Android Wear 2.0 and apps

  • Revamped wearable operating system
  • Apps can be installed from the watch
  • There still aren’t enough apps

The LG Watch Sport is more than just an iterative, athletic-themed smartwatch, and the Korean company’s fourth Android Wear smartwatch since 2014. The hardware is just half the story.

Android Wear 2.0, the latest version of Google’s wearables-tailored operating system, marks its debut on the LG Watch Sport and the LG Watch Style – and there are a lot of changes here.

Google’s Material Design ethos flattens previously embossed menus and icons, making way for a modern-looking interface. The themes are also darker, so the entire UI is easier on your eyes and on the watch's battery.

Surprise, surprise, circular smartwatches remain popular, so someone named Captain Obvious told Google to make more round menus that better fit the trendiest watch style. 

Scrolling through the new crescent-shaped app launcher menu allows you to see more of your apps at once, as you whip them around the watch face perimeter via the rotating dial.

An even bolder change to Android Wear 2.0 apps comes in the form of standalone apps – these can be installed from a Google Play Store that now lives on the watch.

You never have to rely on your phone to add new apps or watch faces. Standalone apps are faster and, for the first time, you can download apps and faces if you’re using an iPhone. Apple’s app store restrictions led to a barren iPhone Android Wear app, relying on pre-installed items. So this is a great workaround, even if iPhone compatibility is still hobbled elsewhere.

Here’s the problem though: we only felt compelled to keep using a few third-party apps we downloaded to the watch. Grocery list ‘Bring!’ let us keep both hands free while checking off our list; American Airlines let us see our QR code boarding pass; and Kwikset's Kevo app let us into our front door without the need for a key.

Of course, even when more new apps do come onboard, you’re more likely to rely on the pre-installed apps and notifications, just like Apple Watch users do.

To get the best of the LG Watch Sport you’ll need an Android phone. Features like Google Assistant and Android Pay demand it, while Google Fit leaves you hanging without a iPhone app counterpart; your stats are viewable on either the watch or the web.

Google Assistant, which debuted on the Google Pixel and Pixel XL, brings its smarts over to the watch. Whenever we pressed the rotating button in, we were greeted with a silent Google Assistant prompt: How can I help you?

It understands context, like it does on the phones and Google Home. Asking “What is a zebra?” gives you a Wikipedia summary. Requesting “Show me a picture of it”, lo-and-behold, still brings up zebra photos. Assistant knows what ‘it’ is; Siri just refers you to the scary Stephen King clown. 

This has become our standard Google Assistant test, so our zebra knowledge expands tenfold with every new Assistant product launch. Fun fact: they can sleep standing up.

Android Pay works as advertised, as long as you don’t mind a lock screen every time you take the watch on and off. Paying for store items with a watch is a minor but worthwhile convenience it if you have your hands full and want to take advantage of hands-free payments.

Whether you’re searching through the miniaturized Google Play Store for watch apps and faces, or messaging friends, there are new input methods that make navigation more manageable. 

Loud environments that once thwarted your dictation are no match for Android Wear 2.0.

Don't laugh, this tiny keyboard works really well

Don't laugh, this tiny keyboard works really well

Now you can use a swiping-style keyboard to type out predictive words – it’s incredibly accurate for a cramped keyboard - while handwriting recognition lets you draw out words.

There are hundreds of watch faces in the Google Play Store right now, so if you don’t like the default faces there’s some brilliant artwork on tap to instantly transform your circular LG Watch Sport into something special.

Android Wear 2.0 introduces watch face 'complications', inserting small widgets onto the tiny home screen. With just a glance, we found it easy to see our ongoing activity goals, battery life percentage, the time in other time zones and our next calendar appointment. 

A lot of complications – like the weather – are just lifeless app shortcuts though; Apple has more intricate complications in watchOS 4, but Google is catching up fast.

A lack of apps and complications are just two of Android Wear’s holes. Here are a few more missteps:

  • You can’t unlock your Mac or Windows computer, something we love about watch OS3 and macOS. (But you can unlock your Android phone or Chromebook with the watch’s ‘trusted device’ feature.)
  • You can’t view your phone photos on the watch, or conversely easily take screenshots of the watch to view on your phone. There is a screenshot menu item in the Android Wear (Android only) app, but it doesn’t even work well since it doesn’t automatically save. Clear the lock screen item, and you’ve lost your photo.
  • You can’t tinker with watch faces from your phone’s Android Wear app.
  • Android Device Manager’s ability to ring your phone should be in the quick settings, not tucked inside the app launcher list. It’s one to favorite for sure if you habitually lose your phone.

Specs and performance

The LG Watch Style is as close as it comes to a flagship Google smartwatch. It has top-of-the-line specs and launches with the latest version of Android Wear right out of the box.

That translates into snappy performance, due in part to the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 2100 chipset clocked at 1.1GHz and its 768MB of RAM. It’s superior to everything else out there.

Okay, you don’t really need a faster smartwatch. That’s dumb. But the processor is designed to yield other important benefits, like better battery efficiency while handling heavy-duty tasks like fitness tracking. Now that’s important. 

We also ran into less slowdown when transitioning between menus than we did with first-generation of Android Wear watches. The hardware and software upgrades over the last two and a half years have delivered just that.

There are a lot of sensors and antennas packed into this watch: an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a heart rate monitor, a GPS chip, NFC and an ambient light sensor. The latter is tucked behind the screen for space-saving efficiency. LG also squeezed in a barometer for altitude tracking.

Calls

Opening the back of the LG Watch Sports (using a special tool) reveals a nano SIM card tray where the gears would be on a traditional watch.

We were able to make calls directly from the smartwatch, without our phone nearby. But you’ll have to buy a second nanoSIM card unlike with the Apple Watch 3 where no second SIM is needed.

Don't lose this odd ejector tool for the SIM card

Don't lose this odd ejector tool for the SIM card

What’s odd is that, without a SIM card installed, we weren’t able to make phone calls while connected to our phone or Wi-Fi.

How did calls sound? Okay. The microphone and speaker made both sides of the conversation sound as if they were on speakerphone; there was no hiding it. However, voices sounded clear, and the speaker gets loud enough if you’re not in a crowded room or city. Otherwise, you’re going to be holding your watch to your ear like a weirdo. Don’t do that.

Cellular calls and data are unique selling points for the LG Watch Sport, and other watches down the line are going to embrace the idea. But, in the immediate future at least, we have to question if people are willing to pay an extra monthly charge, and sometimes leave their phone at home... if you do that, there’s no way to view funny cat videos while you’re waiting in line at the store.

Compatibility

There’s a very good chance that your Android phone will work just fine with the LG Watch Sport. Android Wear 2.0 is compatible with devices running Android 4.3 Jelly Bean or higher.

Google’s operating system even works across the aisle by pairing with an iPhone. It’s great for receiving notifications, and the fact that standalone apps can be installed directly onto the watch does bypass one Apple limitation.

However, we couldn’t do everything we wanted to on our iPhone. Here’s what’s missing:

  • No Android Pay
  • No replying to iMessages
  • No screenshot ability via the Wear app
  • Google Fit tracking works on the watch and can be viewed on the web at fit.google.com. But there’s no iPhone app counterpart.
  • Google Assistant’s ‘send to phone’ links open in an Android Wear app browser, not in Safari or Google Chrome.

It’s great to see that Google is finding ways to make its watches work with the iPhone, but you’re probably better off with the Apple Watch Series 1 if you’re looking for an iPhone-compatible smartwatch at a discount.