Android Wear Review: Snapdragon Wear Means Thinner, Smarter Watches In 2016

Reviews Damien McFerran 12:07, 12 Feb 2016

Can Google's new Android Wear OS really signal the start of the "wearable" revolution?

Rating: 
3.5
Pros: 
Voice control works well; UI is intuative; Apps are good and getting better
Cons: 
Relies too much on voice commands; Handling notifications takes come getting used to
Verdict: 
Google has produced the best "wearable" OS we've seen so far, but there's still plenty of room for improvement

The idea with Android Wear is to create a platform that not only grows as developers create more content for it, but also to give some uniformity to burgeoning wearables market, which, in its current form, is still fairly embryonic –– most consumers, like 70-80%, are still very much on the fence about whether or not wearable tech is actually a worthwhile investment. And it’ll take a coherent, strong platform backed up by excellent, engaging hardware to convince the multitude that wearable tech like the Moto 360 and its brethren are here to stay. 

Google isn’t going to take Apple’s entry into the wearable space laying down. A source close to the company recently informed The Verge a big update to Google’s Android Wear platform is on the way –– and it’ll bring a bunch of new features into play. Chief among these apparent updates is Wi-Fi support, handy for when Bluetooth is being a sod, and gesture-based controls that will allow users to flick through notifications and Google Now cards simply by flicking their wrist. Google has also given the UX a much needed overhaul. The report claims applications will now be easier to access on the wrist. All of which sounds very good; Android Wear needs to be a hell of a lot more intuitive. 

Google has now released API 23 SDK for Android Wear, meaning developers can begin fully optimising their applications for Android Marshmallow. Once they’ve been brought up to date, Android Wear applications will be able to tap into a bunch of new Android Marshmallow features such as vastly improved granular permissions, whereby users have more control over what their applications can and can’t access. For instance, a fitness application will now HAVE to ask for permission to use your location.

API 23 SDK also brings support for both round and not-round displays. The update means Android Wear will be able to tell whether it is being run on a smartwatch with a round face or, well, a not round face. Developers will also be able to use this tool to determine what resolution to have their apps set at. All in all, very useful tools for creators.

“We listened to your feedback and added new resource qualifiers for -round and -notround, so you can use the resource system to load the appropriate images, layouts, and strings based on the type of watch you are working with,” said Google in a statement. “You can also combine this with existing resource qualifiers -hdpi, -tvdpi, -280dpi, and -360dpi for the various Android Wear watches that are currently available.”

Developers can also use the same APIs used for Android phones to play audio files on the watch, though your smartwatch will need to support audio in the first place.

Android Wear will get a shot in the arm in 2016 with the advent of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear SoC, which was unveiled on Feb. 11, a matter of weeks before MWC 2016. As the name suggests, the chipset, like Snapdragon for phones and tablets, is an all in one “platform” solution for wearable devices running Android Wear. 

“Qualcomm Technologies is a technology leader in the wearables space with its breadth of product offerings including the Snapdragon 400 processor, which powers the vast majority of current Android Wear smartwatches,” said Raj Talluri, senior vice president of product management at Qualcomm Technologies.

“With the introduction of the Snapdragon Wear platform and Snapdragon Wear 2100 SoC, Qualcomm Technologies is well-positioned to extend its progress in wearables technology by enabling sleek designs, long battery life, smart sensing, and always- connected experiences in the next generation of wearable devices. These benefits are expected to have widespread appeal across the mobile, fashion and sports ecosystems in the wearables space.”

And here are some of the features Snapdragon Wear aims to enable in new smartwatches and wearables:

  • "Smaller Size – 30 percent smaller than the popular Snapdragon 400, Snapdragon Wear 2100 can help enable new, thinner, sleeker designs
  • Lower Power – 25 percent lower power than the Snapdragon 400 across both tethered and connected use cases, allowing for longer day of use battery life
  • Smarter Sensors – With an integrated, ultra-low power sensor hub, Snapdragon Wear 2100 enables richer algorithms with greater accuracy than the Snapdragon 400
  • Always Connected – Next-generation LTE modem with integrated GNSS, along with low power Wi-Fi and Bluetooth delivers an always connected experience"

Android Wear Review: User Interface

Given that Android Wear devices lack physical buttons, interaction is clearly a point of concern for many users. The combination of touch screen and voice control works better than you might imagine, assuming you're perfectly comfortable with the idea of speaking to an inanimate object in public. Plenty of functions can be accessed using nothing but your voice, such as opening apps, jumping to settings and performing a web search. Everything begins with the now-famous "OK, Google…" command, and for the most part, the subsequent instructions make sense. 

While some voice commands are self-explanatory, you sometimes need to prefix them with an action so the OS knows exactly what you want it to do. For example, barking "pick up some milk" will trigger a web search, while adding "take a note" in front of the same statement will submit the note to Google Keep to remind you to visit the shop on your way home. Learning all of the various commands takes a bit of time, but there's a helpful list of examples right there on the main "OK, Google…" menu which encourage you to experiment and see what options are available.

Your voice will only get you so far however, and as you dig deeper into the Android Wear OS you'll find yourself having to fall back on touch gestures more and more. The UI is designed in such a way that spoken instructions are good enough to take care of basic functions, but to avoid frustration Google ensures that more precise touch-based inputs also play an integral part. 

The "card stack" principle seen in Google Now is in full force here; notifications and alerts stack on top of one another, and you can swipe up and down through the list to read them. To dismiss a card you swipe from left to right, while the opposite gesture displays additional options, such as responding to a text or opening the relevant application on your handset.

Android Wear Review: Notifications 

Android Wear is best described as a means of getting notifications without having to extract your phone from your pocket every five minutes. Alerts for items such as email, text, calendar events and much more are sent from your phone to the watch via a Bluetooth connection; as a rule of thumb, everything you would normally see in the Android notification pane on your phone is also displayed on your wrist. Also, applications you’ve silenced on your handset won't bother your Android Wear device, either.

Notifications can be dismissed with a swipe, but it's worth noting that once you've done this, the app alert won't appear again until another notification of the same type comes in. It's here that apps with multiple notifications – Gmail, for instance – become a little tricky to manage. You'll often find that you accidentally dismiss an entire stack of emails with a swipe before you've read them, as the notification compresses all of the emails into one card until you expand it. Even tapping and expanding the card to show all of the emails doesn't seem to allow you to dismiss emails individually  – it really is all or nothing in this regard. 

Android Wear Review: Customisation 

There are multiple watch faces included with Android Wear, but downloadable alternatives are already becoming available on the Google Play store. The Pebble smartwatch has shown the way for this kind of visual customisation, and it's safe to say that Android Wear is likely to follow suit. After all, when each watch looks so understated and plain, the screen is the user's prime means of adding their own personality to the device. 

Like every Android OS, Android Wear is developer-friendly. Developer options can be enabled quickly and easily, and custom ROMs are already being spoken about online. If you're keen on modding your Android hardware to ensure it operates exactly how you want it to, then this will be music to your ears.

Custom Watch Faces

Now that Android Wear is out in the wild, applications and customisation tweaks are starting to rollout. Google completed its watch face API for developers and we're now seeing the fruits of it with some custom watch faces hitting the Google Play store.

One cool little custom face has been birthed by the internet's understandable obsession with animated GIF files. GIF Watch Face does what it says on the tin by letting you set a watch face with an animated GIF as a wallpaper.

The app works by connecting up with Giphy.com and it downloads and swaps out 100 GIFs every hour, then, every time you power on the watch a new GIF will show up as your wallpaper.

 

If you already own an Android Wear smartwatch, you can download GIF Watch Face from Google Play now for free.

Android Wear Review: Applications

While pickings are somewhat slim at the moment, you can expect to see a lot of Android Wear applications appear in the near future. At the moment the ones available tend to focus on pushing notifications to your watch rather than attempting anything more complex; the Guardian app is a good example of this. 

However, offerings such as Allthecooks Recipes show the potential of apps coded with Android Wear in mind – you can send ingredients lists to your watch and browse them on your wrist, which is sure to come in handy when you're next in the supermarket.

Games are also on the table, with Flappy Bird clone Flopsy Droid already available. The small nature of the screen will naturally limited Android Wear's potential as a serious platform for interactive entertainment, but when all you want is to while away a few minutes on the bus, such pint-sized titles could prove to be a real bonus.

Android Wear Review: Conclusion 

Many were hoping that Android Wear would signal the true start of the smartwatch revolution, and while Google's effort is easily the best we've seen so far in this particular field, there are issues that could prevent it from catching on in the way some have predicted. 

The reliance on voice commands is arguably the biggest sticking point. Despite the hype behind products such as Google Now, Siri and Cortana, very few people feel comfortable using speech to control their phones when in public – and it often doesn't take that much longer to access the information you need using your touchscreen anyway.

However, a buttonless watch relies more on voice commands than a phone, and with Android Wear you really have to embrace this feature to really get the most out of it. Those too shy or self-conscious to talk to their watch simply won't see the benefit of Google's vision. Granted, the touch-screen can be used to access most of the key functions in Android Wear, but there are other features that can only be unlocked with your voice such as making a note or setting an appointment. 

Voice commands aside, Google's first attempt at cracking the smartwatch problem is an overwhelmingly positive one. Android Wear is as intuitive as a smartwatch OS can possibly be right now, but perhaps it requires Apple's skilful hand to truly make the concept a mainstream reality. Until then, Google has time to iterate and improve, as it has traditionally done with its mobile-based Android software.

And remember: this is the Big G’s first stab at a wearable platform. Things will inevitably get better. 

Thanks to Mobilefun.co.uk for supplying the review unit used in this feature.

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