Smartwatches are constantly improving. But Android Wear could stand to borrow a little from Samsung.
Android Wear does a lot of things right. As a wearable platform, it's easily the more feature-complete and functional of those currently available. Being the best wrist-mounted notification dumpster isn't enough, though, and there are some key ways for Android Wear to improve.
It turns out a fantastic place to look for some improvements to this platform is the Samsung Gear S2. Samsung's smartwatch is a massive departure from what had previously been available under this brand, and many of the things this watch does right should be paid attention to.
Here's what we're talking about.
1. Hardware navigation options
Google's user interface is built on touch, voice, and gestures. Touch control generally works well enough, but the limited screen size means your finger is frequently in the way of the things you're trying to see. Voice control works if you're in a place that makes sense to talk to your wrist — which isn't most places. Gestures are relatively new, and still fairly limited. Also, shaking your arm around in public can be a little odd.
Samsung's use of a scroll wheel around the display makes navigating the UI and messages a breeze. A scroll wheel may not be appropriate on every Android Wear watch, but the idea of a hardware navigation option is something that could make using Android Wear a lot more interesting. Scrolling through messages, zooming in and out on maps, and discrete navigation would all be made easier through a physical connection to the UI.
2. Multiple vibration patterns
Every smartwatch has a vibration motor in it to let you know when a message comes in, but few use them as well as the Samsung Gear S2. There are different vibration patterns for the different kinds of notifications you get, and more impactful ticks from the sensors when you reach the end of a menu through the scroll wheel. These dynamic changes in vibration are significant, and make a big difference when you're using the watch every day.
It's the difference between looking down at your wrist every time there's a buzz because you feel like you have to, and knowing what messages can be looked at later. Smartwatches are supposed to be all about notification control, and this this something Android Wear doesn't do quite as well as it could.
3. Better notifications
Notifications on your wrist are tricky, and it's the kind of thing that you either demand control over, or sit back and enjoy the flow on your wrist.
The first thing you do when pairing the Gear S2 to the Galaxy S7 is a walkthrough of which notifications are passed on from the phone to the watch. You can quickly toggle obvious things off, and make it possible to only get the messages you want. Android Wear lacks this up-front setup, but it offers a similar set of tools if you go looking for them. It's personal preference to have one setup or the other, but the notifications themselves are also noticeably better on the Gear S2.
Android Wear takes the notifications from your phone and presents them as cards for you to flick around and expand as necessary. It's great for a quick triage of multiple emails, but for expanding a long text email or messages in a busy chat there are limits to this design. Samsung's layout makes it easy to jump through long messages and easily separates the individual notifications so you don't accidentally dismiss something.
When it comes to information density, Android Wear has it nailed. When it comes to ease of use, Samsung's setup is better.
4. Control over the app list
Google's app list for Android Wear is alphabetical, with exception of two frequently used apps that float to the top of the list. It's a single list that you scroll downward through, which means the things at the bottom of the list frequently take multiple swipes to get to. This is less of a problem if you only have a few apps installed, but since Android Wear automatically pulls in watch counterparts from the apps on your phone this isn't as easy to control as it seems.
The Samsung experience is different in several ways, but the most important one is the ability to control where apps live so you can access frequently used apps whenever you want. Arranging those icons is a little clumsy, but the end result is noticeably better than what we see on Android Wear.
5. More complete watch complications
Android Wear has no shortage of watch faces, but volume doesn't necessarily equal quality. Google's default watch faces, the ones that come with every Android Wear watch, don't do much to integrate the rest of the watch into the face. There are separate watch faces for things like Google Fit in Android Wear, but nothing that allows for integration with other apps on the watch.
Samsung's "complications" are a significant step forward on this setup. The design of several default watch faces make it possible to drop in widgets from many different apps on the watch. You can add in a battery meter, step counter, app shortcuts, weather, and so much more. It's a deeply personalized series of watch faces, and something that is only available in limited capacity across a series of third-party apps. Motorola has offered something similar with some of their included watch faces, but they are limited to developers that work with Motorola for those watches.
6. How do you think Android Wear should continue to improve?
Samsung still has a long way to go to make the Gear S2 as functional as your average Android Wear watch, but the implementation of a bunch of their features shows promise. It's clear Google and Samsung are both looking at watches as a platform for connected and standalone notification systems, and with that comes a lot of unique challenges. What we know for sure is things are going to keep improving for both platforms, which is great.
While we wait for what happens next, share what you'd like to see next from Android Wear or the Gear S2 in the comments.