Android Wear

It's early days for Android on smartwatches, but despite a few teething problems, Android Wear has an abundance of potential

We have been promised a revolution in wearable computing for at least the past couple years. Early entrants like the Pebble and the Samsung Gear series — along with a handful of other, lesser-known offerings — gave us a peek at a connected future in which we're free from the burden of constant smartphone checking. In this new mobile world, wearable computers would funnel relevant, context-sensitive alerts to us through devices worn on our bodies.

The wearable revolution promised to wean us off the need to constantly check our smartphones ... even if it meant we're only glancing down at another, smaller device on our wrist instead.

Android Wear is Google's first real foray into this new frontier of wearable devices, making its debut on new smartwatches from LG and Samsung, with more following from Motorola and others later in the year. These products have been a long time coming, and they arrive at a time when Pebble has already proved the viability of smartwatches as a product category, but the long-awaited Apple iWatch has yet to materialize.

So after what seems like an eternity, does Android Wear represent the dawn of the mainstream smartwatch era? Read on to find out as we take a deeper look at the software side of Android Wear.

About this review

We're publishing this review two weeks after the first Android Wear hardware became available to Google I/O attendees. I (Alex Dobie) have been using a UK retail G Watch for around a week at the time of writing. Phil Nickinson and Jerry Hildenbrand have been using the LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live respectively since I/O. This review is based on the impressions from all three of us.

For the purposes of this review, we're looking at the initial release of Android Wear — Android 4.4W, build KMV78V — as it runs on the G Watch and Gear Live. Some Gear Live watches have since received an update to a newer build, KMV78X, however this update hasn't hit all devices yet, and it's unclear what's new in it at the time of writing.

The first circular Android Wear watch, the Moto 360, is expected to launch later this summer, and we'll have more to say once we get our hands on that device.

Watch face

The basics

Before we get into the review proper, let's take a step back and look at what the Android Wear platform actually is.

Android Wear is an offshoot of Google's mobile OS, a new branch of Android (Android 4.4W, specifically) designed to run on low-powered wearable devices like smartwatches. Just like the Pebble or Gear 2 line, wearables running Android Wear connect to an Android (4.3 Jelly Bean or higher) handset over a Bluetooth connection, allowing notifications from the phone to be displayed on the watch.

Android Wear is much more than just a mirror for your phone's notification tray.

But Android Wear is much more than just a mirror for your phone's notification tray. For the most part, it's a full version of the Android OS, which means the watch itself can run specially-designed apps. The normal way to get apps onto your wrist is by downloading them from Google Play on your phone, after which the Android Wear component is synced with the watch over Bluetooth.

The top-level screen shows you pending notifications from apps on your phone, as well as alerts from apps that live directly on the watch. And as on-screen keyboards on a tiny watch display aren't exactly ideal, most text entry tasks are handled through Google's voice recognition service.

Unlike Android phones and tablets, Google controls the entire software experience on all Android Wear devices, so you won't find any manufacturer customizations on your watch besides a handful of apps and watch faces. Software updates, too, come directly from Google, as they do on Nexus and Google Play edition devices. The hardware may differ, but the software is a singular "pure Google" experience.

More: Everything you need to know about Android Wear

Android Wear app

Android Wear initial setup

For what's still a very new category of device, Google has done a great job smoothing out the process of getting your Android Wear smartwatch up and running. After first powering on the watch you'll be directed to download the Android Wear app for your phone, and that app will in turn walk you through the Bluetooth pairing process. From there you'll be given a quick tour of the Android Wear app, the phone-based controller for your wearable that lets you manage apps and preferences. We've reset our devices a handful of times in the past few days, and we've yet to run into trouble getting them set up again from scratch.

The Android Wear app walks you through most of the setup process.

Once you're done, a brief tutorial on the watch will make sure you're acquainted with all the various gestures for waking the gadget, putting it back into low-power mode, and working your way through the different types of on-screen cards you'll come across.

While the pairing process itself is as easy as we could've hoped, it's worth noting that you can't have one watch paired to multiple phones as you can with the Pebble. (For reasons that become obvious when you consider that the watch apps are pulled from applications on the phone.) In fact, if you want to pair your watch with a different handset you'll need to perform a factory reset and go through the initial setup all over again. That might seem a drastic step, but the setup process itself is relatively painless, taking just a minute or two to complete.

LG G Watch + LG G3, Android Wear

If you plan on rocking multiple Android Wear devices with a single phone, however, you shouldn't run into any problems.

And of course it is Android Wear, and as such these watches only work with Android phones and tablets. At the recent Google I/O developer conference there was no indication of any plans to make these wearables work with iOS or any other platform. Given the way Android Wear works at the software level, we're not holding our breath for iOS support anytime soon.

More: How to set up your Android Wear watch

Gmail on Android Wear

 

Reader comments

Android Wear software review

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LOL, the pics don't match up as far as the time goes. Minor insignificant issue. I can not wait to hear more about the wear gear going forward. A comparison between the Neo2 and the Gear2 would be nice. I am on the edge and almost ready to jump into buying one.

Thanks, Keep up the great work.

while i understand that you can only have your watch paired to one phone, you should at least have the ability to pair it to a tablet as well, yeah yeah i know it's considered a mobile, but IMO it's not, though some have cellular radio's yes, but one phone and tablets would be idea, and to take that further even be able to pair to your chromebook, that way you can choose to open to lets say another device, instead on just one freaking phone and that's it, why shouldn't we be able to open to a chromebook to view something larger then our phones, granted most our phones are huge, lol.

I think this makes some sense, it'd even open up the market on AW for people that have Android tablets but not phones...

Android wear should be compatible with iOS. Google is a software company and cares about getting their product in the most hands possible. Leaving iOS out defeats this purpose. Google glass supports iOS and so should Android Wear. I have an iPhone 5s and a Nexus 5 and my Samsung gear live is useless when I'm using my iPhone. Even if it's only minimal support (ie Google Now but no extra app tie ins) that would be better than no support at all. Pebble is able to support Android and iOS, so should Android wear.

I am sure the iWatch will support Android, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry 10.

Ha.

To me - this is why Pebble is still a viable smartwatch choice along with battery life and screen visibility in all environments.

Pebble is good, but its same as dead because of Android wear
You see what everyone is missing is marketing and developer support. Even though Lg G watch or Gear live lasts only a day and that screen is unreadable in sunlight, these devices are SOON going to be sold along with a G3 and an S5 for FREE.
Pebble cant afford to do that, moreover both Samsung and LG has wider reach in world markets, Pebble cant compete with that.

When more users join , developers follow, that's what happened with original android and I am sure the same will happen with Wear.

The only option with pebble is to get acquired by Microsoft/Google or it will remain a Niche albeit good product.

I have the G Watch - the screen is unreadable in sunlight. I am sorry but that is a real problem. Overall - I like the simple design and it is very comfortable.

I am pretty sure there will eventually be an iOS app. But it's pretty clear that Android Wear is still in a fairly early development state, which is why Android is the only option today.

This may partially be on Apple, as well. They're under no obligation to make it easy for Android Wear to pull information from iOS apps, or to allow an AW app in the App Store. With their own wearable almost certainly coming, they may have a vested interest in not allowing AW to work well with iOS.

But if AW devices sell well and Google thinks there's money (and data mining) to be had from iOS users, they'll probably push for some kind of iOS support.

I am sure google would love to get as many AW devices into the hands of as many people worldwide as they possibly can.

Apple would love to limit their customer's choices to just one, the iWatch.

What would be most interesting, is if Apple tries to get some Android phone users to buy an iWatch by providing compatibility to Android. They would have little to lose (the software is written), and hundreds of millions Android users to possibly gain and sell a watch to. But they are apple and will sell it for some outrageous price anyway... so I (likely) won't be buying one even if it did happen.

I am not an apple fan, but so far I am not interested in any AW devices released yet, especially if unreadable outside. So I am hoping some hardware company (even Apple) gets something readable and with good battery life. There's no point to a smart watch you can't read. Someone has to get the hardware that is actually suited to the application before smart watches are ready for prime time.

But the AW software seems good enough, but not quite what it will soon be after the inevitable string of updates that'll roll out over the next year (thanks for the great review Alex). For right now, I'll wait and see what happens on the hardware front.

How quickly we forget that it took 8 months before MyGlass was available on iOS.

Patience - Google definitely wants MyWear on iOS, so I wouldn't be pointing the fingers in their direction.

There are many reasons why AW would have a hard time working on other operating systems.

First of all, the Android Wear apps are part of the Android apps. The apps are installed on the phone. This means that in reality only Android applications would work... unless Google duplicates the entire code that communicates between Wear and iOS.

And because of really big technical differences (iOS doesn't support intents, for example), I cannot see a iOS compatible AW device anytime soon, if ever.

I'm sure Apple also wouldn't allow it :)

The problem with this is that Android Wear most likely cannot tie into the notifications on iOS because of limitations within iOS itself. Android specifically implemented a "Notification Listener" service in 4.4 just for this sort of thing. Without something similar on iOS, displaying notifications from all apps on a device is going to be literally impossible on iOS.

I also have noticed that the my LG G Watch overestimates the steps i have taken compared to my fitbit zip clipped to my belt loop...by as much as 1500 steps compared over the last few days. This must be software and expect it to be fixed soon.

I think it's hard for a wrist-based wearable to tell the difference between the swinging motion of an arm during a step and other arm movements. My Fitbit recorded 30 steps while I was shoveling snacks into my fat face the other day.

Because humans tend to move their hands and arms around while they're sitting too. No way around that I'm afraid. Wrist just isn't a great place for step counting. Hip is probably the best.

Yeah I don't think it's so much software as an inherent weakness of wrist mounted trackers, I'm sure it can be tweaked to an extent but they probably prefer false positives over uncounted steps. I always found it odd that the trend of fitness trackers kept moving more and more towards wrist devices for this reason...

Familiarity/convenience over effectiveness seemed odd for something that's supposed to track your own effectiveness. It's hard to draw any over arching conclusions without some in depth comparisons though... Fitbit Zip clipped to your waist vs one of the Fitbit bands would be interesting, and/or AW on your wrist vs a phone with step tracking in your pocket.

You could use a GPS based app as a baseline to make it a more controlled test... Maybe something for an AC writer to tackle? My Fitbit Zip clipped to my pocket seems pretty accurate but I only wear it when I go run for exercise along pre planned routes so if it's of by a tenth of a mile it's no biggie.

I love my gear live but I'm sending it back. After a week of use, I'm getting bad battery life. On days I dont work which were three, the battery life is fine. However, on days that I work the watch is dead within six hours. I have tested this the last two days. I have brightness on lv. 1 and screen off. I don't know if its the type of work I do which kills it. I work at a retail warehouse(backroom) so I'm moving alot and listening to music. I can't think this use really kills the watch so fast. I love android wear as an OS and have no doubt it will get better. At this time however if it can't even get me though the work day then its not for me sadly. Going back to my pebble
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Personally Android Wear just isn't ready yet. Even the 360 will not save the beta like software inside. I'm gonna wait until Google actually makes this more purposeful to use other than gimmicks.

Or maybe Apple will show how it's done better to make Google keep up.

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I can't wait for Apple to release their device so that Google and Apple can start stealing features from each other like they do with phones. Then we can all bitch and moan about who stole what from whom, but it'll lead to way better devices for all of us.

True. Also, once people start using these, the dev's at places like XDA will start coming up with cool ideas. Those kinds of things often get ported into Android, eventually. The whole "swipe to dismiss" notifications is thanks to CyanogenMOD. Many thousands of minds are always better at coming up with ideas than a team of ~50.

That's really all these current crop of smart watches have, potential. You have to start somewhere. However, they are not fully baked, and will have to be a lot better before my dollars go here. They should start with battery life. The LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live have terrible battery life. As far as any upcoming iWatch, I really don't see it being any better, and perhaps worse.

I would love the LG G Watch. I have a smaller wrist and would, for comfort, find a band that would fit me better. also the ability to change bands is great as to change them to fit into my wardrobe.

Jerry replied to several comments saying the step counter was very accurate, and it wasn't just counting the motion of his arms. In this review you stated it is not very accurate. Are you guys undecided on this point?

No offense to Jerry, but isn't he in a wheelchair most of the time? Maybe his wife has been using it, I dunno..

I'm sorry if I offended you Jerry, just wondered... anyway, I really don't see how counting steps is an important feature of a watch. If it can be disabled, I'm gonna do just that on my Moto360 - just to save battery.

I think that was his point. he's in a wheelchair and it hasn't counted hardly any steps taken for him. I don't think the basic step counter built into it is all that useful, but using the APi to tie into more robust fitness apps would be.

Correct.

I'm not saying it is accurate (that's pretty difficult for me to determine) but my fitbit counts steps while I use my arms to propel my chair, and the Gear Live doesn't. I think there is more than arm-motion involved. Maybe they can tap the Hall sensor to get a more accurate position or something.

The biggest oversight seems to be lack of autobrightness. Do they really expect people to navigate 5 menus deep every time they go outside or come inside? Or do they expect people to just keep the watches blindingly bright indoors? Or do they expect people to just not use the watch outside? The worst part is, I don't think the Moto 360 will have an ambient light sensor either. I don't see anywhere they could fit it.

I'm not sure where this "5 menus deep"to adjust brightness is coming from. On the Gear Live, if you hold the side button for a second the very first item on the list is "Adjust brightness". Takes all of 1-2 seconds to change.

Ambient light sensors on phones are often lousy anyway, phone's always too bright in places like the theater and the sensor tends to turn off the screen when you're tapping it while on a call... All three of my HTC phones and my current LG had those weaknesses anyway.

I'd much rather have a button on the side that can directly control brightness, like instead of a minutes/hours hands on analog watch you just turn for brightness and/or [insert another clever idea here].

It has been the software that is lousy, and the polling rate more so than the sensor I think. In Android L the adaptive auto brightness is working really well.

Not holding my breath for that, but I'll be pleasantly surprised if I see a change on my Nexus 5. I'm really fine with it in most cases, it just never seems to go to the lowest dimming in absolute darkness but that may be by design.

Sad that you forgot the Sony Smartwatch series, the latest one is actually quite good, the previous Smartwatch was just ok as a proof of concept.

It would be nice if watch had a SIM card and somehow it was linked to your phone. This way you can use one or another. Go to gym, ski, bike, leave it at your desk or whatever and you dont need to bring your phone with you everywhere u go

It would be nice if LG would update their unlocked phones... so that some of us can use the watch.....

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