Google is great at answering common questions — who was the 23d president? What is the capital of South Dakota? Stuff like that. But Google still has trouble answering this one: Why exactly does anyone need a smartwatch?
You know those digital gadgets for your wrist that connect to a smartphone and display the time, weather, and latest incoming e-mails and texts? Smartwatches are supposed to be the next big thing, and in a way they are — big, that is.
The one I am testing, the $236 G Watch by South Korea’s LG Electronics, is a plastic half-cube that juts from my wrist like a remote control for the Death Star. But as the market for smartphones nears saturation, LG, Sony, Samsung, and other electronics companies are counting on smartwatches for a fresh surge of revenue.
Until now, smartwatch makers have each created their own operating software that is often incompatible with many phones. For instance, first-generation Samsung watches work only with Samsung’s own smartphones, and not all of those.
But Google Inc. sensibly figures that a standardized software platform will boost demand for the watches and slash their cost. It worked brilliantly for its smartphone operating system, Android. Now comes Android Wear, a version built to run on watches and other wearable devices, and compatible with virtually all late-model Android phones. The LG G Watch is one of the first Android Wear devices to hit retail stores, and Google’s betting its new software will give millions of us a good reason to strap one on.
Afraid not. The G Watch’s steep price and quirky features will not endear it to consumers. And while Google’s new software shows promise, it is not the intuitive, painless experience I was hoping for.
The G Watch confuses right out of the box. Where is the “on” button? There isn’t one. The watch switches on when you snap it into its battery charging cradle. There is a touchscreen command for turning it off, but without the charger, you cannot switch it back on. This would not be so bad if the battery could last through a day. But on a recent busy day, with lots of incoming e-mails to check, my G Watch died at 3 p.m. Even on slow days, the battery just barely made it through.
It was also murder on my HTC One Android phone. Remember that phone and smartwatch are constantly connected via Bluetooth radio. The back-and-forth data stream practically wiped out my phone’s battery, as well.
Still, the G Watch has its uses. It displays data on “cards” like those used in the Google Now smartphone software. Up popped the appointments on my Google Calendar. It let me read incoming e-mails with a tap of the screen. The microphone and speech-recognition software on the watch let me reply by voice. I could use the same method to respond to incoming texts.
And I delighted in doing quick Google voice searches. Remember the 23d president? Benjamin Harrison. And the capital of South Dakota is: Pierre.
LG shrewdly rejected the idea of routing phone calls from your phone to the watch, Dick Tracy-style. Samsung attempted this, with dismal results. But the LG watch did let me place calls on my phone. I just said “call,” followed by the number, or the name of someone in my address book. It worked splendidly, but since I could have dialed right on the phone, why bother?
The same “who needs it?” problem arose time and again. I could see the top of an incoming Facebook message, but needed the phone to view the whole thing. I could ask the G Watch for driving directions to Fenway Park, but the turn-by-turn response came through on the phone.
The G Watch excels as a self-contained device for quickly responding to messages, reminding you of appointments, or looking up snippets of online data.
But you will grab the phone for anything more demanding.
Besides, the G Watch often proved unreliable. It frequently lost contact with my HTC One phone, refusing to share data or launch apps.
Minutes later, everything was working normally again.
During a visit this week to Google’s newly expanded Cambridge offices, a company techie admitted to me that Android Wear still has its share of flaws. That is to be expected from first-generation software, and that is one more reason to hold off buying it.
So why does anybody need a smartwatch?
Hardly anyone does until they make one that simply provides instant access to vital data — and sells for around $100, or roughly what you would pay for a standard watch.
That is the answer Google’s looking for, but judging by the G Watch, it is a long way off.