Android Wear Review: Solid Foundation, But It's Still Early Days
Can Google's new Android Wear OS really signal the start of the "wearable" revolution?
LG's G Watch and Samsung's Gear Live may be the devices which are stealing all the column inches right now, but it's important to remember that Google's Android Wear is an operating system in its own right and will be deployed across all future Android-based smartwatches, including the stylish Motorola Moto 360 due out later this year.
We've already scrutinised the LG challenger in-depth, but now it's time to take a closer look at the core software itself: what is it like to use? How intuitive is the voice-controlled interface? Can you really have a buttonless timepiece? And what kind of applications can we expect to see on Android Wear?
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.