Android Wear deep-dive review: A smart start to smartwatch software

Android Wear deep-dive review: A smart start to smartwatch software

An in-depth look at Google's new platform -- where it shines and where it falls short.

When it comes to smartwatches, Dick Tracy set a difficult standard.

Over the past few years, companies large and small have been struggling to convince us we need computers on our wrists. And let's not beat around the bush: Their efforts have all been pretty underwhelming.

From the Pebble to the Galaxy Gear (and all of their subsequent variations), no single smartwatch has managed to crack the code -- to establish a compelling use for the technology that's also stylish and simple to operate.

Now it's Google's turn to step up and take a swing. With its new Android Wear platform, Google is hoping to do for smartwatches what it's already done for smartphones: Create a massive and expandable platform that'll attract hordes of manufacturers, developers and, ultimately, consumers.

So what's Wear actually like to use in the real world -- and could it succeed where so many other efforts have failed? I've been living with the platform for the past two weeks to find out.

(Note: This review will focus specifically on the software side of the Wear experience. For a detailed look at the first Wear devices, click over to my separate Samsung Gear Live vs. LG G Watch: A real-world evaluation review.)

Getting to know Android Wear

When you walk around a city talking into your watch, you're bound to get a few quizzical glares. In that regard, wearing Android Wear makes you feel a bit futuristic and ahead of the curve -- kind of like living out a James Bond fantasy (minus all the explosions and scantily clad co-stars).

The best way to describe a Wear watch, I think, is as a device that makes it easier to keep up with the information you need. And thanks to all the data Google has collected about you and your world, Wear is in a unique position to provide that service.

Case in point: The heart and soul of Android Wear is Google Now, the intelligent virtual assistant Google has woven into Android and Chrome over the past couple of years. Google Now uses a combination of search data from your Google account, location data from your mobile device and cues from things like your Gmail messages to compile bite-sized tidbits of info -- known as "cards" -- that appear contextually throughout your day.

You might get a card in the morning alerting you to traffic on your route to work, for instance, or a card with directions to a business you searched for earlier in the day. Some cards are as simple as the number of steps you've taken so far that day or the weather for your area -- or for an area you'll be traveling to in the near future. Others are more surprising, like a card that might appear on a Friday evening with the current drive time to a bar or restaurant you tend to frequent on that day of the week.

An Android Wear watch face followed by some cards you might see.

What makes the info special is the fact that it shows up when you need it -- before you even think to ask. And while that same sort of info is available with a few swipes on an Android phone, having it on your wrist really does change the way you experience it.

This is because Wear puts contextual info front and center -- and consequently makes it feel like a natural extension of your body as opposed to an out-of-the-way interruption. Add at-a-glance access to notification-based cards like text messages and emails, and you've got a pretty compelling framework for a wearable-tech platform.

To be clear: Wear is very much meant to serve as a complement to your phone -- not a replacement for it. Wear watches connect to Android phones via Bluetooth; the phone runs a special Android Wear app that allows it to stay in contact and transmit data as needed. Without an active connection, the watch maintains its most basic functionality -- it keeps time, as you'd expect, and allows you to use a few non-data-dependent features -- but compared to its connected state, it's fairly limited in what it can do.

And on that note, be warned: You'll need Android 4.3 or higher on your phone in order for it to work with Wear.

Getting around Android Wear

An important thing to know about Wear is that, unlike the regular version of Android (which phone and tablet manufacturers are notorious for "skinning"), the software is almost identical on any device you use. Google is maintaining tight control of the core user interface to create a consistent experience (and thus also a more streamlined upgrade process) across the platform.

When you glance at any Wear watch, the first thing you see is a face design of your choice along with a peek at your top-ranking card for that particular moment. Wear constantly evaluates your cards and attempts to rank them in order of relevance based on where you are and what you're doing. The system isn't always spot-on -- I sometimes saw my footstep count as the top card instead of my flight status while I was in an airport, for instance -- but it does get the order right fairly often.

By default, Wear devices live in a dimmed mode most of the time, which means the screen is in a simplified black-and-white state. You can activate the watch and cause its display to become fully illuminated either by tapping the screen or raising your arm upward (an action made possible by an accelerometer that's standard in Wear watches). Pressing your palm over the display, meanwhile, causes it to go back to sleep.

Want to know how well the smartwatches work?

For a thorough, deep-dive examination of the LG G Watch and the Samsung Gear Live, check out our review Samsung Gear Live vs. LG G Watch: A real-world evaluation.

Once your watch is illuminated, getting around Android Wear is all about swiping. You swipe up once on the screen to get a full view of your first card; you swipe up again to move downward to the next card in your stack. Almost everything you do with Wear revolves around those basic gestures. It's a delightfully easy system to learn and use -- the exact kind of dead-simple interaction that makes sense for a wrist-sized screen -- and it's sprinkled with tasteful graphics and smooth animations that make for a polished overall experience.

In addition to the up-and-down swipe, you can swipe sideways toward the right on any card to dismiss it or sideways toward the left to get additional info and options. On a weather card, for example, swiping left brings up an extended multiday forecast. On a text message, swiping left once shows you a scrollable view of the full conversation thread; swiping left a second time presents you with a large icon to respond to the message by voice.

The anatomy of Android Wear cards

What's particularly interesting about commands on Android Wear cards is that, for the most part, they're already built into regular Android applications -- which means any notification that works on your phone will automatically work on your watch. Wear just takes the same action buttons you'd see on a phone-based notification and translates them into the watch's card-based interface.

At top: A Gmail notification on an Android phone. At bottom: The same notification as it appears in swipe-able cards on a Wear watch.

A good example of this is Gmail. When you get a new message alert on your phone, the Gmail notification there has two buttons with commands to archive or reply. On an Android Wear watch, those same buttons appear when you swipe to the left as large icons on a new mail card. No special watch-specific support is required for the app to be compatible; everything just works automatically out of the box.

That being said, there are things developers can do to make their notifications more smartwatch-friendly -- and the vast majority of apps aren't yet fully optimized for the form. If you tap the icon to respond to a tweet from Twitter on your watch, for instance, a reply window will open up on your phone instead of as a prompt on the watch itself. Evidently, developers have to manually enable support for watch-based text input before it'll work, and Twitter -- like many other app developers -- has yet to take that step.

Twitter's notifications, like those on some other apps, can also become cluttered and unmanageable on a watch's small screen. A notification from Twitter with a single piece of information works fine. But when a notification from Twitter contains multiple pieces of info -- more than one mention or a combination or mentions and direct messages -- all of the text ends up getting squished into a single card instead of being spaced out properly. As a result, it becomes impossible to read on the watch's display.

Other apps' notifications are even more confounding. Google's own Google+ app, for example, will show you that someone has commented on your post or left you a message -- but it won't let you view the actual comment or message from your watch. That's because the corresponding phone-based notification for that app shows the same limited amount of detail, and Google (rather ironically) has yet to optimize it to work more sensibly on the smartwatch form.

From left: A Twitter notification with a single piece of information; a Twitter notification with multiple pieces of information; a Google+ notification.

Beyond the basic notifications, Wear gives you the ability to control audio playback on your phone via your watch -- stopping or starting play, skipping tracks and so forth. Controls show up on the watch as a card any time audio is being played from an applicable app on the phone. They're also available when content is being streamed from the phone to any Chromecast dongle.

From left: A Google Play Music control card; two specific functions that appear when you swipe left on the Play Music card; a playback control card for Netflix content being streamed via Chromecast.

When you get a phone call, meanwhile, Wear shows you who's calling and allows you to swipe left or right on the watch to accept or reject the call. If you accept the call, it'll pick up on your phone. (By default, the phone will ring in addition to the watch vibrating, but there's a setting with which you can opt to silence the phone and receive all alerts on the watch only if you prefer (which actually makes more sense to me).

You can't actually conduct a call on the watch itself -- which, let's be honest, is just as well; it's refreshing to see a company opting to leave out the gimmicky stuff and deliver a device with purposeful focus.

Notifications on Wear are completely synced with all of your other Google devices, by the way, so if you dismiss a notification on your watch, it'll automatically disappear from your phone, computer browser and any other places where you're signed in.

Voice control

When it comes to issuing commands and inputting text, Android Wear relies almost exclusively on your voice -- no microscopic on-screen keyboards or other such silliness. And by and large, Wear's voice input system works surprisingly well.

You can wake a Wear watch and start giving it commands by activating the screen and then either tapping the display or simply saying "Okay, Google." From there, you can speak a variety of commands for tasks like taking a note, setting a reminder, checking your agenda or sending a text or email (which you would then dictate by voice).

Again, that's all stuff you could do on an Android phone as well. But when you're walking around or in a moving vehicle, being able to quickly send a text or set a reminder by raising your arm and saying a few words into your wrist is insanely useful. I've gotten spoiled by telling my watch to remind me of things when I get home (yes, Wear can do that) or by sending quick texts by speaking into my wrist on the fly. There's no fumbling through your pockets or fussing with your lock screen; the process just feels natural and intuitive.

Basic commands aside, you can ask Wear for all sorts of information and the system will provide the answers on your watch's screen. You can ask about sports scores, calculations and conversions, or even general facts -- who's the mayor of a certain city, how many calories are in a particular food, how old is a certain celebrity and so forth. If Google has the data in its ever-expanding Knowledge Graph, it'll present it to you in a clean and concise card; if not, it'll give you the top few Web results with the option to read more via your phone.

Good as it's become, of course, Google's voice-to-text technology still isn't flawless -- so you do have to accept the fact that your Wear-based dictation will have the occasional misinterpreted word. I've also had some scattered instances where the system has returned an odd "Disconnected" error after I've attempted to set a reminder or send a message, but that seems to be more of an occasional glitch than any sort of regular occurrence.

Android Wear and apps

The core operating system and Google services may be the real stars of Android Wear, but apps play a critical supporting role on the platform. Like Wear itself, apps are generally designed to work as extensions of their smartphone counterparts, making it easier for you to accomplish certain tasks that make sense on the wrist.

Notably, Google isn't going to create a standalone store of apps for Wear devices; in fact, you'll never install an app directly to a Wear watch. Instead, certain Android apps offer watch-specific components -- and when you install any of those apps onto your phone, the watch elements automatically appear on your Wear device.

And remember: Any Android app will already work with Wear natively via its regular notifications. What we're talking about here are apps that offer more complex functions designed to run on the watch itself.

For instance, Google Maps lets you initiate navigation and view turn-by-turn directions from your Android Wear watch. Lyft lets you request rides and monitor your driver's status. Runtastic and RunKeeper help you track runs with detailed info on duration, distance and calories. And an app called Allthecooks lets you view step-by-step directions for preparing recipes on your wrist; all you do is swipe on the watch's screen to move from one step to the next.

Beyond that, both Google Keep and Evernote give you the ability to browse existing notes and leave yourself new notes by speaking into your watch; a delivery service called Eat24 allows you to place food orders by voice via a Wear device; and both Delta and American Airlines offer apps that'll put boarding passes and easy-to-view travel info on your Wear device's display.

More Wear-ready apps are showing up every day, some of which work with special hardware to create cool possibilities. You can control appliances in your home with the combination of a Belkin WeMo Switch and the IFTTT Android app, for example, or control Philips Hue light bulbs from your watch with an app called Hue Control.

A sampling of cards you'd swipe through horizontally while cooking with the Allthecooks app. Tapping on the blue-highlighted numbers in the last card causes the watch to launch timers for those values.

Wear comes preloaded with a couple of standalone applications as well, including a compass and an app called Fit that tracks your footsteps and heart rate (provided that your watch has a heart rate monitor). Manufacturers can also preload their own standalone apps onto devices.

The line between useful and annoying

The million-dollar question with a device like a Wear watch: Is having instant wrist-based access to information and notifications actually useful -- or is it a new type of annoyance we're signing ourselves up to receive?

The answer ultimately depends on you. But after two weeks living with Android Wear, I can tell you this: For anyone who likes to stay connected, the platform offers a practical and convenient new way to communicate and keep up to date.

When I was flying cross-country after Google I/O, for instance, I found myself hustling through the Denver airport on a tight connection. While I briskly walked from one end of the airport to the other, I was able to quickly read and respond to texts from my wife on my wrist and get vibrating notifications when my connecting flight had its gate changed and then was delayed. All of that happened while I was walking with my hands full and my eyes barely off the path in front of me.

I've been aware of Wear's influence on my habits during more mundane activities, too -- like when I'm out to lunch and can quickly scan and dismiss incoming emails in a split second on my wrist instead of having to whip out my phone and futz around with it 20 times an hour.

As for the annoyance potential, Wear has some tools built in to help you manage how much your watch alerts you. First of all, cards and notifications only buzz and light up your watch if they would also make a sound on your phone. That means most Google Now cards appear and are available on the watch, but don't overtly alert you to their presence. The same goes for any type of alert that you have set to be silent on your phone -- so if you want new emails to be available on your watch but don't want to be alerted every time a message comes in, all you have to do is set the Gmail notification on your phone to be silent.

The Android Wear phone app also offers an option to blacklist specific apps from ever sending notifications to your watch. And if you don't want anything to interrupt you for a while, you can always swipe down from the top of your watch to activate a "mute" mode in which no notifications will arrive and the watch won't illuminate.

The Android Wear phone app allows you to mute specific apps and prevent them from sending any notifications to your watch.

All of that being said, there's certainly room for improvement. Right now, Wear includes a lot of all-or-nothing functionality. Since most Google Now cards never sound an alert on your watch, for instance, you sometimes don't notice important ones -- like those informing you of flight delays -- right away. (I use a third-party service called TripIt that manages my travel itineraries and provides its own push alerts, which is why my watch buzzed when my flight was being changed.)

It'd also be nice for Wear to offer a more nuanced way to manage things like email notifications so you could receive alerts for important messages but not for every email that hits your inbox. A custom Gmail alert trick I shared earlier this year will actually let you accomplish that, but it's a fairly involved workaround and not the kind of thing a typical consumer is going to know how to do.

Bottom line

With Android Wear, Google has created a foundation for smartwatches that actually makes sense. It isn't about complex commands or cramming every feature imaginable into your wrist; rather, it's about supplementing your phone in ways that make your life easier in small but meaningful measures.

And that's an important point: Getting a Wear device isn't going to be like getting your first smartphone. When it comes down to it, Wear doesn't bring any new functions into your life; it merely gives you a more convenient way of handling the functions you already have. But by doing so, it creates an innovative type of interaction that's much more than the sum of its parts.

To be sure, Wear is in its infancy -- and it's far from perfect. More apps need to be updated to work better when it comes to notifications on the watch interface and Google still has some kinks to work out in terms of the operating system itself. For an initial release, though, Wear gets a lot of things right -- and gives us plenty of reason to be excited for the future.

So all considered, is an Android Wear smartwatch something most of us need? Not at all. It's very much an accessory -- and a luxury one, at that.

But is it something many of us will enjoy? Absolutely.

And this is only the beginning.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Android tips and insights, follow him on Google+ or Twitter.

This article, Android Wear deep-dive review: A smart start to smartwatch software, was originally published at

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