2015 is the year the battle for your wrist goes nuclear, as the highly anticipated Apple Watch will finally hit store shelves.
But it’s not here yet. Watches using Google’s Android Wear, however, are, and they have been getting better since they were first unveiled last June.
Two of the latest watches in the Google camp: Sony’s SmartWatch 3 and LG’s G Watch R. Both watches have unique features that help them stand out from the first wave of Android Wear devices. Sony’s watch offers a standalone GPS, while LG’s has a completely circular display.
Both watches work only with Android phones, so if you’re an iPhone user, you’ll have to either ditch your precious handset or wait for the Apple Watch. So should you grab one of these watches now, or wait to see what Apple has to offer?
The sad truth about smartwatches: So far, they’re ugly. They’re too big and look like toys. Sure, the Pebble Steel and Motorola’s Moto 360 are beautiful pieces of technology, but they aren’t fashion pieces. The watch-shaped (round) LG G Watch R is, sadly, also an affront to watchmakers.
Its aluminum body is attractive as far as smartwatches go, and the physical ring of hour and minute markings surrounding its display helps the G Watch R at least ape the appearance of a classic watch. But the leather band that comes with it is stiff and uncomfortable to wear, and the watch’s bulky design means you’ll never forget that you have it on.
And then there’s Sony’s SmartWatch 3. It doesn’t even try to look like jewelry. Instead, the company is banking on a more geek-chic angle.
The SmartWatch 3’s body is a detachable rectangle that slides out of the watch’s proprietary band. The band itself has a bulky clasp that’s super-uncomfortable when you wear it while using your keyboard, because it pushes up on your wrist every time you rest your hand on your desk.
When it comes to screen quality, the LG G Watch R is superior to the Sony SmartWatch 3, which has a slightly dimmer and more washed-out display than the LG.
The OS: Android Wear 5.0
When Google’s Android Wear watch OS first launched, it was a good start, but it was incomplete and at times very frustrating. You couldn’t get the “card” notifications back once you dismissed them. Apps were difficult to find. And although you could dictate messages, there was no way to edit them.
Unfortunately, only one of those issues has been addressed with the latest version of Android Wear, and even that one hasn’t changed enough to really make a difference: With Android Wear 5.0, when you dismiss a card, you can quickly — and I mean quickly — swipe up from the bottom of the screen to access a button that lets you bring the card back.
A timer counts down how much time you have to recall the card. Once that timer reaches zero, though, your card is gone until you receive another notification.
Sending messages on the watch is also rather problematic. Sure, you can receive messages for things like WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, and Facebook Messenger, but you can reply only via canned responses or voice dictation.
There’s also no way to edit your replies, which is a total bummer. What’s more, the only way to read text messages on your watch is if your texting app is tied to your Google Hangouts account.
Since Android Wear’s release in June 2014, the number of available apps and custom smartwatch faces has grown significantly. The apps are getting good, too: helpful and attractive. Better still, the apps are genuinely useful.
There are apps that let you send text messages without having to use voice dictation, and apps that let you browse your favorite websites (though this is tough to enjoy on such a small screen). You even use your watch as a flashlight, or as a remote for Android TV.
There is an Amazon app, which lets you order items via your wrist using your voice and one-click ordering. There’s even a Victoria’s Secret app for Android Wear, which I downloaded purely for research purposes. And what app store would be complete without a Fart app?
My picks: the American and Delta airlines apps, which provide convenient updates about flight status and even show your ticket code.
Still, the same basic problems we saw when we first reviewed the OS remain: There isn’t, for example, an easy way to access all your Android Wear apps from your watch. Instead, you have to tap your watch face, then scroll all the way down to the start button and press that to see all your apps.
In other words, the apps are finally there — Google just has to find a way to make getting to them easier.
All smartwatches are also intelligent and expensive fitness trackers. The LG G Watch R is a perfect example of this, as it comes with a heart rate monitor and pedometer to help you keep track of your workouts.
The Sony SmartWatch 3, on the other hand, doesn’t have its own heart rate monitor, which is a big letdown. But it does feature its own GPS.
Perhaps the biggest advantage these watches have over previous Android Wear efforts is that they can both store up to 4GB of music and play it over your Bluetooth headphones, independently of your smartphone.
That means you can go for a run and listen to a little Taylor Swift or Slayer without having to wear one of those ridiculous arm cuffs that hold your phone, or feel your handset bounce around in your pockets.
The benefits of being able to listen to your music without having to carry around your smartphone are alone almost enough to make these watches worth buying.
The first round of Android Wear watches were known for their relatively short battery life, requiring you to plug them in every night to keep them fully charged the next day.
The LG G Watch R, though, offers anywhere between a day and a half and two days of battery life (with the display set to always-on mode, which dims the screen when not in use, but still always shows the time). The Sony SmartWatch 3, on the other hand, needs to be charged every night.
Here’s the thing, though. If you’re already plugging in your smartphone at night — and you know you are — then what’s the big deal with having to plug in your smartwatch too? As long as your watch doesn’t call it quits on you halfway through the day, battery life isn’t exactly a huge problem.
The watches’ relatively short battery life becomes an issue when you want to use the wearables as sleep trackers, as you have to wear them all night and can’t plug them in.
To buy or not to buy?
The LG G Watch R and the Sony SmartWatch 3 aren’t must-have devices, due in large part to Android Wear’s lingering usability issues. Still, I genuinely like apps that are now available for the operating system, not to mention the ability to listen to music without needing my smartphone at my side.
If you’re willing to put up with the issues, and really want a wrist-worn companion to your Android phone, I recommend the $300 LG G Watch R. It not only offers a more attractive design and longer battery life than the SmartWatch 3, it also includes a heart rate monitor and better display.
If you’re an iPhone user thinking of switching to the Android side for one of these watches, though, I’d hold off on any decisions until we see what the Apple Watch has to offer this spring.