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Android Wear review - We test Google's smartwatch OS

Seth Barton
8 Oct 2014
Our Rating 

Android Wear lacks flexibility but this first iteration handles the basics pretty well

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Specifications

Android Wear is Google's effort to bring its popular mobile operating system to smart devices, starting with smartwatches, such as the Moto 360. Android Wear doesn't do much on its own, instead relying on a Bluetooth connection to an Android smartphone running the Android Wear app. This requires Android 4.3 or newer.

Android Wear largely works off the back of the Google Now system, the personal assistant system built into Android. Google Now creates 'cards' tailored specifically for you, one might be for an upcoming event in your diary, a regularly taken journey or news from a site you visit. Android Wear takes these cards and sends them to your wrist, along with more typical notifications (such as email and messages) and more.

^ Google's suggestions from Android Now will now appear on your wrist

It's an extension of your Android phone, and although this first iteration isn't packed with features, what it does do, it does pretty well. So let's have a look at its various features in more detail.

ANDROID WEAR INTERFACE

Android Wear devices, by which at present we mean smartwatches, are controlled primarily with taps and swipes on a touchscreen, along with button presses on some models. The screens are usually turned off, and activated either by a tap or by pressing a button, some have buttons below their screens, while others use crown-styled buttons on the side. Most are also activated by twisting your wrist toward you.

Once activated, the time is usually displayed along with the most recent card, which typically sits below the time. The card can be tapped to bring it up full screen, or you can swipe up and down to flick through all the currently available cards. Once you've selected the card you want, inputs are then made by swiping. Swiping from left-to-right dismisses the card, though we'd quite like a quick onscreen option to undo this, as we often swipe away cards we actually wanted. Swiping from right-to-left provides various options for interacting with that card.

For example if you're listening to a music, the card shows the track name and provides a simple pause/play button, swiping right shows screens letting you skip to the next or previous track. However, there's not always a way to initiate actions from the watch, especially if you don't use voice control, and at present there's no way to start music playback from the watch. There are apps available, such as Music Boss for Wear, that can do this but it should be built-in really.

^ You can play/pause, and skip tracks from your watch, but not start playback

Another bugbear for us is that you can only see your appointments for today, you can scroll through those cards, but it doesn't then load in tomorrow's after that so you can check what you're up to the next day.

Pressing and holding down on the screen activates the settings menu, though sometimes you'll need to hold down the button to access this. Here you can adjust the screen brightness, turn on Aeroplane mode, change the watch face, restart and power off the device.

^ The choice of watch faces differs depending on your device

A quick tap on the watch face activates the voice control. From here you can speak to your device to activate a wide range of commands, the same commands that work when using voice control on your Android smartphone. So you can ask: When's my next appointment? Navigate to Lewisham, What time is it in Tokyo? etc.

^ Voice control is core to Android Wear, if you ever want to enter text for a search or reply to a message

Swipe down from the voice control screen and you get a menu of handy tools. Some of these are prompts for the voice control, such as Take a Note, or Send a Text. While others bring up your agenda for today, start a stopwatch, or check your heart rate (if supported by your hardware).

At the very bottom, and too hidden away in our minds, is the Start command that lets you launch apps. At present there's no a huge amount of apps to launch, but in future some way of pinning some of these to the watch face would be useful. For the time being you can add this kind of shortcut functionality using Wear Mini Launcher or by setting up shortcuts using Wear support in IF-This-Then-That (IFTTT) 

Swiping and tapping on the tiny screen with practically no prompts does take a bit of getting use to. Generally you only have cards to interact with when your phone pushes them to the device, so it takes a while to get used to how each one works. That said you'll get used to it after two-to-three days, though it might take a bit longer to get the most out of it.

ANDROID WEAR NOTIFICATIONS

What most of us want from our smartwatch is notifications, providing enough information on your wrist to save you constantly digging out your phone. Android Wear certainly provides that, as if your phone has a notification for it then you can pretty much also get an alert (if you want) on your Android Wear device.

Gmail, email, text messages and phone calls all appear on your watch. With email you can scroll down to read the message, or just get the jist of it, and with both emails and texts you can fire off a quick reply via the watch using voice recognition. Even on a busy London street we managed to send a number of short text replies without any errors.

^ Notification on watch screen, tap to see full message, swipe to see options to interact

Calls appear on your watch, with either vibration, ringing or both. Plus you can decide if you want both phone and watch or just the watch to notify you. You can reject calls from the watch, with Caller ID, without needing to fish out your phones, or answer them. If you're answering them then a Bluetooth headset or headphones with microphone will be needed, or else you'll just have to get your phone out anyway.

^ Here's a notification from the Guardian news app, with headline and image in background, you can tap to see the whole headline, and share it from the watch, but at present you can't read the story itself

You also get reminders for appointments, so there's never an excuse to miss that meeting again. Most notifications, such as tweets, gmails and call all appear with the appropriate picture in the background, so you can see who's calling, rather than having to read it.

ANDROID WEAR - WHAT ELSE CAN IT DO?

Navigation is Android Wear's best trick, with directions pushed from your smartphone, your watch can guide you through the route using arrows and distances. You can either using the voice control to setup a destination and mode of transport, or set up teh route on your phone and then put it away as you travel.

The Google Camera app works with Android Wear, providing a big remote shutter on the screen. This way you can line up a shot, get in it your self and then fire the camera from your watch (with a small delay so you're not always grasping your watch in every picture). You almost instantly get a thumbnail of the shot sent to your watch, so you know if you need to have another go.

^ Here we've used the Google Camera app, with shutter control via Android Wear, to take a photo of the Moto 360, which is then shown on the Moto 360

Some Wear devices can measure your steps and your heart rate, so you can keep an eye on your activity levels. To date no device has its own GPS, so you'll still need to carry your phone if going for a run, but with GPS support being implemented soon, we expect to see more fitness-oriented devices in the near future.

There's also a range of apps on the Play Store that you can install on your phone and smartwatch, browse a selection of the current Android Wear apps.

ANDROID WEAR CONCLUSION

It's early days for Android Wear, but despite this it manages to do the basics rather well, mainly by keeping things very simple. The hardware is bound to improve, but Google must also improve the operating system too. The key will be to add flexibility in how you interact with Wear, while keeping that interface simple and clean.

It's not feature-packed admittedly, but there's still plenty to get your head around and it does the basics well. As with early versions of Android itself, many functions can be bolted on through apps, though with time the best of these are bound to be integrated as options into the core operating system.

If you're looking to buy a smartwatch then Android Wear shouldn't put you off any compatible model. That said, at present there isn't much competition, and you shouldn't expect too much of it.

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