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.
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.
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.
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.