It’s easy to dismiss the second-generation LG PuriCare Wearable Air Purifier Mask (let’s call it WAPM for short) as a glorified face mask, and that makes the $249 asking price a bit of a hard sell. But when you look at it as a portable air purifier, however, the price tag seems far more reasonable.
More so than other things, perspective decides whether or not the WAPM is something will cough up money for: how important is health to you? Are you the sort who would set aside money for supplements and the like to ensure that your body is in tip-top condition or are you in Camp If-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it? Is there a reason beyond an excuse to buy new tech to get a WAPM over say, a regular N95 mask?
On paper, the more conventional N95 captures 95 per cent of particles as small as 0.3 microns while a HEPA air purifier captures 99.97 per cent at 0.3 microns (The virus is around 0.1 microns in size but they are attached to larger particles). Not gonna lie; only a laboratory can give you a more useful comparison and breakdown with real-life application in mind. Having tried to work out if the airflow rates were in line with, say, ISO 14644 cleanroom standards (which is kind of daft, if you think about it), I realised that trying to work out the math is futile as I gradually started to realise I had no idea what I’m doing; and more importantly, that I was missing the whole point.
The point is this: N95 and HEPA straight up beat surgical and cloth masks for effectiveness, but the discomfort of forcing air through a filter is probably one of the reasons why we don’t see always see one when we look around. What the WAPM offers is the ability to breathe fairly comfortably while enjoying most if not all of the benefits from a HEPA filter. If exploring the efficacies of the various solutions is something you’re really interested in, this is one place where you can start .
And just by filter material alone, then ceteris paribus, the HEPA H13 filter in the WAPM is the most effective barrier we can buy and wear without looking like a cosplay enthusiast doing their best Jin-Roh impression.
The first thing that strikes you is how deceptively lightweight the mask is. The weight is evenly distributed, and it’s not that much more uncomfortable than regular cloth and surgical masks. After all, it’s essentially the same tech – the WAPM has rubber band-like loops (albeit more comfortable) that cling on to your ears do the same Damage Over Time as those glorified rubber bands on surgical masks, so I guess there’s no relief from some things. Joking aside, the attached headband and faceguard do bear some of the weight, which relieves some pressure on your ears. Apples to apples, I found quite a fair bit more comfortable, even after like four or five hours with the mask on. That said, I did spend a little time before I found a placement that worked very well for me, so your mileage may vary.
Because the weight is well distributed, you can even wear this during light exercises like jogging on a treadmill or cycling, but that’s as far as I would go. In my case at least, even when the bands loosen, the mask is still able to hang onto you quite securely. Again, your mileage will vary.
Compact air filter
The WAPM is actually quite simple in principle. Basically, it’s equipped with two HEPA filters; one placed on one side of your face. Each of the filters has a dedicated fan, which is by default, set to Auto. This means that the fans are set to spin slowly and then rev up only when you inhale to pull in more air. This fixes one of the biggest bugbears about wearing a mask – it can be hard to breathe, especially when you are on the move.
I suppose it’s not unreasonable to assume that the primary reason that LG defaults to an auto mode is to conserve power. I think it’s fine if you’re taking a leisurely stroll, but you might find yourself short on air when you are, say, brisk walking. Not to worry, this is where the app comes in.
While the mask itself only has one button to cycle between power states and turning the microphone on or off, the LG PuriCare Wearable app gives you control of the fan speed, amongst other things, and you can set it to Silent, Low, Medium, High or Turbo. You can’t turn the fans off completely unless you turn off the WAPM altogether – they all default to Silent level when you are on Silent or Auto. The difference between these two modes is that Auto allows the fans to dynamically speed up and slow down (between Medium and Silent speeds) whenever you are taking in air. Aside from Auto, all other settings spin the fans at a constant speed. Implicitly, this means that your battery will drain quicker as well.
When in Silent Mode, the WAPM is barely audible and you have to hold the mask to your ear to hear the fans spin. They do the bare minimum and I think you should only be using this when you are relaxed and in a well-ventilated space. It only gets loud from High onwards and Turbo is bound to draw unwanted attention in lifts but hey, it’s still better than drawing attention from unintended heavy breathing.
I would love it if it were possible to keep the fans spinning on Turbo all the way as it feels like having a mini air conditioner but unfortunately, that’s a lot of wear and tear involved. Sure, you can recharge the battery, but wearing out the filter can get expensive.
The app also has another setting that you can control – the microphone level. Yes, the WAPM has a microphone and speaker on board, and it’s not just for a lark; it’s a necessity if you are intending to have a civil conversation. Unfortunately, the mask is rather effective at filtering out enunciation as well and your voice will often sound muffled in the most annoying way possible: others can almost make out everything you say, save for the important bits. They ‘ask’ you to speak louder; you oblige. It’s louder, but now it sounds worse. They get annoyed and raise their voices. It raises your heckles and you return the favour. You have a shouting match. I have an overactive imagination. Anyway, long story short, just switch on the microphone before you make conversation.
Turning on and off the microphone is fairly easy as all you need to do is press the power button once. Two beeps indicate that you have just turned it on, while three beeps mean you have just turned it off. The microphone offers three levels of loudness; though to be honest, I find it rather inconsistent. Sometimes my voice will trail off but I suspect it’s one of those things where you kind of have to get used to speaking in a certain way and ensure your mask is positioned right to ensure that the microphone picks up your voice consistently. (You also need to speak in a certain manner for others to hear clearly, so noisy places are a no-go.) And lastly, no – it won’t help you do the Darth Vader breathing thing convincingly. I know you didn’t say it, but I know you thought it.
What it can do, is something even Vader himself couldn’t do with his own suit – control the mask’s settings from your mobile app. As mentioned earlier, you can control the fan and microphone settings from your phone, and the best part is that the WAPM constantly stays connected to the app even when the mask is switched off. This means that you can turn on the mask via your phone. It seems unnecessary, but it certainly adds a layer of polish to the product. Other features of the app include a battery indicator, LG’s self-pat-on-the-back counter for clean air that you have taken in, which consequently helps to track the lifespan of the HEPA filter. Although it’s highly unlikely to be the case, you’ll be able to find out if there’s a need to change the filter before the one month average.
This brings us to the issue of battery life. I didn’t expect it, but I managed almost eight hours on auto mode, which is quite impressive. Just for a lark, I found that you can go full turbo mode for about 135 minutes before the batteries give out. The motors were begging me to plug a USB in by the end of it all, but it’s nothing a power bank can’t solve. It would be nice if you could squeeze out another four hours, but I think it’s fair to say that eight is kind of like the minimum for the mask to be practical. It takes less than two hours for a full charge, so I think battery management isn’t a big issue here. You can also use it while charging, so long as you don’t mind a cable dangling from your mask. What was more of an issue is hygiene-related; just make sure you clean the faceguard throughout the day.
The topic of hygiene gives us another factor to consider: the filters are perishables, and need to be replaced regularly. LG recommends that the HEPA filter should be changed once a month (we’re estimating a rate of about 250 hours per filter going by the app) while the inner cover should be changed daily. This means that if you’re a heavy user using it for a full day, every day, you’re looking at monthly upkeep of approximately $50; it costs about $20 for the inner covers and $30 for the HEPA filter. I’m pretty sure you can stretch the use of the HEPA filter (using the app readings as a reference) but being able to stomach an extra $600 a year should be the benchmark of whether the WAPM is a justifiable investment in your book.
The WAPM is not an easy sell if you see masks as more of a legal requirement to get around or as a cursory barrier more than anything else. But if through the pandemic, you start to appreciate the quality of the air that you breathe, the WAPM starts to make more sense and it makes the $249 price tag much easier to stomach. For most people, I think good habits and practices are more effective than a high-tech mask, but there are people who will benefit from such a mask by virtue of their risk of exposure. That said, given the pervasiveness of the mutations that seem to bring forth more infectious variants of the virus, it might be time to, at the very least, think about the protection we wear.
LG PuriCare Wearable Air Purifier (Gen. 2)
Features - 8/10
Value Proposition - 6/10
Performance - 8/10
Design & Build Quality - 8/10
Overall - 8/10
This portable HEPA air purifier doesn't feel like a gimmick. And it's more pleasant to wear than a regular face mask.