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posted: 7/12/2014 8:22 AM

Is this the year to buy a smartwatch?

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  • A Samsung Gear Live watch running the latest edition of Android software is displayed during the Google I/O Annual Developers Conference in San Francisco last month.

      A Samsung Gear Live watch running the latest edition of Android software is displayed during the Google I/O Annual Developers Conference in San Francisco last month.
    Bloomberg News

 
By Hayley Tsukayama, The Washington Post

The LG G Watch and the Samsung Gear Live both went on sale last week, providing the first test for Google's just-for-wearables version of its mobile operating system, called Android Wear. The launch marks Google's first big push into wearables market as it tries to get ahead of potential competitors, such as Apple, and convince consumers that these wearable devices are actually worth getting.

Both boast a host of features that Google showed off at its recent developers conference, such as the ability to make and take calls, run a Google search or order a cab from Lyft by asking your watch, and get real-time traffic updates delivered to your wrist. But there are a few differences between the two models. The main one is price: Samsung's Gear Live costs $199.99, while the LG G Watch is $229. Customers who put down the extra cash for the LG G Watch should get a little more juice per charge due to the G Watch's larger battery. The Gear Live sports a built-in heart monitor that the LG G Watch doesn't, although both have a pedometer.

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One thing you should remember before buying: Pick up any smartwatch and you're likely signing up to share even more personal data with Google. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- the extra data collection lets you make the most of the device's features -- but it's good to remember that the things that really distinguish wearables from smartphones rely a lot on picking up extra data.

Step count and heart rate data are just the beginning. Android Wear comes with "Google Now," the tracking and notification application that Google's had on smartphones for a while, completely baked into the system. That makes your watch your personal assistant, which can do a lot for you if you let it: Android Wear will offer you traffic-based time estimates for your commute, make reminders that pop-up when you get to your office or your home, send email and even take dictation. All of those systems, though, plug you ever-deeper into the Google ecosystem -- notes go to Google Keep, directions come from Google Maps -- and while that's not surprising, it is something that users should know about before signing on.

If a Google-run life sounds great to you -- let's be honest, a lot of us are already there -- there are still a few more things to consider before you buy. Unless you're really, really into the whole smartwatch thing, you may want to hold off for now, reviewers say. These devices still require a smartphone to work -- and cost just about as much as a smartphone -- and not everyone thinks they deliver on the full promise of wearable just yet.

Edward Baig at USA Today noted that it's "not yet time" for Android Wear, which shows promise but still lacks must-have features -- in fact, he said that all those wrist notifications can get a little overwhelming. TechCrunch's Darrell Etherington also noted that the LG G watch needs "a bit more time to bake" in his review, and said it's particularly hard to read in direct sunlight. The Next Web's Owen Williams said in his otherwise positive review of the Gear Live that Android Wear itself is a work in progress -- one Google is working to improve continually, but definitely still evolving.

There's another reason, of course, that potential smartwatch buyers may want to wait: Apple's rumored iWatch.

While Apple itself hasn't said a word about a concrete product it's planning for wearables, the rumor mill spun up again when the chief executive of watchmaker Tag Heuer told CNBC that Apple had hired away one of the luxury firm's sales managers. 9 to 5 Mac later reported, citing unnamed sources, that this was likely executive Patrick Pruniaux. Apple declined to comment on that report.

But, in addition to Apple's as-yet-unconfirmed watch, there are many other companies jumping into this space right now. Most notably, Motorola's highly anticipated Moto 360 -- a circular smartwatch -- is also coming soon to a store near you this summer. In other words, even first adopters may want to cool their jets for a while until there are more options on the market.

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