4 top Android Wear watches: A hands-on guide

So many watches, so little time! We compare four Android Wear watches in this real-world guide.

Thinking about picking up a new smartwatch for the new year? iOS users have to wait a while before the Apple Watch hits store shelves, but owners of Android phones already have some compelling choices available.

Google's Android Wear platform has expanded considerably since its launch this past summer, in terms of both software functionality and the types of hardware you can find. Whether you want something fancy and elegant or casual and sporty, there's a Wear watch out there that fits the bill.

All Wear watches are not created equal, though -- and style aside, each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. I've spent time using all the current devices. Here's a detailed real-world look at how they compare, presented in the order in which they were released.

(Note: The current Wear watches are all now fairly comparable in terms of performance and stamina -- good for a full day's use but generally requiring a charge every night -- so I won't be focusing on those areas here. I'm also not including the Samsung Gear Live or LG G Watch in this analysis, as those early devices pale in comparison to the newer models and are difficult to recommend at this point.)

Motorola Moto 360: The sleek and modern circular watch

Price: $250

If you want an eye-catching smartwatch that looks and feels like actual jewelry, Motorola's Moto 360 may be the Wear device for you. The Moto 360 is classy and elegant, with a large circular screen surrounded by a stainless steel frame (in a choice of silver, black or "champagne" gold). The screen is slightly raised and free of any bezels, which creates a face that's pure surface area and fitting with the watch's minimalist vibe.

The tradeoff of the bezel-free design is that a small bar at the bottom of the watch's screen is blacked out; since there's no real open space anywhere on the device, that's where Motorola stashed the circuitry to make the display work. It's not ideal, but you really don't notice it after a while -- and when you consider how the watch might have looked otherwise, it seems like a worthwhile compromise.

The 360 comes with a choice of several different leather or stainless steel bands, all of which have sturdy-feeling metal buckles. You can also install your own 22mm band if you like, though not all third-party bands will fit properly with the watch's unconventional spring setup.

Design aside, the 360 has a few noteworthy features: It's the only Android Wear device to use standard wireless charging, which means you can charge it simply by setting it on the included cradle or any Qi-compatible pad. The 360 also sports an ambient light sensor that allows it to automatically adjust the screen's brightness based on the environment, which goes a long way in making the display easy to see in all sorts of conditions.

On the software front, you can customize the 360's various face designs via a special companion phone app -- changing things like colors and number styles and adding or removing the date. The 360 also uses custom Motorola software to collect your heart rate at regular intervals and then compile detailed stats about your daily activity levels.

The Moto 360 does have one irksome quirk: It provides no way to keep its screen on all the time, which is a vexing deviation from the Android Wear norm. If you can deal with that, though, it's a striking smartwatch with premium appeal.

LG G Watch R: The casual watch with a standout display

Price: $299

If you prefer a more casual and traditional-looking timepiece, LG's G Watch R provides a commendable Android Wear experience in an unassuming form. Unlike the 360, the G Watch R isn't likely to garner any attention; in fact, at a glance, you'd just think it was a run-of-the-mill Casio watch made for telling time.

The G Watch R is a bit on the chunky side, with a prominent raised bezel and large lugs surrounding its circular screen. The bezel has minute markings etched along its perimeter, which can look a little strange with certain face designs -- like those that have markings of their own built in or those that emulate a digital watch. It also causes the screen area to be smaller than the 360's, despite the actual face being larger.

Again, though, it's a tradeoff: The bezel holds the screen's circuitry and allows the display to be fully illuminated without any blacked-out bars. You win some, you lose some.

The screen itself is a high point: LG has gone with an unusual type of display technology called Plastic OLED (or P-OLED for short). It's bright, clear and easy to see even in glary outdoor conditions. Its dimmed mode, which is what's shown whenever you aren't actively using the watch, is also exceptionally crisp and easy to read. The only problem is that it can sometimes be a bit too bright, especially in dark rooms, and the G Watch R has no ambient light sensor to dial down the brightness automatically based on the environment.

The G Watch R ships with a somewhat stiff-feeling black leather band that uses plastic buckles -- but it's a standard 22mm setup, so you can always swap it out for a third-party alternative if you want. The watch's back is a hard plastic material, meanwhile, which makes it feel noticeably cheaper than other Wear devices. The back holds a heart rate sensor that can take your pulse on demand.

Charging the G Watch R is simple enough: You just line the device up properly and then place it onto its magnetic charging dock. Unlike the 360, the G Watch R uses a proprietary charging system -- meaning the official dock is the only charger that'll work.

LG's G Watch R isn't the most elegant or premium smartwatch in the Wear lineup, but it fills the "casual" role admirably -- and with its comfy round shape and exceptional display, it's pleasant to use and easy to recommend.

Sony SmartWatch 3: The sporty smartwatch

Price: $250

Some people wear watches for fashion. Others wear them for fitness. If you fall into the latter category, Sony's SmartWatch 3 might make sense for you.

The SmartWatch 3 is a simple square screen in a black rubber strap. The strap connects with a metal deployment clasp that you set once for your size and then just snap together whenever you want to put the watch on. The setup is nowhere near as stylish or design-focused as the other Wear watches, but it's about the only one I could envision wearing for a jog or to the gym.

Available in black or lime green, the rubber strap is quite comfortable, and the watch can actually pop out of the band completely. That could eventually allow you to change between different color bands on the fly, with no tools and very little effort required. (While Sony's website shows a couple of "exchangeable strap" options, it doesn't appear to sell them as of yet.)

The SmartWatch 3 has an ambient light sensor like the Moto 360, and it consequently remains optimized for the environment and easy to read even in bright and sunny conditions. The one quirk is that the device's dimmed mode (which is what you see whenever you aren't actively using the watch) is extremely dim and monochromatic -- to the point where it's often difficult or even impossible to read.

As part of its active focus, the SmartWatch 3 has the unusual (for a device not focused exclusively on fitness) feature of on-board GPS. That means you could go out for a run and have the watch keep track of your progress without your phone in tow -- a valuable option for a lot of folks, and one you won't find on any other Wear device. Only a few apps take advantage of the functionality so far, but more fitness-centric programs are said to be developing support for this feature.

The SmartWatch 3 charges via a standard micro-USB cable that connects to a flap-covered port on the device's backside. That's nice in theory, as you don't need any special accessory or charger to power the watch up, but prying open the flap and getting the cable to fit in is an awkward and frustrating chore compared to the more typical drop-it-on-a-dock alternative.

Curiously, the SmartWatch 3 does not have a heart rate sensor -- which is something you'd expect on a sport-focused watch. Its face design options are also rather limited and pedestrian compared to the other Wear watches, but with downloadable third-party faces now available for the platform, that disadvantage is easy enough to overcome.

If you want a watch that's fashionable or elegant, Sony's SmartWatch 3 isn't the one for you. But if you want a watch that's sporty, comfy and ideal for active use -- provided you can live without a heart rate sensor -- it's an excellent option.

Asus ZenWatch: The distinctive rectangular watch

Price: $200

With its silver- and copper-colored stainless steel body, Asus's ZenWatch brings a dash of class to the rectangular smartwatch form. Like the Moto 360, it looks like an elegant piece of jewelry -- the kind of watch you might wear to work or when dressed up for a night on the town.

The ZenWatch has an especially nice band as well -- a tan leather strap with subtle stitching and a metal deployment clasp. The clasp is a bit on the bulky side, which I find keeps the watch from laying flat on my wrist, but you can always swap it out for any other standard 22mm band if you want.

The real drawback to the ZenWatch is its screen. First, it has enormous bezels that make the watch's face feel especially large despite the actual display area being relatively small. And beyond that, the display just isn't very good. It's practically impossible to see outdoors, and its dimmed mode looks downright awful -- the on-screen elements are far more pared down and limited than on the other Wear watches and look surprisingly jagged and pixelated. It's reminiscent of the subpar screen I saw on Samsung's Gear Live back when Android Wear first launched.

If you're willing to accept that, though, you'll get an attractive watch with some nice elements like companion phone apps for customizing face themes and for keeping track of advanced health stats. (The ZenWatch has a heart rate monitor, though it's positioned unusually on the front of the device -- so you have to press your finger against the bezels whenever you want to take a measurement.)

Me? I can't get past that screen, especially after seeing how superior the other Wear watches look in comparison. But it's good to have options -- and maybe the ZenWatch's stylish form and lower-than-average price will be enough to win you over.

Bottom line

More than any other type of technology, smartwatches are all about personal preference and style. If you're going to wear something on your wrist all day, you have to like the way it looks -- and it has to fit in with your lifestyle and the way you want to use it.

As long as you're okay with its pros and cons, I wouldn't steer you away from any of the four watches on this page. Each has a very different vibe and is bound to appeal to a different sort of sensibility.

The Moto 360 is a gorgeous watch for anyone who wants something sleek and dressy. The G Watch R offers what's probably the most balanced all-around Android Wear experience, albeit in a somewhat clunky form. The SmartWatch 3 is ideal for active use. And the ZenWatch is going to catch a lot of folks' eyes with its distinctive design, though I'd think carefully about the quality of the display before deciding if it's the device for you.

Within this lineup, there really is no wrong decision. And now that you know what each watch is like to use in the real world, you're armed with the knowledge to figure out which one is right for your wrist.

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