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Android Wear 2.0 review - hands on, features, release date, compatible watches

Seth Barton
19 May 2016
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Can the biggest update to Android Wear yet stimulate the smartwatch market?

Android Wear is Google's operating system for wearable devices, or more specifically it's Google's operating for smartwatches, as they're the only users of it to date. Now, Google has unveiled its biggest update yet in the form of Android Wear 2.0 - which it's hoping will kickstart the smartwatch into a second generation revival.

Smartwatches have a lot of potential but Android Wear devices haven't yet sold in huge numbers, it simply hasn't become the must-have smartphone accessory that many thought it might. And with Apple still not releasing sales figures for Apple Watch, such issues aren't just restricted to Google and its hardware partners.

Google's response is to add more features to the operating system and make it work better standalone - that is without its usual smartphone companion. We got a hands-on demonstration of the new OS.

How do I get Android Wear 2.0?

At present, there's only a developer version of the new operating system. You can download and install it from the Android Developer site but it will only work with the LG Watch Urbane or the Huawei Watch at present. Even then Google warns that it's only intended for developers at this stage and isn't stable enough for day-to-day use.

Android Wear has no set release date as of yet, but it will launch towards the end of this year. We don't know which devices will get an update, as that will be down to the manufacturers, but I'd expect most recent Android Wear devices to be updated.

What are the new features?

Watch faces and complications

The most immediate new feature is improved watch faces. Google has followed Apple in adding better support for complications on the watch face. A complication is a watch term for anything beyond the display of hours and minutes, got the date on your watch, or the time elsewhere in the world, those are complications.

Check out our top smartwatch picks here

Previously any additional data displayed on a watch face had to be coded in by the developer for that specific watch face and from the specific app that wanted to draw the data from (where possible). Now Google has added a new API that allows app developers to surface all kinds of data from their apps, which watch face designers can pull into their watch faces effortlessly.

It's now a lot easier to switch between watch faces as well, so you can move between them depending on your current activity - be that work, leisure or fitness. Simply swiping across the screen now changes the watch face to the next one.

Better messaging and text input

A smartwatch is a great way to receive messages, saving you reaching for your phone. However, it's not been that great to reply to messages from your wrist. Google has recognised this and is adding more text input options for smartwatches.

Smart Reply has been a part of the Gmail-alternative Inbox for some time. It provides three simple pre-written replies to incoming messages, which are generated using machine learning AI routines, both to be applicable to the situation and to match your own reply style. Bringing it to Android Wear makes perfect sense, as you can reply to simple queries with just a single tap.

If those don't suit then you can enter text in Android Wear 2.0 in two new ways. You can now write text onto the screen using your fingertip, with the display scrolling along as you move your finger to the right. You don't lift your finger, instead writing cursive (joined-up) characters. In our brief demo it works surprisingly well, but it might be tough to pull off while on the go.

There's also a tiny keyboard you can use, but worry not you don't need tiny fingers to use it. Instead, it uses a Swype-like system, so you just run your finger over the keys and it works out what you mean from your vague inputs. Again, it worked well, but you won't be doing it while walking along with any accuracy.

Standalone apps

The final big feature is Standalone Apps, which is designed to increase the usability of Android Wear when exercising or away from your phone for other reasons. It's specifically targeted at Android wear devices with their own network connections, which are pretty thin on the ground for the obvious reason that most people don't want to pay for another connection. It will also work over Wi-Fi of course, so some might find it handy when pottering about the house, I suppose.

With such a watch and Android Wear 2.0 you'll be able to make calls, get help from the new Google Assistant, see our piece on ALLO for how that will work and even stream music from services such as Spotify, directly to your watch. It sounds clever but I can't see many people using it in the near future.

More features

In addition to all that there's a new Google Fit API which lets separate fitness apps communicate common data with each other, such as activity minutes, steps, calories burned, calories consumed etc. These common data sets mean that apps can now talk easily, so your preferred calorie counter app can be offset by your preferred step-counting app, without the developers of those apps having to build in discrete compatibility. It should

Google has also done a lot of work on maximising battery life. This includes moving to a dark grey (among others) colour scheme that delivers far better battery performance without resorting to a rather grim black display.

Conclusion

There's some good new features here then, but nothing that would really make me want to return to the operating system for a second try - I'm a lapsed Moto 360 user. Ideally I want a smaller, lighter, simpler, plastic smartwatch, something like the Swatch of smartwatches and not more features or more ways to try and make me interact with a tiny screen.

Still, I'll be strapping Android Wear 2.0 on my wrists as soon as I can lay my hands on an appropriate device and will update this article with my in-use impressions other the next few months.

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