Android Wear: Nice to have, but not a must-have yet

Android wear weather

Long before Google announced its Android Wear smartwatch platform, I said that the first company to put Google Now on my wrist would get my money. We now have two companies offering such a device, with a third one on the way soon. So will I put my money where my mouth is?

Google I/O Samsung Gear Live

After using a loaner Samsung Galaxy Live smartwatch — I chose it over the LG G Watch — for the past three weeks, the answer is “most likely,” although I plan to wait and see what the attractive, round Moto 360 costs. The more important question, though, is: Should you buy one?

Given my desire for a smartwatch built around Google Now, you’d think I’d say yes. And if, like me, you rely heavily on Google Now, I would say yes. But for everyone else, I’m not sure there’s a compelling reason yet to plunk down $199 or more for an Android Wear smartwatch.

What is it and what does it do?

Android Wear itself is a platform that will run on any smartwatch hardware from Google’s partners. That means any company making an Android phone or tablet today could conceivably create an Android Wear watch. All are likely to have touchscreens and rely heavily on voice for input. Google won’t allow partners to create software skins, so the general interface of all Android Wear watches will be the same, meaning partners will have to compete based on their smartwatch design.

The Samsung Gear Live looks just like the company’s older Gear smartwatches: A little bulky, but they feel good on the wrist. It has a 1.63-inch 320×320 resolution AMOLED touchscreen display and a built-in heart-rate monitor. The overall design is why I opted to borrow a Gear Live over an LG G Watch: The latter has a lower-resolution display, is flatter on the bottom so it doesn’t fit me as well and can’t monitor heart rate. (In its defense, the G Watch has a larger battery than the Gear Live.) You can swap out the watch band with something more traditional if you’d like.

Android Wear time dim

These watches always show the time, as you’d expect. The Gear Live is often in a low-power mode that dims the display, but you can still see what time it is. The exception is in bright sunlight, where it’s pretty difficult to see the screen, particularly if you use a dark-style watch face. Android Wear watches come with various faces to choose from by long-pressing the display and we’ve already seen some interesting third-party options available for download, particularly if you’re a Star Trek fan.

How well does it work?

Using the Android Wear app on my Android phone, I was able to pair the watch with my handset over Bluetooth. I rarely had connection drops between the two, even when I walked away from the phone and around my house. You’ll need that strong connection because much of what Android Wear does relies heavily on the web. The watch also acts a second screen of sorts, displaying notifications from your Android phone.

That can be a bit annoying at first, since you’re getting lots of pings from two devices at the same time. Dig into the Android Wear app settings on your phone, however, and you can configure which apps you want to allow notifications from on your watch.

Android Wear settings

Gmail is a bit of a tricky beast because, let’s face it, not every email is important enough to appear on your wrist. My recommendation: Go into your Gmail settings and consider setting app notifications on a per-label basis. I use Priority Inbox with Android Wear, for example, to minimize this.

Dismissing a notification from the watch will immediately dismiss it from your phone as well, thanks to the Bluetooth connection. You can also control music playback on Android Wear, although the music is playing on your connected phone. Some notifications don’t provide much value at all; I actually disabled notifications for Google+ as I could only read comments on posts, but not respond or +1 them.

Lift the watch up — or tap its screen — and the watch is listening for your spoken action. This works just like Google voice search on many devices: You simply say “OK Google,” and speak a command. From here, you can ask for your calendar agenda, dictate a note, set a reminder, send texts or emails, see how many steps you’ve walked in a given day or set an alarm.

Android Wear options

You can also do a basic Google search. Results appear on the small watch face and while sometimes you can get what you need this way, you can also tap the watch to send the results to your connected phone. You can do the same for many other options as well.

Therein lies a key challenge for Android Wear: How do you put enough useful information on the small screen that you don’t need to pull out your smartphone? Some of the notifications work just fine on a watch because they have limited information: Think of your calendar events, for example. Notifications that have more text — incoming email is a perfect example — don’t fit, but you can tap the watch and scroll (and scroll) to see the full message.

Google Now is the core experience, but apps are vying for screen space

Overall — once I quieted the notifications by judiciously choosing which apps could show them — I found Android Wear to be pretty useful. Incoming calls and texts appear on the wrist, making it easy to accept or ignore them; calls still take place on your phone. In the case of Gmail, I could actually triage my messages faster with the watch than I can with my phone. At a glance, I can generally tell if the message is useful or not, and with one swipe, I can dismiss it for later reading, archive it on the spot or — if I keep it short — shout out a quick reply.

Information I rely on Google Now to surface appeared at the right place and time. The Gear Live would tell me when a package shipped, for example, or suggest that I leave early for an appointment due to traffic.

Android wear package notify

Those are super-helpful contextual nuggets that are just a glance away — handy on the wrist but, of course, also available on my phone. That’s the type of information that only Google can and does provide at the moment.

While Google Now is the front-and-center feature of Android Now, third-party apps are also available — about 30 at the time of this writing. These are mainly extensions of the Android apps you would typically install on your phone, although they can be a standalone watch app.

I use RunKeeper on my phone to track my running, for example, and I can now view my pace and distance in real-time on the Gear Live. The app is still primarily running on the phone but can output data on the watch.

runkeeper Android Wear

I also used Glympse on my wrist to share my location with my family. Again, the bulk of the lifting is done by Glympse on the phone; the watch provides me an easy interface to start sharing my location with certain contacts. Whipping through a recipe using Allthecooks was fun, as well: Swiping a completed instruction on either the phone or watch moves you to the next step on both devices and you can set timers within the app.

Convenience vs. necessity

What problem does Android Wear solve? Smartphones solved a big problem, by freeing users from always being tied to a physical location for computing activities. They solved what I’ll call the “20-mile issue”: you can be 20 miles away from your desktop or laptop and still be connected to the web, getting things done with a smartphone.

Android Wear solves the “2-foot problem,” if there is such a thing. Everything the watches do can be done with the smartphone that’s just two feet away from your wrist and in your pocket. For that reason, the devices right now are more of a convenience than a necessity.

I love the idea of glanceable notifications and I’m getting benefits from them. I suspect I’ll see even more utility as additional Android Wear apps arrive in the Play Store as well; the platform is just getting started.

I’m just not sure most mainstream consumers who own Android phones will gain enough to justify the current costs and general bulkiness from this first iteration of devices. I’m also expecting to see competing devices — namely from Apple and Microsoft — take a different approach that might resonate more with consumers: Their devices might focus more on health-tracking rather than apps that you can already run on a phone.

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