If there's one thing to take away from this week's Android Wear revamp, it's that no one seems to know what exactly a smartwatch should be.
Should it be a simple vessel for keeping up with pertinent alerts and info without having to reach for your phone? Or should it be more about actively running apps and completing grand tasks on its own?
Should the watch be something you glance at for a few seconds at a time? Or should it be something you stare at for minutes on end?
Above all else, should it serve as a supplement to your smartphone? Or should it be a full-on replacement -- a tiny yet robust communications center on your wrist?
Ask most folks who still wear smartwatches today why they do, and I'd be willing to wager the vast majority will give you answers that line up with the first parts of those pairs. More than anything, people who enjoy smartwatches seem to appreciate having easy, glanceable access to notifications and the ability to deal with messages on the fly, with minimal interruption. Yet at the same time, there's no denying that those people -- the ones who actually wear smartwatches, that is -- are part of a small and increasingly limited niche.
So that's where we are today, as Google goes back to the drawing board and tries to figure out, again, what might make smartwatches more appealing to the masses. The solution, Google seems to think, involves revamping its Android Wear software to put more emphasis on apps and standalone functionality -- and in many ways, moving toward a view of the smartwatch as an independent entity rather than an extension of your phone.
The shifting focus is particularly evident in the new LG Watch Sport -- the first fully loaded watch Google co-designed to show off Wear's latest capabilities. Like the absurdly named "LG Watch Urbane 2nd Edition" (gesundheit!) before it, the Watch Sport features integrated LTE connectivity -- meaning it can get online on its own, without your phone present. And just like with its predecessor, that feature is almost certainly more of a drawback than a perk.
Now, mind you, I'm not saying a smartwatch in general is a bad idea (though I have stopped wearing one myself as of late, for my own personal reasons). I'm just saying that, by and large, LTE in a smartwatch is a misguided notion. And for most people, getting on that bandwagon is going to be a mistake.
Why? Well, let's think through the reasons:
1. The size factor
Having all the components needed for LTE support makes an already-bulky wearable even bulkier. I mean, look at this thing:
You don't have to take my word for it, though. As some of the early Sport reviewers put it:
- "It’s a big, honking timepiece on your wrist that’s thick, chunky, and ... isn’t particularly comfortable to wear ... even on my medium-to-large sized wrist." -Dan Seifert, The Verge
- "The device feels heavy ... like a metal paperweight strapped to your wrist." -Nicole Nguyen, BuzzFeed
- "It's a heavy and chunky monstrosity that's tough for me to recommend to just about anyone." -Steve Kovach, Business Insider
- "If I saw you wearing this watch, I would assume you just finished an Ironman." -David Pierce, Wired
You get the point. But wait -- there's more...
2. The band factor
The component cramming doesn't stop with the watch itself; it also extends into the device's band, which contains all of the antennas (antennae?) for those wireless connections. That means the strap around your wrist is gonna be stiff, uncomfortable, and impossible to swap out for your own preferred alternative.
Back to our trusty reviewer panel for perspective:
- "The first inch of the band on each side is rigid. There is no actual hinge connecting the band to the watch, and the rigid band only starts flexing after the antenna section." -Ron Amadeo, Ars Technica
- "Not only does that limit the flexibility of the band-attachment points if you're trying to crank down the watch onto a smaller wrist, but some will also be put off by the lack of customization options." -Andrew Martonik, Android Central
- "The watch may be a bit uncomfortable if you have especially wide wrists, because the band doesn't have much in the way of give up near the body of the watch." -David Ruddock, Android Police
- "Its fixed rubberized wristband is designed in a permacurve and feels like a gauntlet around my big wrist. ... It really feels too large for most people to consider." -Scott Stein, CNET
And if the band ever cracks or gets otherwise damaged -- you know, as watch bands are prone to do with heavy ongoing use -- well, good luck.
3. The battery factor
Smartwatch battery life is already a contentious issue. Add an LTE connection into the equation, though? Now you've got the perfect recipe for a dead watch before dinner time.
- "It frequently would tap out before the end of the day, sometimes at 5 p.m., sometimes at 8 p.m., and that’s without using the GPS to track a run or do anything out of the ordinary. ... It's clear that the Sport's extra capabilities are taking a toll." -Dan Seifert, The Verge
- "Built-in LTE takes its toll on battery fast. On most days, even in casual use, I burned through the Sport's battery in less than a day." -Scott Stein, CNET
- "Because that data also drains battery like crazy, it also means having to lug around a heavy metal paperweight on your wrist." -Nicole Nguyen, BuzzFeed
Is that a compromise you're willing to make?
4. The price factor
The Watch Sport's $349 price tag in and of itself may not seem horribly insane, but remember: In order to actually take advantage of the LTE connectivity, in most cases, you're going to have to pay a monthly fee in order for your carrier to recognize the watch as a "connected device" and allow it to tap into your account.
Verizon and AT&T, the officially supported launch partners for the watch, tack an extra $5 and $10 per month, respectively, onto your bill for that privilege.
(The exception to the rule may be Google's own Project Fi wireless service, which doesn't technically support wearables but does provide a data-only SIM option that -- as of now, at least -- seems to work, though only for data and not for calls. So, there is that as an asterisk, if Fi is your carrier of choice.)
5. The value factor
Now for the million-dollar question: Taking all of the above into consideration, is an LTE smartwatch like the LG Watch Sport actually worth owning for you?
Let's think about what you'll gain by having a dedicated LTE connection on your watch:
a) The ability to make and receive phone calls on your wrist when your phone isn't around
C'mon: People using speakerphones in public is bad enough. Please, don't be that guy.
b) The ability to get notifications and access data even when your phone isn't around
Okay, sure. But how often is that actually going to be relevant and meaningful for you?
Maybe you'll rock out to the latest Right Said Fred album while you're out having a run. Or perhaps you'll add some protein powder onto your shopping list while pumping iron at the gym. Those are reasonable things that might be handy for a watch to be able to handle, right?
Here's the thing, though: You can actually do those things on a regular ol' Android Wear watch -- one that doesn't have its own LTE connection and all of the associated drawbacks. For the great outdoors, you can download music onto your watch and have it available to direct-to-Bluetooth streaming. And when you're anywhere that has a public or already-known Wi-Fi network -- like, you know, the gym -- you can connect your watch via Wi-Fi and keep it online, even if your phone is miles away.
Any Wear watch with GPS can also give you directions without the need for an active data connection.
There's still a small window of use that doesn't fall into those categories, of course -- taking phone calls on your wrist whilst trekking down a tranquil nature path, for instance, or responding to text messages on your appendage in the midst of a phone-free jog. The question, though, is how often those scenarios actually come up in your life and whether the benefits you'd get from them would be enough to outweigh all the associated downsides.
Sorry to rain on the Dick Tracy fantasy, folks -- but for the vast majority of people, it just doesn't add up.