Android Wear review
Android Wear is a new platform for smartwatches designed to put the power of Google's Android onto your wrist. It keeps you always connected by delivering tailored alerts from your smartphone, but also acts as a point of input for interaction with your apps. It's designed to be simple, and is operated through a number of touch gestures, and a heavy reliance on voice control.
Launching the platform are three devices: the LG G Watch, Samsung Gear Live and the Moto 360. We anticipate there will be more to join that list in the coming months as the platform and associated hardware develops. But with competitors' Pebble OS, Tizen, earlier Android efforts (such as the Samsung Galaxy Gear), Sony's SmartWatch, and yet more platforms already on the market, there's already lot of choice at this early stage in the life of wearables.
Is Android Wear the wearable platform to take us into a golden era of smartwatches; is it the breakthrough we've been waiting for? We've been living with Android Wear using the LG G Watch to find out.
Connecting to Android Wear
Android Wear runs through an app on your smartphone, cleverly called Android Wear. This manages the connection via Bluetooth with your Android device - naturally that's the only smartphone platform supported (for now anyway) - as well as a range of device characteristics, such as how your smartwatch behaves.
It's also a portal to compatible apps - those apps that have been optimised for Android Wear like Tinder - as well as the place where you can choose how a particular command on the watch will be actioned.
As an app on your smartphone, Android Wear is neat enough, although in these early days, it's obvious that this is just a cornerstone for future developments; a place that you'll really be able to bring together wearable elements with your favourite apps and services to get the experience you want.
Look and feel
Android Wear lets you customise the clock face shown on your smartwatch - which basically acts as your main home screen. This is achieved with a long press on the screen, but we're surprised that Google has committed this gesture to something fairly superficial, as it could have been used to action any range of other features, such as accessing your apps, or a shortcut to your favourite feature.
The general look adopts a simple graphical design, with different backgrounds to reflect what you're doing at any given time. There's a calendar feel for your appointments, signposts in the background of your transit suggestions, and so forth.
We like that your contacts pictures are carried over to the device too, so you get these images in the background in various apps as relevant. When someone calls your phone you'll see that contact's picture appear on your Android Wear device. If there's no image available then you just get the first letter of the person's name instead, which also happens within incoming email in Gmail if there's no contact saved.
Overall there's something light and jovial about this imagery: it brings a sense of fun, but we can already see that people will be calling for themes in the same way Android offers this on smartphones. That would mean you could make things look more serious, have a sports team feel, or whatever else you fancy.
Interaction: Touch me, touch me
Android Wear offers interaction through touch, so the experience is closer to that of the Galaxy Gear 2's Tizen operating system than it is to the button-based Pebble experience.
The touch gestures work around the homescreen. Swiping down lets you cancel notifications, putting the watch into mute, and also provides the vital battery status of the given device.
The user interface is arranged around two main approaches: cards, which make up the delivery of notifications; and the "Ok Google" voice approach, which is really how you initiate actions. This is very much a reflection of the Google Now arrangement and the unified cards and voice control that Android phone users will already be familiar with. That's the idea behind Android Wear: to bring Google Now to your wrist.
There's one other entry point to functions: and that's by opening apps. At the bottom of a scrolling menu, accessed after you've entered the voice control area, it feels like something of an after-thought at present, which we'll come to in more detail later.
Notifications appear as cards that you can swipe up from the bottom of the watch face, dismiss with a swipe to the right, or flick through the relevant interactive options with a swipe to the left. They are accompanied by a vibration and if the screen is dimmed, it will illuminate again.
Cleverly notifications don't all take over the display. Instead some will sit at the bottom, showing just enough to be aware of at a glance. Gmail shows you the sender's name, directions when navigating shows you the next turn, the calendar shows a countdown to your next appointment and so on.
In many cases, what you get dropping into your notifications area on an Android phone or tablet is what you will find on Android Wear - it's an echo of the device it's synched up to. Like those phone notifications, some include immediate actions - like reply in Google Hangouts - and some are just information, urging you to move to your phone to take a full and proper look. This is one of the strongest elements of Android Wear and one of the top things that we want from a smartwatch: it saves you from having to pull the phone from your pocket each time your phone buzzes.
Direct notifications are delivered alongside some of the Google Now-style smart cards. When Google Now thinks you need to know something, like the route home or the weather, it will appear whether you prompt it or not.
Notifications can be controlled too. If you've opted out of notifications on your phone, then you won't get them on the watch. But you can also elect not to receive certain notifications on your Android Wear device that will appear on your phone. For example, you might not want something to flash up in public, or you might find that some things are just too annoying, so you can select those apps to be excluded through the main Android Wear app on your smartphone.
There's currently a big difference in what you can do with different notifications. For example, receive an SMS through Hangouts, and you can browse the message history or dictate a reply. Receive an SMS through a third-party app - like the default LG app on the G3 - and you only get the sender's info, not the option to read the message itself.
WhatsApp, on the other hand, displays its message for all to see; Gmail shows you a snippet and requires tapping to expand for further reading; while Runkeeper notifications will tell you that a contact has completed a run, but will then want to move you to your phone.
There are obvious omissions too. As it stands is that you can't open a map link from an appointment that pops up on your smartwatch. This seems a little odd, as accessing this sort of information quickly and without getting your phone out is surely Android Wear's raison d'être.
Right now it's very much a mixed and inconsistent experience, although we expect Android developers to quickly make adaptations to existing popular apps so Android Wear will offer more direct actions and bring more parity. It'll happen fast, and we'll be updating this review to bring more relevant information as the software gets more advanced.
Voice at the core
Voice makes up a big part of the Android Wear experience. Outside of the delivered notifications we've talked about above, you'll pretty much need to turn to voice to get things going by talking to your Android Wear smartwatch.
Voice can be triggered either by saying the "Ok Google" phrase when the display is awake, or instead by tapping to the display. Android Wear will then listen to what you have to say and quickly recognise and take the appropriate action. It's a dynamic system, allowing you to ask questions as well as give commands.
If you don't say anything, or swipe up, you'll instead flip down into a list of potential options. These act both as command suggestions you could say, as well as providing touch-tap trigger actions. It's here you can view your agenda without having to speak, view your steps or change the settings.
Right down at the bottom of the list is the option to "Start..." which is very Windows-like phraseology, and it's here you can access the apps that Android Wear supports, as we previously mentioned. Of course, you can simply say "Ok Google, open Keep" and it will do so, which is a faster way to get things moving.
Talk to me Goose
Complex sentences often don't present a problem, like saying "Ok Google, message Boris Johnson 'I like your hat'" will run together those instructions and then ask which number to send it to, if there's a choice.
But it's this action of sending that sees Android Wear get a little hairy, because it can just send that message with no intervention or confirmation. That means that if you don't say the right thing or are misinterpreted that you'll often find yourself sending something you don't want, or something incomplete - especially when replying.
Being able to quickly to reply to SMS messages or emails is useful, but when you hit reply, it's going to send what it hears, not necessarily what you meant to say. That's fine for a quick reply to your friends, but probably not for replying to business email, especially as there's no capitals or punctuation.
To cancel a message you need to be fast to hit the cancel button, so consider yourself warned: we've sent far too many messages in error.
Voice comes into its own when driving, or when you have your hands full, and while we've been living with Android Wear, we've put that to good use - sending messages to locate people when we're laden with shopping or sending messages to alert us to bad traffic and firing up corrective navigation directions.
Android can do all this stuff anyway, but if your device is locked away in your pocket then an Android Wear smartwatch can make these things happen with minimal fuss.
Obviously, the dependency on voice is going to be a barrier to many people in public places, who simply won't want to be talking to their watch. It feels, in its current form, like Android Wear needs another way to fire things up and interact in greater depth.
We're sure that some of the fastest changes will come from app developers rather than Google. For example, we mentioned how accessing apps is sat at the bottom of the menu scroll, after you've gone past the prompt to say something. That's inconvenient, but already there's a solution in the form of the Wear Mini Launcher app.
Once installed, this Wear Mini Launcher provides quick access to your apps with a swipe from the top left-hand corner. It's so simple, but it really changes the Android Wear experience and we can't help thinking that, like Android, this is the direction that the platform is going to move in.
When you receive an incoming call on your phone, Android Wear will ring and vibrate. You'll be given the option to accept or decline the call, as well as reject a call with a message, which is really handy.
You might question the need to have an answer option when you might not have a speaker on your Wear device, but it makes sense when you're wearing a Bluetooth headset or headphones. It makes managing calls really easy, never having to lift your phone out of your pocket.
The stock SMS responses are pretty good too, so you can let someone know that you can't take their call. Again, this will work well for those driving with their hands full, or when sat in a boring meeting.
For many, glancing at your watch for directions rather than pulling your slab of a phone out is a big part of what's wanted from a wearable. Android Wear brings Google Maps navigation to your wrist, so that's the navigation box ticked. You can tell Android Wear to navigate you to a place and it will by firing up Google Maps on your phone, planning the route and then feeding the directions back to the smartwatch.
However, Android Wear doesn't verify the current destination which can be a problem. Like some of the messaging misfires we experienced, navigation will sometimes take you to entirely the wrong place. Without scooping out the phone and checking, you can't tell. But this is only a problem when you initiate navigation from your wearable - start navigation from your smartphone as normal and the directions will then be fed to your wrist.
It's not all disastrous though. Ask Android Wear to navigate you to "home" and we found it works well, and much the same can be said when looking for a local restaurant or train station. We also like being able to listen to audio directions when wearing a headset.
There's obviously still space for refinement. Aside from confirmation of the actual destination on your wearable, the visualisation could be better. We found when driving that Android Wear direction instructions were just too vague. Heading through London streets, there wasn't enough to decipher which turning we were supposed to be taking. When walking, however, things are clear enough - although again it would be useful to have a bigger picture overview to glance at.
An eye on fitness
One of the other standalone functions of Android Wear - and all current hardware supports it - is a pedometer. This sensor will track your steps, giving you the option to set a daily target.
This monitoring resides in the Fit app, but it's otherwise completely independent from your phone. We imagine that with the forthcoming Android L update that this will all change and we're hoping to see collation of data between devices and sources - regardless of whether it's step or sports tracking.
Android Wear is already showing that it's flexible, with support for heart-rate sensors as found on the Gear Live broadening the fitness tracking potential.
Early days for apps
We've mentioned that third party apps have been pushed down the list by Google, and elevated again though a clever app to make them easier to handle. The current range of supported apps is rather paltry, but with Android Wear devices having only appeared in recent weeks, that's just how it is.
There are a few names you'll recognise, however. Google's note-taking app Keep is supported, including support for checklists. If you have a busy day with tasks to complete, then Android Wear using Keep can be right there with you. Great for shopping lists.
Another of the big names is IFTTT (If This Then That). Fans of the clever cause-effect platform will be all too familiar with it and already recipes are popping up to support Android Wear.
More keep on appearing at pace too. There's the Philips Hue lighting system which has a Wear app for lighting control and, as we've mentioned, Tinder has also made the jump to Android Wear. Runkeeper is also available, so runners can see their stats on their wrist. You'll be able to pause workouts, which is handy, although we found that Android Wear wouldn't start a workout - we had to do that on our phone.
The list of apps is growing by the day and we're sure it won't be long before you can check-in on Facebook and Foursquare, check your British Airways boarding gate, or order your Uber cab. It's all down to developers now.
Android Wear brings a wearable user experience that's closely aligned with what's already offer from Google Now and Google Search. That means voice-command interaction with your smartphone via your wrist - it's the bringing together of technology in a new format, and it has stacks of potential.
For an Android fan there's obvious excitement at having this Google experience extended to wearables. However, Android Wear merely makes the first few steps, as there's still plenty left to do before it flourishes into the perfect system.
Even in basic apps there's obvious space for refinement; required tweaks that will make it more immediate and really give you the functions that will make sense day to day. We also find the dependency on voice control will be a little too much for some users - and that could be something of a barrier. We have every faith that the wider Android developer community will bring intuitive functions to Android Wear devices in the near future though, and solutions that don't rely on voice.
There's a lot happening in the wearables space right now, but it's still early days. In short no one system has got everything right yet, and even Android Wear inits current state doesn't bring an experience that goes much further than existing Pebble or Samsung smartwatches. But it's very much a case of watch this space - and watch it intently, because we have a feeling that Android Wear is going to evolve rapidly, and that is what makes it an exciting wearables platform.