Google missed its big chance to stomp all over the Apple Watch

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There are two kinds of people: Those who are fine with a smartwatch being a “companion” device for their phones and those who want it to replace their phones, at least in some respects.

I always thought I would fall into the latter group — because, honestly, who would rather carry around a giant phablet instead of a do-it-all smartwatch? — but after wearing LG’s Watch Sport for about a week, I realized I don’t actually need LTE in my smartwatch, and you probably don’t either.

The $349 LG Watch Sport goes on sale Feb. 10 and is one of two flagship smartwatches Google is launching with Android Wear 2.0. The other is the smaller and cheaper ($249) LG Watch Style.

Though there’s no Google branding on the watches  (just an LG logo on the backside), they were very much designed with input from Google, kind of like the Nexus phones were.

As such, they’re unofficially the new faces of Android Wear and will lead the charge for all Android Wear smartwatches to follow this year.

Different, but similar

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The Watch Sport ($349, bottom) and the Watch Style ($249, top).

Design and price aside, the two watches have some key differences.

Let’s start with the Watch Sport. It has a 1.38-inch round P-OLED display with 480 x 480 resolution for a total of 348 pixels per inch (ppi). The Watch Sport also has built-in LTE, GPS, NFC  and a heart-rate sensor. And since it’s a larger, more powerful smartwatch, it’s got more RAM (768MB) and a bigger battery (430 mAh).

 

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The Watch Sport has the “Rotating Side Button” a.k.a. Digital Crown clone and two buttons that can be customized to launch any app (by default, they’re set to open Google Fit and Android Pay).

 

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The Watch Style is the smaller of the two smartwatches, but it’s thinner, lighter and comfier to wear. Shame it doesn’t have a heart-rate sensor, though.

In comparison, the Watch Style has a smaller 1.2-inch round P-OLED display with 360 x 360 resolution for 299 ppi. It has none of the Watch Sport’s aforementioned wireless capabilities, less RAM (512MB), and a smaller battery (240 mAh).

The Watch Sport is also slightly more weatherproof with an IP68 rating (submersible in up to 5 feet of water for up to 30 minutes) versus the Watch Style’s IP67 rating (submersible in up to 3 feet of water for up to 30 minutes).

Another difference: The Watch Sport has a “Rotating Side Button,” which works just like the Apple Watch’s Digital Crown, and two buttons above and below it. The Watch Style, on the other hand, only has the Rotating Side Button.

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LG Watch Style has interchangeable bands.

At this point, it sounds like the Watch Style is the inferior smartwatch. But that’s not true. As its name suggests, it’s more for the fashion-conscious — you can swap out the straps, whereas the Watch Sport’s rubber strap is non-swappable.

Different as the two watches are, they do share some basics. Both are powered by Qualcomm’s 1.1GHz Snapdragon Wear 2100 processor and come with 4GB of internal storage. Both smartwatch cases are also made of stainless steel and have Gorilla Glass 3 screens for increased scratch resistance. Of course, they have built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for connecting to Android and iOS devices.

Leaving the phone behind

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The Watch Sport’s (pictured) built-in NFC supports Android Pay; the Watch Style doesn’t have NFC.

The Watch Sport looked great until I took it out of the box and chained it to my wrist for a week. The simple, minimalist unisex design caters to both men and women, and if I didn’t know any better, I would have mistaken it for a regular watch (especially with the always-on clock mode turned on).

The look screams big, bold and rugged, which I have no problem with, except it’s too thick. It feels really chunky — thicker than the Samsung Gear S3 Frontier, which is already a big smartwatch.

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The Watch Sport’s pretty chunky for a smartwatch.

Now, I’m not saying big, thick watches can’t be good. I’m just saying, for me, the Watch Sport is in a size class that looks ridiculous on my wrist and doesn’t fit comfortably. And for a smartwatch, comfort matters a lot.

Heck, in reacquainting myself with LG’s previous smartwatches, I came across my hands-on with LG’s second-generation Watch Urbane, and after a quick comparison, it’s pretty apparent LG used it as a model for this device. The Watch Sport’s case is simpler and the internal components are all new, but the fit is still painfully bulky.

Of course, not everyone will find its thickness a problem. I let a few of my colleagues with larger wrists try the Watch Sport and some of them told me it fit fine. Most of the women who tried it (with big and small wrists), however, said it was just too big for them. So take that for what you will.

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The “Rotating Side Button” works just like the Apple Watch’s Digital Crown. It’s perfect for scrolling through menus and zooming and and out on things like maps.

With LTE (works with AT&T and Verizon), the Watch Sport, like the Gear S3 Frontier, works as a standalone device — no phone required. Sure, you can still tether it to your phone, but you’re not going to buy this baby to do that.

Aside from the obvious benefits of LTE, like making and receiving calls, and sending and receiving messages, cellular connectivity also lets you download Android Wear apps directly from the Google Play Store and stream music to your wireless headphones all without a phone or Wi-Fi.

For a certain type of user — perhaps an athlete who’d prefer to work out or run without needing to strap their phone to their arm or waist — LTE is a no brainer. And with NumberSync, AT&T customers can sync their existing phone number instead of needing a separate one for the Watch Sport. (Google told me Verizon will offer a similar service to NumberSync in the coming weeks.)

Cellular connectivity worked, but it was hit or miss for me. For some reason the Watch Sport Google provided us with never connected to LTE on AT&T’s network, only 4G HSPA+. As a result, downloading apps directly to the watch was slower than through the Android Wear app on my phone. On the plus side, battery life was pretty good: With cellular turned on, the Watch Sport lasted anywhere from a day to two days.

Android Wear 2.0

Google took a huge gamble delaying Android Wear 2.0 until this year. I don’t know what the reason was and I don’t really care, because it was worth the wait.

Right out of the gate, Android Wear 2.0 looks and works better on smartwatches with round displays, which means it works great with the Watch Sport and Watch Style.

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Android Wear 2.0’s new menu UI works so much better on smartwatches with round displays.

The menu of apps now has a circular-based interface that scrolls along the edge of the display with a swipe of your finger or a twist of the Rotating Side Button. The interface is also easier on your eyes and helps save power thanks to a darker color palette throughout the entire UI. Previous versions of Android Wear had brighter design, with in-your-face white in places.

 

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Using swipe gestures to type out words on the Watch Sport’s small screen is surprisingly not terrible thanks to solid predictive text.

But those are only a few of the improvements you’ll find in Android Wear 2.0. Other neat features include the ability to customize watch faces with bite-sized info from third-party apps (similar to the “complications” on the Apple Watch and second-gen Moto 360) and app shortcuts (i.e. sending a text or calling an Uber); write out text either by pecking on a tiny keyboard (terrible) or with swipe gestures (awesome); quickly switch between watch faces with a swipe on the edge of the screen; and auto-activity tracking in the Google Fit app.

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The Google Assistant works  the same on the LG Watch and LG Watch Style.

There’s also the built-in Google Assistant, activated by a long press on the Rotating Side Button or with an “OK Google” voice command. As far as I could tell, the Assistant works almost exactly like Google Now did on previous Android Wear smartwatches, which is to say, it’s handy sometimes, but not something you’re going to be turning to much.

Full of compromises

I wanted to be excited for the Watch Sport and Watch Style — if only because Google worked very closely with LG to fine-tune them, the Rotating Side Button is super slick, and Android Wear 2.0 is a better experience than before — but I couldn’t.

Compared to the Apple Watch (Series 1 or Series 2), the two Android Wear smartwatches are still full of compromises.

Sure, the Watch Sport has built-in LTE, but do you really need it?

Sure, the Watch Sport has built-in LTE, but do you really need it? Ask yourself: How often are you without your phone? For me, it’s almost never, so LTE isn’t essential. Unless you’re without your phone for the majority of the hours in a day, it doesn’t make sense to pay more just to untether your smartwatch from your phone. Plus, the Watch Sport is just too bulky.

The Watch Style prioritizes lightness and design, and is the nicer of the two smartwatches, but how does it not have a heart-rate sensor, NFC, or built-in GPS? It’s 2017 — there’s just no excuse. For an extra $20, you could get a 38mm Apple Watch Series 2 with all of those things.

After last year’s “break” (most of the flagship smartwatches that dominated 2015 didn’t have new models in 2016), Android Wear smartwatches had an opportunity to triumphantly return and up-end the entire smartwatch market, hitting the Apple Watch where it would hurt. The Watch Sport and Watch Style do no such thing.

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