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Samsung Gear Live vs. LG G Watch: A real-world evaluation

The first Android Wear watches to hit the market may look similar, but after two weeks of living with the devices, I noticed some meaningful differences.

July 9, 2014 06:30 AM ET

Computerworld - So, you're thinking about getting an Android Wear smartwatch. Where to begin?

Google's wearable tech platform may only be a couple of weeks old, but that doesn't mean you don't have choices. The first two Wear watches to hit the market are the LG G Watch, available for $229, and the Samsung Gear Live, which costs $199. A third option, Motorola's Moto 360, is expected to launch later this summer, though pricing for it has yet to be announced.

Two Android Wear watches
The LG G Watch (left) and the Samsung Gear Live (right)

I've been spending the past two weeks living with both the G Watch and the Gear Live. You can find a detailed look at the software side of the experience in my in-depth Android Wear review; here, I'll focus on the hardware and how the two watches compare.

Form and design

Let's just get this out of the way: Neither the G Watch nor the Gear Live is what you'd call a sleek-looking watch. With their clunky forms and large, rectangular displays, they look a little ridiculous on the wrist and are somewhat reminiscent of the calculator watches kids loved back in the '80s (paging Marty McFly...).

It's a subtle distinction, but I'd say the Samsung Gear Live has the slight advantage in terms of style. The watch, which is basically the same hardware as Samsung's Tizen-based Gear 2 (minus the camera and front-facing button), has a silver metallic border that surrounds its display and leads down to its band. That makes it a bit more distinctive than the utterly understated G Watch, which is just a black rectangular screen on a nondescript black base.

(You can also opt to get the G Watch in a white-and-gold motif, by the way -- and while I haven't had an opportunity to see that model up close and personal, gauging by the pictures, it does look a little more eye-catching than the plain black design made available for review. Of course, some people may prefer the more minimalist look; it's really just a matter of personal taste.)

Then there are the bands: The one on the Gear Live is made of a rigid, rubbery material -- and boy, is it a pain to use. Rather than a buckle, it has two nubs that press into holes in order to secure the watch on your wrist. That makes the watch infuriatingly difficult to put on, yet all too easy to snap off by mistake. The good news is that the band is a standard wristwatch size and can be swapped out easily for any 22mm replacement.

Two Android Wear watches
The Gear Live's wristband has two nubs that press into holes in order to secure the watch on your wrist.

The LG G Watch's band, which is also 22mm and interchangeable, has a softer rubbery feel and a more traditional buckle-based setup. It looks more sporty than elegant and is certainly nothing to write home about, but it's actually quite comfortable and painless to attach and detach.

The G Watch and Gear Live are almost identical in size and weight, and they're both water- and dust-resistant. Despite their bulky forms, I haven't found either to be particularly unpleasant to wear; they may look a little goofy, but they're easy enough to get used to on your wrist.

There is a caveat to that, however: I'm anything but an expert on women's fashion, but I suspect these devices may have a particularly tough time appealing to the female demographic. My wife tried them on and was immediately turned off by their size and appearance; design considerations aside, she found them to be awkward and uncomfortable on her wrists. It'll be interesting to see if other women agree.

Displays

Display quality is a big area that separates our inaugural Android Wear contenders. The G Watch and Gear Live have practically the same size screens -- 1.65 in. on the G Watch and 1.63 in. on the Gear Live -- but the more you use the two devices, the more you realize how different their appearances are.

LG's G Watch uses a 280 x 280 LCD display while Samsung's Gear Live has a 320 x 320 Super AMOLED panel. When fully illuminated, the Gear Live has the better-looking screen of the two; the G Watch's display looks somewhat muted and under-saturated in comparison. That disparity is subtle, though, and something you're really only aware of when looking at the two watches side by side.

What's more significant to me is the way the watches look in their dimmed state, which is the default state the displays are in whenever they're sitting idly on your wrist. The dimmed state shows a simplified black-and-white version of the watch face that's designed to save power when the device isn't actively being used.

In that state, Samsung's Gear Live looks meaningfully worse than LG's G Watch: Lines on the Gear Live's screen appear jagged and the watch actually eliminates entire elements from the face designs so fewer pixels can be shown. The images on the Gear Live's display also sometimes shift as the screen is transitioning between its illuminated and dimmed states, creating a visible jump instead of a seamless fade effect.

An example of differences in the devices' dimmed-mode displays (the Samsung Gear Live is on the left, the LG G Watch on the right).

Without getting too technical, the reason likely revolves around power conservation and differences in the way AMOLED and LCD screens utilize energy: In short, AMOLED screens are lit on a pixel-by-pixel basis, so if fewer pixels are active, less power is utilized. LCD displays, on the other hand, rely on a backlight and are affected by total brightness as opposed to individual pixel use.

Regardless of the reason, though, what ultimately counts from a consumer perspective is that Samsung's approach makes a noticeable impact on the user experience. The dimmed state is what Android Wear watches show the majority of the time -- and the Gear Live's dimmed state looks pretty bad, especially once you've seen how good that state can look on the G Watch.

The G Watch also outshines the Gear Live when it comes to outdoor visibility, though that difference is far less pronounced. The truth is that even with their brightness settings pumped up high, neither watch is especially easy to see in direct sunlight; be prepared to do a decent amount of wrist-shifting and hand-shadowing when you're outside in glary conditions.



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