Most smartwatches these days need to be linked to a smartphone to be of any real use, but Android Wear devices are about to get more independent. Starting today, you can get the LG Watch Urbane 2nd Edition LTE for $200 with a two-year plan on AT&T and $500 on Verizon ($450 with new two-year activation). The wearable will let you use apps and communicate with friends from your wrist, even if your phone isn't nearby.
The LG Watch Urbane LTE is the first Android Wear smartwatch to support cellular data, which means it will not be dependent on a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connection to get on the Internet. Instead, it will switch over to a cellular connection (such as Verizon or AT&T's 4G network) when you're out of range of your phone or home network. That means you'll be able to get notifications and respond to them, use apps and make calls without a phone.
However, this doesn't mean the Android Wear watches will be completely free of their smartphone partners. Google said in a blog post that both the watch and phone will need to be connected to a cellular network for you to be able to send and receive messages on your watch. If you're in an area with bad cellular service, you'll still be out of luck.
Getting cellular connectivity might be a big step towards making smartwatches more popular, as the industry struggles to gain traction with the general consumer. But it might not be enough.
"Cellular connectivity is not a magic bullet that brings smartwatches mainstream," said Avi Greengart, research director for consumer platforms and devices at Current Analysis. He believes that untethering smartwatches from phones may make the category more attractive overall to consumers only in as much as it improves specific use cases, such as going for a run and leaving your phone behind while remaining connected.
Those going on a night out who don't want to bother carrying a purse or stuffing a phone in their pockets may also appreciate the freedom of a watch connected to cellular networks.
Other benefits, such as the ability to make calls from your wrist, will depend on the location. "In environments where making calls on a speakerphone is rude or impossible, it really doesn't make a difference if that speakerphone is embedded in your watch, or your phone or even your hat," said Greengart. But, he added, if the microphone, noise cancellation and speaker work well, "there are plenty of situations where talking to your wrist works." These include in a car, in a parking lot with your hands full, or even in the house while holding a child.
Independent smartwatches aren't completely new. A 3G version of Samsung's Gear S2 is available at T-Mobile and Verizon. But Android Wear's compatibility with a wide range of Android and iOS devices, plus its growing list of new features, makes the Google platform more far-reaching and potentially more appealing than Samsung's own Tizen software.
Overall, freeing smartwatches from companion smartphones seems like a step in the right direction, but it doesn't yet appear to be a game-changer. Smartwatch makers will likely need to find other ways to improve their devices and the user experience to really appeal to a broader audience.