- Attractive user interface
- Intuitive swipe-based navigation
- Great for notes, navigation, and reminders
- Shows significant potential as a wearables operating system
- Many functions and features novel, but not useful
- Still a bit buggy a few months after launch
- App selection limited, useful app selection even more limited
- Can't do much when not tethered to an Android smartphone
Quick TakeAndroid Wear shows plenty of promise, but until it gets more useful features and apps, it's merely novel at best and unnecessary otherwise.
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 Key
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.