Android Wear 1.4 review: Marshmallow brings more features with less polish

If the purpose of Android Wear is to offload some of the things we reflexively check our phones for every day to the wrist, this last year is evidence enough that Google has succeeded. When used correctly, these wrist computers become stylish extensions of your phone that absolutely get you to check your phone less every day. It's a platform that has seen slow and steady growth thanks to over a dozen quality hardware offerings in various shapes and sizes, but it's clear Google isn't going to stop with what we have seen so far.

The next step is to make Android Wear something that is more than a notification dumpster at the end of your arm, and more of an interactive experience that complements the Android interface. Long term, it's clear the goal is to offer Android Wear as something you can use without a phone at all, but not to a point where you're actually replacing your phone with a watch.

This is our Android Wear 1.4 review.

Android Wear 1.4

About this review

We're writing this review after several weeks of using Android Wear 1.4 (Build MEC23G) on a Moto 360 (2015) paired to the Samsung Galaxy S7. Android Wear 1.4 is available on 7 watches from multiple manufacturers at the time of this writing, with further updates expected over the next couple of months. While this review has been primarily written from the perspective of a round watch, square watches with Android 1.4 have been used as well.

Read More: These are the best Android Wear smartwatches

Huawei Watch

Phantom buzzing that never ends

Android Wear Interface

Visually, little has changed in the jump from Android Wear 1.3 to Android Wear 1.4. Google has settled on what they feel is best for the wrist, and the upgrade to Android 6.0 under the hood was more about making that interface work a little better. What has changed is the number of options you have when navigating that interface. Previously, Android Wear was designed to be a touch or voice interface. You could swipe around through the entire interface, or you could speak and jump to whatever part of the interface you wanted. Voice works great if you're in a quiet space and want to get somewhere quickly, but doesn't work well when you're out and about. Touch works great if you have a hand free, but because you're wearing the watch on your wrist you are effectively using two hands to navigate the entire interface. Google solved this by extending gestures, which now allow you to navigate the entire interface.

Android Wear 1.4 Gesture

Google initially used gestures to allow users to jump back and forth between notifications on the watch, but now there are gestures for travelling left and right in the interface, as well as a select function when you don't have a finger free to tap. This means you can more easily launch an app with an arm full, or if you're in a hurry to get somewhere. What you won't be with these gestures is discrete. You can quickly shift your arm to access a single notification or to launch an app, but you're unlikely to use this to navigate all the way into the setting menu for anything. It's a fantastic addition to the overall experience once you adapt to the gestures so you aren't wildly swinging your arm around to select something.

For some watches, the interface has grown to include a dialer and the ability to make and receive calls through the watch. While the Moto 360 (2015) lacks the speaker to make this work, our own Jerry Hildenbrand had this to say from his experience with the Huawei Watch:

You're now able to do things like enable voice feedback in the settings menu and have what you're seeing and doing read back to you, or play music from Google Play Music directly through the watch speaker. But what has people the most excited is the ability to make and receive phone calls using the speaker and mic on your watch.When you first use the phone app on the watch, you're asked for permission to route headset audio through your watch as well as allow access to contacts. After that, you can use the phone app (or a voice command like "call mom") to make a phone call. Don't expect the same call quality you would get from a premium Bluetooth headset, but in general it works really well. Of course you can also receive calls, and you can choose to answer directly through the watch or decline and send a message.Remember, though, unless your watch has its own LTE SIM card you'll need to be in range of your paired phone to talk to your people.

Android Wear 1.4 mostly feels like Google is extending out from what they already know works in order to see what else watches can be used for. Adding gestures and speakers feel almost like an experiment to see if people want to use these things moving forward. The only watch we've seen built around this experience so far was pulled from the shelves days after it was launched due to a manufacturing defect (and is just now returning to stores after a 4-month delay). We'll no doubt see more Android Wear watches with LTE onboard later this year, but for right now it's unclear how useful the ability to speak to your wrist is going to be for a lot of users.

Android Wear Permissions

Adding steps and tightening screws

Android Wear interactions

The early days of Android Wear felt a great deal like Google's goal was to have everything handled by the app on your phone. Native apps on your wrist are never going to be as capable as the apps on your phone, and so it made sense to see this experience where Android Wear was almost another display for your phone.

With Android Wear 1.3 we saw that shift a little, allowing Google Maps to run as a full app on your wrist in order to better function as a mechanism for turn-by-turn directions. We've seen a couple of other apps make their way to the wrist, in order to take advantage of the Android Wear always-on display mode. If your to-do list is on your wrist even when the screen is dim, the watch consumes less battery power and you can glance when you need it. This balanced approach makes sense as long as you're not trying to play games on your phone, and generally extends the functionality of the watch.

Android Wear 1.4 is based on Android 6.0, and that means the same permission system that exists on Android now exists on your watch. Instead of making it so permissions were managed through the Android Wear app on your phone, permissions are managed on the watch directly. Apps that you have installed on your phone with an Android Wear component will sync to your wrist when connected to the Android Wear app, but in order to use that app on your wrist you need to approve the watch-specific permissions. It's a nice safety measure that keeps apps from doing things like accessing the microphone on your watch when you don't want it to, and that's important. This does mean the initial setup for some of these apps takes a lot longer than they would have if the app wasn't installed directly on the watch.

One big example is the Amazon shipping app, which has an instruction set like this:

  • Tap the app on your watch
  • Tap the Permission request pop-up
  • Tap the Accept option in the Permission request
  • Wake your phone so the app can confirm the new Permissions
  • Swipe away the notification telling you about the features you just activated
  • Use the app

Granted, after this you never have to do any of this every again, but it's a lot to ask a user to do for an app on their watch. This is an extreme case, but it's also an app that a ton of people have on their phones. This process could use a little streamlining, especially as more app developers start to consider moving their app to the wrist. On the other hand, it makes malicious use significantly more complicated.

Android Wear app

With everything happening on the wrist you may find yourself asking what the Android Wear app is mostly used for now, and the answer is basically shortcuts. While the Android Wear app is still fantastic at managing the initial setup process for every Android Wear watch, and you can quickly choose which watch face you want to use from the app, the only other big thing you do with the app now is manage shortcuts. We have lots of apps that do lots of things on our phones, and the ability to choose which one you launch when asking your phone to perform a specific task is important. If you don't want to use Google Maps for navigation, or the default clock app for managing alarms, this is where you set up different defaults for those behaviors. The Android Wear app gives you the entire list of actions, and you assign as needed.

If Android Wear really is preparing to create an environment where the watch and phone don't need to be connected all the time, these are the steps necessary to make that happen. It's a little less convenient right now for the folks who never plan to separate the two, but as the platform grows into the next year these user experience decisions will start to make a lot more sense.

Android Wear

Not better, but not worse

Android Wear The bottom line

Where the last big update to Android Wear was all about polishing what Google had already built, Android Wear 1.4 is building for what happens next. Some of it feels a little unfinished right now, and that's something Google should have handled a little differently, but the core of this experience is better than ever. When paired with your watch of choice, it's a great way to extend Android and make it more convenient to interact with the things happening on your phone.

The biggest question is whether Android Wear is really ready to be a standalone platform with an LTE-enabled watch, and it'll be a while before we have a real answer to that question.

Russell is a Contributing Editor at Android Central. He's a former server admin who has been using Android since the HTC G1, and quite literally wrote the book on Android tablets. You can usually find him chasing the next tech trend, much to the pain of his wallet. Find him on Facebook and Twitter

31 Comments
  • The biggest improvements in this upgrade to software are: 1) it will now retry the message you just spoke into the watch instead of saying "can't reach google". This includes when new messages come in while you're responding to a previous message. Prior to 1.4, this message would just get lost into the ether forever, never to return and you have to start over. 2) Subjective as I use them a lot: Upcoming Alarms now have a Notification Card. For me, I use a lot of alarms (work, kids activities, kitchen, etc.). Having this easy visual reminder is better than digging through 3 levels of menus to get to the upcoming alarms. Sure the gestures are nice as well, but the above, especially #1, are true fixes to frustrations.
  • Since getting 1.4 on my ZW2, my car doesnt connect to "call audio" anymore unless I disable call audio for the watch or toggle airplane mode from the watch after connecting to "car multi-media" . Huge fail on Google's end. there needs to be Bluetooth priority option on the phones settings.
  • +1000000000
    I sold my zw1 on ebay and picked up a ZW2, mainly for the speaker experience. There are definitely times when having the speakerphone would be great. Not all the time certainly, but there are times when my hands are full (I have a very physical job) and I would love to be able to answer a call on my watch... but the entire usability of the speakerphone on the watch is so crippled by the software, that sadly, by the end of the first day, I had deactivated that feature. Sure it plays music still, but thats about it. Total fail on the part of Google. What we need is a push button option to transfer the call to the phone or watch or headset/car. I tried building something in tasker, but I'm not that great at it, and it only sort of worked.
  • Indeed...I hope someone from Google is reading this...this is a major problem with the speakerphone on the Huawei watch that I have..it completely takes over your bluetooth headset connection and does not let anything else answer phone calls. The Gear S2 does not work like that....you can have your phone paired to any bluetooth headset while always having the option of making or receiving calls on the watch at any time... Google needs to fix the annoying problem that really makes this speakerphone feature unusable.
  • I like my original 360 and still wear it daily, but I'm losing interest in smartwatches fast. I mean I wouldn't really want to go back to not having one, but they just don't seem that exciting to me anymore and I have had absolutely zero desire to spend hundreds of dollars on a newer Android Wear watch, which is surprising because I upgrade my phone multiple times per year.
  • I pretty much feel the exact same way. I have an original 360 too and initially I was excited for the new Moto 360s, and also to see what the competition would be offering in response. Now I'm just bored with the whole thing. Occasionally when I am at the store I will still pick up a new 360 and play with it for a little bit, and while they are nice, honestly the differences are just too small to justify outlaying so much money to replace my current 360. To put it in perspective I recently bought a refurbished Microsoft Surface Pro 2 for what one of these watches cost. When you step back and compare what you are getting for the money it is hard to make an argument to buy another one. I think the Original 360 nailed the sweet spot in price, but now almost all smart watches have just become too expensive to be compelling anymore. I think once the price of the current generation of watches comes down or once they start adding new useful features (NFC payments would be nice!) excitement will start to build again. Because honestly right now it is hard to get excited about spending money for a new watch when the original was initially less expensive, currently costs considerably less, and still does everything the new ones do, albeit just ever so slightly slower.
  • Get yourself a Pebble. You won't regret it.
  • As old and inefficient as the processor supposedly is in the original 360, I still don't think I'd be getting that much more in terms of user experience and functionality if I upgraded to a newer model. I have no problem getting through a day on a charge (can get two with ambient off), voice recognition is IMO incredible even if it sometimes takes a bit to execute a command/query. It is actually one of the few devices I have owned that has actually gotten significantly better with time/updates - for what I paid I have no complaints. I occasionally take a gander if I am at Best Buy, and I think that the newer 360 and the Huawei watch certainly look better than my little hockey puck, but not so much better that I want to shell out $300 - 400. Need something much more compelling to upgrade.
  • Wow, that moto 360 is so ugly! Posted via the Android Central App
  • Oh yeah? Well, you're... you're ugly! lol
  • Its this level of intelligence that brings mt back over and over to these comments. An opinion of the style of the device is a valid comment, an opinion on the looks of the commentor isn't. I happen to agree, the Moto line is too thick, and looks weird. To me at least.
  • I totally agree with you, it's comments like "this thing sucks" or "that's a ****** product" makes me kinda angry, people can't validate their claims? but you never know, he might just be some kid. I mean saying the Moto 360 is so ugly after being on the market for a year and a half, what's the point in making such comments? yeeeesh!
  • While I agree that comments on the looks of other commenters do not add to the conversation, I'd like to posit an opinion of my own. Perhaps, just maybe, kennyb123 was attempting to make what some people would refer to as a "joke". That was how it struck me.
  • With today's rapid release cycles, I daresay "polish" is a thing of the past. Some things will always be broken or not work well, you just hope they aren't critical features or things that break your use cases.
  • can you now filter notifications on content?
    like for example, filter out whatsapp group chats?
    or even better, filter out whatsapp group chats based on the group name?
  • Yes, you can. I'm pretty sure you could in previous versions as well. Look in settings from the Android Wear app on your phone.
  • I gave up on Android wear Posted from my Nexus 6/Nexus 7 2013/Surface Pro 3
  • Well, thatguy97 Android Wear hasn't given up on you. It believes in you.
  • Haha Posted from my Nexus 6/Nexus 7 2013/Surface Pro 3
  • I love being able to ride my bike and still have access to my notifications/directions/calls/texts....its so convenient. I used to have to pull over and grab the phone out of my backpack just to see if the ole Mrs. wanted to end my joy ride.
  • I love my 360 2nd Gen. That is all. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Why is the Restart button gone on my Zenwatch? Posted via the Android Central App
  • Had the same problem. Disable Bluetooth and unpaired from Zenwatch.. and phone..Zenwatch Will automatically restart and factory reset
  • Everything is cool except one thing in my no to 360 1st gen. It messed up my theater mode while charging. Always lit up now.. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Same here Gunny. No restart option. Also just updated to marshmallow on my lg g3 and it didn't like the watch. Took me about an hour and lots of pairing to finally get it to work. Works fine now. I also have the same issue with the call audio on the watch and car. Posted via the Android Central App
  • The evolutionary step is obvious: independence from the device. I have had a Samsung Gear S for over a year and a half and it is a pleasure because I do not have to think about my phone. Because of the remote connection and call forwarding features, I can walk out of the house without worrying about whether I have my phone. I get notifications for all the apps I choose, I can respond to messages and email as if from my phone. I can initiate messages as if from my phone (if it allowed me to initiate Gmail messages without having to use the Samsung email app, I would use it to initiate email, too). I can surf the web with the Opera browser when needed (not ideal with a 2"screen, but it works surprisingly well). I even have a standalone navigation app that uses Google Maps. And though it will only support Milk Music, which is actually pretty good, I can stream music from it with the superior aptx audio codec to my BT headset or car stereo. As a first gen standalone device, it has been outstanding. The Gear S2 3g looks promising, but I am a bit concerned about the screen being too small. But I am going to check it because it can do all of the above and more. Samsung did such a horrible job of marketing and supporting the Gear S with updates that they may have lost a market they could have owned years before Apple woke up to realize its customers don't need a pretty, expensive, limited functionality Watch.
  • I'm waiting for the Lg Urbane LTE version. It's not that I want to make phone calls from my wrist, but would like to stream music to my headphones. I can also see using the speaker to pay back a song when discussing music so I don't have to hum a few bars. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I stopped wearing Moto 360 as soon as I got Nexus 6P. Big reason is because BT connection got too unreliable. Second reason is because now I have FP scanner and it's so easy to unlock.
    I'm afraid this segment is gonna die a slow death unless Google adds some "must have" features.... Which I can't think of.
  • Hate that when watch is paired with phone via bluetooth I have to use watch to answer the phone. Sorry, the watch is not the same as bluetooth headset. Wish there was a way that I could pair the watch and answer with either depending on which I choose when the phone rings. Posted via the Android Central App
  • How could they remove the restart option? Are these people stupid? In all honesty, I have not had any weird battery issues with my watch since the early days, but when I did, a quick restart would usually sort it out. Not now! If I turn my watch off, I have to wait till I get home and drop it in it's cradle to power it up again. Also, I'm not that good at the new gestures. I can't say that this particular update impressed me. I sort of feel like it was running a bit smoother prior to the update, But, that could be all in my head....
  • I love my moto 360 2nd gen. I have it paired with the awesome Nexus 6p. It does exactly what I want like text with my wife when i cant have my phone out. I also use it for bodybuilding. No complaints here from me. Posted via the Android Central App on my Nexus 6P