LG was one of the first brands on the scene with an Android Wear device, the G Watch. But while the device was sleek and comfortable, it suffered from Android Wear's swipe-happy interface. Now, LG has improved on its original creation with the G Watch R. Complementing the built-in heart rate sensor with a circular display and leather band, it's as much "watch" as it is "smart," which should broaden its appeal. At the same time, Google has updated Android Wear to let you do more when you're not connected to your phone, and the app selection is growing. But are these enhancements enough?
The LG G Watch R looks quite different than the original G Watch. The square watch face is now circular and the rubberized strap is now genuine leather, transforming the G Watch R into more of a classic timepiece than a geeky appendage. It's certainly flashier than the minimalist Moto 360, and its round watch face makes the square body of the Samsung Galaxy Gear 2 smartwatch look more gadget-y.
However, it's not perfect: even if the G Watch R appears high-end, the large, shiny black metal body has a sporty look to it that almost contradicts its smooth leather strap, which felt oddly thin and fragile out of the box. The G Watch R is comfortable to wear, though, and even after the first day of wearing, the strap became more flexible. If you don't like the strap that comes with the G Watch R, you can easily replace it with any standard watch strap.
The only physical button on the G Watch R is the crown on the right side of its body, which can be used to light up or dim the screen, or shut off the watch entirely. On the underside of the device lies the heart rate sensor and the contact pins to connect the watch to its charging cradle, which snaps onto the G Watch R's body magnetically.
Most of your attention will go to the 1.3-inch P-OLED circular touch screen, which at 320 x 320p resolution is a bright and sharp improvement to the original G Watch's 280 x 280 resolution display. The watch also comes with 25 lovely faces that you can change at any time in the Settings menu.
Like both the Moto 360 and the Gear 2, the G Watch R is IP67-certified, meaning it can withstand being submerged in up to 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes. You won't want to go swimming with the G Watch R on your wrist, but you'll be safe from most water-related accidents.
The 1.3-inch, 320 x 320-pixel, P-OLED display on the LG G Watch R is bright, sharp and quite beautiful. It shows off the bold colors and abstract images of Android Wear vibrantly and makes even the smallest details noticeable. You really see the full power of the display in apps such as Google Fit, where even the tiniest details in the notification cards' background illustrations were well-defined.
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While its display is the smallest of the competition, its resolution puts it on a par with the Galaxy Gear 2 (1.63-inch, 320 x 320-pixel Super AMOLED) and the Moto 360 (1.56-inch, 320 x 290 backlit LCD).
The G Watch R's display has the always-on feature of the original, allowing you to keep the display always lit to a certain degree. When always-on is enabled, the G Watch R will constantly have a backlit screen, which dims automatically when you're not using it or when you cover it with your palm for a few seconds. The display is lovely indoors, but it struggles in direct sunlight: even at the highest brightness level, it was nearly impossible to read outside.
Before you use the LG G Watch R, you'll have to pair it with your Android phone (compatible with Android 4.3 and higher) via a fairly quick setup process.
Download the Android Wear app from the Google Play Store, and when you open it you'll be asked to pair it with a nearby Wear device. When the app locates the watch via Bluetooth, touch the name of your G Watch R and you'll see a code on the G Watch R's screen that should match the code on your smartphone's app. If it matches, you'll then be able to pair the watch with your smartphone with a tap on your phone's screen.
The LG G Watch R's 1.2GHz Snapdragon 400 CPU runs Android Wear smoothly, but unfortunately the platform is still fairly limited. For those unfamiliar, Android Wear is essentially Android OS's notification center scaled down to fit the smartwatch form factor, with Google Now capabilities on top along Google's new Material Design language UI.
The layout of the UI and its notification cards are gorgeous on the LG G Watch R's display, and interacting with them was easy. When a notification card pops up, you can swipe to the left to see more information. For example, when you get a Hangout message, swiping left will reveal the full conversation, an option to reply from the watch and an option to open Hangouts on your connected Android phone.
The one frustrating thing about the Open on Phone option is that the app won't unlock your phone automatically. You have to unlock your phone and then you'll see the app you chose from the G Watch R, opened and ready to go.
I initially found myself tapping notifications instead of swiping left, because it seems like a more intuitive gesture to me to answer or open a notification for the first time. To reply, you can speak a response into the G Watch R's microphone or choose from simple preset messages like "Hello," "OK" and "On my way." You can dismiss notifications by swiping right on the card, but be careful before you swipe ‑- once you dismiss, you can't bring a notification back up on the screen.
Google's most recent Android Wear 4.4W.2 update brings a couple of new features to compatible devices, including GPS support, Bluetooth headphone pairing and offline music playback. Unlike the upcoming Sony Smartwatch 3, the G Watch R doesn't have a GPS sensor. However, you now can connect a pair of Bluetooth headphones to the watch easily by going into its Bluetooth settings. In theory, this lets you listen to tracks downloaded from your Google Play Music account from the G Watch R - if you can get those tracks onto the watch in the first place.
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First, you have to go into your Google Play Music settings on your Android phone and check off the "Download to Android Wear" option. After that, your downloaded music should sync to your watch automatically. I tried to sync Lorde's "Royals" to my watch with both an HTC One M8 and a Samsung Galaxy S5 running 4.4.2 KitKat, but the track never downloaded to the G Watch R. When I paired the watch with the new Nexus 6 running Android Lollipop, the track downloaded to the watch in just a few seconds.
Like the original LG G Watch, the G Watch R has a 9-axis sensor on its underside that can tell when you lift your wrist to check the time and when your arms are moving normally. This feature worked well for me, and was handy in low-light conditions; the illuminated display allowed me to see the time clearly. Every once in a while, the G Watch R would take an extra second to sense my wrist's movements, but it didn't stall often.
Through Bluetooth 4.0, Android Wear is an extension of your Android smartphone's notification drawer. You'll get all the calls, texts and other notifications that your smartphone receives to your LG G Watch R in the form of those cards, and sometimes vibrations. You can't customize which notifications you'll get on the watch, though, so for anyone who has a smartphone that's constantly buzzing with notifications, you'll soon have a wristwatch that's constantly lighting up.
Unfortunately, Android Wear only lets you respond to notifications from Google-specific apps like Gmail and Hangouts on the watch, via tapping or voice commands. For the rest of your apps, like Twitter, you'll only receive notification cards and no option to respond.
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Being able to speak a message reply or a short email message is convenient, but I didn't find myself doing that too much. I mostly used the LG G Watch R as a way to know if I should be picking up my phone or not -- is this email super-pressing and do I need to reply now? If yes, I'd pick up my phone and type a response; if not, I'd leave it be.
Currently there are about 175 apps in the Google Play Store that are compatible with Android Wear, including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, AirBnb, Strava and Hotels.com. The platform still has a lot of catching up to do to compete with the more than 3,000 apps available for the Pebble.
In the list-making app Wunderlist, I was able to say "OK Google, make a note," speak the note, and the G Watch R added it to my list of things to do. I also got Wunderlist reminders on the watch; its vibration reminder was a useful physical feature that encouraged me to finally pick up groceries.
Some apps are more practical than others, though. Lyft's Android Wear app lets you call a car using voice commands, without ever asking you to whip out your phone. It will also alert you when the driver is near, so you can save yourself some time waiting outside in the dark or pouring rain. Pinterest for Android Wear, however, only alerts you when you're near something that you've pinned previously; that's less useful than if the app were to show you things that have been pinned nearby that you may also want to save.
Voice Actions and Search
Tapping the G Watch R's screen brings up Google Now and its voice interaction feature, letting you speak a number of commands to the watch in order to take notes, set alarms or reminders, send a text or email, view your daily agenda or play music.
You can access any of these commands by saying "OK Google," followed by the command. I was able to set alarms, send texts and even search Google for answers to random questions I had via voice commands, even though it did take a few seconds longer than I was expecting for the G Watch R to decipher what I was saying.
Android Wear App
While the LG G Watch R is an updated smartwatch, it unfortunately must work with the original Android Wear smartphone app. The app remains sparse, letting you choose which apps to sync with your Android Wear device and the types of notifications for each. You can also choose the primary apps for certain notifications. For example, Google Fit is the primary app to show you your step count. Once more apps become compatible with Android, it's likely that these options will become numerous, giving you more control over the apps you interact with on the watch.
You won't spend much time in the Android Wear App, and it's probably for the best. It basically lets you mute notifications and not much else. At the top of the app, you'll find an icon you can tap to disconnect your Android Wear device from your smartphone, and a shortcut icon to the app's settings menu.
Heart Rate Monitor and Fitness
The LG G Watch R uses its embedded heart rate sensor and the new Google Fit app to track fitness metrics such as steps, active time and exercises. Google Fit is pretty basic when you don't have any third-party apps connected to it; the smartphone app shows your steps and active minutes in a circular graph, and you can swipe up to see details of your past activities during the day in a bar graph. You can connect apps such as Strava and RunKeeper to Google Fit to track running, cycling and other exercises, rather than manually inputting the data into the app.
On the G Watch R, Google Fit takes the form of notification cards you can swipe through to see active minutes, the percentage of your daily activity goal you've hit so far, your activity history and your heart rate.
The heart rate feature is simple to use. Just tap the heart icon and the watch immediately begins to measure your heart rate. I found that the G Watch R delivered the most accurate results when the underside of the watch was pressed slightly into my skin. The G Watch R gave me a heart rate reading in about 15-20 seconds each time, which is slightly slower than the Galaxy Gear 2 (10-15 seconds).
LG promises the G Watch R's 410 mAh battery can last two days on a charge, and I found this to be true. You'll get even better results if you turn off the watch while you're sleeping. After two days of use, with the watch powered off and snoozing with me during nighttime, the battery was down to just 58 percent. That's much better than the Moto 360's 320 mAh battery, which needs charging every day, and slightly better than the Galaxy Gear 2's 300 mAh battery, which survives for two days on a charge.
LG improved on the original design with the G Watch R by going round with the watch face and adding a leather strap. It looks and feels substantial, like a hybrid timepiece and gadget. Those who love big, chunky yet stylish watches will appreciate the new design. However, LG can't update Android Wear, and that's where the G Watch R falls short. It left me wanting more. I would have liked to see more ways of interacting with card notifications, a little less reliance on voice control and a little less swiping.
The Android Wear app selection is also hit or miss. I could see myself using apps like Lyft on the watch regularly, but others I would never open. Among Android Wear watches, we prefer the Moto 360 for its more polished and elegant design, and the Sony SmartWatch 3 looks promising because of its built-in GPS. The G Watch R is better than LG's first crack at Android Wear, but I don't see myself living with it on my wrist.
Follow Valentina Palladino at @valentinalucia. Follow Tom's Guide at @tomsguide and on Facebook.