Testing: Android Wear Battery Life

By Norman Chan

Revisiting battery life and an always-on LCD.

Since we shot our video review of the LG G Watch, I've spent more time testing the watch and Android Wear. It's now my primary watch, replacing both the Timex Weekender I had been wearing since December and the Pebble Steel (a loaner unit since returned back to Pebble). The biggest problem I had with the LG G Watch was battery life--with default notification settings and brightness set to 30%, I couldn't get the watch to last a full day of use. Granted, that's because I'm a pretty heavy email user and am constantly managing (checking, archiving, replying to) email through the watch, but that's one of the reasons I liked it over the Pebble in the first place. Having the watch switch off on me before my phone battery died sucked, and I didn't want to carry the proprietary charger around.

The battery life is largely attributed to the LCD use. By default, LG's watch LCD is on all the time. It switches between a dark display that only shows the time to a brighter one when you lift your wrist up or tap the screen, but in both states, the LCD is active and the backlight is on. There is, however, a setting on the watch that turns the active LCD off when its in the dormant state, meaning that you can't casually check the time unless you tap the screen or trigger the wake state. In this mode, the battery life is significantly improved, lasting even over two days without going back to the charging dock. I ran several test scenarios: an extended session with minimal watch use, and one with heavy use. Under minimal use (only using the watch for time and notifications), the LG G Watch lasted two and a half days before powering off. In the heavy use scenario (constantly checking email and using navigation for daily commutes), the watch still lasted to the end of the second day.

This extra full day of use--which still falls short of the Pebble's battery life--made a big difference in my day-to-day appreciation of the watch. This sounds really silly to say about a watch, but I was no longer worrying whether I would be able to check the time during my drive home. That's just the unfortunate state of this first generation of smart watches. Having to tap the watch to activate the screen is a reasonable trade-off, though it makes me hope for some kind of LCD/E-Paper hybrid in future models that can display the time in a low-power state. I really don't need a fancy full-color display running at 30Hz to see what time it is.

And then there's that Apple wearable that we're expecting, which may or may not even be a watch.

The tech media got really excited over the weekend when John Gruber casually confirmed that Apple would announce an Android Wear competitor next month (presumably alongside an iPhone refresh). If we're to play the speculation game, Gruber's wording--"wrist wearable thing" instead of straight up watch--would seem to indicate that Apple's wearable isn't designed like a traditional watch, something I've been suspecting. I think the watch formfactor--medallion attached with a strap--leaves out the potential advantages of putting some of the hardware, like a battery, in the strap. That's partly why the existing lineup of Android Wear devices seem bulky; OEMs are packing a lot of hardware under the watchface. A wrist-wearable that's more like a bracelet (think tiny Pip-Boy, or Nike's Fuelband) makes more sense to me, with the tradeoffs of strap customization and multiple SKUs for sizing.

Regardless, the battery life and form factor won't be the things that separate Android Wear with Apple's wearable. It's going to be functionality, with Android Wear being an extension of Google Now and Apple leveraging Siri. And in that current comparison, Google Now (and its integration into Android Wear) is smarter and taps into more data than Siri, though Siri has better voice recognition and is more useful for activating tasks. But even the comparison may be moot--I don't think either wearable platform is going to be enough to sway users from one ecosystem into the other. All Google and Apple need to do is to make their wearable device and services compelling enough to get their existing users shelling out $200+ for a new accessory. And preferably on an annual or semi-annual basis. Coincidentally, that's something that the recently acquired Beats team has a lot of experience with.