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.

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.

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.

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.

Stamina and performance

We'll make this part easy: Both the LG G Watch and the Samsung Gear Live should get you through a full day without worry. But regardless of which watch you choose, you'll almost certainly need to charge it every single night.

Some folks seem disappointed by the need for a nightly charge, but it really hasn't been an issue for me. I charge my phone every night -- so now, I just drop the watch on its charger next to my phone at the same time. Honestly, it'd be harder for me to remember if it were a once-every-three-days sort of affair.

The G Watch has the bigger battery of the two -- 400mAh compared to 300mAh on the Gear Live -- but all things considered, the differences in stamina between the devices aren't terribly significant. Both watches have consistently been able to get me from morning to night, even with extensive use, and both are always low enough by the end of the day that they would need a recharge in order to last another 24 hours.

As a point of interest (given the issue of Samsung's lower quality dimmed-mode display), I left each watch sitting in its dimmed state for a full 12 hours, starting with a fully charged battery. Without any active use or illumination, the Gear Live lost about 24% of its charge over that time while the G Watch lost about 22%. So Samsung's pixel-reducing approach may have been implemented out of necessity since, even with it in place, the Gear Live appears to lag behind the G Watch in overall efficiency.

(Several people have asked whether using Wear impacts the battery life of the connected phone, by the way. I tested both watches with a Moto X and an HTC One (M8), and I haven't noticed any measurable difference in the phones' battery life as a result of the smartwatch pairing.)

Want to know how well Android Wear works?

For a thorough, deep-dive examination of Google's Android Wear interface, check out our review Android Wear deep-dive review: A smart start to smartwatch software.

Stamina aside, there's not a heck of a lot to say about performance for these two watches: The G Watch and Gear Live share the same internals, and both devices run smoothly. Apps sometimes take a few seconds to open, and there's an occasional delay for voice commands to be recognized, but neither system feels sluggish and I haven't seen any jitteriness in animations.

The only seemingly performance-related difference you'll notice in using the two watches is that the Gear Live is far more sensitive to gestures. Android Wear automatically wakes a watch and illuminates its display when you move your wrist in an upward motion. On the Gear Live, even the slightest movement will cause the display to light up. The G Watch, on the other hand, requires a more pronounced motion in order for the gesture to work.

I found the G Watch's lower sensitivity to be frustrating at first but got used to it pretty quickly. You basically just have to twist your wrist as you raise it to get the gesture to work with that device -- and once you figure that out, everything's fine. The motion is a little less natural, but that also means you get less accidental activations when you're just moving your arm in a regular way.

Other points of differentiation

A few other noteworthy differences to mention before we wrap things up:

Samsung's Gear Live has a heart rate sensor on its back; LG's G Watch does not. Does that actually matter? For most people, probably not.

The Gear Live's heart rate sensor takes measurements on demand only, not continuously or at regular intervals throughout the day. It's also somewhat tricky to use: If the watch isn't positioned just right against your wrist or if your skin is slightly damp (like, you know, from sweating), you won't be able to get a reading. And its measurements vary enough to make them unreliable for anyone who really needs that sort of information.

The Gear Live's charger is, in a word, awful. It's a cheap plastic wedge that's difficult to snap onto the device's back and feels like it's going to break every time you remove it. (In fact, I've already seen a few reports on social media of chargers or even the connecting mechanisms on the watch breaking after only days of use.) This may seem inconsequential, but remember that you'll be removing the watch from the charger every morning and reattaching it every night.

The G Watch's charger, in contrast, is a small rectangular cradle that works as it should: The watch fits naturally into its perimeter and is held in place by a gentle magnet. It feels sturdy and well made, and allows the watch to sit flat on a surface when connected.

The two devices' chargers (the Samsung Gear Live is on the left, the LG G Watch on the right).

Speaking of power, the Gear Live has a small button on the lower end of its right side that allows you to turn it on, while the G Watch has only a pin-sized button on its bottom and is more easily turned on via its charger. Given that these devices will usually remain on indefinitely after you power them up for the first time, though, it's really not a big deal either way.

The G Watch comes with 24 face designs that you can choose from; the Gear Live comes with 13. Eight of the faces on each watch are standard Google-made designs, while the rest are custom options added by each manufacturer. The LG device obviously has more variety, but both devices have a decent mix of simple, creative and flashy choices in both analog and digital themes.

Google initially told me it wouldn't be possible for users to add additional face designs beyond what each manufacturer provided, but a few third-party options have already popped up in the Play Store -- so it appears there's more flexibility on that front than we were initially led to believe.

Aside from face designs, the only difference in software between the two watches is in the standalone apps each manufacturer has preinstalled. (Manufacturers can't customize the core user interface with Android Wear, but they can add their own applications into the operating system.)

LG has added only one app to its G Watch: A world clock that lets you keep tabs on the time in multiple cities of your choice.

The Samsung Gear Live has a Stopwatch app which duplicates an existing function.

Samsung, meanwhile, has added two apps to the Gear Live: Heart Rate, which allows you to take a heart rate measurement (a function you can also perform within the Fit app that's part of the Wear OS) and Stopwatch, which just duplicates the functionality of Wear's native stopwatch function and adds confusion to the user experience as a result.

Reps from Samsung have also indicated plans to bring more of the company's own apps and services into the watch in the future -- which, for anyone bothered by bloatware, is something to keep in mind.

Bottom line

Comparing the LG G Watch to the Samsung Gear Live is kind of like comparing Burger King to McDonald's: Either one will get the job done, but neither is what you would call a first-class experience. And neither is really that much better than the other.

At a Glance

LG G Watch

LGPrice: $229Pros: Superior dimmed-mode display; comfortable band; nice charging cradleCons: Clunky and uninspired design; poor outdoor visibility; display less vivid than Gear Live's when illuminated

With the classy and beautifully crafted Moto 360 on the horizon, it's hard to recommend either the G Watch or the Gear Live as an ideal Android Wear purchasing option. Each device has its own set of pros and cons, but both watches are very much in the same league -- and next to the Moto 360, both look pretty lackluster.

If you asked me to make a choice after I'd spent just a few days with the watches, I probably would have picked the Gear Live. On the surface, it stands out a bit more since its design is more distinctive and its display looks a little better when illuminated.

At a Glance

Samsung Gear Live

SamsungPrice: $199Pros: Better illuminated display; more distinctive design; has heart-rate sensorCons: Clunky and unattractive; poor outdoor visibility; cheap and difficult-to-use charging wedge; awkward band; includes redundant preinstalled applications

Now that I've used the watches for a couple of weeks, though, I'd actually go with the G Watch. The Gear Live's advantages in those aforementioned areas are pretty narrow, and I just can't get past certain other elements of the device -- like the low quality of its dimmed-mode display, which is what you see the majority of the time when you glance at its face. I've found I prefer the lower motion sensitivity of the G Watch, too, as the watch isn't constantly flashing on every time I move my arm.

I'm also uncomfortable with Samsung's tendency to bake redundant bloat into its devices, especially with reps going on the record as saying more such material is on the way. Factor in the Gear Live's junky charger and awkward band, and LG's G Watch ends up being the more desirable overall option for me.

But again, we're comparing two okay but unexceptional devices. The best advice I could give would be to hold off a month or two to see how much the Moto 360 ends up costing in comparison.

A fine dining option is on the way -- and you might be disappointed if you settle for fast food now just because you're hungry.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Android tips and insights, follow him on Google+ or Twitter.

This article, Samsung Gear Live vs. LG G Watch: A real-world evaluation, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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