Android Wear

Living with the LG Watch Urbane: Android Wear at its best

The LG Watch Urbane brings a traditional timepiece style to the Android Wear world -- but it's what's beyond the surface that really makes this smartwatch shine.

LG Watch Urbane
JR Raphael, IDG

Android Wear

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We've got some solid options for Android Wear watches, but let's be honest: It's been tough so far to single out any one of them as providing a truly great all-around user experience. 

The Moto 360 is gorgeous but not without its issues. Sony's SmartWatch 3 has lots of positives but also has a weird display that gets monochromatic and practically impossible to read in its dimmed state. Asus's ZenWatch is pretty but with lackluster screen quality, meanwhile, and LG's G Watch R has outstanding hardware but a clunky form (and let's not even get into that awkwardly marked bezel).

All of those watches have good qualities, of course, but they each come with a serious asterisk or two attached. And when I want to make a general recommendation to someone for a great Android Wear experience, that makes things rather tricky.

Well, good news, gang: I won't have that problem anymore. Meet the LG Watch Urbane.

LG Watch Urbane Android Wear

I've been using the Watch Urbane for the past few days, and let me tell you: This thing is fantastic. At $349, it ain't cheap -- especially when other Android Wear watches are now selling for as low as $180 to $200 -- but if you've got the money to spend, it'll give you the quality to match.

On the outside, the LG Watch Urbane (and no, it isn't the "LG G Watch Urbane" -- go figure) is beautifully designed, with a polished metal exterior in silver or gold and an attractive black leather band with white stitching. The watch is a bit on the large side, thanks to the bezels and the sizable lugs that surround them, but it doesn't look unusually huge or feel particularly bulky. Even with my apparently tiny wrists, it's quite comfy to wear.

As for the strap, it's nice enough -- slightly stiff to begin with, but it is leather, after all, and I can already feel it starting to soften. It's a standard 22mm band, too, so you can always swap it out for something else if you want.

LG Watch Urbane Smartwatch

What's particularly interesting about the Watch Urbane is that it actually looks like a regular watch -- a handsome timepiece that wouldn't cause most passersby to give you the wide-eyed double-take smartwatches typically inspire. Depending on your preferences, of course, that may or may not be a good thing; the Watch Urbane isn't as sleek or futuristic-looking as the Moto 360, for instance, but it looks more like a traditional (and reasonably elegant) watch. We're just talking two very different styles.

Subjective design aside, the Watch Urbane has some genuinely compelling elements that give it a leg-up on other Wear devices. It's the same stuff we saw in LG's G Watch R; the Urbane is essentially that same smartwatch in a classed up and far more premium casing.

First and foremost is the screen: The Urbane has an unusual Plastic OLED (or P-OLED) display that feels like it was made specifically for smartwatch use. It's bright, clear, and easy to see in any sort of condition. And its dimmed mode -- what's shown most of the time, whenever you aren't actively using the watch -- looks exceptionally crisp and appealing. It stays on all of the time, too, which is something I've sorely missed while using the Moto 360.

The only downside to the Urbane's display is that it doesn't have an ambient light sensor, so the brightness doesn't automatically adjust itself based on your environment. That's a bit of a bummer, but the superb quality of the screen makes up for it (and an app like Brightness for Wear can make it easy enough to tweak the brightness in a jiff when you need to).

Beyond that, we're looking at the same consistently smooth and snappy performance we saw in the G Watch R along with the same excellent stamina. I've yet to have any trouble making it through a full day with a fair amount of battery power still remaining, even with moderate to heavy use.

And speaking of power, the Watch Urbane charges through a proprietary dock that's pretty much the same as the the one from the G Watch R. It's magnetic, so you simply drop the watch on top of it and it fits right in. It's not as convenient as a standard Qi-based charging system, a la the Moto 360, but it's about the next best thing.

In terms of software, the LG Watch Urbane ships with the latest and greatest version of Android Wear, which includes the transformative new feature of built-in Wi-Fi support -- meaning you can use the watch even when your phone isn't nearby, so long as you're in range of an open or authorized Wi-Fi network. It also has some new flick gestures for scrolling through cards, which take a little getting used to but could be handy if you ever want to catch up on info and don't have a free hand, I suppose.

The latest Wear update has a few other new touches, like an easy way to open apps (just swipe left once from the home screen for a list) and to view your contacts (swipe a second time to select a contact and then initiate a text or email). You can also draw an emoji while responding to a text message and Wear will translate it into the appropriate symbol, though I can't for the life of me figure out why you'd want to.

LG has added in a few bells and whistles of its own, but they're nothing to write home about. The company has created an LG Call app that lets you view your recent calls and favorite contacts and then initiate a new call on your phone by tapping one of them or using a built-in dialpad. You can also initiate new calls on your phone via Wear's aforementioned new native contacts list, so the only added functionality here is the list of recent calls and the dialpad, neither of which strikes me as particularly meaningful.

LG has also added an "auto-lock" feature to the watch -- something that's mistakenly been referred to as part of the Android Wear software but that Google tells me is not tied to the OS itself. The feature promises to auto-lock the watch and require an on-screen pattern to be inputted anytime you take it off, but it doesn't seem to work like that; it will require you to input the pattern whenever you restart the device, but I've taken the watch off and left it sitting on a table for long stretches and no security prompt has ever appeared. Not sure what's up with that.

[Update (5/8/15): Turns out the auto-lock feature is, in fact, part of the latest Wear OS and not an element added by LG. The original info provided to me by a Google spokesperson was inaccurate, and the company reached out to me following this story's publication to correct it. As for the feature's functionality, Google tells me it's designed to "periodically detect whether the watch is on your wrist" but that it's possible "slight movements" could confuse the system and cause it to think the watch is still being worn when it isn't.]

But those things are inconsequential footnotes in an impressive watch running a version of Wear that really takes the platform to the next level. (I should mention that out of the box, the watch was a little glitchy -- but a software update was available almost immediately that fixed things right up and made it smooth as silk.)

No piece of technology is perfect, and the LG Watch Urbane is certainly not an exception. In an ideal world, I'd love for it to have an ambient light sensor and standard wireless charging capability. But with its beautifully designed body, top-notch performance, commendable stamina, and best-in-class display -- both during active use and in its always-on dimmed state -- the Watch Urbane is an outstanding all-around package that sets a new standard for the Android Wear ecosystem.

If I had to recommend a single Wear watch for its overall user experience right now, the Urbane would definitely be it.

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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