THE BAD The Lifeband is heavier and thicker than it needs to be; the screen is unreadable in bright daylight; some call and text-notification features won’t work when paired with an iPhone; the swipe-and-tap band interface is frustrating to use; the battery life is frustratingly short.
THE BOTTOM LINEThe Lifeband Touch, LG’s crack at a smart fitness band, has moments of promise, but just doesn’t add up to an experience that’s useful or fun compared with the competition.
Sometime between pressing my earphones’ button to play back my heart rate and peeking through the glare of daylight at my steps taken via the curved black band on my wrist, I felt dizzy. Maybe it was because I needed water. But I suddenly had the sensation of juggling too many gadgets. A Bluetooth fitness band and Bluetooth heart-rate earphones connected to my Nexus 5 phone felt like…one Bluetooth too many.
To add to the already-massive list of increasingly similar smart fitness bands on the market, LG has entered the fray with the Lifeband Touch: one part pedometer, one part semi-smartwatch. It runs on both certain Android phones and recent iPhones. It can control your music playback. And while it doesn’t have its own heart-rate monitor built in, it connects with others: in particular, a new pair of LG earphones that fit heart-rate measurement right in the earbuds.
I wanted to love LG’s unique heart-rate solution, and wanted to find the band simple and easy to use. That’s just not the case.
Part of the problem with the LG Lifeband Touch is its design. A curved black band, rigid and glossy on top, and soft at one end to allow it to slip over the side of your wrist like a bangle, feels heavier than other fitness bands. Its OLED display is touch and swipe-sensitive, a bit like the Withings Pulse, but it feels a lot lower-tech than the vivid all-color Samsung Gear Fit.
The OLED display looks fair in indoor light, but becomes completely unreadable outdoors with direct daylight. Considering you’ll probably want to use the Lifeband as a watch, outdoors, on fitness-friendly sunny days, it’s not so great. You also have to press the Lifeband’s main button to read the time or your fitness progress. But, at least the band’s motion controls make the display light up when you lift your wrist to check the time.
The Lifeband display’s multiple readouts make sense at first glance: steps taken, estimated calories burned, distance traveled, and a basic clock, plus bare-bones music controls (volume, track skipping, play/pause) that work with whatever’s playing on your phone via Bluetooth. But it’s getting to these submenus that gets weird.
Besides swiping and tapping the display, there’s a single round button that toggles through several modes. That ring glows, too: various LED hues, and even pulsing, depending on the mode it’s in.
That LED color ring around the button could be glowing red if the Lifeband Touch is in pedometer/calorie counting mode, indicating that you’re still far away from your daily goal. Or, if you’re in heart-rate measurement mode, red would mean a high-intensity workout. Or, it could mean your battery is being charged, or the battery is low. Figuring out what light blue (“warmup” heart-rate zone), green (activity target achieved/full battery charge/”aerobic” heart-rate zone), or other colors mean practically requires having a decoder sheet in your pocket.
Reading the horizontal OLED display and getting the proper submode onscreen is also weirdly difficult. Pressing the button cycles through time, activity, and music control modes. But in activity mode, you either tap for daily progress and estimated calories, or swipe for distance and step count. And for a timed exercise-logging mode, which, if you tap “start,” will change the readouts again to a timer and, if a heart-rate monitor is paired, heart rate. Swiping requires a full across-screen gesture; do it partway, and you might just end up tapping something instead, which will do something else entirely. Confused yet? I haven’t even gotten to music control, which involves swiping through several screens just to tap to adjust volume.
Despite a seemingly simple design, figuring out what to do can be as confusing as an ’80s digital watch.
HeartRate Earphones, optional
LG’s curious HeartRate Earphones cost $180, and are sold separately from the Lifeband Touch, which itself retails for $150 (£120/AU$199). They’re a completely different product, and can be used separately. But they also work in tandem with the Lifeband Touch to offer heart rate, as opposed to building an LED-based optical reader on the wristband itself. Alas, the earphones are not available in Australia.
Going with ear instead of wrist for heart rate works fairly well: I tried LG’s earphones, and they measured my heart rate at similar levels to a chest-worn Polar heart-rate monitor, which I also tried for comparison. I never had measurement errors, and readings were continuous and realistic.
LG’s earphones use a small wireless puck that houses the battery and connects via Bluetooth to your phone. Because they’re wireless and need separate charging, you’ll need to unplug that extra puck and use a Micro-USB cable to top off its charge. The earphones have loops to fit over your ears, and a handful of different-size silicone tips. You won’t notice the heart-rate sensing patches, because they’re glossy patches on the sides of the buds themselves.
The earphones didn’t feel as comfortable as others I’ve worn, but held on tightly as I exercised. They didn’t seal off noise as well as my favorite Etymotic earbuds, and their audio quality was fair but not excellent. For $180, that’s hard to swallow. You’re paying for heart-rate functions, not music quality. And wearing a heart-rate monitor set of earphones means you always need them in to work out, and you can’t wear any others. They also only last four hours on a charge, which isn’t really enough for a full day of use. And to make matters worse, these earphones have a custom plug that pops into the puck, meaning you can’t use them with normal headphone jacks. And earphones break down over time through wear and tear; what happens to your expensive heart-rate headphones then?
While using the HeartRate Earphones, you can press a round button that glows in the same color variants as the Lifeband, indicating heart-rate intensity zone, while a voice tells you your heart rate, time of workout, and distance traveled. That’s the HeartRate Earphone’s best feature. I’d be tempted to just buy a cheaper third-party chest-worn heart-rate band, instead.
Only a semi-smartwatch
The Lifeband Touch bills itself as a device that has smartwatch-like functions, but curb your enthusiasm. Unlike the Samsung Gear Fit, which has a nearly Pebble-level set of notifications from various apps, the Lifeband only knows about incoming phone calls and texts. The band buzzes when you get a call, and then you can silence an incoming call by placing a hand over the screen.
I couldn’t easily read texts, though; when I sent myself sample SMS messages, all I saw was my caller ID and the time sent. The messages disappeared once I tapped them. I couldn’t get them back. And the Lifeband submenus don’t let you browse previous messages.
Like the Jawbone Up and Samsung Gear Fit, the Lifeband Touch vibrates to let you know if you’ve achieved fitness goals, or you can set it to occasionally buzz after long periods of sitting. “Move! Move!” the Lifeband said on its blue OLED display. I’d get the buzz, but I couldn’t always tell if it was telling to me to move or if I’d achieved 50 percent of my goal. Or if a message suddenly came through.
You can also set silent alarms, which I found helpful when waking up in the morning, so I didn’t bother my kids.
iOS and Android support, but limited
The good news is that the Lifeband Touch works with iPhones and Android phones. The bad news is that the supported phone list is shorter than you might expect: iPhone 4S and later or iPod Touch fifth-gen running iOS 6 or 7, and only the LG G2, Google Nexus 5, LG G Flex, Samsung Galaxy S3, S4, Note 2, Note 3, and running Android Jelly Bean 4.3 or later. I couldn’t officially download the LG Fitness app on the Galaxy S5 from Google Play.
There are further limitations for iOS users: the Lifeband can only receive incoming call notifications, not texts. And those calls don’t have caller ID; all you’ll see when your wrist starts buzzing is a phone handset icon. Compatible Android phones can also silence calls from the Lifeband.
Charging and battery life
You need an included dongle to magnetically snap on the back of the Lifeband Touch: it snaps in nicely, and uses a Micro-USB cable to charge up in a few hours.
But the battery life of the Lifeband Touch isn’t so hot: up to five days if unpaired, and only two days when paired. I only managed to squeeze a little over two and a half days at a stretch before I needed my typical recharge. I’m not sure why the battery life is this bad: the higher-tech Samsung Gear Fit fared better, the Pebble watch lasts anywhere from three to six days, and most fitness bands last at least a week.
Incidentally, the separate LG HeartRate Earphones don’t have such wonderful battery life, either; only four hours of use while measuring heart rate on a full charge.
The required LG Fitness app does a fair job of tracking personal goals, steps taken over the course of a day or longer spans of time, and mapping and tracking personal workouts using GPS. Heart-rate data can be gathered using optional heart-rate monitors: LG’s own HeartRate Earphones, or some third-party alternatives from Polar, Zephyr, and Wahoo. It’s nice, at least, that LG offers options.
Similarly, the LG app connects with popular third-party fitness apps MyFitnessPal, RunKeeper, and MapMyFitness, and can be set up to share data with Facebook or Twitter.
The app works when pairing a Lifeband Touch, or just a heart-rate monitor, or neither, or both. Having those extra options makes living in the LG app a lot more appealing. It’s a far better app than Samsung’s S Health, but it’s not as intuitive as those from Withings or Jawbone Up. It’s more detailed and comprehensive than you’d expect, however; not a bad first stab at an app. It’s just that, with so many other alternatives out there, LG’s doesn’t rise up to feel like the best of the bunch.
Maybe we’ll be wearing sensors all over our bodies in the future. But that’ll never happen if each one needs to be discretely charged, and if they all have the relatively short battery life that LG’s new fitness accessories do. And while LG has entered the fitness band market with some interesting ideas, including functional heart-rate earbuds, the total package of the Lifeband Touch feels neither here nor there: not as good as dedicated fitness bands, and not as smart as smartwatches or “smarter” fitness trackers like the Gear Fit.
I don’t feel compelled to keep wearing it. And that pretty much says it all.