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Everything You Need To Know About Google's New Smartwatches

Android Wear 2.0, the platform’s first big update since 2014, starts rolling out to supported devices this week.

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Whaddya know! Google still makes smartwatches. After nearly three years of incremental software updates to a small fleet of wearable devices, Android Wear 2.0 is finally available on two new watches — the LG Watch Style and LG Watch Sport — designed specifically for the refined software. Existing supported watches, like the Moto 360 2 and Asus ZenWatch 2, will be able to download 2.0 in the coming weeks.

You might be wondering: Why is Google continuing to invest resources in wearables, a D-list gadget category that it isn’t doing so hot right now? Operations at Kickstarter darling Pebble shut down in December 2016 and the company folded into Fitbit, which recently cut between 5% and 10% of its workforce after disappointing holiday sales. Intel-owned Basis had to recall its devices when they began overheating and melting their own chargers. Jawbone is reportedly winding down its fitness-focused wearables business. Even the number of smartwatches sold by the industry’s two leading manufacturers, Samsung (with 800,000 watches) and Apple (with 5.2 million), pale in comparison with those companies’ smartphone sales (77.5 and 78.3 million, respectively, in the last quarter of 2016 alone). Furthermore, compared to Samsung and Apple, Google has struggled to gain traction in the smartwatch category.

Well, Google, it seems, wants its core suite of software services available in as many form factors as possible, from smart speakers to routers. There are many ways one can "google" something and, if smartwatches are your thing, the wrist is another place where you can do just that. Google's hardware is merely a vessel for its software — and Android Wear is no different.

The new Android watches designed in partnership with LG were clearly made to prioritize Google’s software, and don’t have some of the more premium hardware features that its competitors do, like the Samsung Gear S3’s multi-day battery life or the Apple Watch Series 2’s swimproof-ness. The new update most notably includes access to Google Assistant, the “smart” voice-activated personal assistant that can send messages, set reminders, or make restaurant reservations. It’s also compatible with Android Pay, a mobile tap-and-go payment platform.

In my week of testing the first Android watches slated to ship with 2.0, I found that while the new update will most likely satisfy longtime Android Wear loyalists, if you’re not sold on smartwatches, the LG Watch Sport and Style aren’t going to be the ones that convince you otherwise. Here are some of my first impressions:

Look at how big this damn thing is.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

This is the size of the LG Watch Sport on my wrist. It is Not Good. The watch is 14.2 mm thick, which may not sound like a lot but it is, especially when you’re trying to jam it through a fitted sweater.

The Sport version of the watch has cellular LTE data, built-in GPS, NFC for mobile payments, a heart rate sensor, and a battery to support all of those energy-draining technologies crammed underneath its 1.38-inch diameter display. It’s water-resistant in up to 1.5 meters for 30 minutes, which is good for running in the rain but wouldn’t survive a swim. The device feels heavy too, like a metal paperweight strapped to your wrist, though those with thicker, stronger forearms might disagree. Those 89.4 grams start to feel like a burden after all-day wear.

The slimmer, more lightweight Style is more my speed, but it doesn’t have any of the features I mentioned above. It’s essentially a step counter with a display for apps, notifications, and Google Assistant.

Android Wear has the best tiny typing experience for wearables, period.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

You’d think that replying to messages, Slacks, and emails on a watch would be a typo nightmare, but Android’s new on-watch keyboard is anything but. You can swipe your finger over the mini keyboard or peck each letter, and Google will employ machine learning to figure out what you’re trying to say.

There are also a number of “smart” replies, generated by Google based on the contents of your message, that you can choose from. For example, for an email requesting a meeting, the watch suggested “OK, let me get back to you” as an automatic response, along with “I agree,” “Nice,” and the smiley face emoji.

You can also respond purely with emojis, by choosing them from a long list or attempting to draw one. And by draw, I mean, scribble the “Pinterest fail” version of a thumbs-up and Google’s algorithms are smart enough to understand what you intended.

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One of the new capabilities of the watch is being able to quickly change watch faces.

During my briefing with Google, two product managers explained that this feature was introduced so you can easily switch between your “work” watch face and your “home” watch face. But it’s not super clear that, like, anybody wants or needs that??

There's also a new "rotational input" for scrolling.

If you're familiar with the Apple Watch, it's essentially the ~digital crown~.

The operating system’s biggest drawback is that you have to do so much on the watch itself.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

A new feature in 2.0 is being able to download apps right from the Google Play app store on the watch. But searching for and installing apps while squinting and hunching over an itty-bitty screen, even with its surprisingly phenomenal typing experience, is a huge pain. You can’t change the order of the way apps appear on the app list or tell the Play Store to download the corresponding watch app from your phone — which, let’s be honest, is a superior mobile device in every way.

To adjust the watch’s settings, the phone app is basically useless. Say you want to adjust the display brightness or font size. The only way to increase or decrease both of those things is to do it on your watch. The Android Wear app doesn’t give you the option to do any customization on the phone.

But, when you do want to just do stuff on the watch, you have to refer back to the phone anyway.

Another thing to be mindful of is that simply installing an app on the watch does not mean the app setup is complete. The public transit app Citymapper, for example, requires that you enter your home and work address on your phone, and Seven Minute Workout requires you to download workouts on your phone before being able to use the watch app. This means that even if you have an LG Sport with cellular data, you’ll still need your phone around for many apps.

The most frustrating thing was not being able to use the Fit app to track a stationary bike workout without connecting the watch to my Google account first. All of the technology required to track this workout — the heart rate monitor, the duration timer, and calories burned — is ON THE WATCH. The only reason it’s requiring my Google account is so I can save my stats. But what if I want to take advantage of the Sport’s 4GB of storage or just review my stats after class instead of saving it for posterity?? It’s a good reminder that Google is v. hungry for my data and probably knows way too much about me.

The updated Google Fit app can now show you how to properly do three different exercises.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

The Fit Workout watch app has three new settings: a push-up, sit-up, and squat challenge. The watch takes you through a guided “proper form” tutorial and counts your reps, which is handy. The challenge is to increase your number of reps every day.

It’s a nice touch, but other third-party Android Wear apps, like StrongLifts and Seven Minute Workout, offer much more robust fitness guidance. StrongLifts creates a weightlifting circuit and tells you how much weight you should start with based on your skill level, height, and weight. Seven Minute Workout creates a full-body workout and guides you through the different exercises as you complete them.

It takes a long time for the watch to power down.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

This device really does not want you to shut it down. And there are many times when shutting it down would be useful, like saving battery or forcing yourself not to look at a screen during dinner. You’d think that the one big button on this watch can also turn it off. Press and hold it for a short time, and you activate Google Assistant. Press and hold it for a long time, and you restart the watch.

I tried telling Google Assistant “power down” and — I kid you not — the result I got was an article on “How to Turn Off an iPhone.”

REAL SUBTLE, GOOGS.

In conclusion, if you want a smartwatch, the new LG Android Wear watches are just fine.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

They’re not the best. They’re not the worst. They fall somewhere in between.

The watches are just fine at putting notifications on your wrist, which is why you'd buy a smartwatch in the first place. They work best with Android, and if you switch to iPhone, you'll be able to use a limited version of the devices (you wouldn't be able to respond to iMessages and the Bluetooth connection might feel slower). Android Wear is a decent smartwatch OS for people who have an Android phone and rely heavily on Google apps like Gmail and Calendar.

But the new LG watches don't feel like the premium luxury devices one can expect of Apple or Samsung, and there are some key things missing from the Android Wear mobile app, like being able to install the watch version of apps and optimize settings. Having cellular data so that the device can run independent of the phone sounds like the ideal smartwatch, but right now, because that data also drains battery like crazy, it also means having to lug around a heavy metal paperweight on your wrist. That won't work for most people.

Luckily, Android Wear 2.0 is rolling out to a number of smartwatches of various build qualities and prices: the Asus ZenWatch 2 & 3, Casio Smart Outdoor Watch, Casio Pro Trek Smart, Fossil Q Founder, Fossil Q Marshal, Fossil Q Wander, Huawei Watch, LG Watch R, LG Watch Urbane and 2nd Edition LTE, Michael Kors Access Smartwatches, Moto 360 2nd Gen, Moto 360 for Women, Moto 360 Sport, New Balance RunIQ, Nixon Mission, Polar M600, and TAG Heuer Connected.

On Feb. 10, the LG Watch Sport will be available for $349 at the Google Store, AT&T, and Verizon, and the LG Watch Style will cost $249 at the Google Store and Best Buy.

Nicole Nguyen covers products and personal technology for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Nicole Nguyen at nicole.nguyen@buzzfeed.com.

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