Android Wear Review: Solid Foundation, But It's Still Early Days

Reviews Damien McFerran 13:51, 10 Nov 2014

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

It's fair to say the smartwatch is still in its infancy with pretty much every offering so far failing to impress the vast majority of reviewers, and we are yet to see any collosal surge in sales of these devices. But regardless, it seems with big players such as Google, Microsoft, and Apple piling their resources behind the concept that it's not a mere fad, wearables are here to stay in one form or another. While the specifics of wearable hardware will inevitably change in time - new models will emerge with fancier onboard capabilities just as smartphones have - the software push has already begun in earnest. Google is pretty much the first to the field with anything significant in the form of Android Wear, a bespoke platform made specifically for wrist-mounted gadgetry.

And now it seems Google is already prepping an update to its wearable software, according to a report from AndroidPolice, citing an “unnamed source” which the publication claims is “very credible” – and to be fair, AP has delivered the goods plenty of times in the past. Not only that, CNET recently caught wind of the update’s existence (though nothing about a release date) in an interview with Google engineering leads David Singleton and Hiroshi Lockheimer. That update is being quite simply dubbed Android Wear 2.0, but that’s not necessarily going to be its official name when it arrives, however, the source says October 15 is the day to watch out for. It will allegedly hit existing Android Wear smartwatches already on the market.

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. 

Here we are going to take a closer look at the core software of Android Wear. How is it to use? What’s the voice-controlled interface like? Is it possible to have a buttonless timepiece and what other applications will Android Wear have in the future. It’s an exciting time as we’ve already reviewed the LG’s G Watch and Motorola is prepping the beautiful Moto 360. Let’s jump in and see what the OS is doing to make all this tick.

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.

Major Android Wear Update Arrives

An update to the Android Wear platform is beginning to roll out with new features that are designed to encourage you to go and get more exercise with your wearable.

The new update brings with it GPS support for the first time allowing you to track your route, distance and speed all from your wrist. You’ll need a GPS sensor inside your smartwatch to be able to use this new feature but it does mean you can leave your smartphone at home when out for a run.

Music is also avaliable directly on your smartwatch with the new update. It will allow you to upload music to your device and listen to it via a pair of Bluetooth headphones. Once again you can now leave your watch at home whilst your running and be able to listen to all your music. The smartwatch you’re using will of course need storage and it also needs a subscription to Google’s All Play Music service to download it on there.

For a full rundown of what the new update brings and how to make the most of the new features check out Google’s blog post here.

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. 

Android Wear: The Future?

So what can we expect from the platform in the future? Quite a bit, thankfully! And this isn’t speculation on our part either; it comes straight from the horse’s mouth (Google’s Android Wear team, that is).

In a recent interview with CNET, David Singleton and Hiroshi Lockheimer outlined what punters can expect from Android Wear devices in the future and why wearables, despite what the naysayers claim, are here to stay.

“Our approach to wearables is the same as our approach to any of our products: We want to build technology that delights people by improving their lives. So our approach to wearables — watches, Glass, even our smart contact lens project which is designed to help people with diabetes measure their glucose — is to build things that you use when you need and forget about when you don’t,” said Lockheimer.

He added: “We want wearables to help you stay in the moment, instead of taking you out of it: giving you a safer way to get directions, easily share or record what you see, communicate with others quickly, or get the information you need when you need it.”

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

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