Android Wear review: not as smart as it needs to be
I’m more connected than ever before, and I have the smartwatch to thank for it.
To those who think we’re already too deeply mired in the muck of always-on communications, that might not sound appetizing – but smartwatches don’t exist merely to bring us more connectivity; the good ones connect us to the world in a smarter way. Skeptics of the new category focus mainly on its redundancy, which is a fair point (why wear a smartwatch when I can just pull my phone out instead?). But once you’ve worn one for a while, you realize just how useful it can be to have notifications and simple controls right on your wrist when you’re, say, washing the dishes, or cooking, or even kayaking with your phone buried in a waterproof bag. The wrist might not be the best place for a fully self-contained smartphone, but it’s the perfect spot for a connected accessory.
The above are conveniences we’ve come to know very well with the advent of the Pebble line and the Samsung Gear family, and now Google’s coming for a piece of the action with its own smartwatch platform, announced a few weeks ago at Google I/O. Android Wear incorporates all the notification features of previous wearables and takes the concept a step further, with deep Google Now integration and a voice-driven interface lending the two new watches an air of futuristic awareness. The nascent platform has caused quite the buzz in the tech community and there’s plenty to like about the sleek new hardware, but did Google take the software out of the oven a little too early? The answer below, in Pocketnow’s Android Wear review!
Hardware: LG G Watch
Half of Android Wear’s launch hardware comes from Google’s longtime partner LG. The company behind the minimal Nexus 4 and Nexus 5 smartphones brings a similarly slim aesthetic to its first Android wearable, crafting the G Watch from a combination of glossy and matte plastics forged into a plain-Jane rounded square. But while LG’s flagship offerings resound with aesthetic appeal, and even its Nexus devices manage to squeeze in a modicum of style, the G Watch comes across as little more than reference hardware.
That’s an impression bolstered by the G Watch’s display. At 1.65 inches, the 280×280 IPS LCD delivers an acceptable pixel density of 240ppi, but the in-person experience defies the numbers: while the G Watch is capable of rendering vibrant colors, it suffers from milky blacks and a jagged pixel matrix that seems lower-resolution than it really is. Combine that with a poor side-by-side showing against Samsung’s AMOLED offering, and the G Watch emerges as the clear loser in the battle of the Android Wear smartwatch displays.
Under the hood, things are much more impressive: a Snapdragon 400 (APQ8026) backed up by 512MB of RAM and 4GB of storage gives the G Watch almost as much power as an entry-level smartphone, with connectivity and motion detection provided by Bluetooth 4.0 LE and a 9-axis Gyro/Accelerometer/Magnetometer sensor package, all ensconced in a moisture- and dust-resistant casing certified to IP67 so you can shower and swim with no worries of watery watch death.
On the power front, the G Watch is at once disappointing and superior. On the frowny side, its battery is larger than Samsung’s but still puny at 400 mAh, given all the Android Wear platform asks of it. You’ll be charging the G Watch every night (or every other night at best), but that’s where the better news comes in: LG’s square charging cradle is very well designed, with a tacky adhesion surface that sticks nicely to a table surface and a magnetic coupler that guides the watch the last few millimeters into its charging position.
Hardware: Samsung Gear Live
The same can’t be said of Samsung’s Gear Live, whose snap-on charging cradle has recently come under fire for fragility and a cumbersome design that’s a royal pain to deal with, no matter how much practice you get. Considering Samsung’s smaller (300 mAh) battery, the poor charging experience is an even bigger hit here, especially given how often you’ll need to top-up the device.
Fortunately, that’s our only real complaint with the Gear Live, which is superior to the LG offering in every other meaningful sense. At 1.63 inches with a pixel density of 277ppi, its display is similar to the G Watch’s by the numbers, but the crisp color of its S-AMOLED panel really “pops” compared to the LG offering, with true blacks that enable a very elegant, understated standby mode – and those extra 37 pixels per inch make a bigger difference than you might expect, the Gear Live’s screen appearing notably crisper than the G Watch’s.
The fit and finish of the Samsung watch is also superior, with the display blending seamlessly into a dark glass bezel set into a metal casing that’s just as water-resistant as LG’s, and which feels more substantial than its 59g would suggest. Like the G Watch, the Gear Live is available in multiple colors and carries standard 22mm mounts so you (or your jeweler) can swap out the watchband at will with relative ease. Some reviewers have lambasted the Gear Live for the unconventional fastener on its stock watchband, but –possibly due to our time spent with the Gear Fit– we don’t mind it.
This being a Samsung device, there’s a heart rate sensor around back which works reasonably well, and of course the company couldn’t help but include a physical button to toggle the screen on and off, tucked behind the bezel on the right-hand side. Given Android Wear’s multiple options for waking up the display, we came to regard the button as redundant soon after unboxing the Gear Live, but it is convenient for dimming the screen when it wakes up or stays awake for no reason (which, annoyingly, happens quite often). Also, its long-press functionality is handy for calling up the Settings menu if you’re not in the mood to summon it with your voice.
Software: Lots Of Potential
That voice command functionality is almost certainly Android Wear’s biggest differentiator. Unlike previous smartwatches, which are essentially one-way notifiers with little or no transmit capability, Android Wear devices allow you to dictate replies. You can say “5 minutes” to a text asking for your ETA, for example, or reply “absolutely not” to a group email asking whether you’ll tolerate mushrooms on your pizza at next week’s house party.
And speaking of pizza: Android Wear’s third-party app support lets you order one from your wrist via an app called Eat24. While you’re waiting for it to arrive, you can review recipes for fancier dishes on Allthecooks, brush up on your German using Duolingo’s flash cards, reject a few dozen potential suitors on Tinder, and finally order a car from Lyft so you can go pick up that pizza when you get sick of waiting for it. All this without even pulling your smartphone out of your pocket.
It’s all encased in a vertically-scrolling stack of cards almost identical to the Google Now interface on your Android phone. The feed becomes available when the display turns on (which it does automatically upon raising the watch to chest level) and can be hidden by putting the watch to sleep (accomplished by briefly covering its face with your palm). Everything, from text messages to weather reports to your next appointment to the step count from the pedometer, is displayed in the same list. It scrolls smoothly and looks great on both watches, with the background constantly adapting to reflect the contents of each card. More options, when available, are accessed by a swipe to the left, while cards can be dismissed by swiping them off the screen to the right.
The convenience of all this information on your wrist, immediately accessible with just a glance, is powerful in its simplicity: having your next appointment displayed right under the time, with the next available bus or train directly beneath that, and the travel time to your home on the next card down, is tremendously useful stuff. Google Now is a natural fit for the smaller screen of a smartwatch, and when it’s on point, it’s one of the most futuristic and functional pieces of technology we’ve encountered.
Software: A Long Way To Go
The problems come when Google Now is not on point, which is surprisingly often for a service the company is pushing so aggressively. In short: Google Now isn’t as smart as it thinks it is, and Android Wear’s user experience suffers significantly because of it. (Unless otherwise noted, the following observations apply to both the G Watch and the Gear Live, as the UI is essentially identical across devices.)
In terms of the interface, this is most evident in the card view. While we’re sure there’s some complicated algorithm governing where and when certain cards appear, it’s not intuitive enough to overcome its inherent inconsistency. The end result is that you have no idea what cards will end up where on the stream, so if you want to find the text message you got an hour ago, you need to scroll through the entire ribbon to see where Android Wear has decided to put Hangouts. And if you decide to dismiss that card, there’s no easy way to recover it unless you pull out your phone (or your contact texts you again).
And heaven help you if you try to hold a complete text message conversation using only the watch. While Google’s voice dictation works quite well on most Android smartphones, the company has failed to port that excellent experience to the wrist. The most glaring downside is the system’s total lack of patience: pause for even a second to collect your thoughts while dictating a message, and Wear will assume you’re done and attempt to send the incomplete message. Yes, you can cancel the send … but then you have to start all over again. And if you’re trying dictation within an email, you can forget about sending a letter of any length at all: anything longer than a couple sentences will get stuck on the watch, with the system thinking on it for a few seconds before declaring that it “didn’t catch that” and making you start over. And that’s assuming the watch hasn’t randomly disconnected for no discernible reason … which is something we encountered fairly often during our 12-day test period.
Launching apps from the watch is just as onerous. If you’re using voice commands to do it, you’ll need to rush out your command before the prompt cuts you off. And despite all the intelligence usually baked into Google’s software, we still run into some of the same problems we encountered using Google Now on the Moto X last summer. You can say “remind me to change the laundry in 10 minutes,” for example, but you can’t say “start a 5-minute countdown.” You also can’t say “start timer,” because you’ll just get dumped to your phone, where (in the case of the Moto X and the Gear Live, anyway) the Play Store will invite you to download a third-party app … one that doesn’t even work with the watch. And if you get frustrated with all this back-and-forth and opt simply to launch an app manually, get ready for a lot of scrolling: Android Wear makes you tap the screen and then swipe past all the available voice commands to a Start button at the very bottom of the list. Only by drilling this far down are you finally permitted to see a list of your installed titles.
A Typical Day
The strengths and weaknesses of the Android Wear platform give it an inconsistent day-to-day feel. On a recent business trip to New York with the Gear Live paired to a Moto X, we kicked our day off by surfing through notifications received overnight, which was a great experience: from huge apps like Gmail to more esoteric ones like Timehop, the watch displayed them all with smooth, colorful accuracy.
We then tried to find out when the next public-transit bus was arriving, but for some reason that card wasn’t available, so we asked the watch instead: “when’s the next bus?” We were given a search result card directing us to the NextBus website, but when we tapped it the watch unhelpfully opened that site on our phone, unable to display it on the small wrist screen.
Despite this, we eventually made it to the train station, where the watch was a big help on the rain-soaked platform, displaying notifications on behalf of the pocketed Moto X so we didn’t have to take the phone out and expose it to the weather. Android Wear continued reliably slinging notifications from phone to watch during the entire trip, though when we tried to reply by voice the results were predictably … less reliable.
Arriving in New York City with no idea how to get to our lodgings, we leveraged one of Android Wear’s coolest features and asked the Gear Live to “navigate to the Hotel Hugo.” And with simple arrows, a bare-bones map, and the occasional buzz of the wrist to warn us of approaching turns, our watch guided us to the hotel while our phone stayed securely nestled in our holster. It was the most futuristic part of the entire day, and it was awesome.
We capitalized on this trend by impressing colleagues at a gathering that night, asking the watch “what’s ‘cheese bread’ in German?” (Käsebrot) and “distance to Norfolk, Virginia” (a bit over 350 miles). But when we tried another set of commands later on, results were less praiseworthy. We wanted to send a text, but there weren’t any recent Hangouts open on the watch, so we talked to it:
Pocketnow: “Ok Google. I want to send a text.”
Android Wear: “To whom?”
P: “Jaime Rivera.”
AW: “pioneer Rivera.”
We canceled, and decided to give it another try.
P: “I want to send a text.”
AW: “To whom?”
AW: “What’s your message?”
P: “Hey you. On your way yet?”
The Gear Live stopped after “hey you” and tried sending the incomplete message. We canceled and started from scratch again. This time, the watch transcribed the message perfectly … but then errored out for no reason: “Sorry. Didn’t catch that.”
There were several more screw-ups, but you get the point: when it comes to carrying on a two-way conversation, it’s worlds more convenient just to pull out your phone than it is to use Android Wear.
The remainder of the night brought a mostly positive experience. In a loud bar, the Gear Live informed us of every incoming call and text message that otherwise would have been drowned out by the chest-thumping bass of the sound system and the roar of the crowd. In low-power mode, its display kept us abreast of the time without calling too much attention to itself (except when it woke itself up because it thought we were looking at it – something that happens with irritating regularity on both watches). On the walk back to the hotel, its music controls let us skip between podcast episodes streaming to our earbuds. And when we got back to our room, the voice interface obeyed us when we asked it to “set an alarm for 8am.” All this, without once pulling out the phone. Then, we put it on the charger with about 20% power remaining, where it suckled power for the rest of the night, taking about two hours to reach a full charge.
On balance, it was a day peppered with equal parts giddy excitement and fist-shaking frustration – par for the course with Android Wear in its current form.
Pricing & Availability
Google’s not making any breakthroughs with Android Wear’s pricing, but neither is it offending our sensibilities: the Gear Live sells for $199 at the Google Play Store, while the less-impressive G Watch retails for $30 more. That’s roughly in line with what the competition is charging for smartwatches of varying capability but roughly equal caliber.
More on Android Wear
Android Wear Podcast
With Android Wear, Google is stuck in an unenviable position. It tries to elevate the basics of the smartwatch experience, while adding more powerful features at the same time. In the former sense it succeeds: when it comes to delivering notifications and pared-down app functionality on a wrist, Android Wear is an excellent product. But insofar as new features like the transposed Google Now experience, with its shifting cards and bad voice interface, Wear is strangely disappointing.
Would our opinion change if Google had launched its new platform on the bold Moto 360, instead of these two generic-looking smartwatches? Very possibly, and the platform would have benefited greatly had Google opted to wait for that hardware to become available. Indeed, when the Motorola device finally sees the light of day later this summer, we expect Android Wear to have grown up significantly: Google is no stranger to rapid evolution.
But this, as they say, is now. This is no beta platform; people are spending money on Android Wear today. And, frankly, we think they’re getting a rushed product that’s equal parts smart and dumb, precariously balanced between convenient and infuriating. Considering this is Google we’re talking about, it’s disappointing to have to end a review by saying “wait for the After The Buzz,” but sadly, that’s exactly what we’re forced to conclude about Android Wear. It needs a bit more time in the oven before we can recommend it without reservation.