It takes too long to discern information from an Android smartphone. Specifically, taking a smartphone out, turning on the display, and swiping to view any notifications or alerts is an unnecessarily time-consuming process.
At least, that's the thinking behind Android Wear, Google's new smartwatch and wearables operating system. The brains in Mountain View think Android Wear can deliver the same information at a glance, and save the user time and reduce distractions.
But delivering alerts is not enough for a new platform. So Google added some basic functionality for email, texts, step tracking, note taking, reminding, and navigating. And there are also apps, most of which act as extensions of their smartphone counterparts.
For Android Wear to succeed, it has to strike a fine balance between offering up enough information and features to keep users from reaching from their smartphones with every alert ping and vibration, and being reliable and consistent in its own right. That's a tall order, compounded by the fact that smartphones are mostly convenient to begin with, and glancing at the display for a quick update and occasional message response isn't much of a chore.
That last point weighs heavy on this Android Wear review. At the risk of seeming like luddites, many on the TechnologyGuide team feel smartphones leave very few pain points that Android Wear can address. And even if Android Wear improves upon the smartphone experience, will it enough to justify the cost of new hardware to most users? Let's find out.
First off, Android Wear is an extension of the Android operating system. Those with iPhones or Windows Phones should avoid Android Wear hardware completely. Also, Android Wear is designed to work with Android smartphones and tablets running Android version 4.3 or higher. That covers most mainstream Android handsets released since early- to mid-2013, but users will want to double check and make sure their current devices are up to date before buying any Google smartwatches.
Android Wear connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), and that's it. Android Wear hardware does not have native cellular, Wi-Fi, or GPS capabilities. Without a connection, Android Wear is a glorified watch that can run some apps and track steps. While connected, it becomes a hub for Android notifications and Google Now information.
Android Wear wearers will also need their smartphone or tablet to adjust some of the operating system's settings. An Android Wear app available in the Google Play Store is required to connect devices, assign services to commands (for example, "take a note" can trigger Google Keep or Trello), browse select compatible Google apps, and other deep settings tweaks.
Notifications are Android Wear's key feature. They range from the inane (the WWE app hyping the next major event, for example) to the useful (Google Hangouts and email messages). The important thing here is that this is entirely reactive. Users can see email messages as they come in, but they can't check their email through Android Wear. The messages are pure text, with no images or live links. There are also no native Twitter, Facebook, or web browser apps. Twitter messages and mentions receive notifications, and at least one third-party app allows for tweeting simple text messages from Android Wear, but that's about it.
Many notifications are interactive. For instance, users can view the text from full Gmail messages and reply or archive them as they please. There are quirks with this, though; there's no option to forward messages, and as soon as users interact with a Gmail message, its notification disappears and can no longer be accessed via Android Wear. So if there are two or more Gmail messages lumped into a single notification, users can view both in full, but replying to one will remove all of them. This is something that Google will hopefully address with future Android Wear updates.
Google Hangouts messages function much the same way as Gmails, but little annoyances persist with email messages from the generic Android email app. If a solo message triggers a notification, the user can read a good chunk of it. Two or more messages limit the user to the sender's name and a partial subject line. There are no options to reply directly from Android Wear, only an option to "open on phone."
Users can send Gmail messages and Hangouts texts through Android Wear, all through voice dictation. Android Wear uses the user's Google contact to determine who "Kimberly" or "Dad" is, then listens for the message before automatically sending. The user has a few seconds to cancel a send if the dictation didn't take properly. Users can also text to a phone number by annunciating the digits, though expect that to take a few tries for Android Wear to properly hear the numbers.
In testing, Android Wear listened accurately roughly 95% of the time, even in challenging environments. It's impressive, given how horrible voice dictation was a few years ago, but not yet reliable enough to surpass typing and Swyping on a smartphone.
The bigger issue lies in Google's contacts solution, because that can be a mess. Many have multiple entries for the same person, or multiple numbers; who can remember how exactly a contact was entered? Is it "Mom" or "Dianne," "Christie" or "Chris?" In the case of duplicates, Android Wear will require the user to specify which "Kimberly" to text or email with a tap.
There are three things Android Wear definitely gets right: navigation, notes, and reminders.
Navigation works in conjunction with a smartphone, which does all the actual navigating. Android Wear simply displays the next direction along with a general overview of the route and time left on the trip. Android Wear can also launch navigation and set the destination and transportation means with a voice command. For example, the command "navigate to home by bike" will do just that. Providing the simplified directions at a glance also proves beneficial for biking and navigating by foot, in what is perhaps the best example of Android Wear's promise of pertinent information made available at a glance.
The command "take a note" also does just that. The sticky note crowd will love this because it's simple, and by the very nature of a smartwatch, always available for note jotting. By default, the notes are stored in Google Keep, but as of this writing, users can set the excellent project management app Trello as the default note depository, or Evernote Wear, an Android Wear version of the popular notes app. Hopefully, OneNote isn't far behind.
Android Wear sets reminders by time and location. For example, command Android Wear to "set a reminder, go to the store for paper towels," and it will ask "when?" Users can set a time or location like "home" or "noon." Once the user arrives home or the clock strikes 12, Android Wear will display the paper-towel reminder. Once again, it's simple and effective, and works near flawlessly.
Google made a big deal about personal Google Now alerts appearing on Android Wear, but they really don't add much. Sure, last night's Red Sox score will pop up randomly, but the alerts don't offer anything beyond the trivial.
Asking Android Wear questions for answers powered by Google Now proves a bit more worthwhile, particularly for quick calculations (what's 15% of $56.75?) and definitions. See something on a menu and you're not sure what it is? Google Now likely has an answer, like it always has.
Step tracking is popular now thanks to wearables like the Fitbit, and Android Wear can do much the same. By default, it will track steps and store a few days' worth of data. There are dedicated fitness bands and trackers that do a better job than Android Wear, but it's welcome here as a secondary feature.
Android Wear can also display meeting and agenda information powered by Google Calendar, though there are no interactive elements for snoozing or alerting. Again, this saves users the step of whipping out a smartphone to glance the same info.
Users can also save time spent hunting for an app, as Android Wear can open any app installed on the smartphone to which Wear is connected with a voice command. Android Wear will also alert users when a call comes in with the caller's info. A swipe to the left or right will trigger the smartphone to answer the call or dismiss it.
Finally, since Android Wear powers smartwatches, there are naturally a few different digital watch faces available by default. They are rather ugly and plain as of this writing, but some expect third-party designers to step up with better options.
Android Wear navigation is all based on swipes, taps, and talking. Cycle through alerts and notifications with a swipe up or down. Alert options, if any, are accessed with a swipe to the left. This is how one would respond to a text, for example. A swipe to right dismisses the alert. "OK Google," or a tap brings up the equivalent of the Android Wear start screen, where one can then dictate an action ("Text Mom,"), or scroll up and down for a list of available options. Buried at the bottom of the list is a "Start" menu where the third-party apps reside, along with a settings menu.
A palm press to the watch face will turn off or dim the display.
Navigation is simple and easy enough to figure out. In early builds on the Samsung Gear Live smartwatch, it's not very fluid and often gets hung up during transitions. Swipes are also sometimes dropped, though that could be a hardware issue.
If there's a complaint, it's that the settings and third party apps menu are buried. The Gear Live has a button that can be long-pressed to access the settings, but some Android Wear devices are buttonless.
At launch, there are a few dozen apps compatible with Android Wear. Many just push out alerts based on happenings or location data, and just about all require the user create a user account and sign in on a handset. As previously mentioned, Trello, Google Keep, and Evernote Wear are the cream of the crop as they provide genuninely handy functions.
Others are gimmicky. Ever want to control your lights from your wrist? You can now with expensive Phillips Hue lights and the Hue Control app. Want to order takeout with you watch? So long as you're reordering from the Eat24 app, you can do it from Android Wear. Fly Delta and Lyft offer similar variations of the same thing, and none will replace the smartphone apps anytime soon. RunKeeper and Runtastic use GPS and step tracking for tracking and sharing exercise info, but they both require Android Wear remain connected to the smartphone for the run.
If This Then That (IFTTT) has earned a bit of buzz as it allows users to create "recipes" that trigger Android Wear actions. One popular option displays pictures taken with the handset camera on Android Wear devices. Once again, it's a parlor trick at best, but there might be potential there for useful recipes in time.
All this is to say that there aren't many good Android Wear apps, ones that make a smartwatch feel truly necessary, as of this writing. Maybe the novelty of ordering a pizza from a watch will carry the first generation of Android Wear devices for a few months, but developers and Google will eventually need to step up here.
It's always tough to review a new platform in its early days. How does one weigh its potential when drawing a conclusion? Because excluding that, Android Wear is no better or worse than the operating systems powering the other smartwatches in the market, including Pebble OS, the Tizen-based Gear series, and whatever forked Android version of Android runs on Sony's devices.
But Android Wear has more promise than those efforts, not only because it has the backing of Google and major hardware partners like Samsung, LG, and Motorola, but also because Google has a clear vision of what it wants Android Wear to offer: concise and useful information for the user, pushed out to the user, when the user needs to see it, all available at a glance.
Google thinks this will save time, keep heads out of smartphones, and keep us all engaged in the real world. It will alleviate the smartphone distraction, while still keeping us connected.
That's a lofty goal, one that Android Wear does not quite achieve at launch. But early impressions make it impossible to dismiss its capabilities to do that out of hand.
Android Wear might eventually spark the wearables revolution and free us from smartphone engrossment, sure, but for now we'll have to settle for ordering pizzas from our wrists.
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