 inch P-OLED
Resolution 320x320
Strap 22mm
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 1.2Ghz
Wireless BT4.0
Memory 512MB/4GB
Sensors 9 axis (Gyro, Accelerometer/Compass), Barometer, PPG (Heart Rate Monitor)
Rating IP67 Dust and Water protection


Battery Life:

Ahhh, the elephant in the room. Take a computer, cram it into a watch case with a quad core processor that would have had the most jaded tech-head drooling not so very long ago then slap a glorious full colour screen on the front and try to keep it all ticking along for weeks. Mission impossible with current technology.
I don't believe anyone will take the smart watch seriously until it can sustain itself for at least seven days on a single charge. This may need the development of brand new technology or it may need a little innovative thinking. Perhaps something like Seiko's kinetic power generation would work as a crutch, though this would doubtless add bulk to an already chunky case. Perhaps solar is the answer, something like Citizen's Eco-Drive or Seiko Solar. Perhaps batteries need to be integrated into the strap or the case. What ever the answer, most mainstream users aren't going to splash out hundreds of pounds for a device that needs to be charged every couple of days, let alone every day.

There's lots of research going on around thermoelectric power, converting body heat into electricity, but while the advances are promising I wouldn't hold your breath just yet.


Everyone seems to be touting two days per charge from the GwR but either I have a duffer or I'm doing something wrong. From a full charge with approximately a dozen notifications per day and brightness on the second lowest setting I'm just barely eking out 24 hours. Perhaps things will improve with more charge/discharge cycles, if so I'll update this review.

UPDATE: Nothing I tried initially did anything to improve the battery so I performed a full reset and bingo! Using "always on" mode with the watch muted from around midnight to 7 am I now see a minimum of 1.5 to 2 days. Now that's better.


Incidentally, all initial signs are that the watch uses only one of the available four cores offered by the Snapdragon 400 SoC. Could this be a power profiling trick or perhaps a great price on a batch of silicon that didn't quite make the grade but which was perfectly sufficient for a smart watch?


Look and Feel:


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If you want a smart watch that draws attention and comments from others this probably isn't it. The Moto 360 is very much the attention grabber with its futuristic looks and catwalk chic. On a slim wrist it's more likely to come across as a stroke of individuality. You'll be seen as quirky, unique, a fashionista. If however like me you want your smart watch to do its job with as little pomp and fuss as possible and without making you stand out from the crowd then this is easily the better choice. I didn't get a single comment about the watch while wearing it which was how I like things but may not be the reaction you're looking for after spending so much cash.




The stiff strap softened over the first few days which is great because it was a pain to keep taking on and off all the time to charge. Like many I dare say I'm currently looking at slightly more interesting strap options online.

The supplied strap may look a little "budget" but it is in fact calf skin leather which isn't the cheapest or nastiest leather you can get. In fact it's somewhat desirable. Perhaps a little white or red stitching would have  endeared it to me?







I found the watch to be very comfortable in daily use and worries that the large case would lead to the crown digging into the back of my hand or wrist when working were unfounded.

The Software:

Android Wear is Google's unified OS for smart wear devices. Apps and notifications are served up by way of cards which can be interacted with where relevant or swiped aside to delete them. Deleted cards can't be recovered on the watch (though they're still on your phone) although I believe Google plan to address this issue in a future update.

First and foremost Google need to look at the way responses are served up. When I ask "what is the richest economy in the world?" I'd like the answer served up right on my wrist, not a series of links which, when clicked, automatically open on my phone as currently happens. When I ask the watch to navigate to XYZ, the last thing I need is for the watch to flash up "Check your phone to continue". I ran the gauntlet of being ridiculed by speaking into my watch in the first place so I didn't have to fish my phone out of a tight trouser pocket while sat in my car.

I'll try not to judge too harshly at such an early stage in its evolution but wearing a smart watch powered by Android Wear feels a bit like driving a car with three wheels. You sense all the great things you should be able to do but find you either can't do them or it's far too complicated to do them. Adding some of the now increasing variety of after market apps is starting to bring your smart watch alive but the whole experience steel feels a little underwhelming, certainly after the novelty wears off.

For such a tiny screen it's not reasonable to do everything by way of swipes. There needs to be a selection of gestures and touches used to supplement the swipes. Things like double or triple taps, clockwise and anticlockwise swipes and so on . The G Watch R missed a real trick by not making that bezel rotational or touch sensitive like Apple's click wheel, then using it to set things like music player volume, screen brightness or scrolling through some menus. Imagine being able to set a different function to each of the minute markers around the bezel launching them with a touch when the watch is held at a certain angle (to avoid accidental launching).
Some of these functions are now becoming available through apps like Swipifybut they should be integral.

The watch crown is also an additional control method missed as it also doesn't turn or respond to multiple presses. a single press does take you back to the watch face or switch the watch on if idle.

Another major gripe to me is that notifications which are too long to fit on a card can't be viewed in full by scrolling them. Instead you have to open the message on your phone to read which defeats the whole point.

Swiping down slightly on the watch face reveals the date and charge percentage while swiping down further mutes your notifications and deactivates the tilt to wake mechanism making this a good option at night. The watch vibrates to confirm muting and reinstating. I'd prefer an option to disable the tilt the wake function without deactivating notifications too but at present that's missing.

I wonder if the determination to create smart watches with as few buttons as possible is the right move? Most sensor-laden dumb watches rely on a plethora of buttons to make it quick and easy to access functions and data so would it be so terrible to have four or five buttons (or touch pads, let's stay ambitious) around the circumference of a smart watch?

Voice Control

I was initially tempted to say that another major barrier to smart watch adoption lies in the fact that you have to speak into it to accomplish most tasks but then I remembered how stupid I used to feel using my phone in public in the early days. Certainly compared to how natural it feels now that everyone else does it. I'm not sure talking to your wrist will ever feel completely normal but until someone takes a serious punt at EEG biosensors I don't really see an easy alternative on the horizon.

Voice recognition worked extremely well for the most part but utter an unusual word or name and you'll be tearing out your hair in frustration at its stupidity. Also everything feels rushed as you try to speak, check what's been detected and, if necessary, correct it before it texts or emails a pile of meaningless garbage. It also gets fed up of listening sometimes and just brings up a menu so you can choose for yourself, or fires off half a message leaving the recipient scratching their head.

I'd like to see a few control words used to pause the whole process and give you more control over what's happening. No email or text should fire off until you mutter the words "Google send" or something similar. This would give you time to clear or correct errors.

Sensors

In addition to the ubiquitous gyro, accelerometer and compass comes a barometer and the heart rate sensor we've already seen. Initially these feel dreadfully underutilised with only the frustrating tilt to wake option, the heart rate monitor and step counter having any obvious functionality out of the box. Third party apps provide a face for the compass and readings from the barometer or there are watch faces that also serve up the data or give an estimated altitude based on the barometer reading plus your location, but if you don't like that particular face then you don't get the data without digging into the menu.

The heart rate sensor seemed to be pretty accurate provided you keep very still during measurement. The step counter however seemed to fluctuate quite wildly while altitude data was rarely accurate.

Wrapping Up

The G watch R, along with the 360 herald the start of what may be the next big thing, but unless the weaknesses can be overcome relatively quickly it may prove to be a false dawn that just as quickly fades away. Of course having Apple on board greatly increases the chance that the smart watch will stick around. however mediocre its offering may or may not be.

First and foremost I believe a smartwatch should be a watch. You'll never convince someone who isn't a geek at heart that it isn't just easier to take your phone out of your pocket to use it. What they may buy into though is a really cool, innovative and customisable wristwatch that just happens to make your life easier by talking to your phone. The watch should, by default, offer all the features you currently get from your dumb watch plus more, at a similar price, and do those basics whether it's connected to your phone or not. It should offer great watch faces, an audible and vibrating alarm, a diary and reminder system, a contact database, a stylish and reasonably sized case and be useable outdoors.

I often wonder if any of the people currently queuing up to buy a smart watch would gladly drop the mobile phone integration and be willing to buy a really cool, modern looking LCD or OLED dumb watch so long as it had the cool features like interchangeable faces and basic functionality in exchange for a 75% price drop.

The big thing I really want to see implemented on this watch, and future watches, is a speaker. If I'm driving I want the watch to read my texts to me, even if it does sound like I've got Stephen Hawking riding shotgun. If I'm navigating in the car or on a bike I want the directions served up verbally not on the screen. If I'm exercising I want audible encouragement or spoken stats and if I set an alarm or reminder  I want to be able to set different tones for different events. For me it's a big omission. With no voice my watch has no personality.

I also want to be able to disable function which activates the watch when you raise it to look at it. Besides the fact it doesn't always work when I need it is the fact that it seems to work flawlessly when I don't want it to. If I just want to glance at the time I don't need it to leave ambient mode. Likewise if I don't want to be burning valuable battery every time I scratch my head. Please LG let users toggle this function on and off, without also having to disable notifications as is currently the case.

At present I think LG's main competition comes in the shape of the Moto360 and potentially the Asus Zenwatch. For me the dead slice or "flat tyre" at the bottom of the 360 doesn't make it past my OCD alarm so that leaves just the Zenwatch on my radar. Remarkably, early thoughts on Apple's recently announced "Apple Watch"  have been far from favourable, though that doesn't mean it won't sell bucket loads, appear on mainstream news channels and instate Apple as the smart watch pioneers. I'm afraid that much is a given.



Conclusion

One day we (or perhaps our kids) will look back at the G Watch R and laugh. For now however LG have crafted the only smart watch that has even tempted me to part with too much money for too little functionality. It looks good, subjectively, and it does as much as Google's fledgling software allows it to without any drama. It is class-leadingly fluid and responsive, it has a fine screen and battery and it doesn't scream "geek!" at everyone who sees it.

All eyes should now be on Google to streamline and improve its rather clunky, slightly beta-like software and build in some consistency and powerful functionality. Even launching an app at the moment feels like a long winded affair and it absolutely shouldn't.

The smart watch will always be a compromise because nobody wants to interact with a tiny screen and conversely nobody wants a large screen on their wrist.  This is probably why so many otherwise discriminating  tech companies are blindly flailing away trying to decide what a smart watch should be and what it should do. Now LG have got the core technology somewhere near it will become an increasingly fruitful endeavour to design new cases,  to work on streamlining the electronics and to concentrate on tweaking the shortcomings and the styling. When I compare the original Motorola DynaTAC 8000X mobile phone of 30 years ago to the phone that now sits on my desk I can't help but salivate at the thought of what the next decade holds for wearable tech. And it all started here, you lucky, lucky people!

Design
Functionality
Value
Overall

I posed the following questions to LG who are yet to respond. If I get a reply I'll update the review with their answers:

1/ What process has been used to apply the black coating to the stainless steel watch case?

2/ What is the watch face made of? Not the OLED screen which we know is a plastic substrate but the part that the finger actually makes contact with.

3/ Is the minute bezel (the bezel surrounding the screen) easily replaceable if it becomes scuffed?

4/ Is burn-in an issue you are concerned about? Should the end user be concerned? What can the end user do to reduce the risk?

5/ Are all four CPU cores active and are there any circumstances when the power regulation allows all four cores to operate simultaneously?










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