Android Wear review

Slowly, but surely, Google's smartwatch OS is improving

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Our Verdict

Google's wrist OS is improving at a steady pace, but still isn't the right fit for everyone. Aside from the weak app selection, it holds its own against the Apple Watch, but could surpass it in the future.

For

  • Google Now on your wrist
  • Glanceable notifications
  • Accurate voice search
  • Fun to customize

Against

  • Needs more apps
  • Eats battery life
  • Sluggish hardware

Android Wear, Google's wrist-based version of the Android OS, isn't new to the smartwatch scene. It arrived in 2014 and has been improving ever since.

If you're new to the world of smartwatches, here's all you need to know: Android Wear makes accessing some of your phone's handiest features as simple as looking down at your wrist. It primarily acts as a companion to amplify your phone's notifications so that you don't need to dig around in your pocket just to see that someone liked one of your tweets.

But, it can handle more complex tasks on its own, too, such as navigating via Google Maps, and streaming music straight to your set of wireless headphones. If you're the kind who likes to talk to your technology, you'll be right at home with Android Wear, which can set reminders, alarms, and can scour the web to find the answers you're looking for–all with your voice.

Android Wear's recent Marshmallow update puts in on par with the smartphone wing of Google's operating system, and even borrows some of its spotlight features. First off, some new, intuitive gestures make navigating into a one-handed affair. You can now twist, shake and lift your wrist to do everything a second hand could do.

Android Wear

Next up, voice recognition is now supported for more than just Google's own applications. Use WhatsApp, WeChat, Viber, Telegram, or Nextplus? You can now fire off replies with your voice. Similar to an Android 6.0 Marshmallow smartphone, you can also tweak permissions at any time on your Android Wear device. Lastly, the latest update brings the Doze feature over from the full-fledged mobile OS, albeit in seemingly limited fashion.

Google's mobile operating system for your wrist has grown up a lot in the past few years. Sure, its progress can be tracked through the trail of devices, from its clunky, early days with the LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live, to its more refined status today, held down by the Huawei Watch, Moto 360 and LG Watch Urbane.

But its software has shown growth, too. Android Wear smartwatches are slowly, but surely improving as independent devices that are worth the price. Add in the fact that Android Wear now works on iPhone, and suddenly, Google's wearable platform has a ton of force behind it.

Today's Android Wear is pretty exciting, what with hundreds of apps and customizable watch faces to choose from. But the Android Wear of tomorrow promises to be even better.

Since the introduction of Android Wear, manufacturers have been using the same, rather antiquated hardware: the Snapdragon 400, the same quad-core chipset that powered the Samsung Galaxy S3 and HTC One M7. From the Moto 360 to the Huawei Watch, today's smartwatches are thick and a bit sluggish as a result, but the chipset's worst trait is its tendency to slurp down your battery like it's going out of style.

That's why we're excited about Snapdragon Wear 2100, a chipset made from scratch for the smartwatch form-factor. Promising size reductions of up to 30% and improvements to battery consumption, the next wave of Android Wear smartwatches likely won't suffer from common complaints, like "this thing is thick!" and/or "this battery life is horrible!". And if the Nixon Mission smartwatch is any indication, we might be seeing more fully waterproof and ruggedized options available.

Installation

Downloading the Android Wear app to your smartphone is the equivalent of winding up your watch for the first time.

This companion app bridges the data from your phone to your new smartwatch via Bluetooth 4.0 and downloads the firmware update upon its first boot, if needed.

Android Wear

During the setup process, the Android Wear watch will provide some tips and tricks to get off on a good first few steps.

Once the setup is complete, which takes about a few minutes, depending on how many compatible apps you're syncing, you'll be greeted by a short tutorial. It runs through the basics and gets you acquainted with the bite-sized version of Android.

From there, you'll all set to explore the selection of apps and watch faces. I personally found it faster and easier to launch into the Google Play Store through the Android Wear app, as it brings you straight to the apps you're looking for in a nice, curated view. Alternatively, you can type "android wear" into the Google Play Store and find similar results, but it's less organized.

Interface

Moving through the Android Wear interface on a smartwatch isn't all that different than doing the same thing on a Google Now-equipped smartphone. The touchscreen is just smaller.

The watch face is home base. Swiping up and down through the card-based menu system reveals the weather, your calendar and other pertinent app notifications that have been ported over to the watch.

Android Wear

Sliding your finger to the right dismisses the notifications, but swiping left will reveal different options for each app you use, digging deeper into five day forecasts and the ability to reply to a text with your voice, to name a few examples.

Part of the fun comes in exploring what each app can do. Gmail, for instance, lets you reply straight from the watch by either using your voice or some pre-baked messages. Google Play Music lets you adjust the volume and skip songs, all without checking out your phone.

Sure, there are some things you can't do on Android Wear, like surf a full web browser, or queue up a video chat, but the "open on phone" option that's nestled into nearly every app –except the ones that are native to Android Wear– allows you to elegantly continue where you left off on your phone.

Most of what Android Wear pushes to view is just a copy of the notifications you're used to seeing on your phone. But it also delivers some thoughtful, personalized notifications. Traveling to a new city? It will automatically set you up with the weather there, as well as back home.

Android Wear

Just as slick, Android Wear figures out which sports team you like based on your Google searches and provides real-time sports scores.

It does the same for directions to addresses you've recently looked up or appointments in your calendar. "It's 34 minutes to work with light traffic on the US 101-S."

These just-for-you cards are one of the high points of Android Wear. It makes it feel like its more than just a simple supplement to your phone.

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