By Will Shanklin
If we had to pick the two best smartwatches you can buy today, there’s a good chance we’d go with the LG Watch Urbane and Apple Watch. Let’s take a quick look at the best wearables from the Android Wear and Apple camps.
Before jumping into other differences, you have to start off knowing that the phone you own may make up your mind for you. Right now the Watch Urbane requires an Android phone (running version 4.3 or higher) while the Apple Watch only works with iPhones (5 and newer).
We may eventually see Android Wear work with iPhones, but right now there’s no overlap.
The first thing you’ll notice between these two watches is a big honkin’ size difference. The Watch Urbane is 24 percent taller, 28 percent wider and 4 percent thicker than the Apple Watch. And keep in mind that we’re handling the larger (42 mm) of the two Apple Watches. There’s also a 38 mm model where that size gap is even bigger.
We don’t have a big problem with the Urbane’s size; there are regular timekeeping watches with faces this big. It’s also very comfortable on wrist (like the Apple Watch). Ultimately a wide variety of shapes, sizes and styles is what will serve customers best, and we’ve yet to see that from one single company.
Screen size and quality are a mixed bag, and both wearables are in pretty good shape there. The Apple Watch has the sharper screen, with its Retina Display looking terrific all around, with rich colors and good contrast. The Watch Urbane has a less pixel-dense display (245 PPI vs. the Apple Watch’s ~326 PPI), but the Urbane’s screen is also 21 percent bigger – giving you a more immersive peek into your alerts and other goodies.
Generally speaking, we also love the look of round-screened watches like the Urbane, something Apple doesn’t offer with its first-generation Watch.
The Watch Urbane’s screen does also have one huge intangible on its side: it stays on all the time. The watch’s battery life is good enough that you can leave the clock face turned on all day long, and you’ll easily get through the day with no worries. Apple doesn’t even give you that option – its screen stays off until you lift your wrist or tap it.
This makes a big difference. You can look at the time just by glancing down at the Watch Urbane, no gestures or movement of any kind required. It’s a big reason why the Urbane is better at passing for a “dumb” watch – and if not for its huge size, that gap would be even bigger. The Apple Watch, sharp as it is, looks like a smartwatch.
The Watch Urbane has a smooth stainless steel finish, and ships with a leather band by default (you can swap it with other 22 mm bands). We handled the Apple Watch Sport, which has an aluminum body (it looks very nice too) and a rubber band which is much nicer than you’d expect. You can also pay more for a stainless steel Apple Watch, and if you’re Beyonce or Kanye West and on the hunt for some new bling, you can fork over US$17 grand for an 18k gold Apple Watch.
Alerts are handled about the same on both watches: when your paired smartphone gets a notification, you’ll feel a little vibration on your wrist. Apple’s alerts feel more like a tap, though, adding a human touch that the Urbane’s mechanical buzzing (it’s basically like a smartphone set to vibrate) can’t match. We wouldn’t base your decision on this, but Apple’s “Taptic Engine” is a nice touch.
Controls are a little different, with the Watch Urbane taking the simpler and more obvious approach: touch screen and touch screen only (though its side button also serves as a home button and shortcut). Touch is also the main way that you get around the Apple Watch, but it also has a Digital Crown (above), which you can turn to scroll up and down lists and zoom in and out of your apps screen. The Apple Watch also has two dedicated shortcut buttons (including that crown) and a second way of touching your screen known as Force Touch: by pressing down on the screen a little farther, you can, in some places, call up menu screens and the like.
These differences reflect the two different operating systems. Google has made the simpler OS, the one that a child could pick up and understand within a few minutes. Swipe down through your cards, and sometimes to the side to get more info or to “action” one of them. Easy peasy.
Apple’s Watch OS, meanwhile, has a steeper learning curve, with different areas staked out for apps, Glances (basically widgets that live in a horizontal row below the main clock face), messages, Siri and more. It isn’t that complicated, mind you, and Watch OS is laid out intuitively. But this is a case where Apple doesn’t win the grand prize for simplicity. That goes to Google.
We see value in both approaches, and both platforms are also going to evolve over the next few years. We wouldn’t be surprised if Android Wear and Watch OS ultimately settle into similar places, like Android and iOS have. Right now, though, Android Wear is the simple and straightforward one, while Watch OS is the more app-centric one (Apple has also enjoyed much more early support from third-party app makers).
Both watches’ batteries can easily get through a full day with regular, or even heavy, use – and well into a second day. But the battery life advantage goes to the Watch Urbane as, again, it can do that with its screen on all the time. That’s surely a compromise Apple had to make, in the name of that smaller, more compact build.
So which smartwatch is the better value? Well, the stainless steel Watch Urbane (with leather band) rings up for $350, while this aluminum Apple Watch Sport (the entry-level version of the larger 42 mm Watch) with rubber band costs $400. There are many intangibles that will change the “value” for each individual customer, but we’re leaning slightly towards the Urbane as the general-purpose “better bang for your buck” watch. You could just as easily, though, argue that the Apple Watch’s better app support puts it ahead.
The next few months are going to be very interesting in the wearable space, as we see how Google (as well as Samsung) responds to the Apple Watch. Will Android Wear adopt some Apple Watch-like features, to try to compete with the most popular wearable on the planet? Or will Google continue in its own unique direction, trusting in the simplicity that Apple was once famous for? We could start to find out as early as next week, as Google I/O kicks off (we’ll be there for on-the-ground coverage).
Both the LG Watch Urbane and Apple Watch are available now.