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Android Wear Software Review

What is Android Wear?

Android Wear is Google’s operating system
optimized for wearable tech and specifically smaller screens like the
ones you find on smartwatches.

Inspired by features already
present in the smartphone and tablet-friendly version of Android, Google
is pinning its hopes that Android Wear will be the key to giving
smartwatches real appeal.

The LG G Watch
and the Samsung Gear Live are the first Android Wear watches to go on
sale, with the Moto 360 to follow later in the year, although Asus are
among the companies rumoured to be jumping on the Android Wear
bandwagon.

We’ve spent a good deal of time with the operating system for our LG G Watch review
and our first few days getting to know the Samsung Gear Live (review
coming soon) and the core of Android Wear definitely impresses, but it’s
still a little rough around the edges.

Android Wear: How does it work?

Android
Wear is all about turning the likes of the G Watch and Gear Live into
companion devices for your smartphone. It’s never going to replace your Samsung Galaxy S5 or Moto G
but it does hope to give you the information you need in a discreet way
and provide some of the same functionality without you having to reach
into your pocket every time.

It’s worth pointing out that
Android Wear is not compatible with iPhones or Windows Phones and will
only work with Android phones running on Android 4.3 JellyBean upwards.
That does mean it covers a broader range of handsets than Samsung’s
Tizen-based smartwatches, although those with Android phones running an
earlier version of the operating system have cause to grumble. In
contrast, Pebble smartwatches currently play nice with both Android
phones and iPhones.

Connecting the smartphone to smartwatch is
done over Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy so when you are out of range of your
phone or signal drops, you are left with very limited functionality. You
won’t be able to see the Google Now cards or notifications, but you can
use basic smartwatch features like the stopwatch.

You need to
download the Android Wear application to your phone to establish the
connection between the two devices. It’s also the place to customize
settings for notifications and browse compatible apps. Apps are built
into the Google Play Store but as far as we can see they are only
searchable via the Android Wear app.

Downloading apps is done
through the phone and should then appear on the smartwatch although
that’s not always the case. Re-syncing apps to the smartwatch (which is
done via the Android Wear app) usually does the trick but we struggled
to get apps to appear on the Gear Live. We actually had to hard reset
the watch to refresh the installed apps. This is one of the few teething
problems in an otherwise hassle-free setup.

Android Wear: Design and Interface

While
manufacturers can put their own spin on the hardware, Google has kept
control over the look of Android Wear. There’s not the free-for-all you
find with different manufacturers’ versions of Android. Google wants
Android Wear to be consistent.

It’s a look that’s largely
inspired by Google Now, the intelligent digital assistant that’s
accessed on Android smartphones usually by swiping left on the
homescreens or doing the same action up from the home button. The same
clean, predominantly white UI has been adopted for Android Wear scaling
down the size of the information cards to better suit the smaller
screen.

Google Now always felt like a great fit for a smartwatch
and when you finally see it in action it’s easy to see why. It’s
simplistic and anything more complex simply would never have worked.

One
of the areas the likes of Samsung and LG do have some control over is
your choice of watch faces and both offer a way to customize the always
on display. No doubt the Google Play store will soon be well stocked
with watch faces, and Google has since confirmed that a custom watch
face API is on the way. For now, the G Watch and Gear Live does give you
some options to get started. LG currently offers a better selection to
choose from but both could benefit with some bolder, more visible
options.

While Android for tablets and smartphones might not be
as easy to use as iOS, it’s going in the right direction.
Disappointingly we can’t say that Android Wear provides an intuitive
user experience just yet. For starters, you have to live without a
notification drop down to quickly access settings or launch apps from
homescreens. These options are hidden away at the bottom of Google Voice
Search and if you don’t want to search for them by voice, it can make
navigating to find them a fidgety process. It breaks the flow of an
otherwise slick operating system and hopefully this will be addressed in
later versions of Android Wear.

Android Wear OS review

Android Wear: Google Now

Google
Now is one of the key components of how Android Wear works. It uses
location and search data to deliver information that you’ll find useful
for that precise moment. That could be plotting your journey home,
recommending places nearby to eat or finding out the latest football
scores. Google continues to add greater functionality including features
like parking detection and creating product reminders when you walk
past a shop. This should in theory all filter down to Android Wear
smartwatches.

At the moment it doesn’t feel like the full Google
Now experience. Weather updates have a permanent spot on Android Wear
while travel updates take some time to adjust to accurately pin point
your commute. Calendar appointments come through at the beginning of the
day so you can get a good idea of what you have planned and we even got
regular updates on the cricket although they are presented as football
scores for some odd reason.

There were some cards we had selected
in Google Now that didn’t make an appearance like the links to news
stories based on recent search history or the places nearby cards.
Google Now clearly still needs to take time to learn about the
information you really want or need but from what we’ve seen so far it’s
the most interesting feature we’ve found, not just in Android Wear, but
across all smartwatches.

LG G Watch resized

Android Wear: Google Voice Search

It
doesn’t take very long to realise that Google’s Voice Search is a major
part of how you interact with Android Wear smartwatches. That’s right.
Prepare to go through the awkwardness of speaking to your wrist and
asking it if you have any meetings tomorrow or to launch Google Play
Music.

In the case of the LG G Watch there’s no buttons and the
Samsung Gear Live has a single button to turn the watch on and off. You
don’t have a keyboard although as ridiculous as it sounds, app
developers are making them. You’ll need to speak to your watch to make
notes, dictate emails and text messages.

To activate it on the G
Watch and Samsung Gear Live you can double tap on the screen or simply
say ‘OK Google’. Then you’ll be presented with examples of commands you
can ask your phone about.

It works in the same way as Google
Voice Search does on your phone so you are free to ask pretty much
anything you’d normally go to Google for. Whether that’s something
trivial or looking for an address, Android Wear can handle it.

One
of the most interesting uses is navigation and the ability for Android
Wear to guide you to a destination. This could be great for cyclists for
instance who can’t reach into their pocket or someone who is simply
lost and doesn’t want to walk around with their phone constantly in
their hand. Disappointingly, it doesn’t really work. Relying on your
phone’s GPS it takes an age to calculate routes and will inevitably
force you to go back to your smartphone and use Google Maps in the
conventional way. Pebble’s OS works a lot better in this respect.

The
Gear Live and LG G Watch have different microphone placements, but
voice recognition is generally accurate across both. As awkward as we
feel talking to our tech in public, this is one part of Android Wear
that works really well.

LG G Watch resized 9

Android Wear: Gesture controls

There’s
no pinch, zoom or multi-touch to worry about, but when you are not
talking to your Android Wear smartwatch there’s a few gestures you need
to get accustomed to help nevigate your way around. These gestures will
work across Android Wear smartwatches so once you know it, you are good
to go on any Wear device.

The first one to learn is swiping down
on the clock face to view the date, battery status and mute or unmute
notifications. You can swipe down to scroll through screens which
entirely depends on how many notifications or alerts have come through.
Swiping right on the screen will dismiss alerts or swiping left will
give you the options to act on the notification.

Considering the
size of the screen, keeping these gestures down to a minimum makes sense
although it currently lacks an easy way to jump back to the main watch
screen, which would be a useful addition.

Android Wear:  Notifications

The
idea of receiving notifications has formed a fundamental part of what
the first generation of smartwatches like the Pebble and the Samsung
Gear are able to do. In Android Wear there’s what Google calls Bridged
and Contextual notifications. Bridged notifications are the type you
find popping up in the drop-down notification bar on your phone and the
contextual notifications relate to Google Now updates. You can also see
stacked notifications, like the one in the picture above, which can show
multiple notifications from one application.

Android Wear won’t
let you make calls and rightfully so as the very idea of having a full
blown conversation on a watch is just ridiculous. You can see when calls
and messages are coming through and can deal with these notifications
on the smartwatch. It does mean using voice search to do it, but it is
possible. What you can do with the notification entirely depends on the
nature of it as well.

In most instances you’ll have to swipe
right for the option to send it to phone but for emails and messages
which can be expanded and read on the watch it’s a feature well suited
to Android Wear watches. One issue you will encounter is that it’s all
too easily to accidently swipe away a notification you haven’t had time
to read. It’s a similar scenario when you accidently send an unfinished
dictated message. Google needs some form of stop gap like flashing up a
message that says, ‘Are you sure?’ to prevent this.

Android Wear: Google Fit

Just
as Apple launched its HealthKit platform paving the way for its own
assault on the fitness wearables market, Google announced Google Fit.
The concept, much like HealthKit, is to unify all the tracking
information from multiple fitness data, whether that’s running, cycling
or anything else sporty and ultimately remove the need to own a separate
dedicated activity tracker.

At the moment Fit is very basic and
much of that has to do with the lack of fitness or health apps currently
available for Android Wear. Both the LG G Watch and the Samsung Gear
Live have the motion sensor technology to be able to track steps while
the Samsung additionally includes a heart rate monitor. All of that data
is stored and can be viewed in the Fit application.

The idea of
bringing all of this data into one place and not having to worry about
using different apps to track different things is a great idea. However,
at the moment it’s far too primitive of a feature to know if Google’s
approach works.

LG G Watch resized 5

Android Wear: Apps

Bottom
line, there’s not a lot of Android Wear apps. When you consider that
Pebble smartwatch apps number in the thousands, Google has some catching
up to do. We’ve gone into more detail about what we made of the quality
of apps in our LG G Watch review
and while it’s a mix bag there’s good variety of high profile Android
apps. Tinder, Runtastic, Philips Hue Control, Golfshot Golf GPS, Google
Keep, Duolingo, The Guardian, American Airlines and Google Hangouts are
among the first batch to get the Android Wear treatment.
 
Getting
app developers on board is going to be crucial to make Google’s vision
for Android Wear work. Similarly creating the right type of
functionality in those apps that make sense on a smartwatch is going to
be vital to the success of the operating system.

Verdict

It’s
abundantly clear that although Android Wear is polished in some areas,
it still needs refining. The
interface looks great but it needs to become intuitive and easier to
use straight out of the box. The lack of apps is a problem too, and leaves
many of the key Android Wear features largely untapped.

We’ve
seen enough to suggest Android Wear provides the most compelling case
that smartwatches could have a place in our day-to-day lives. Google
Now’s bite-size information really impresses and can only get better. As
much as we hate having to use voice search, which is by and large how you interact with Android Wear, it is at least accurate and gives you what you
need.

Much will rest on Google staying committed to helping
Android Wear evolve, just like it has done with the standard version
of Android. It’s not just about Google though. Hardware manufacturers
need to give the operating system an attractive place to live and ensure
it has the power and more importantly the battery life to give it the
best chance of success.

Pebble’s OS remains the most established
platform but Android Wear has all the ingredients to build the
smartwatch we will really want to own.

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