Google announced an update to Android Wear in April, making its debut on the LG Watch Urbane and rolling out to other devices in the family. It's the most significant Wear update so far, a step change in functionality.

Android Wear has spent its time floundering, or finding its feet. Like many ideas that come from Google, it launched with the feeling of demoware. The first few devices had that proof of concept feel, but it's clear that the landscape is now set. There's nothing that focuses the mind like the launch of an Apple rival.

You can't argue that when Apple launches a new product, it turns all its guns on the target. The Apple Watch is the full broadside of smartwatch launches, with everyone jumping onboard HMS Apple to enjoy the ride. Celebrities, glossy magazine covers, the full razzmatazz of a consumer launch.

Android Wear's update, then couldn't be better timed, not only because it pushes the wearable Android experience over a bump, but it will be bringing that to the devices that already exist, which is good for Android Wear owners everywhere.

So how well do these new functions work?

New navigation UX

When the Android Wear update was announced, Google elevated some of the functions and buried the fact that there was a pretty big change to user experience (UX) in general. There's now a central point to access apps, contacts as well as voice. 

With a tap, you enter this new hub, whereas previous Android Wear versions pushed you to voice control on a tap, with a menu beneath it. That still exists, it has just been pushed along to make for a user experience that will put app access first.

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It also puts people first. Your favourites from your contacts in Android now appear, so you can easily call, text or email people from your Wear device. It's handy for sending that message on the fly without getting your phone out of your pocket.

You can dictate these or select from a couple of preset messages, one of which is simply "Hi", along with our favourite stalker message "I'm outside". Mwah ha ha ha ha.

There's also the option here to draw emoji, but you can also access the full list of emoji if you can't be bothered with the scrawling. Want to mix words and emoji? Use your phone.

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This new system works with the swipe down action, which gives you notification controls (Lollipop's none, priority, all) and status details as before, along with cinema/theater mode, brightness boost and a shortcut to the settings.

As previously, notification cards can be swiped down off the watch face to hide them, returning for viewing with a swipe up.

A flick of the wrist

When we first heard about Android Wear's flick navigation, we didn't think it would work at all. We've tried tilt navigation in phones and it doesn't work. 

But on Android Wear, it really works. We've just mentioned you can hide a notification by swiping down, but you can do the same with a quick twist of the wrist.

When you have a notification on the display, a flick of the wrist upwards will move up through your notification cards. That means you can cycle through the pile of different types of alerts you might have. 

Wi-Fi freedom

One of the key changes is Wi-Fi freedom. Rather than relying on your phone for the connection, your Android Wear device is capable of connecting to Wi-Fi networks on its own (assuming you have the hardware). If your phone isn't nearby, you'll still get notifications. 

This is really about breaking down Bluetooth dependency, rather than giving you a smartwatch that's completely independent, because it doesn't quite work like that.

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The Wi-Fi connection function is still managed by your smartphone, because you can't input any passwords on the watch itself. If you work in an office and leave your phone charging while you walk to the third floor, but stay on your work Wi-Fi network, there's no problem. You'll still be notified. 

If you have Wi-Fi networks that your phone connects to, then your Android Wear device knows the credentials and can connect. On the watch itself, you can see networks and choose which to connect to. 

However, you need your host Android phone to be connected to a network somewhere. You can, however, switch off Bluetooth on your phone and if your watch is connected to Wi-Fi, everything works as it should.

Always on apps

The jury is still out on always-on features on smartwatches, but we've always been a fan of the always-on display. It's a watch, after all, and despite the battery cost, we'd rather have a watch face displayed than a blank display like it's some sort of ASBO tag.

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Android has enabled always-on apps in Wear so you can keep glancing. The clever thing is that it fades to black and white to preserve your battery.

There aren't a huge number of apps that offer always-on functionality, but we've been using Keep - if you use that for shopping list, it's a little more practical now. This also applies to the watch faces on the LG Watch Urbane (above), cutting out elements to give you a more basic view to preserve the battery.

One of our criticisms of Apple Watch is that it's so quick to put the display to sleep. Android Wear is at least offering you a way out of this.

Find my phone

Yes, Android Wear has a native find my phone option.

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This is very simple, but sits in your device waiting to help you find your phone. It does this by ringing it and just takes a couple of taps to activate. That means you no longer need a third-party app to perform this simple action.

One giant leap for wearables?

The changes that roll in with Android Wear 5.1.1 (as we've seen them on the LG Watch Urbane) deserve a bigger billing than Google gave them. Faced with the fanfare around Apple Watch that appeared at the same time, perhaps that's understandable.

We've been living with this refereshed Android Wear on the LG Watch Urbane and it feels so much more usable than previous versions over the last year. It feels, almost, as if Android Wear has quietly come of age. 

But let's not go overboard. One thing that has been apparent is how quick developers have been to rally to Apple Watch. That's not to say that the Watch's app implementation is leagues ahead of Android Wear. In many cases, it's obvious that smartwatches have a long way to go on both platforms to really assert themselves and deliver a suite of app experiences that's useful.

At least we're looking at an Android platform that's now more mature, devices that are now more diverse, and an experience that's now more refined.

We will be bringing you a full review of the LG Watch Urbane as soon as we can.