Review: One week with Android Wear
Every smartwatch we've seen so far has run its own unique software, but we can't say any of it has been anything special. Starting this week, though, Google's new smartwatch platform is about to make its way into the wild. Join Gizmag, for our initial review of Android Wear.
Before we get started, I want to emphasize the word "initial" in this review. Sure, we've spent a week acquainting ourselves with Android Wear, but it still feels a little strange calling this a full review when third-party apps are just now starting to pop up. Make no mistake: this is our honest take on Android Wear as it makes its way into customers' hands. But a complete and final evaluation of the platform? No way. That just isn't possible at this point – for us or anybody else.
The first time I strapped on the original Pebble smartwatch, a fairly limited device with a black & white screen, my imagination did backflips. Despite its primitive nature, I could see how after a year or two (and millions of R&D dollars from much bigger companies) this could be something special. There was just something about reading emails and text messages on my wrist that made me think this is what we're all going to be doing a few years from now. Smartwatches could very well be the next step in consumer tech evolution.
In the months after Pebble launched, we continued to see incremental evolutions in this emerging smartwatch space. There was the Samsung Galaxy Gear, a very "gadgety" watch with hardware that was oozing with potential – but with closed-off software that never bred any third-party apps worth mentioning. We also saw the Martian watch, which looked almost like a standard watch but tapped into a smartphone's voice control. Pebble Steel was another standout, as it took the simple nature of the first Pebble and transplanted it into a designer watch's body. Hell, I even tried out the Neptune Pine, a hulking device that's more like a strap-on smartphone than a watch.
All of these devices were fun to play with, and each showed varying glimmers of potential in one area or another. But even a smartwatch enthusiast like myself has to admit that none of them were quite there. Maybe for eager beavers like me, but not for "regular" folks who aren't geeks or early adopters.
... which brings us back to Android Wear. After spending the last week playing with Android Wear on a Samsung Gear Live, I'm convinced that this is the first smartwatch platform to get truly excited about. Even now, as third-party apps are just beginning to trickle into the wild, I think Android Wear is already far ahead of the competition. I'm still not sure if smartwatches are quite ready for their closeups, but I can say that this is the first serious wearable platform.
Android Wear doesn't completely rethink the smartwatch. Like its predecessors, it mostly serves as a second screen for your smartphone. It takes the smartphone tasks that are best done quickly and easily – reading an incoming text, sending an email, setting a reminder, checking on traffic or the forecast – and puts them a lift of the arm away.
The Android Wear UI is a great blend of simplicity and functionality. Actually, scratch that – this isn't just about functionality. It's more about the right kinds of functionality. And that starts with seeds that Google planted years ago.
Want to know what to expect from Android Wear today? Okay, start by firing up Google Now on your phone. See the "cards" waiting for you there? See the voice control? Alright, now imagine all of that on your wrist. Now imagine adding rich notifications from other Google services and third-party Android apps. Got it? Well, there you have it: that's Android Wear on Day One.
Okay, so maybe it isn't quite that simple. For example, a few alerts that pop up in Google Now on my phone (like upcoming concerts in my area or TV shows I might like) haven't yet shown their faces in Android Wear. And a few of Android Wear's unique alerts – like the Google Fit step counter – haven't yet shown up on my phone. But the gist of what you're getting from Android Wear at launch is indeed summed up as "Google Now on you wrist."
In fact, I'd say Android Wear is to Google Now what Chrome OS is to the Chrome web browser. In both cases, we're basically looking at one standalone app or service that's been expanded into a device's operating system. But while Chrome always struck me as too limited to be a great laptop OS, Google Now is damn near pitch perfect as a wearable OS.
Your Android Wear home screen is, like with other smartwatches, a clock face (the device I tested Wear on, the Samsung Gear Live, currently offers 13 different faces). The watch faces show not just the time, but also a small peek at your most recent "card" (alert). If you prefer to keep things more private, you also have the option of hiding those cards when your watch is inactive (its screen dims to save power when you aren't using it).
From that main watch face, you can tap the screen or say "OK Google" to activate Android Wear's voice control. Or you can move down (swipe your finger up) to scroll through your other cards. If a card has actions tied to it, you'll see a few horizontal dots at the bottom of its card. That means you can move to the right to see your available options (like replying to a text message or canceling driving navigation). And when you're finished with a card, you just swipe to the right to dismiss it.
If that sounds confusing, try picturing a tall structure, like in the diagram above. At the very top of this "tree" is your home base, the watch face. Then each rung, moving down from the top, is a different alert or Google Now card. Each card that has actions tied to it has a branch reaching out to its right (which you flick to the left to reach). To remove a rung, fling that part of the trunk off to the right. This tree is the Android Wear UX in a nutshell.
The UI also has a few cool tricks in store for when you don't want to be bothered. First, when you aren't actively using the watch, your standard clock face will shift to a dimmed black & white power-saving mode. The screen never goes completely blank, and will stay on all the time. But apart from when you're swiping the screen or talking to the watch, it will just be some white text or images in front of a black background (the face below is one example).
Android Wear watches' screens will automatically dim after a few seconds of inactivity, but you can immediately dim them by placing your palm on their displays (as if you're putting a lid on it). On the Gear Live, there's also a side button you can press to instantly dim the screen.
When you're, say, walking into an important meeting or sitting in a movie theater ready for the opening credits, you can swipe from the top of the screen all the way down and the watch will mute. You won't get any new alerts until you unmute it. When you're ready for that, just swipe down again. Swiping part way down is also the quickest way to glance at today's date and your watch's battery percentage.
Every smartwatch I've used has had some sort of notification support, but they've also had some crippling limits. The biggest was that none of them did more than forward a few lines of text from your smartphone's notification center. The problem there is that if you received a longer email, for example, it would get cut off after, say, five or six lines. And you could forget about replying by voice to anything other than a text message (if that).
Android Wear is the first smartwatch platform that has what I'd call "rich" notifications. That's because, while other watches just skim the text out of your phone's recent alerts, Wear's notifications tap directly into the apps running on a paired Android phone. So you don't just get a few lines of an email on your watch. On Android Wear, you can read the full email, archive it, dismiss it or reply to it right from your watch. This is the kind of smartwatch I've been waiting for.
You also get, as we already mentioned, those contextually-aware notifications that Google Now is famous for. So if you have a flight later today, you'll get a card that shows your itinerary, as well as a card reminding you when it's time to leave for the airport. After you get back home, if your commute to work the next day is going to be delayed, you'll get a card for that too. And it's all so much more convenient and immediate on your wrist than it is on your phone.
There are still a few missing pieces on Day One. For example, when Google teased Android Wear back in March, the preview video showed a Shazam-like Music ID feature (Google Now has done this for a while). But when I ask my Android Wear watch "What's this song?" (the trigger command to ID a song in Google Now), it just defaults to a web search. I also can't get Wear to recommend a good place to eat nearby. These things are sure to come soon – whether from Google or third-party apps (or both). But right now those omissions make Wear feel like it's still a couple cards short of a full deck.
The biggest missing piece right now, though, is third-party app support. Android Wear doesn't – and presumably never will – have its own app store, like we've seen from Pebble and Samsung's Tizen-running Gear watches. Instead developers will update their existing Android smartphone apps with support for Android Wear. They're more like widgets – that come from a smartphone app, but are shown on your watch. I think this is a good thing: why start an entirely new platform when you can simply make it an extension of one of the most successful software platforms ever made?
Since a) Android Wear is a high-profile Google-made platform, and b) it's tethered to existing Android apps, I don't think there's any reason to worry about developers supporting the platform. In fact, we're already seeing quite a few compatible apps pop up, as the first Wear watch started shipping to the public today. We're just getting started, and it should be fun seeing what developers come up with for Wear watches in the next few months.
During my time with the Samsung Gear Live, Android Wear's voice control has been very good. For starters, it's fast. Just like with Google Now voice search on your phone, it transcribes your words only a second or two (usually) after they roll off your tongue. Like any voice recognition, it occasionally misses the mark, but I find it to be more than reasonably accurate.
One of the coolest parts of Wear's voice search is when you ask something that Google answers directly (as opposed to just delivering web page results). For example, a random trivia question like "How tall is Dikembe Mutombo?" will pop up a card telling you that the retired NBA center is 7'2". You can also convert currency or measurements, check the local time or weather in other parts of the world, get sports scores, check the status of flights – and much more. Android Wear is still in its early days, but the pairing of Google's massive information database with its fast and (mostly) accurate voice recognition is, on its own, enough to vault Wear far ahead of other smartwatch platforms.
Voice messaging is another big centerpiece here. With Wear, you can say "text Jim, I'm running 10 minutes late" or "email Sally, did you get the room reserved for the meeting?" Within a few seconds, your message will be fired off. Older smartwatches let you send texts, but this is the first time I've seen a watch send and reply to emails.
Android Wear also lets you reply to Google Hangouts messages, but you can't send them unless you're replying to an active thread. This is a little surprising, since Hangouts was once the default way of sending messages with Google Glass. But if I had to choose one or the other, I suppose SMS is the way to go.
Wear also lets you do things like control your phone's music, take voice notes, set alarms and create reminders (which you'll also be reminded of on the watch). It's all quick, smooth and seamless. And though these are, by default, tied to Google's apps, you'll also have the option of switching the default to third-party apps. For example, Google Keep is the default service for note-taking, but you can easily switch it to Evernote Wear (one of the early third-party apps that's already available).
You don't, however, change those options on your watch. Nope, that happens in the Android Wear companion app on your paired Android phone. And, speaking of phones, you'll need an Android phone running 4.3 Jelly Bean or higher to use a Wear watch. That means that owners of older Android phones – not mention iPhone or Windows Phone owners – are all out of luck here. As Android Wear is deeply integrated into Android apps, this isn't surprising, and it's also likely to be the common theme moving forward (fat chance Apple's iWatch will be compatible with anything other than iPhones).
Android Wear's fitness focus is going to grow, as the Google Fit platform expands and takes form, but right now it's mostly limited to some background step-tracking – as well as third-party apps like Runtastic. Like with other watches and dedicated trackers, you can set daily goals, and your Wear watch will alert you when you reach them. The Gear Live also has a heart rate sensor, which Wear natively supports (though Samsung strangely threw in its own heart rate app as well). This is just scratching the surface, and I'd expect to see many more Wear-friendly health and fitness apps pop up before long.
Google Maps navigation is another nice feature. You can tell your Wear watch to "navigate to Starbucks" and, within a few seconds, you'll see turn-by-turn directions on your watch. At first, I was confused and thought the watch was speaking the turn-by-turn guidance, but the voice was actually coming from my phone.
The lack of audio feedback is another big area that differentiates Android Wear from its predecessors. Google Glass and the older Samsung Gears, for example, all talked back to you. But these early Wear watches don't even have speakers. And after using Wear, I quickly realized that I prefer that approach. Why bother having an awkward conversation with some half-baked AI? It only slows things down – not to mention draws unnecessary stares in public. When the watch does need to get your attention (i.e., when an alert comes in), it just gives your wrist a subtle pulse.
Android Wear is a smartwatch geek's dream come true. It takes all of the features that people like me started dreaming about a year or two ago, and makes them a reality. That's significant in its own right, but it does also leave some questions hanging out there. Namely, is Android Wear mainstream-friendly? A couple of years from now, will you see your mother wearing a Gear Live 7 or 3rd-gen Moto 360?
As I watched Google run through Wear's features at Google I/O, I found it all very exciting, but I also couldn't help but wonder whether people who aren't geeks will buy into this stuff. It's not that "regular folks" won't think Android Wear is cool – I'm sure it will turn some heads and drop some jaws. But will non-geeks be willing to sacrifice a little bit of style to put all of this cool tech on their wrists?
That's one thing that I learned from my time with Pebble Steel. Though the watch's functionality looks primitive next to Android Wear, it has one huge advantage: unless you look really closely, the dang thing could pass for a regular designer watch. Once smartwatch-makers figure out how to marry that kind of stylish aesthetic with Android Wear's functionality, then I'd be surprised if smartwatches didn't go mainstream.
But right now? When watches like the Gear Live and G Watch are bulky, rectangular and very obviously tech products? Well, I'm not so sure. People like me will go nuts over this stuff. I've enjoyed using the Gear Live more than any other watch I've reviewed. But I also realize that most people don't want to wear something that looks kinda like a shrunken-down smartphone. They want jewelry.
Motorola's upcoming Moto 360 (above), which has a circular face, looks like it's going to have some of that jewelry DNA in its blood. And for that reason, I wouldn't be surprised if it's the most successful of these early Android Wear watches. But even it looks pretty thick and bulky, and I'm not sure if it will pass for a standard watch once someone gets within a couple feet of it.
But Android Wear has one big advantage, which it shares with Android as a whole: it's going to run on a buttload of different devices. We'll see square and round faces, metallic and plastic bodies, big screens and small screens, high prices and low prices ... you name it. If you don't like this first crop of Wear watches, then wait a few months and maybe you'll see something that you do like. And surely some of those watches will look like the fashionable pieces of jewelry that (I believe) the mainstream public will ultimately lust after.
At launch, Android Wear feels like a brand new platform (as it should), but it also feels like a platform that's here to stay. Even if you can't envision many people standing in line to buy this first crop of Android Wear smartwatches, some people will buy them – and many developers will update their apps to help the platform to grow. Whether it's a few weeks, months or years from now, I think, at some point, smartwatches will blow up. And when that happens, Android Wear will be ready and waiting – if not leading the charge.
Gizmag recommends Android Wear watches right now to early adopters and smartwatch enthusiasts wanting a glimpse of the most badass wearable platform to date. But everyone else might want to wait until the devices running Android Wear get a little smaller, thinner and prettier ... more like Rolexes and less like tiny smartphones.
Android Wear launches this week, with the US$229 LG G Watch shipping to the public starting today and the $199 Samsung Gear Live set to ship by July 8. For a more hardware-focused look at one of the first Wear devices, you can read our full Gear Live review.
Product page: Android Wear
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Google Glass will find many uses outside the mainstream...for example, action sports, or compulsory documentation...circumstances where full-spectrum communication is essential and looking like a cyborg is a bonus.
I now believe Android Wear owns the smart phone.