LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live review: Android Weary

7.8

Daniel Bader

July 5, 2014 6:37 pm

The first time I realized the triage potential of a smartwatch, I was walking home from the grocery store with two bags in each arm, and a wrist vibrating because three separate family members were trying to get in touch at the same time. It was a small thing, to alleviate that anxiety, but it meant a lot in the moment.

That’s what these gadgets, and this burgeoning industry, will eventually fall to: a value-add to your existing smartphone, and to the platform that it runs. Android Wear was sprung on us like a summer rain shower, but behind the scenes, Google had been working its prototype magic for years.

Now that Android Wear, Google’s official platform for wearables, is here and on our wrists, how does it work? How does it run? And, more importantly, how does it feel?

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A corridor to your smartphone

Think of your smartphone as a wide-open plain, an expanse that is untamed and often unrelenting. Android Wear attempts to siphon all that chaos, through notifications and purposeful apps, into a single corridor.

On its own, an Android Wear smartwatch, such as the LG G Watch or Samsung Gear Live, is a timepiece, and not a very good one; individually, they’re homely, and there are only a few functions one can perform when disconnected from its base, the Android smartphone. But when it is connected, Wear mirrors any notification actively received by an Android device; it’s the perfect triage workflow.

But if that’s all Android Wear did, it wouldn’t be too dissimilar to Pebble, or the early incarnations of Samsung’s Gear series. Google, however, takes advantage of bi-directional content avenues that either don’t exist on its competitors, or work poorly: voice, and the Knowledge Graph.

To understand how Google intends to make Android Wear stand out from the competition, we have to go back to Google I/O 2012, with the introduction of Android 4.1 and Google Now. What was at first a bizarre string of content cards has expanded to become a voice- and text-friendly assistant, the kind that tells you things it thinks, based on machine learning, you need to know. It does this using location and context; if you’re standing by a bus stop, it will show you the upcoming travel time; if you have an appointment, it will offer route advice; if you’re a stock holder, it will inform you of important changes to its price.

The austere beauty of Google Now is that you don’t need to work hard to make it work for you; it just sends you important snippets of information, as if by magic. This dynamic, for the most part, translates well to the watch, but like the platform as a whole there are lingering issues that need to be worked out.

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Notification Heaven

Android Wear is very good at notifications. Developers don’t even need to change anything in their apps for simple notification mirroring; at their most basic, apps show the full notification, with vertical scrolling, and via a swipe to the right the option to open it on the phone. Using the newly-released SDK, devs can then augment their existing apps to offer on-watch actions, such as voice-based replies or sharing intents, or create mini apps similar to what we’ve seen from Pebble, Samsung and Sony.

All Android Wear devices follow a strict hierarchical flow: the watch face is at the top, with notification cards a vertical swipe away, ranked chronologically. As users scroll down through the stack of cards, some Google Now-generated, others app-generated, they have the option of swiping left to see more content. Often this comes in the form of expanded previews, like a full email or Hangouts conversation. Other times, as in Gmail, users will have large, single action buttons: in the case of Gmail, again, these take the form of Reply, Archive and Open on Device.

This is really the first problem with Android Wear: what if my typical Gmail action is to delete and not archive? Well, Google does not let you alter those three base functions, so you’re out of luck.

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Voicing Your Commands

Indeed, Android Wear constantly extracts an unsteady tension between being too strict — necessary for a small screen platform, I’d say — and not consistent enough.

When I mentioned that the watch face sits at the top of the hierarchy, it only reveals half the truth: tapping on the screen brings up the Google Now voice prompt, which can also be activated by saying, “OK Google” at any time. Voice actions take the form of “Take a note…” or “Remind me to…”, but also “Send an email,” or “Compose a text.”

Google’s voice recognition is, for the most part, quite good. It’s due to the infancy of the platform itself that one’s voice doesn’t always extract the proper effect.

For example, Google Maps is integrated into Android Wear, allowing users to “Navigate home,” or “Find the closest gas station.” The problem here is twofold: Google often mixes letters and numbers, so “Navigate to 900 Queen St W” becomes “Navigate 2900 Queen St W”; and driving directions always take precedence.

The latter can be solved with a bit of semantic tweaking: “Walking directions 900 Queen St W” initiates the correct search on the device. The former, however, is more tricky: yes, Google’s voice recognition is good, but with voice there is zero room for error. Make one mistake and a user is likely to get fed up and type the request directly into his phone.

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Appy Together

This inconsistency is compounded in Android Wear’s nascent selection of grab-bag apps: some support only tap actions; others only voice; others both.

The app situation is interesting, since there is a bimodal means of accessing them, one seemingly preferred over another. Unlike Android proper, the app drawer is hidden at the bottom of a non-editable list of commands, found by tapping the voice search button and scrolling down to the bottom.

It’s clear that Google wants Android Wearers to interact with apps when they arise, or by voice — scrolling to meet them head-on is both onerous and unadvisable.

There are currently 30 or so apps that have been updated to support Android Wear, the most useful of which mirror smartphone functionality without cumbersome interface or design. For example, PayPal has developed a Wear app that, with a tap, showcases stores that accept mobile payments and make it easy to check in and complete a transaction. Lyft, a US-only taxi-on-demand service, lets you hail a cab to your location.

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Other apps, like OneFootball Brasil, pushes soccer information in real time, with cards that end up being much more detailed than Google’s own.

Apps like Evernote Wear tap into Google’s built-in Defaults functionality, allowing users to set where a note is saved — “Remember to get a car wash” — with a voice prompt. This functions identically to Android proper’s settings, but all the Defaults are set in the Android Wear companion app.

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Android Weary

Android Wear requires your smartphone to be running 4.3 Jelly Bean to run, since it relies on Bluetooth LE to communicate. It also requires the latest version of Google Search and Play Services.

While the watch’s underlying software itself can be updated — both the G Watch and Gear Live already received a small OTA update — because Wear relies so heavily on mirroring Google Now cards, improvements can be pushed behind the scenes. As we’ll see later, Android Wear itself cannot be modified by the OEMs who create the watches, so all users will have an identical experience, with a few small caveats.

What this all adds up to is a promising start; Android Wear provides by far the best notification extraction of a smartwatch ecosystem to date. Unlike Samsung’s Tizen-powered Gear series, it does not limit users to one type of smartphone, and unlike Pebble it can display more than a few lines of text.

But there are some serious functionality issues, at least in the first generation of the product. Once you’ve dismissed a notification there is no way to recover it — and it is far too easy to accidentally dismiss a notification. Doing so also dismisses it on the accompanying phone, making it particularly frustrating when you think you saw something and want to see it again.

Even more egregious is the too-broad app notification blacklist. By default, Android Wear mirrors every notification, including those you don’t care about. As a heavy user, that proved frustrating. Google Now is seemingly smart enough to offer cards only when I want to see them, but many times a notification on my phone is not important enough to be conveyed on my wrist. The Android Wear app offers a blacklist, but that blocks all notifications from an app, not necessarily certain interruptions within one.

Clearly these considerations were made for the sake of simplicity, but such granularity should be offered in the future as a way to mitigate overwhelming users with unnecessary notifications.

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LG G Watch

The squatter, simpler and more utilitarian of the two Android Wear devices currently available, the LG G Watch is a bland, black square with a 1.65-inch 280×280 pixel IPS display and no buttons to speak of.

Its utilitarianism is an advantage in a few ways: it’s more comfortable to wear, as the built-in rubber strap is more flexible and arguably looks better on the wrist. (Both watches have replaceable straps, though.) It also has a larger battery — 400mAh to the Gear Live’s 300mAh — and is more viewable in sunlight thanks to the stronger backlight.

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Those advantages over the Gear Live extend to the included watch faces: they are so much nicer than the uninspired preloads on the Samsung, it’s almost enough to change my recommendation. Almost.

Because the software is identical on both watches, the hardware differences between the two are paramount: as we’ll get to in the next section, Samsung has had enough time to sort out its usability issues, and the Gear Live feels like more of a fully-formed product than a technology demo. LG being first out of the gate means that the G Watch was likely designed as a reference platform for Android Wear itself, and was meant to showcase its capabilities rather than draw attention to the watch’s design.

There are no buttons on the G Watch, either: users can set the screen to stay on at all times, sucking battery due to an always-on backlight, or take advantage of the accelerometer to turn the screen on when lifting the watch. The motion is both natural and reliable; I never faced the issue of having to tap the screen to turn it on because it didn’t detect the upward movement of my arm.

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Samsung Gear Live

The Samsung Gear Live is the better of the two smart watches, but barely. Both sport quad-core 1.2Ghz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 SoCs, 512MB of RAM and 4GB of internal storage. The GPUs inside each differ — the Gear Live uses an Adreno 305 while the G Watch has a Mali-400 — and neither takes advantage of all four cores, likely for energy reasons, but performance is identical.

The Gear Live has a slightly smaller, higher-resolution screen than the G Watch — 1.63″ at 320×320 pixels — but the most important difference is the technology: like the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo, it uses Super AMOLED technology rather than IPS. This means that when the watch is “resting,” displaying a monochrome image, the large swath of black pixels are not using any energy.

If you’ve worn a Gear 2 or Gear 2 Neo, you know what to expect here: the Gear Live is practically identical but for a realignment of the single button, which has moved from below the watch face to the right side. Unlike on the Gear 2, the button is used to turn the device on and off rather than return to the home screen, and its new placement affords the watch a cleaner look overall.

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The watch strap is identical to its Tizen counterparts as well, and, while replaceable, is one of its most frustrating inclusions. It uses rigid, cheap-feeling plastic teeth make it impossible to rest flat on a bedside table or desk, and runs counter to the rather premium-feeling metal composition of the watch itself.

While easy enough to replace, the watch strap would be better suited for a health-related device. In fact, it’s Samsung’s inclusion of a heart rate sensor, the same one that graces the Galaxy S5, Gear 2 and Gear Fit, that created the need for such a strap in the first place.

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The heart rate sensor, while still relatively unreliable (see our Galaxy S5 review for more on that), is more useful on a watch than a smartphone. It doesn’t like movement or sweat, so it’s still not exercise-friendly (it will often ask you to stop moving and wipe your wrist, which is not ideal when trying to gauge performance during a run) but is better than nothing, I suppose.

The Gear Live is the greater of two evils when it comes to usability in direct sunlight: both watches are practically unusable on a bright day, and neither offers an ambient light sensor to automatically boost brightness. This means that in order to transition effectively from a room, for which maximum brightness is usually too high, one must dig into the Settings menu and adjust it manually.

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Battery Life

While uptime has proven to be ample for those who don’t mind charging every night, neither the G Watch nor the Gear Live will last more than 36 hours. This contrasts with Pebble’s five-day-plus battery life but diminished functionality and returns us to the argument of what we want in such devices.

In the early days of smartphones, users often decried their battery life, comparing them to the week-long charges of their monochrome Nokia bricks. We’re entering the same period for wearables, except that at this point smartwatches are deemed unessential by all but early adopters.

I have no inherent issue with having to charge my smartwatch every night, but take issue with the form their charging takes. Both the G Watch and Gear Live use POGO pins for charging, thanks to inherent water resistance that precludes on-device charging ports, but their docks, if they can be so called, are either clunky or cheap, and both far too easy to lose.

The Gear Live comes with a tiny clip that attaches to the POGO pins and houses a microUSB port. It works without issue but I will almost certainly lose it within the week and need to buy three more. The G Watch’s charging dock is better designed, allowing the watch to rest on top of it in one orientation. Neither, however, rival native wireless charging, which the Moto 360 is rumoured to have.

As for the watches’ battery life, the G Watch’s larger battery cell offered 20% better battery life in our benchmarks — five hours to the Gear Live’s four — but that was during sustained usage and does not mirror real-world use.

On days where the devices received a relatively high number of notifications, where the screens turned on every few minutes to display a notification, the G Watch edged the Gear Live by just over an hour. On days with lighter usage, the Gear Live, thanks to its Super AMOLED screen, had a three-hour edge.

Neither lasted more than 36 hours when connected to a smartphone, even with minimal notifications, but the Gear Live has proven better suited to my light-to-medium style of usage.

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A Work in Progress

It’s clear that this is just the beginning: Android Wear, like Android itself was a few years ago, is teeming with potential. Today, the experience is bogged down by inconsistency and a relatively narrow set of supported actions, but viewed as a highly-capable medium for notification triage it’s clear Google has a winner.

Android has always done notifications better than any other smartphone platform, and Google’s ability to “sell” Android Wear to consumers will rest on how well it can convince them that its platform doesn’t need to end at the smartphone.

Like Samsung’s Gear series, Android Wear is a platform play, a means of enticing consumers to stick with Android itself. But whereas Samsung has yet to make a compelling argument in that regard, Android Wear’s bimodal combination of reliable voice and familiar touchscreen actions could make all the difference.

The LG G Watch is available for $249 and the Samsung Gear Live is available for $219.99 from Google Play.

7.8

Final Score

  • TomsDisqusted

    Spot on about the charging – I’m already charging every night so I don’t mind that, but it’s gotta be convenient, and the last thing I need is an extra proprietary charger or charging pad that I may lose or find not available when I need it.

    If the watches can’t have micro-USB ports then they need to support some wireless charging standard.

    • Kienerman

      if you want the smart watch battery last longer you’ll need to have a black background the colour wallpaper drains it. I got a gear fit i know it’s different but it last me like 4 days without charging. i’m sure their watch will be the same. Not sure if the LG is the same.

  • StevieY

    Solid fair review. I preordered the Gear Live because of LG’s mediocre reliability reputation but both look decent

  • Dennis Deveaux

    I have to chuckle about the all or nothing approach for notifications. Isn’t this how all smartwatches deal with notifications now? Heck, isn’t this how the notification center on the phone works by default? I don’t seem to recall these complaints about Pebble and such, so to single out Android Wear seems unfair IMO. Of course, MobileSyrup isn’t alone here.

    It may not be ideal, but until someone finds a way to offer prioritized notifications, the problem isn’t going to go away.

    • Tyler Hardeman

      the pebble, at least on android, doesn’t support notifications from every app. There are a few services built into it that it can hook into (native twitter app, Facebook, SMS, whatsapp, hangouts and SMS are the majority) but for other notifications you need a 3rd party app to either whitelist a few (what I do) or blanket push everything.

      Personally I’d prefer more granular control like what the Pebble offers on Android, for the simplicity that I don’t need every notification going to my watch, which the pebble can accommodate.

      Also in regards to Prioritized notifications, that already exists in android, notifications can be set to 4 priority levels. Just that until now there hasn’t been much a a reason to specifically set one if you’re a developer. Hopefully this, and the enhancements coming to the notifications in Android L will get developers doing that.

    • YTLTY

      Actually, if you use pebble notifier, it is possible to get notifications from every app.

    • Tyler Hardeman

      “but for other notifications you need a 3rd party app to either whitelist a few (what I do) or blanket push everything.”

      Yes, fully aware of that, so much so that i even said it.

    • Dennis Deveaux

      It sounds like Android Wear reviewers want the prioritized notifications. You can already disable notifications for any app, but it’s an all or nothing approach; just like other smartwatches. Pebble just has limited support for Android notifications in the default app, but it’s not the issue I’m referring to in my critique. It seems they want the capabilities that Prioritized Notifications would bring them (don’t send all e-mails to my wrist – only important ones from specific senders). Once again, I’ve seen this in quite a few reviews for Android Wear, so I’m certainly not singling out MobileSyrup here.

      Hopefully you are right and developers start taking advantage of the prioritized notification features, as it would help alleviate this problem.

  • Tyler Hardeman

    On a personal level I’m holding out at least until the 360, but probably until the 2nd gen of products. I don’t necessarily need the 5 days of battery life I get with my pebble, and I don’t mind charging every day. However, I want to have at least 2 days of battery life on them. My reasoning is that if I for some reason forget to charge the watch one night if it would be nice to know it can get through the second day without difficulty. If i forget to charge my phone I can plug it into a laptop or battery pack without much hassle but needing to have the dock charger, plus the fact that the watch is supposed to live on my wrist, makes that harder to do for a phone.

  • d a

    OMG Blah Blah Blah blah blah blah Last line says it all, these ACCESSORIES are around $200-$300. That’s nuts for something simply tells you what your phone IS ALREADY TELLING YOU. $50 max. Once the initial excitement is over, they won’t be able to sell 1 at these prices, other than to the odd guy who’s very busy with his hands all day. My brother got one for $50 with the purchase of his phone, he would wear it but often forget to charge it at night, next thing you know he’s not wearing it for a week. He tries charging it and it won’t charge. I check online and apparently this is a common problem if you let the battery run down to empty unless you take it apart and try a few things to jump start the battery, which I’ll probably end up doing for him when he’s in town. In the end, he has a $300 accessory in his drawer that yes he got for $50 but still, sticker price is around $300, collecting dust as it’s not heavy enough to even be a door stop.

    • StevieY

      Someone is angry that other people can (and will) spend $200-300 on a smart watch.

      Companies do things to make profits. Components cost money, you aren’t going to get a watch for $50 unless you get a crappy Timex from Walmart

    • d a

      LOL, Grow up, someone is “angry”? Tell me, what exactly is smart about it? it’s as smart as the second screen to your computer. You’re like all the clever people that fell for the oooh 3d TV’s, oooh, a smartphone on my head and I’ll call it google glass. Company’s absolutely “do things to make profits” and smart consumers see through their desperate nonsense devices. That’s what this is, they’re running out of ideas and throwing crap to the wall and seeing what sticks.

      Oh, and as far as “can”, I can assure you that’s not the issue. I “can” buy probably any consumer level piece of tech you’ve ever heard of.

    • marorun1982

      Using a Armitron watch here its selfe charge and is waranted for life its also has waterproofing up to 100 meter.

      all thats for 38$ and its look 10 time better than any of those smartwatch.
      Stevie its all a question of needs.

      I love my smartphone but i dont need a watch as an extension.
      Not because i cant pay it but because i want a watch thats i never have to charge.

    • d3v14n7

      That “battery problem” has been a well known issue for DECADES, it’s a problem with ALL Li-Ion and Li-Po rechargeable batteries, not just the one from your brother’s smartwatch… So that was entirely HIS fault for not charging it in over a week after it died, and not a flaw with the smartwatch or it’s battery…

      $50 max? Are you on crack? The display alone is worth that, not to mention the rest of the component costs, R&D, software development etc… A smartwatch has all the same hardware as a mid range, $300 to $450 smartphone (minus some sensors, the cameras, speakers, cell radio and antenna, gps and so on)… So ~$200 to $250 (which is what they’re both selling for) is a good place to start, hell, you can buy bluetooth earpieces that cost just as much as that, never mind BT stereo headphones, regular wired headphones, speakers, docks, or the $1500 smartphone accessory called Google Glass, and other smartphone and tablet accessories that don’t offer anywhere near the functionality that smartwatches do, yet costs just as much, if not more…

      Sounds to me like you’re just unable to afford one, or that you have absolutely no use for one, or both… Sorry, but you’ll NEVER find a brand new, unsubsidized smartwatch for $50 (your brother’s was subsidized along with his phone)… Those who find smartwatches useful and can put them to good use will buy them at current prices, hell, people have been paying even more than that for Samsung’s older, far more limited/less useful smartwatches already, and they only work on Samsung devices, not to mention the $250 Pebble that has sold A LOT as well… You’re wrong to think that once the initial excitement wears off that they won’t be able to sell even a single unit at those prices, because smartwatches have been available on the market for well over a year already, and they’re STILL flying off the shelves at the same $250 to $350 price tag they were released at… Whether you chose to believe it or not, wearables such as smartwatches and Google Glass are the future of mobile computing and communication, even if they’re only accessories to the smartphone…

    • d a

      LOL Entirely his fault? Spoken like a retailer of some sort. It was in the manual then? Give your head a shake. Or maybe you might be on “crack” Why is it that NONE. Read it again NONE OF my Li-ion batteries over the years have EVER had this problem so forgive me, you appear to be talking out of a$$.

      If you knew what it cost them you would also know at $50 they’re making money. Wasn’t just released that it cost apple $150 to make the iphone? What do you think it costs to make a second screen for a phone? There’s NOTHING smart about smart watches.

      If you had bothered to read what I wrote, I SAID I can afford ANY piece of consumer level tech out there. I simply choose not to cattled like a fool to what unimaginative corperations want me to buy. They CREATED the 3d tv’s and tried unsuccessfully to create demand. I think it will be the same thing with the watches, at current prices.

      You’re right I choose not to believe they will take off AS IS. I think people will remember and think hey, wtf, I was able to stop wearing a watch all together, now I being sucked into wearing one again THAT SIMPLY DOES WHAT MY PHONE IN MY POCKET AREADY DOES? These watches don’t replace phones, they’re an ACCESSORY to one. Ya, I think most people laugh at sucker plays in infomoercials, that doesn’t mean garbage in infomercials don’t sell, but not to smart consumers. So will these watches sell? Sure and then they will die soon after.

    • 370gt

      You do realize that material build cost is not the same as what it costs a company to make a product, correct?

      Let’s say it costs roughly 200 to make a Samsung s5. Then you need to add on shipping costs, FCC regulation costs, advertising (didn’t Samsung spend 3 billion last year on this?), building costs, research and development costs, 12% defective rate replacement costs, support phone staff costs, etc.

      Material costs means almost nothing, so please don’t spout that like it matters.

      And you don’t like wearables, great. Some people will who don’t want to take their phone out all the time just to see why it vibrated. Look at all the people who said the iPad was a stupid idea when it came out, and that it was “just a large phone. Why would anyone buy that?” Well we have see otherwise in that market….

    • d a

      I don’t “know” the cost and neither do you for a second screen to your phone. That’s all they are to this point.
      Are you having trouble with comprehension? I couldn’t give 2 $hit$ what it costs them to r&d, shipping, FCC, Building, 12% defective rate, and who are we kidding on supports staff costs, as if they’re in North America etc etc etc.
      My point is, at $200-$300 for what is essentially a second screen to your phone, the price is nuts and I believe within 2 years from today the consensus among “most” will be that all these watches, as is, meaning price and features being limited to what they do now, will be a big fat fail.

    • marorun1982

      Samsung as between 16 and 20% margin on each cellphone sold Apple go even higher.

      Lets say they sell 100 high end smartphone a year.

      This make them 1.05E10 a years
      10.5 billion profit.

      No they dont make money ( and thats taking into account all fee when we talk or margin we include : R&D , marketing , shipping ect ect ect )

      They could go down to 5 to 10% and still make LOAD of money.

      Smartwatch will succeed but now for a few year i anticipate when second or third generation will come out its will sell.

      I would get a smartwatch if its would mean i dont have to take my cellphone with me at all ( full replacement )

    • StevieY

      CAPS CAPS.

    • marorun1982

      Thats only happened with cheap OEM device like : Blackberry playbook and Samsung phone. But never happened on any other device i sold or own..

      On the other hand if they make a smartwatch as small as those with 1 full day heavy usage thats dont need a smartphone to use ( so full fledged smartwatch i may get one )

    • marorun1982

      Got a pretty nice LG bluetooth LG HBS-730 for like 60$ buck lol best bluetooth i ever used beat 150$ jabra and plantronic one..

      You know a smartphone cost maybe 150$ to 200$ max to build.
      R&D cost a few million and they do 10/100 or more million.
      They do impossible margin ( look at Apple )

      Its not because its exist do less and cost more thats you need to get it :)

      As for smartwatch..

      We till has 10 Gear 2 in stock ( we got 12 when its got out ) and my boss taken one so we only sold one in a few months lol so its not selling like crazy at all.

      When 1 smartphone buyer get one out of 1000 smartphone buyer its show how popular it is..

      Stil its a product like another one but for me i would get a very nice high end designer watch for 250-300$ instead of this..

      a watch need to have super long battery time ( or better no battery need at all ) be super solid and durable.

      So when smartwatch will have 1 week battery with very durable body i will get one even if its cost 1000$ at least its will worth it. For now i keep using my phone and use a 38$ life warranty watch thats will never need a battery.

  • Mr. Biloz, Ph.D.

    I’ll stick to my Pebble Steel…

  • Curtis K Louis

    Nice read, great review.. Almost wanna hit the buy button for s gear live but I’ll wait on the 360..

  • johentie

    Does the Gear Live have BT 4.0 LE? I believe there was confusion that it only said 4.0..

  • Davey Everydude

    Good review. I think that it says it all right at the end where it says that these are the first generation. With companies like pebble already well situated in the market, no matter how simple in comparison, they will have a curve to be graded against.

    For the time being, estetically they are pretty cool. But for the functionality that is being touted, it can be found in a less costly device that holds a long charge and requires less effort to use.

    Still, this is just the first step. I’m excited to see just where this could go and how they step up the game to make Droid Gear live up to the hype.

    I’ll wager a year before we all can really see where it goes.