Android Wear: everything you need to know

Google smartwatches for Android rival Apple Watch

Google Wear smartwatch

At Google IO 2015, we got a lot more information on what's going on with Android Wear. While the main chat was mostly about talking through the already-released Android Wear 5.1.1, there were also a few tidbits of information that show the brand is pushing hard to stay up to speed with the Apple Watch.

We've already got seven different designs of Android Wear watches, with the LG Watch Urbane the latest in the line - but we've now had it confirmed that we'll have more Wear-based devices by the end of the year.

Newer watches are more based on fashion than previous 'prison tag' designs, and the same uniform smartwatch platform is available on each. It basically extends the leading smartphone software to the body and gives Google its best shot at taking on Apple Watch.

Android Wear supports both round and square watch faces, and the lineup won't stop there. Additional manufacturers are committed Google smartwatches (such as Huawei, and supposedly HTC), and with Android 5.1.1 we're getting a lot of extra features that allow brands to supercharge the power on your wrist.

As Android head Sundar Pichai penned in the original announcement, these app-driven time pieces understand the context of the world around you and deliver messages and reminders beamed directly to your wrist.

Android 5.1.1, the latest update from Google, adds in a lot of really helpful features on top of the excellent Google Now functionality on your wrist. Apps can stay pervasively on your wrist without having to turn the display on and off, GPS and offline music support is baked in and gestures that let you flick through your notifications by turning your wrist.

Sadly not all the current Android Wear watches support all the features of the new release, so it's worth checking out whether that older device is going to be supported in the future.

What Android Wear does

Android Wear is intended to provide "information that moves with you" and so far it lives up to that promise. It puts the entire world inches from your suddenly-free fingertips.

It doesn't just tell the time. The wearable operating system makes suggestions based on time and it factors location into its context-sensitive data.

The best everyday habit example involves riding on a bus and seeing a Google Maps-powered notification countdown to an unfamiliar destination. "4 stops to: Jackson St." intelligently reads the watch. The scary guessing game is taken out of a public transit commute, and with Android 5.1.1 you don't have to keep turning the watch screen on and off, as the info will be 'always on'.

Google Now on Android Wear smartwatches
Confidently countdown to your stop and ability to breath natural air again

The new technology also tips off wearers to dangers that lurk, as demonstrated in Google's first Android Wear video. A "Jellyfish warning" prompt can be seen with a surfer's flick of the wrist.

A relevant list of nearby beaches saves the video's early adopters who can surf without worrying about the sting of the boneless, brainless ocean creature. Yes, it could save your life, or at least save lots of pain.

Google Android Wear features
Ahead of the game! I knew about the incoming storm before the grounds crew

The first day we tested the Moto 360 at the Chicago Cubs baseball stadium, this was perfectly illustrated. A severe thunderstorm warning flashed on our watch and we knew about the rain before everyone else.

All of a sudden, digging that rectangular smartphone or, worse, phablet out of your pocket and pulling up a much more involved directions or notification app seems so pedestrian.

Making time for families

Google seeds the idea that Android Wear can alleviate our addiction to smartphones in an effort to make more time and eye-contact with our families.

This concept is more practical than the similar idea the company has been floated when delivering the Google Glass Explorer Edition to beta testers. Smartwatches feel natural and unobtrusive.

Google Now on Android Wear smartwatches
Keep an eye on traffic before you leave for work

A parent is able to attend breakfast with his family while keeping a close eye on the estimated commute time to work thanks to an on-wrist Google Now notification.

"No surprises" is the unofficial goal of Android Wear. Leaving too early and breezing through traffic would have filled this parent with breakfast-skipping regret. Leaving too late would've started his day with traffic-influenced anxiety.

'Okay Google' on the wrist

Even more touching is the dad who receives a Google Hangouts message right on his Android Wear smartwatch while bathing his son. "Dude, this game is insane!" writes the token friend who doesn't have such responsibilities.

The dad doesn't run to a TV or have to awkwardly palm his smartphone with soapy hands for an update. "Okay Google, what's the Syracuse score?" he asks his watch without pressing a button, with the phone connecting to your watch to deliver the connectivity - or if you're in your Wi-Fi network and your phone is somewhere else, some Android Wear watches will still work.

What is Google Android Wear
Parenting without technically missing the big game

A scorecard of 28-27, naturally in favor of his college basketball team, pops up. He cheesily shouts "Yay" while raising his hands. His young, halfway washed son does the same without us knowing if he really knows why. He could easily be cheering for having more time with his dad.

The increasingly familiar "Okay Google" voice prompt opens up a world of possibilities beyond sports score updates. Android Wear smartwatches can handle questions like, "How many calories are in an avocado?" to more personal queries like, "What time does my flight leave?"

What is Google Android Wear
Reminded me I had a flight to catch while at a baseball game

"Okay Google" can also accomplish tasks outsourced from a smartphone. Calling a taxi, making restaurant reservations, setting alarms and sending - not just receiving - texts is all possible to do hands-free with the Android Wear operating system.

Handy operating system updates

Android 5.1.1 Lollipop for Android Wear has rolled out right now and should be on all compatible smartwatches.

It's been a bit weird with Android Wear, with connectivity possible but locked away - but now dormant Wi-Fi capabilities in certain smartwatches are woken. This will let your smartwatch receive notifications when it's away from your smartphones, so long as both devices are on a Wi-Fi network they recognise.

This functionality will be made available to owners of the LG Watch Urbane,Moto 360, Sony Smartwatch 3 and the Samsung Gear Live, meaning older Watch owners (such as the G Watch and Gear Live) miss out.

In addition to aforementioned Wi-Fi support, the update will give your Android Wear smartwatch the ability to recognise handdrawn emoji and then send them as something others will recognise - it's not super accurate, but hey, it's something fun to play with.

The other big change is the ability to flick your wrist back and forth and see what notifications are your watch without having to tap the screen - it's pretty hard to do accurately, and we're not sure it's that helpful really.

The other news is that apps will now stay visible until you close them, so you can see things like maps and to-do lists without having to tap the screen and the update will finally let you pair more than one wearable to your phone.

The previous Android 5.0 Lollipop update is focusing on watch faces which you can download from the Google Play store. Designs are centered around PAC-MAN, Despicable Me, Plants vs Zombies, Porsche and much, much more thanks to a new Watch Face API now available to developers.

With the update, users can add and swap out Android Wear watch faces using the companion phone app.

The Android Wear app has also been updated to make browsing, downloading and switching watch faces simpler - plus you can now view your apps' battery usage and storage.

Sony Smartwatch 3 with Android Wear update

You can also quickly bring a card back if you've accidentally dismissed it, quickly access various settings by swiping down from the top of the screen, easily block notifications from any app directly from your watch and recently used actions now appear at the top of the list when you tap the watch face.

New modes include Theater Mode which lets you keep the screen off and mute vibrations when you're in a dark room, and Sunlight Mode which temporarily boosts the screen to maximum brightness.

LG G Watch R with Android Wear update