Wearing Android Wear: Google’s wearable platform shows the true potential of smartwatches

“With some killer apps along with a superb way of handling notifications, Android Wear is poised to become incredibly useful, but as of now, it’s only for early adopters”

Google’s Android is the leading platform for mobile devices – far ahead of iOS and other competing OSes. But, the El Goog isn’t content with that and it’s now aiming for the next growth opportunity with its wearable-friendly OS, Android Wear. While wearables can mean anything from eyewear to wristbands and as yet unthought-of form factors, the most obvious ones are smartwatches at the moment.

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However, Google has to tread its path very carefully since smartwatches not only have to prove that they are a useful accessories to phones in our pockets, but also have show maximum amount of usable info on a small screen. A couple of months back we got our hands on (quite literally) the LG G Watch (first impressions), and instead of discussing the device as part of a usual review, we will be talking about the platform and how useful it actually is in day-to-day usage.

The basics

Android Wear devices can be connected to smartphones running Android 4.3 and above via Bluetooth LE. Setup is done by the companion Android Wear app on the phone, and it’s extremely simple and seamless.

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With the smaller screen available on your wrist, Google has taken minimalism to the next level. By default, the smartwatch displays the time (and other things, depending upon the watch face). Each of the hardware manufacturers of Android Wear have added their own selection of watch faces. Tapping on the watch once will allow you to issue voice commands.

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Pulling down from the top brings up a panel displaying battery status, date and the option to mute the device. Thanks to the latest update to Android Wear, you can swipe to the right to access new modes for brightness – cinema and sunlight. As their names indicate, Cinema mode turns off the screen and mutes vibrations, while Sunlight mode maximises the brightness level.

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Tapping on the watch’s display once brings up the menu, giving you the ability to take notes, send text messages, check calendar, see number of steps walked, and more. You can also access the settings menu, which allows you to adjust brightness, restart or turn off the watch, change the watch face, etc.

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You can also choose the keep the display always on or activate the display when the device is tilted. However, in always-on mode, the display is dimmed if you cover the watch with your hand. Although, not all devices come with this feature. Moto 360, for example, only has an ambient mode, which dims the display automatically after a while and eventually goes dark.

The power of Google on your wrist

Simply put, with Android Wear, the Big G is bringing the power of Google Now to your wrist. The entire experience is tailored around it, allowing you to search for anything via voice. Along with searching on Google, you can also make use of voice-activated commands, some of which you use with smartphones as well. These commands allow users to make notes, set reminders, set a timer, show you the number of steps walked, and open apps available on the watch among others. The device recognises the commands quite accurately.

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Whenever you search on web, if it’s a famous personality, or monument, then Android Wear shows a scrollable list of info, which is akin to details available in a tabular manner when we search on Google. In case you search for the usual things, then it presents you a list of links, which can be opened on the connected phone.

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The watch also offers  Google Now’s usual feature of surfacing info when you need it. This means that you will get info in the form of cards for weather, courier packages, flight tickets, sports scores, stocks, etc. You can swipe to the right to get more details.

Cards aren’t only used for Google Now, which takes us to our next point…

Cards to notify you

Synced with the smartphone, the watch displays notifications from the apps as soon as they arrive. If there are multiple notifications, they are stacked together. Each notification is displayed in the form of a card, which can be swiped right for dismissing or swiped to the left for getting more details. The good thing is that the notifications aren’t just mirrored and let you read them along with the option to take some actions as well. If the app is Android Wear compatible, then you can access even more actions along with the ability to reply via voice or preset responses. Gmail, for instance, displays the complete email, and when you swipe to right, then you can archive it, and swiping to the right again gives the option to reply. In case an app is pestering too much with notifications, you can block the app.

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With the Lollipop update for Android Wear, you can also undo the dismissed notification in case you dismissed it by mistake. You can simply pull up from the bottom of the screen to bring those notifications, however it should be done soon after dismissing them and not several minutes later.

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If you are using Android 5.0 Lollipop on the connected phone, then the watch can also benefit from the priority notifications feature.

Apart from the ability to reply via voice, you can also send an email or compose a text message – all by your voice.

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The watch also displays incoming calls from the connected handset, although you can only accept it or reject it on the watch. Since Android Wear watches lack speakers at the moment, you will need to use your smartphone for handling the call.

App-iness on a smaller screen

The strength of any computing platform lies in the number of apps that are supporting it, and Android Wear scores quite well in that aspect. Until now, there was no unifying platform for wearable devices and barring the Kickstater-blockbuster Pebble, none of the watches got it right. Google however, allows developers to develop apps for its wearable platform easily, along with offering them the option of targeting multiple Android Wear watches with one app.

Instead of creating a separate app store for Android Wear devices, Google is using its Play Store for offering apps. While developers can develop Wear-specific apps, there are various apps that can be installed on the smartphone and also have support for smartwatches. In case you want to see all the apps compatible with the platform, you can check Google’s collection.

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Most popular apps, including the likes of Gmail, popular messengers such as Facebook Messenger, Hangouts, WhatsApp, and many more support Android Wear devices. You can also access to-do apps like Google Keep, Wunderlist, Todoist, and automation apps like IFTTT, Tockle with the smartwatch. Utilising the sensors on the watch, there are many fitness-friendly apps for the platform as well, with Runtastic and Endomondo being the most popular. Developers have also started to exploit the potential of smartwatches with some innovative apps such as Wear Remote (allowing you to remotely control smartphone’s camera), Wear Tip Calculator (to calculate tip to be given to waiter in the restaurant), and Swipify (ability to launch the app launcher on the watch or accessing RAM usage by swiping from the edges).

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Users can also listen to music stored locally on the watch via Bluetooth headsets. However, songs need to be transferred from the smartphone and it isn’t a seamless process. Users will have to go to the Play Music app and then select the option to download songs on the smartwatch. The transfer takes place over Bluetooth, which means that it’s a slow process. For some reason however, we weren’t able to download songs on our watch.

Another important part of the smartwatches is the watch face – the first thing that you or anyone else notices about the device. Google has recently started offering a watch face API for developers for creating watch faces. You can check out a dedicated collection from Google for such watch faces. You can change the watch face from the watch itself or from the smartphone via the Android Wear appp. The connected mobile is useful for many other things…

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The phone is still the master

While the watch is an electronic device on its own, for most of the things, it relies on the connected smartphone and that’s not just limited to displaying notifications. Without the phone, the smartwatch does basic tasks such as setting an alarm, running stopwatch, view calendar, etc.  While the watch can count steps, they aren’t saved and when you connect your phone, then they are deleted. You can’t control the watch with any voice commands either. Moreover, if you have turned on the smartwatch and it isn’t connected to the phone even once, then even the time displayed is wrong and can’t be set directly via the device. This perhaps, in our opinion is one of the biggest limitations of Android Wear.

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With the Android Wear app, you can set default apps for various things such as notes, music, step count, etc. Diving into the  settings menu gives you greater control of the watch, allowing for blocking notifications , enabling or disabling always-on screen, checking the watch’s battery and storage (also letting you analyse which apps are eating battery or taking the maximum space).

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Everything isn’t about the software though

While we dedicated most of our article in discussing the software parts of Android Wear, it’s important to know that hardware also plays an important role. Similar to openness of Android, the search engine titan is offering the hardware manufacturers an option to use its Android Wear platform.

Many manufacturers have jumped in on the opportunity, right from top-tier ones such as Samsung, Sony and LG, along with brands like ASUS and Motorola, with several more rumoured to enter the fray. In terms of core hardware, the devices share similar innards, while design is a major differentiator.

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Smartwatches like the LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live feature rectangular faces, whereas the Motorola Moto 360 (first impressions) emulates conventional watches with its round face. ASUS has taken hybrid approach with its ZenWatch (first impressions), offering a slightly rounded face with rectangular bezels. Brands have also tried to differentiate in terms of straps of the watches, with both the ZenWatch and Moto 360 offering an option of leather straps, and the former offering a metallic clasp design for wearing it.

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The device we’re using – the LG G Watch gets the Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 SoC and 512MB RAM under the hood. It also comes with 4GB storage on board. The display measures 1.6-inches and sports aresolution of 280 x 280 pixels. Other smartwatches also have similar internals, though the screen sizes are different.

The watches also differ when it comes to sensors. While all of them have usual sensors such as accelerometers and gyroscopes, some of them also boast heart-rate monitor (Samsung Gear Live) and GPS (Sony SmartWatch 3, yet to launch in India).

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Most smartwatches are also IP67-certified, which means that they’re dust resistant and you needn’t worry if they are submerged in water of up to 1m depth for as long as 30 minutes.

Not perfect, but holds promise

Using the LG G Watch for the past two months, we have come to love several features of the device and the platform, and at the same time, there are some things which bother us.

From the hardware point of view, battery life remains an important criterion and most Android Wear smartwatches, including ours give up in a day and a half. Charging a phone daily is still fine, but as an accessory, the watches should have much better juice. In comparison, Pebble can easily go on for five days to a week, although that might be because of its e-ink display.

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With the LG G Watch, we faced another problem because of the lack of a hardware button. While most Android Wear watches have a power button to access brightness settings by tapping twice or turn it off or on if long-pressed, the G Watch is devoid of any such button. So, while you may turn off the device by going to the settings menu, you can only turn it on by using a pin to press a tiny button at the rear. This becomes cumbersome for turning the watch off every day and switching it on again in the morning to ensure that the battery isn’t drained. In such cases, a simple feature like scheduled power on and off can be really nifty.

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We also think that the smartwatches need to go beyond notifications to become really useful. Android Wear holds potential in this case since developers can harness its potential to make some killer apps, but as of now Google’s wearable platform is only meant for early adopters. How things change when Apple’s Watch joins the wearable bandwagon next year also remains to be seen, since the Cupertino giant always aim to give user experience a preference rather than specs and other things.

Photos by Raj Rout

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