LG Watch Urbane review: The best of Android Wear, but is that good enough?


LG Watch Urbane review: The best of Android Wear, but is that good enough?

THE GOOD Crisp, classic design; fully round, beautiful OLED display; latest Android Wear support; Wi-Fi antenna connects to phone across different Wi-Fi networks; decent battery life (for Android Wear).

THE BAD Big design won't appeal to many wrists; Android Wear software still doesn't feel all that smooth to use; Wi-Fi connectivity spotty at times; watch is expensive compared to other Android Wear options.

THE BOTTOM LINE The LG Watch Urbane is the best-looking Android Wear smartwatch and adds Wi-Fi-to-phone connectivity, but it doesn't offer all that much more than previous Android Wear watch models.

Now that the Apple Watch is here, what's Google going to do for Android Wear, Act 2? We may get a more detailed roadmap at Google's big I/O developer conference later this month, but in the meantime, the LG Watch Urbane just might be the raising of the curtains.

Android Wear smartwatches have been around for almost a year. Google's own software platform for watches has birthed over half a dozen different types already; from Sony, Asus, LG, Motorola and Samsung. The LG Watch Urbane is LG's third Android Wear watch. Its first, the G Watch, was square. The sequel, the G Watch R, was fully round, with a sporty design that made it look like a regular watch. 

LG watch urbane

(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

The Urbane is like the G Watch R, but dipped in chrome. It's also the launch of the latest version of Android Wear: this is the first device to support new features such as Wi-Fi, and new parts of Android Wear's software interface, like the ability to draw emoji to friends.

Is Android Wear better? And does LG's newest Urbane watch raise the bar on Google's smartwatches? Yes, and yes. But this newest Android Wear watch is also really just a slightly better version of what's already been out there. And it's significantly more expensive.

Design: A dressy smartwatch

I put one of the LG Watch Urbane's many round analog watchfaces on, buckled the stitched leather strap around my wrist, and wore it during my daily routine. It seemed like a regular, fancy watch. That's the coolest part of the Urbane: it looks utterly normal.

Unlike the sleek but weirdly wide Moto 360, which never felt like a "regular" watch, the Urbane's proportions are pretty perfect. Like the G Watch R, it has a fully round 1.3-inch OLED display at the expense of a bit more chassis and bezel. It's a fantastic-looking display, big and bright and crisp; just high-res enough to not look pixelated. The Urbane is a few grams heavier than the G Watch R, but the real difference is that it looks a little more compactly designed. 

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LG Watch Urbane in silver next to the black LG G Watch R. (Sarah Tew/ CNET)

That doesn't mean it's a perfect fit for a smartwatch. Unlike the Apple Watch or Moto 360, the displays of which float at the top of the watch for easy access, the Urbane's circular screen is inset a bit. It makes some edge swipes feel a little awkward to pull off, but it protects the screen a bit from incidental scratch damage.

The extra chrome -- actually, stainless steel -- on the Urbane's body design means it's also going to be big for some wrists. My wife tried it on, and she said it felt absurdly large. On my wrist it looked fine, although the lugs on the top and bottom lie flat rather than curving around the wrist, the way I would have preferred. The previous G Watch R also had a stainless steel top, but in black.

The Urbane comes in either gold- or silver-colored designs, with stitched leather straps. The straps look and feel fine, if a bit stiff. You can swap in any 22mm watch band, too.

A side button that looks like a crown acts as an Android Wear home button. Click it once to turn on the display or activate Google Now voice commands, or press and hold to reach apps and settings. Beyond that, the Urbane has a microphone and vibration feedback, but no speaker. None of the Android Wear watches do. 

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LG Watch Urbane next to Apple Watch. (Sarah Tew/ CNET)

The Urbane is 11mm thick, about the same thickness as the Apple Watch, but it's wider, and larger. It cuts a nice profile, but only on a man's wrist.

The included watchfaces LG has designed all look pretty sharp, for the most part, but they feel like variations on a familiar throwback analog watch theme. A few are digital, but most riff on the "you're wearing a fancy dress watch" concept. They look good, and because Android Wear allows an always-on ambient mode to keep the watch display on, they're easy to glance at all day long. (You can always add funkier faces via Google Play's app store.)

I love round smartwatches. But, I just wish Android Wear had more apps designed for round displays. Beyond watch faces, most other apps still tend to feel awkwardly married to the round-watch look.

The Watch Urbane is water resistant (IP67), which means you can wash your hands with it or even submerge it in 1 meter of still water for up to 30 minutes. I wouldn't shower with it -- the leather band isn't water resistant, anyway -- and you can't wear it while swimming. And like all Android Wear watches, it'll pair with Android phones running Android 4.3 or later. 

LG watch urbane

(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

Wi-Fi anywhere...almost...sort of

One of Android Wear's greatest new tricks is its ability to use Wi-Fi to connect to your phone remotely, even when you're not in the same house (or state). But, keep in mind: the LG Watch Urbane needs your Android phone to be on in order to receive notifications, calls, or run Internet-connected apps. It can't connect to Wi-Fi on its own to get messages, unless your phone is turned on somewhere and is also receiving data. Got it?

Apple Watch also has Wi-Fi, for similar purposes, but it only works when it's connected to the same Wi-Fi network as your iPhone. It works across a house or office, but not across town. Android Wear's newest version works over these greater distances, and the LG Watch Urbane is the first Android Wear watch to work in this trick.

It's pretty cool -- I looked up local restaurants from my wrist even with my phone in another part of the office, on another Wi-Fi network. But then I tried going to Starbucks across the street, where I saved the Wi-Fi network on my watch, and had no luck. No surprise, right? Starbucks requires a pop-up log-in before getting online (aka a "captive portal"), something a watch can't accomplish. But that also means the Urbane (or any Android Wear Wi-Fi enabled watch) wouldn't be all that great for logging in on the go without a phone -- at your trusted Wi-Fi location -- if you were even inclined to be that sort of person anyway.

I was able to get the Urbane to magically work at home even when the LG G4 phone I had it paired to was in another house over a mile away. It worked great, until I tried getting directions to somewhere, and Google Maps asked me to complete the action on my phone, which was a five minute drive from me. For Android Wear to magically work with Wi-Fi, it'll need to do more, and do it more independently from the phone.

To be honest, after all the hassle of trying to connect the Urbane to my off-site phone, it just made wish I was using a phone. 

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Apps are easier to access now: click and hold the side button. (Sarah Tew/ CNET)

Android Wear: Getting better every day, but still a bit messy

Things keep improving for Android Wear, a platform that's been studded with subtle and continual upgrades since last year's debut. Offline music playback, fitness software synced with Google Fit, lots of apps and watch faces, and now the latest version of Android Wear, which adds the aforementioned Wi-Fi connectivity between phone and watch, and a few other tricks.

Emoji are now onboard, and you can either draw them with your finger or pull up a list of weird Google-ish emoji. The "emoji helper" was a little trigger-happy for my tastes (it started suggesting ideas when all I had done was make two dot-eyes).

Getting to apps is a lot easier. Pressing and holding the side button now brings up a list of apps, and it's wonderful. It's what the Apple Watch should allow for, too (in a way, it does, but the Apple Watch app grid is far too dense and lacks app names). The list of "suggested actions" that normally greetedAndroid Wear owners after tapping the screen has been buried behind a few swipes of the app page. That's a good idea, because you don't need it: just say "OK, Google" anytime, and you can pull off a voice command. 

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Easy-access silence/do-not-disturb controls. (Sarah Tew/ CNET)

Pull-down notification settings have been tweaked, too: easy-access silencing, or even "theater mode," allow the buzzes to be put on hiatus. There's also a screen-brightening assistant for very sunny moments, rather than needing to fumble through the submenus.

Still, Android Wear insists on serving up notifications as big, screen-filling cards. These cards are huge -- needlessly so. I'd prefer simpler, tinier notifications, and ones I could flick down and access in a list. Swiping through each Google Now card/notification on Android Wear feels like a waste of screen space. Some Google Now cards are predictive and keep coming back no matter how often you swipe them away. Estimated commuting times, weather, sports scores -- I still don't love the odd mix of cards that get thrust on you in Android Wear.

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Weather, and most notifications, are served up via screen-filling "cards." (Sarah Tew/ CNET)

It's still not all that intuitive to customize notifications in Android Wear, either. There's no handy list of options to toggle on and off: it mostly mirrors your phone settings, which you can tweak in your phone's notification options.

But, the growing list of Android Wear apps -- many of which act mainly as extensions to your phone, much like Apple Watch apps do for iOS -- at least offers promise.

LG includes a few specific new apps on the Watch Urbane, including Call, which dials back a number you've already received or made. You can't actually make a voice call through the Urbane watch, but this acts as a call-back dashboard. 

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Active exercise monitoring, and heart rate too. (Sarah Tew/ CNET)

Fitness: Better, not fantastic

A built-in heart rate monitor on the back, just like the LG G Watch R, allows for on-the-spot or continuous heart-rate tracking. That, and the Google Fit fitness app, track steps and active exercise and sync the stats back to your phone.

Apps on Android Wear are still weird, though -- many of them pop up like cards, versus opening and staying open. Google Fit is a decent Fitbit-type activity tracker, but it's not very deep. Fitness feels like a secondary feature on both Android Wear and LG's dressy Urbane: it's not a combination I'd love to use. But it's better than Android Wear was a year ago. 

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The charger cradle works nicely. (Sarah Tew/ CNET)

Battery life

The built-in 410mAh battery lasts pretty well, for a smartwatch. With an always-on display that powers into a dimmer ambient mode after a few seconds, the Urbane lasted more than a day. With the ambient always-on display mode off (you have to tap the display or raise your wrist to see the time), battery life extends towards two days.

Fancy OLED smartwatches still aren't good enough to last more than a day or two, not without heavy power management. This watch is better than some, but not by much.

Keep that charger cradle nearby. LG's charger attaches with magnets, satisfyingly snapping onto the back and lining up its metal contacts. A wall charger and Micro-USB cable can be detached from the charger puck and used to charge your phone, too. It's nearly the same design as the LG G Watch R's charger. 

LG watch urbane

(Sarah Tew/ CNET)

Why you should wait

This might be my favorite Android Wear watch yet. But you should wait before leaping on the LG Watch Urbane, at least for a couple of weeks. Or longer.

Why? Because Google's biggest developer conference, Google I/O, is just around the corner. The latest version of Android Wear -- and new Android Wear watches -- could be unveiled. The Urbane won't be alone in showing off the latest features Android Wear can offer. Wait to see what else debuts, just to be safe.

Also, price: the Urbane is expensive. The G Watch R looks sporty and costs less. Other watches are going on sale. The Moto 360 costs less.

Finally: Android Wear, and most smartwatches, are works in progress. It's clear that LG is a frontrunner in designing nice-looking wristgear, but Android Wear as a platform still feels diffuse, unclear, and hard to navigate. It doesn't do as much as I wish it could.

I want to see what the next version of Android Wear, and all of its promised smartwatches, can do. The Urbane is a good next step, but it feels like a baby step. If you want a smartwatch right now that looks classic, however, and price isn't an object, this is definitely it.

Sport: Fitness and wellness

Proficiency level: Expert/Intermediate

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