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Wear OS has gotten so much wrong, but it's still my favorite for one reason

Notifications on WearOS
Notifications on WearOS (Image credit: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

Wear OS watches have long lagged behind Apple Watches and Samsung's Tizen-based watches, with even the best Android smartwatches like the Fossil Gen 5 being best described as "quirky" or "hobbled" by the software. I've been a Wear OS user since the early Android Wear days — I still miss the fat tire on my original Moto 360 — but even I can't ignore how much smoother things are on my Samsung Galaxy Watch Active.

Last week, Android Developers made a blog post that we've seen time and time again: there's another big update on the horizon for Wear OS and it's all about making things smoother and easier for users. And I'd love to see if they've actually managed to do it this time, because I'd ditch my Galaxy Watch Active in a heartbeat for one reason and one reason only: notifications are the number one reason I have a smartwatch, and no one does on-wrist notifications better than WearOS.

There's a lot to love on my Watch Active, but every single notification needing its own page to the left of the watch face — and then needing at least one extra touch to respond to it — is infuriating, especially if you come out of a multi-hour meeting to over a dozen notifications. Quick Reply and action items on these notifications are also a travesty next to Wear OS — I mean, seriously, even responding to daily reminders takes a swipe to that page, a tap to expand, and then tap on Done.

Source: Chris Wedel / Android Central

Smartwatches have tried to pass themselves off as little miracle accessories: doing everything you need and doing it all without looking like a Ben 10 toy or having the battery life of a potato. They'll track your workouts and how many steps you took took today, they'll help keep you connected while letting you keep your phone in your purse while you're trying to get work done, and they'll do it all with a smile!

Galaxy Watch Active 2

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Problem is, no smart watch can nail every category perfectly: Galaxy Watches have a zippier interface and better design, but notifications are a pain and you can't use any Google services on it, which is a shame because Google Keep shopping lists on a Galaxy Watch would make grocery runs a breeze. Wear OS watches nail notifications and have better app selection, but most apps are underpowered and fitness accuracy isn't always the best. Fitbit watches nails fitness and feel (most of the time), but Fitbit smartwatches don't have a great app selection and handle notifications almost as badly as Samsung.

Apple Watches are accurate, responsive, and stylish, but you can't use one to its full extent without an iPhone, so they're kinda a moot point for most people who would be reading my rantings on this website. Apple Watches also have really small watch face designs compared to Samsung and Wear OS, so again, no one's perfect.

Wear OS notifications

Source: Android Central Notification evolution to Wear OS 2.0 (left) from Android Wear (right) (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

But what Wear OS nails are notifications, which are far and away the most important category to me. I need my wrist to buzz and snap me out of my headspace when I'm busy banging away at an article, and more importantly, I need to be able to quickly assess the notification, deal with it, and then get back to work without getting lost in my apps for an hour.

All notifications are stacked neatly in one scrolling list, it's easy to swipe away a notification or tap to expand, and both Quick Reply and voice dictation are better on Wear OS than Galaxy. It's also easier to scroll past a mountain of notifications and dismiss them all if I get flooded by redundant notifications that I've already responded to on my laptop.

Source: Android Central and OPPO

Some of the most iconic watches of the last decade have been Wear OS-based, from the OG Moto 360 to the original Huawei Watch, and there are dozens of Wear OS watches out there today, though none are standing out in good ways apart from another Apple Watch imitator in the Oppo Watch.

And while it's easy to rail at manufacturers who keep shipping watches on older hardware — and anyone buying a Wear OS watch with less than 1GB of RAM is just setting themselves up for frustration — even with most powerful hardware, Wear OS has several hangups that need addressing.

TicWatch E2

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

The biggest two are the noticeable lag whenever you're opening apps, and app discovery. The first will hopefully be solved with the Fall update, as it's one of the first improvements listed in the post, but app discovery is something that is actually worse now than it was five years ago. Finding apps through the Play Store on your wrist is like pulling teeth, and browsing them from your phone doesn't do much to show you apps beyond the top rankers and trenders.

Of course, it's a bit of a vicious circle here. There aren't that many new Wear OS apps to find because there hasn't been much incentive to design apps for a stagnant Wear OS, and without a good selection of apps, Wear OS loses its edge over Galaxy Watches and Fitbit watches. Android Developers says they're bringing improvements to Wear OS to help developers design better watch apps, but we'll see when we get there. It'd be nice if Google started with its own apps, though. YouTube Music sorely needs a Wear OS app now that Google Play Music is dying next month.

Watch Active Galaxys Edge Notification Better Contrast

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

In the meantime, though, I'm standing here with my Galaxy Watch Active feeling a bit like Charlie Brown, trying to hype myself into believing Google won't yank the football away and leave me flat on my back. Wear OS watches have largely been relegated to the bargain bin or overpriced designer atrocities; they're a joke, but they could well and truly be good if Google could just get its act together.

Best Android Watches in 2020

Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.

13 Comments
  • Ara,
    I agree with everything you say about the active watch. (I never used WearOS as I was a former pebble user). Yesterday at Knoebels Amusement Park in PA, I had the active, my son had an apple watch and his friend and my wife had fitbits. All our step counts were different but I realized the problem with Tizen is getting to things. Even to start an exercise, swipe a few screens to where you have the widget and then start. By the time I tried gathering info, my son had it completed on the apple watch. Getting to the weather on the watch is such a chore that I finally gave in and bought a couple of weather watchfaces just to have it on my "homescreen". Hopefully google takes the good from fitbit and starts to compete more with apple and samsung. Heck even Garmin is ahead IMHO. BTW until two days ago I had the same watchface as you. Look up the chalkboard watchface. Has a lot of info in one easy to read screen.
  • I'm using the WADD Secundus on my Watch Active these days, because who doesn't need a little Star Trek in their lives?
  • We drive the same car and now have the same watch. #weird lol. Fair point about Star Trek.
  • The Apple Watch is NOT stylish. Its dopey and thats from Apple device users themselves. Wear OS has the luxury of having designer brands releasing watches that look amazing. Find a watch that looks as good as the Movado Connect 2 or Skagen Falster. If Google would put more work in and Qualcomm would release a chipset that isn't complete junk (4100 fingers crossed) it would be a much different conversation. Wear OS doesn't get nearly as much credit for what it does right and Apple gets way too much credit for some very trivial things.
  • The Apple Watch is the best along with being the most stylish and saying it's dopey is more made up BS from salty Fandroids like yourself to make yourself feel better. Face the reality and accept that Apple has won the smartwatch wars. And the Author of this article knows it too but she has to defend the failing Wear OS platform bwhahahahahahahahaha.
  • Lol, no. The Apple watch is hideous and no one would wear a similarly designed watch if it was a regular watch. The product has strengths, for sure, but it's design isn't on that list. The minute they launch a decent looking Apple watch it'll be exactly the same as the time they launched an iPhone with an appropriate sized screen: it'll outsell the square version 10 to 1 and we'll just pretend the square one never existed. It's ok to like the Apple watch, but it's in spite of the design, not because of it.
  • I like that the Apple is square because it provides more screen real estate and I like the fact that it doesn’t look like a regular watch, that’s the point of the Apple Watch, it’s recognisable unlike the bland, boring and common Wear OS trash, the Apple Watch is the only smart watch that I’d be proud to show off and the most premium. No amount of articles defending the Apple Watch’s inferior competition. Even Google isn’t interested in competing with the Apple Watch because it knows it can’t.
  • Had a Skagen. Looks good, runs like crap. This is the same for all android wear watches.
  • Finally someone says it! Why do you need your watch to do crap your phone already does, I don't get it. The ONLY reason I have a smart watch is so I don't have to pull my phone out ever time I get a message or notification. It's all I want it for, and it works great on Android Wear. And to be honest, it's 90% of all anyone with an iwatch does too......and their square watch looks stupid while my Fossil Gen 5 looks like a watch! ;-)
  • i'm still using sony smart watch 3 lol still does wat i need it to after all these yrs
  • I enjoy my galaxy watch, and it looks great,but the Apple watch has more utility because it is a rectangle.... You can actually read your text messages... While on the Samsung galaxy watch texts are only half readable because of the round watch face. I can only get a rough idea of who sent a text and partial reading.... Then go to my phone from the Galaxy watch. The only killer feature I can't live without is turn by turn navigation on my each while driving. I don't want to look down at my phone, and I drive an older vehicle with no in dash display and navigation.
  • This is spot on!
    All the reviews of smart watches never address this issue. Notifications on galaxy watches are dire, they're so clunky! I've got an original galaxy watch and it infuriates me all the time that I have to press 3/4 taps to simply dismiss a notification. How has this not been resolved yet! Unfortunately I've tried 2 wear OS devices and I loved the notification process, but their shockingly bad standalone GPS on both made them not fit for purpose! So I'm stuck with Samsungs mess haha
  • You can click on and respond to 11 notification on Tizen or AW before you can quick reply to anything on Wear OS. It's simply the most hobbled smartwatch on the planet. Without a dedicated SOC, it will always lag the competition.