Google has announced the first smartwatches that will be running Android Wear – a pair of LG devices that will showcase the merits of the newly redesigned OS. But in a world where consumers really don’t seem to care about smartwatches, is Android 2.0 going to do enough to shift the prevailing narrative?
It’s hard to say definitively, but it certainly looks like smartwatches have passed their hype-zenith, and are settling into a role as just another consumer device – valued by some, completely ignored by others. The issue for smartwatch makers is that the zenith’s height didn’t count for much when it came to shipments. Smartphones sales hit hundreds of millions of shipments before they largely became post-zenith commodities, but smartwatches are leagues away from those kinds of sales.
And even if Android Wear 2.0 is a great platform for the devices, it’s hard to see how it can drive strong growth in the market. Consumers just don’t seem interested, and it’s hard to blame them. Smartwatches, on the whole, remain jacks-of-all-trades but masters-of-none.
Activity trackers have proven much more popular, largely because they remained focused on a small cluster of functions at a lower price point, rather than trying to ape a smartphone in an awkward wrist-mounted form-factor and user experience for $300. These fitness trackers have already been commoditized, and we’re now seeing very cheap no-name smartwatches appear in supermarkets and even vending machines.
So the big names in smartwatches have seen the bottom fall out of the market. Gone are the two-years in which they were the sole occupiers of both the market and the consumer attention – now they are having to compete on price, and that’s hard to do when you can pick up a competent but basic smartwatch for $50 from Amazon, or the more basic fitness trackers from $15. Samsung and LG don’t want to chase the low-end, so they have to convince buyers that their more expensive devices are worth the investment.
This is where Android Wear 2.0 comes in, which was announced last year as an attempt to clean-up the user-experience for Android-based smartwatches. The original Wear OS was launched in 2014, but lacked WiFi and cellular support for a good few quarters – meaning they had to be tethered to a smartphone in order to function properly. Later generations were more standalone devices, but we think that the platform lacking the features at launch damaged adoption.
Android Wear 2.0 puts more of an emphasis on the standalone functionality, and includes a simplified UI to help with usability, but we still think this is a case of too little too late for the ecosystem. It’s very hard to draw people back in once they’ve lost interest.
The new feature that is most prominent is Google’s new Assistant, but the addition of Android Pay and LTE are also notable. Those new features are intended to streamline the experience, and the new UI design has prioritized the performance of the simple tasks that have proven most popular with users – activity tracking and notifications.
With hundreds of watch faces to choose from, Android Wear has always been very customizable. The newer watch face designs seem to more commonly incorporate those notifications and activity levels on the face itself, so that more can be learned from a quick glance at the watch – rather than having to open up a watch application, or pull a phone out of a pocket.
Apple’s watchOS 3 carried out a similar redesign, and Apple continues to dominate the smartwatch market when measured in value. This is mostly due to the perceived value of the user experience, with the Apple Watches boasting much smoother integrations with iPhones (and their higher spending habits) than Android watches. However, Android Wear is still chasing iOS users, and boasts improved integrations for its apps and iOS – although a native experience is still likely to provide a smoother ride.
As for the other non-watchOS options, Pebble has died and been acquired by Fitbit (for a fraction of a reported offer it received from Citizen), and Samsung is doggedly pursuing its Tizen OS as an alternative for Android. For most platforms, it’s Android or bust, when it comes to fully-featured smartwatches, which suits Google fine. Currently, the Android Wear vendor list includes Asus, Fossil, Huawei, Michael Kors, New Balance, Nixon, Polar, Sony, and TAG Heuer – with Casio and ZTE due to appear soon.
Notably, Motorola, now owned by Lenovo, has effectively abandoned the market, confirming that it had no plans to release an Android smartwatch in 2017. Considering that its Moto 360 was the flagship device at one point, that’s a blow to the ecosystem, and reads as a vote of no confidence – at least from Lenovo.
The LG watches:
The LG Watch Sport is priced at $350, and is quite large – housing a Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 SoC, with a 480x480p P-OLED screen, 768MB of RAM, 4GB of storage, and a 430mAh battery. It has WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, NFC, and LTE support – housed in an IP68 casing for water-resistant performance. Based on Qualcomm’s integrated X5 LTE modem, which is Cat-4, it seems pretty likely that the LG watches aren’t going to support Cat-M1 or NB-IoT any time soon.
The LG Watch Style lacks LTE completely, but is pretty similar in specs otherwise. Its smaller size means a smaller size and resolution screen, as well as smaller battery, but it is priced at $250. The sleeker designed is aimed at those who don’t want a bulky watch on their wrist, and don’t want the heart-rate tracking and GPS of the Sport version. It claims to be the smallest Android Wear watch to date, at just 42.3mm x 45.7mm x 10.79mm.
The hardware looks good, although most users prioritize the battery-life and the software much more than the chipsets under the hood. In terms of pricing, these devices are still too expensive to enjoy much of a route to market as part of smartphone bundle promotions from stores or carriers and still too pricey for them to be suitable gifts to family and friends.