Are we really ready for smartwatches that don't require phones to function?
It's a question I've been considering closely for a while now -- even more so after this week's revelation that LG is working on the first Android Wear watch with built-in LTE connectivity.
The device is called the LG Watch Urbane Second Edition (whew -- that's a mouthful!). It's the follow-up to the impressive LG Watch Urbane, which came out less than six months ago. (Of course, that watch came out just about six months after LG's previous Android Wear model -- which itself arrived a mere four months after the company's first-generation take. Maybe this rapid-pace release cycle is just par for the course?!)
It may be right on the heels of its predecessor, but make no mistake about it: This new watch marks a significant change. While all Android Wear devices so far have relied on a phone for active data, the Watch Urbane Second Edition has its own cellular modem and SIM card. And that has pretty big implications for what's on the way with Wear in the near future.
Right now, Wear devices revolve primarily around quick glanceable activities -- things that involve looking at your watch for a second or two, maybe saying a few words, and then moving on with your life. The watches can function without a phone physically present, but only if you're in range of a known Wi-Fi network and the paired phone is still up and running somewhere with active data. First and foremost, though, a Wear device's main purpose is to serve as a complement to your phone -- a way to keep you from constantly pulling that slab out of your pocket when a glance at your wrist could get the job done.
By putting LTE directly into the smartwatch, a Wear device gains a whole new kind of independence. It moves from being a complement to your phone to being a standalone device -- one that, in addition to receiving data like text messages and turn-by-turn directions without a phone's help, can make and take actual phone calls, which is something Wear hasn't enabled up til now.
(Smartwatches on other platforms have offered such functionality, incidentally, like Samsung's Tizen-running Gear devices and LG's previous Urbane LTE -- which ran a custom operating system and never launched in the U.S. -- but those have been super-niche devices within an already-niche market.)
'Bout time, right? Well, maybe. Truth be told, I'm not entirely convinced. There's a difference between something that seems cool in theory (and maybe fulfills a Dick Tracy fantasy lurking deep within us all) and something that's actually sensible on a practical level.
Specifically, there are five reasons I'm skeptical about whether having an LTE-equipped smartwatch is a smart move for consumers right now:
1. The size
People already complain about the bulkiness of Android Wear watches -- a result of all the technology that has to be packed into a wearable gadget. Add in the elements needed for a standalone LTE connection -- including an accessible SIM card slot and an extra-hefty battery to accommodate the added power requirements -- and guess what? The watches are gonna get even bigger.
Need proof? Check out the final image in this Android Police story, which shows the new LG Watch Urbane Second Edition alongside the recently released Huawei Watch -- a Wear device that's relatively svelte for the category (though still too bulky by some folks' standards).
And that image doesn't even illustrate the thickness of the device. The new LG watch is 14mm thick -- almost 3mm thicker than the Huawei device and just over 3mm thicker than LG's own first-gen Urbane smartwatch. Three millimeters may not sound like much, but when you tack it onto something sitting flat on your wrist, it's going to be noticeable.
2. The bands
Smart or not, a watch is first and foremost a fashion accessory -- and aside from working well, it has to look good. In addition to the size and form of the watch itself, the band is a critical part of that equation.
While most Wear devices have standardized bands that can be swapped out for any regular watch band you like, the LG Watch Urbane Second Generation resorts to using the band as a place to store additional components related to the watch's LTE functionality. That not only means that the band is permanently attached and impossible to swap out or replace -- but also that, according to several hands-on accounts, it's stiffer and heavier than a typical watch band (including those on other Wear devices).
3. The price
It seems safe to assume an LTE smartwatch will cost more than a regular Wear device, given all the added technology involved (LG has yet to release any specifics). If that is in fact the case, that alone may be cause for pause: The wearable market is evolving fast, and any smartwatch you buy today is likely going to be quite dated within a year or two tops (see "rapid-pace release cycle" discussion, above). The original Urbane is priced at $350. Spending much more than that on a device like this -- on top of the phone you also already purchased -- may be difficult to justify.
The bigger concern, though, isn't the base cost of an LTE smartwatch but the ongoing cost for its cellular connection. LG is partnering with carriers to provide LTE data plans for its Watch Urbane Second Generation -- and if there's one thing we know about carriers, it's that they sure as hell don't give anything away for free.
And that brings us to our next point...
4. The value
An Android Wear watch can already provide basic features with or without your phone present -- including offline music playback -- and can provide full functionality without a phone nearby if you're somewhere with a known Wi-Fi connection (like the gym, for instance, or roaming through your office building). Some Wear watches are able to provide GPS functionality on their own as well, for those who'd benefit from having that sort of capability while jogging or biking without a phone in tow.
The question, then, is how much you'd really benefit from adding a standalone data connection into the watch -- how much you'd be doing that would take advantage of that second LTE account. Is the value you'd gain enough to offset the larger watch size, the more limited and less ideal bands, and the ongoing fees for the extra connectivity? I'm just not sure most people are without their phones and need of active data on their wrists often enough to make those tradeoffs worthwhile.
(Remember: This almost certainly isn't going to replace your phone. It'll simply serve as a secondary device that does some of the same things in a more limited manner.)
And last but not least...
5. The 'Come on -- really?' factor
Let's face it: The headline feature with an LTE smartwatch is probably going to be the ability to take and make calls on your wrist, with or without your phone nearby. And I get it: There's something inherently cool about that in theory. The whole Dick Tracy thing. It's novel. It feels like the future.
But think about it in real-world terms now. Do you really want to be that guy? Having people use their phones' loudspeakers in public is bad enough as it is. Imagine what your next lunch would be like if everyone around you had distorted audio blaring out of their arms. Sure, there could be times when it'd be useful and appropriate -- or times when you have a Bluetooth headset in-ear and standing by to contain the audio -- but such occasions are going to be more the exception than the rule for most folks.
Unless you actually are Dick Tracy, taking calls on your wrist in public is going to make you a bit of a -- well, you know. Same thing as the good detective's name. Mark my words: The novelty will wear off fast, especially for those around you.
Only time will tell
These are early days, to be sure, and I'll withhold any final judgment until I've had a chance to use LG's latest effort in the wild. As I stressed earlier this year, though, we've got a lot of smartwatch silliness on the way as companies struggle to figure out what makes sense for this form and what'll convince shoppers to spend money. Too many things seem cool in theory or look good in marketing but end up providing little actual value -- or even detracting from the user experience -- in the real world.
With everything we know about what adding LTE into a smartwatch will entail right now, it's hard not to worry it'll be another of those instances.