LG Watch Sport review: Where software steals the show

The watch is a solid, if flawed, vehicle for Android Wear 2.0.

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    Today has been a long time coming. Android Wear 2.0 was originally announced last May, groomed for launch last fall and then delayed until, well, now. Since that first announcement was made at Google I/O last year, we've seen plenty of new Android Wear watches hit store shelves, but it was hard to get worked up over version 1.whatever when something better, faster and more functional was oh so close. Now the wait is over.

    As rumored, Google and LG have teamed up on a pair of smartwatches to usher in a new Android Wear 2.0 era. You can find our review of the more basic LG Watch Style here, but with its bigger battery, larger screen and extra niceties, the $349 LG Watch Sport now seems like the Android Wear smartwatch to beat.

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    from $509.00
    78
    Pros
    • Android Wear 2.0 is a big improvement
    • Mostly excellent performance
    • Rotating crown button works well
    • IP68 water resistance
    Cons
    • Thick, sometimes cumbersome design
    • Battery life could be better
    • Android Wear feels inconsistent in places

    Summary

    LG’s Watch Sport is the more impressive of the two smartwatches launching with Android Wear 2.0, and for the most part it’s a very respectable showing. Beyond the seriously snappy performance, the big Android Wear update brings a load of design tweaks and new features that the platform has needed for a long time. While not perfect, the software helps soften some of the watch’s shortcomings: the body will be too chunky for some, and we wish the battery lasted much longer. Still, the screen works well, the new rotating crown is generally very handy and there’s very little lag to be found. If you can look past those issues, there’s plenty to like about the package overall… though it probably won’t be long before another company crafts another Wear 2.0 that outshines this one.

    Hardware

    Gallery: LG Watch Sport review | 22 Photos

    When I think of sporty smartwatches, I think of bright colors, chunky bodies and outdoorsy looks. The LG Watch Sport, the company's first crack at a fitness-friendly wearable, avoids most of those design tropes. There's nothing particularly rugged about its clean lines and stainless steel, though the watch is nonetheless IP68 water- and-dust resistant. (I've been wearing it in the shower for nearly a week; no disasters so far.) In fact, I'd go as far as to say the Sport would look as good nestled under a suit sleeve as it would on the trails. The two available finishes -- gray and dark blue -- are similarly subdued. When taken in tandem, these design elements make for a smartwatch that's handsome -- in an inoffensive, dull sort of way.

    There's no getting around it, though: The Watch Sport is one chunky wrist computer. The problem doesn't lie in the screen, a perfectly adequate 1.38-inch round P-OLED panel running at 480 x 480. No, the issue lies mostly with the body. At 14.2mm thick, the Watch Sport is one of the thicker Android Wear pieces out there -- only slightly thinner than overtly rugged devices like Casio's smartwatches and the Nixon Mission.

    It doesn't help that the polyurethane bands are wide and nonremovable. Google says some of the watch's sensors extend into the band, which explains why those straps aren't going anywhere. They're comfortable enough (even though the plastic bit that holds the tail end of the strap in place moves around a lot), but they angle away from the watch's body in a way that could be uncomfortable for big-wristed people.

    You might expect the standard-bearer of a dramatically upgraded operating system to pack some impressive, fresh-off-the-line components. Well, not quite. On one hand, there's a fairly common 1.1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 chipset inside the Sport, paired with 4GB of storage. On the other hand, you get a whopping 768MB of memory. That chip has definitely been around, but we're looking at the most RAM ever in an Android Wear watch -- definitely handy for keeping everything running smoothly.

    Then comes the laundry list of radios and sensors seen in other high-end smartwatches. In addition to Bluetooth and WiFi, there's GPS, a heart-rate sensor, an LTE radio and nano-SIM slot, NFC for Android Pay transactions, an accelerometer, gyroscope, barometer, and ambient light sensor. Phew. No wonder this thing feels so chunky.

    New to the Android Wear formula is a rotating crown button, similar to what you'll find on Apple Watches. The comparison to Apple is impossible to avoid, but I actually prefer LG's approach; there's just the right amount of friction as you turn the crown, and it juts further out of the watch's body so that it's easier to spin with two fingers.

    I'm still convinced the spinning bezel from Samsung's Gear S3 Frontier is the most elegant interface you'll find on a smartwatch, but the combination of a big, touchable screen here and a rotating crown for more-precise control gets pretty close. Having two interface mechanisms that essentially do the same thing can get tricky, though, as I'll explain in a moment. Anyway, the crown is flanked by two quick-launch buttons that fire up Google Fit and Android Pay by default. I'm still not sold on the look, but unless you're really into thin watches, the Watch Sport packs more bang for your buck.

    Android Wear 2.0

    Gallery: Android Wear 2.0 screenshots | 21 Photos

    Love the design or hate it, the LG Sport is ultimately a vessel for a new version of Android Wear. If I were writing this six months ago, that would've meant a wearable with a smattering of new features that, while pretty nifty, didn't do much to move the platform forward. Not anymore. During the week I've been testing the Watch Sport, there's one thought I've kept coming back to: Android Wear is all grown up. More importantly, performance is mostly smooth now. Obviously, the robust hardware helps keep things running nicely, but Android Wear has never felt this fast or flexible, even on watches with basically the same components.

    Take the apps situation, for instance. Developers have achieved some impressive feats on our wrist-screens, and now it's easier to download and manage apps on the watch independently from a phone. The update packs the ability to download certain apps directly to Wear 2.0 watches over a WiFi or LTE connection. It's quick and works well, and now there are plenty of apps that work well right on the wrist.

    These past few days, Foursquare has made for a surprisingly able wrist app on day trips to New York City. The app Bring added a handy shopping list I could tap when I remembered to grab the eggs. More crucial to me is that we can now add complications from third-party apps to watch faces. It's been a lifesaver. Consider the weather: Right out of the box, there isn't a way to add a "current temperature" complication to the Sport's six preloaded watch faces. Sure, there's a standalone weather app, but who has the time to open the app launcher and scroll down to the Ws? With the 2.0 update in place, downloading the Weather Channel's complications onto the watch (but not the phone) is dead simple.

    The Watch Sport is also one of the first wearables to come with Google's Assistant baked in, and most of the time it was an impressive performer. I spent most of the past week asking it to text my friends and answer mundane, random questions I couldn't be bothered to grab a phone for. Think "how many cups in a quart?" or "how old is Vladimir Putin?" Alas, though, my home isn't terribly smart, so I couldn't test how the Watch Sport does at managing lights and firing up connected coffee makers.

    In any case, my only real disappointment is how long it sometimes takes for the assistant to respond to my questions. The longest delay I've ever seen was 10 to 15 seconds when connected to a phone via Bluetooth; it was typically faster at returning results over WiFi or LTE.

    Then there are the little things. The watch displays the time even while it's booting up, so there's never a moment -- short of the watch being dead -- when you can't tell what time it is. Quick settings like screen brightness, volume, Do Not Disturb and Airplane Mode are all located in one menu when you swipe down from the home screen, unlike the multiple pages of options in older Android Wear versions. Notifications are color-coded based on the app, and the Google Inbox-style smart replies to messages have been mostly spot-on. As a whole, the Android Wear 2.0 package is impressively well-rounded.

    My list of gripes is much shorter by comparison. While I think the new design is a big improvement, longtime Android Wear fans will need some time to get reacquainted. It's mostly minor stuff, such as swiping to change watch faces instead of long-pressing. I also wish Google had applied some of these new interaction rules more consistently. Most of the time you have to swipe from left to right on the screen to go back one level, but that doesn't work from the app list. Instead, you're supposed to hit the crown button.

    Speaking of, the crown could use more consistency too. In some situations, you can either swipe on the screen or spin the crown to scroll up and down. In others, you're forced to use one or the other. The only way to know is to keep an eye on what kind of indicators appear on-screen; if you get a scroll bar that hugs the screen's round edge, you can swipe or spin. For scrolling through things like watch-face complications, though, your only choice is to swipe. Why? I have no idea. To its credit, Google has taken note of the issue and has said it will address this in a future update, but it's unclear when.

    In use

    I might not love the Watch Sport's exterior design, but LG has otherwise nailed the basics. The display is crisp and decently bright even under harsh sunlight, though the always-on display mode is easily overpowered by bright days. Day-to-day performance, as I've noted, is generally excellent. Even the new fitness functionality, which can track indoor workouts such as using the elliptical and doing squats, is more precise than I expected.

    It's a bummer that the automatic activity recognition doesn't work the way Google originally said it would. Early on, the plan was for Android Wear to interpret certain movements as exercise so you'd get the caloric credit for a workout without having to touch the watch. That didn't pan out, as a Google spokesperson explained to Engadget: "After internally testing the auto-start feature as originally envisioned, we concluded that it wasn't the best user experience for many situations (e.g., when you're running to catch the bus)." Fair enough, since the feature still exists for strength training exercises, but here's hoping Google figures it out later. In general, though, the new Android Wear is mostly excellent and runs like a charm on LG's hardware.

    Still, let's not forget all the extras that the Sport brings to the wrist. I don't know that talking into your wrist has become completely socially acceptable, but at least the Watch Sport doubles as a decent phone. It's worth noting LG isn't new to this; the second-edition Watch Urbane with LTE was the first Android Wear timepiece with a built-in mobile radio for data and calls. And now the Sport's improved software makes it much easier to use. Sure, you can launch the Phone app and scroll through all of your contacts, but asking Google's Assistant to connect me to someone usually seemed more accurate than relying on the voice commands of old. Audio quality is nothing to write home about, though. Max volume isn't all that loud, but I could still hear most conversations pretty clearly on bustling New York streets.

    Using the GPS can take a while if you're using the watch as a standalone device, but performance improves quickly when the Sport is connected to your phone. Once that's finished, you can load an app such as Google Maps -- which isn't installed on the watch by default, strangely -- to get to your next destination. Getting Android Pay set up before the watch's official launch was sort of a pain, but once that initial setup was complete, I had no problem using the Sport to make some purchases at my local drug store.

    All of these extras require a powerful battery, though, and the 430mAh cell in the Sport doesn't seem like enough. Yes, that's a bigger battery than we usually see in Android Wear watches, but this updated software seems to be pushing the hardware much more than before. With an active Bluetooth connection to a phone, auto brightness and the always-on display enabled, the Watch Sport usually stuck around for about 13 hours before dying.

    While that's technically enough juice to get me through a full day of work, I always had to make a beeline for a power outlet once I got home. If you really want to see the battery meter plummet, use an LTE connection to download some apps or load up the watch face that updates its background image based on your location. I think a bigger battery would do more for the watch's user experience than a persistent network connection, but it's ultimately a matter of preference.

    The competition

    Not everyone needs every bell and whistle the LG Watch Sport offers, which is why the more basic LG Watch Style exists. It will launch alongside the Sport as one of the first Android Wear 2.0 watches on the market, which means the Style packs all of Google's helpful tweaks and a similar rotating crown button for precise control over apps and notifications. The Style also uses the same Snapdragon Wear 2100 chipset as the Sport (albeit with less RAM), and the performance there feels similarly smooth. It costs $100 less than the Sport too, though you'll lose the LTE, NFC, GPS and heart rate sensor along the way. My colleague Cherlynn isn't a fan, but it's worth a look at least.

    Then you have options like Samsung's Gear S3 Frontier, which features many of the same Watch Sport tricks in a slimmer body. I dig the Frontier's rugged look, but I appreciate its spinning bezel even more. In addition to being fun to use, the bezel also has distinct notches that click into place, making the act of scrolling through notifications and menus feel more satisfying. It costs $349 like the Watch Sport, but choosing the Frontier means you're working with Tizen and its limited selection of useful apps.

    If you're looking for a smartwatch for your iPhone, meanwhile, the Watch Sport technically does the job. Still, we've experienced a handful of issues with getting standalone apps and notifications to work properly, to the point where we almost don't recommend trying. It's possible this is a symptom of non-final software (we've asked Google for comment), but don't expect the Watch Sport to be much more than a second-class citizen as far as your iPhone is concerned. You're better off with an Apple Watch, in that case.

    One final note: If you're in the market for a smartwatch, do yourself a favor and ignore every Android Wear 1.0 wearable out there. Their time has come and gone. Even if the LG Watch Sport falls short of perfection, it's just one of many options that will soon be available, and the software improvements are notable enough that there's no reason to look back.

    Wrap-up

    It's rare that I find myself enjoying a device's software more than its hardware, but here I am. Don't get me wrong, not much about the Watch Sport as a package of parts is definitively bad. If you don't mind the lackluster battery and thick body, it's a perfectly fast, perfectly adequate smartwatch. It's just that Android Wear 2.0 -- even with its flaws -- is such a marked improvement over earlier versions that it can't help but steal the show.

    While I don't agree with every one of LG's design choices, the Watch Sport's greatest strength is how easily its technological trappings fade into the background, giving Google's software the power and space to fully shine. In that way, the Watch Sport feels almost Nexus-like in its ambitions and execution. Ultimately, LG has put together a decidedly decent smartwatch, but I can't wait to see where Android Wear 2.0 pops up next.

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