Android Wear is here. And though the first watches running Google's new wearable platform won't be available to the public for another week or two, Google I/O attendees got their hands on the first Wear watches a little early. Gizmag snagged a Samsung Gear Live, and, though it's too early for a full Gear Live or Android Wear review, we do have a few early thoughts on the new smartwatch and the new OS.
Physically, the Gear Live uses a similar design language to the Samsung Gear 2. I think it looks pretty sharp, but you also have to go into it knowing that it looks more like a gadget than a piece of jewelry. Before strapping on the Gear Live, I had been wearing Pebble Steel – and it's quite the difference. The Gear has a much larger face, and is a lot harder to pass off as a standard men's watch. While Pebble Steel is like two parts luxury watch and one part smartwatch, the Gear Live is all smartwatch. As far as tech products go, I think it's pretty fashionable. But, again, it is still clearly a tech product.
That includes a rectangular face with a square 1.63-in screen (320 x 320 resolution at 278 pixels per inch). It looks plenty sharp to me, with deep-colored and high-contrast Super AMOLED technology. It doesn't have the wow factor of the round-faced Moto 360 (which won't be available until later this Northern summer), but I have no complaints about the Gear Live's display.
Actually, that isn't entirely true. The Gear Live's display isn't great in direct sunlight (in the shot above, for example, the screen is actually on). Yep, wearables are still working out some kinks. As long as you keep the Gear Live on a pretty high brightness level, though, I think it might be okay in direct sunlight (the shot above makes it look a little worse than it is). But I also wouldn't expect a great viewing experience under the hot summer sun.
We'll have more on the Gear Live's hardware in our full review, but right now the big news here is Android Wear. It's still early days for Wear, and keep in mind that these are the most initial of impressions (and pre-release impressions at that). But with that said, I'd say this is easily the tightest and most advanced wearable platform to date.
Like most smartwatches, Android Wear is largely about notifications. But while other watches simply forward a few lines of text from your smartphone's notification center, Wear handles alerts more maturely. With Wear, you don't just read a few words from an incoming message. You can also read the full message (other watches usually cut off longer emails), see your friend's contact picture in the background, view your conversation history and reply by voice. It handles SMS, email and Hangouts (though you can't start a new Hangout, only reply to an existing thread). It even lets you archive Gmail messages when you're done with them.
Voice is one of the big keys here. Android Wear's voice control is every bit as fast and accurate as it is in Google Now on your phone. That means almost real-time transcription, so the words you're speaking pop up only a second or two after you say them. Right now you can ask it to do things like set reminders, navigate to a coffee shop, take a note (in Google Keep) or, as we mentioned, send messages.
The dictation itself is fast, and so are Wear's answers. For example, I just asked the Gear Live "How tall is Dikembe Mutombo?" Within three seconds of finishing the sentence, the screen showed Mutombo's face in the background, with a "card" telling me that he's 7'2".
Context-awareness is the other key. Like Google Now on your phone, Android Wear uses circumstances like time and location to try to give you the notifications that are most relevant to what you're doing. For example, if you have a flight tomorrow, Wear will give you a reminder when it's time to leave for the airport. And if traffic is piling up, potentially delaying your commute, it will give you a heads-up about that too.
I need to spend more time with the Gear Live before saying much more about the context-aware element, but just know that it's going to be like the cards you get from Google Now on your phone. On a wearable, there's potential for some great stuff there.
One thing that surprised me about Android Wear is how quiet it is. This is the first voice-controlled wearable I've seen that doesn't feel the need to yak back to you. Google Glass, for example, makes various sound effects and speaks some feedback to you. S Voice in the older Samsung Gears also wasted time by trying to have Siri-esque conversations with you. But while you do talk to Android Wear, it doesn't talk back. It just shows you what you need to know on your screen.
That isn't a complaint. On the contrary, I think Android Wear hits this part right on the head. Talking to your watch can be awkward enough as it is. Why bother having a stilted AI conversation when you can just read the watch's feedback onscreen? It's faster, and people around you don't hear the watch's end of the conversation.
When you aren't using the watch, it dims its display and shows your chosen watch face (the Gear Live gives you 13 faces to choose from right now). The display is always on, unless you manually set it to turn off and save battery. But when you aren't actively using the watch, it shows a lower-powered black & white face, similar to what you'd see on the Moto X's Active Display (minus the fading in and out). The shot you see above is one example.
Each watch face has its own active version along with a black & white dimmed version. You can also dim the watch at any time by placing your palm over the display. Or, if you just stop using it for a few seconds, it will time out and dim on its own.
When you're ready to wake the watch up, you can either lift your wrist towards you (it usually senses this gesture) or tap on the display. At that point, you can either say "OK Google" to initiate voice control, or swipe through your Google Now cards without voice.
On the Gear Live, the Wear UI is just as fluid, smooth and Google Now-like as Google's early previews and videos suggested. You simply swipe your finger up on the screen to see your recent cards (notifications) or swipe left for actions (things like replying to emails, viewing the weekly weather forecast or exiting driving navigation). Swipe right to dismiss a card. It should all be intuitive to modern-day smartphone users, and it will be instantly familiar to anyone who has used Google Now.
Android Wear has some nice built-in fitness tracking, and the Gear Live also adds a heart rate sensor (the other Wear watch from the first batch, the LG G Watch, doesn't have a pulse monitor). Android Wear automatically tracks your daily steps in the background, and you have the option of viewing your current daily count on your watch face. And the step total is a small and subtle addition to the watch face you're already using, rather than a loud "Hey, look at me, I'm a fitness app tracking your steps!" face like we've seen on other platforms.
What's missing right now is third-party app integration. And even when those start popping up, we still won't see full "apps" per se. It will be more like developers updating their Android smartphone apps to add Wear widgets. I think this is the ideal way to handle wearables. This isn't a standalone platform that can run independently from your phone, so why pretend like it is? The last thing we need is another isolated platform with its own app store.
Instead, Wear specializes in delivering glanceable information from its mothership, your smartphone. It already does this very well, even a week or so before it officially launches (right now it only integrates with several Google apps). Once third-party apps start joining in on the fun, this can be one bad-ass platform. It can achieve most of the same ends as Google Glass, only without making you look like a cyborg.
We're going to have much more on the Gear Live and Android Wear watches over the next few months. We'll do a full Gear Live review at some point as well, but just remember that this is still early days for Wear. Until those third-party apps start popping up, this feels more like a sneak preview of the wearable world than a final product.
There are still lots of questions as well. Does anyone who isn't a geek or early adopter have reason to plunk down for an Android Wear watch anytime soon? Do watches that look more like gadgets than jewelry have any mainstream appeal? And is battery life a concern? Stay tuned. The Gear Live marks an exciting start for Android Wear, cased in some slick Samsung hardware ... but this is still just the beginning.
The Gear Live is available for pre-order now from Google Play for US$199. It's scheduled to start shipping by July 8.
Product page: Samsung Gear Live
Updated 7/2: We had originally stated that the Gear Live has a speaker and spoke driving directions, but it looks like Will was hearing his phone's speaker
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