Smartwatch makers have been doing it all wrong. For the past few years they've tried to cram smartphone-style apps, buttons and icons on to tiny wrist-bound screens, and it hasn't worked.
Google knows this, and it also knows the smartwatch needs defining quickly, before Apple gets the chance to do it with an iWatch.
Enter Android Wear - an OS designed for wearables and one that combines scarily smart notifications and voice control with Google’s killer web services.
Learning from mistakes with Android, nobody’s allowed to change the software. The hardware, though, is up for grabs: the LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live are already on sale, the circular Moto 360 is due later this summer and designs from HTC, Asus and even Fossil are on the way.
Even after just one week with Android Wear it’s clear that smartwatches now have a hugely exciting platform and one that should kickstart the wrist-based revolution that’s been promised for so long. But it’s best to think of Wear as an OS brimming with potential rather than a finished product that works perfectly.
Yes, It Tells The Time
The main screen of Android Wear is the watchface. Devs can’t build custom watchfaces - yet - but manufacturers can preload their own and these are accessed by longpressing as you would to swap the wallpaper on some Android phones.
On the LG G Watch, the only Android Wear device we’ve tested so far, there’s a 20-strong selection of both crazy Tokyoflash-style and analogue-aping ‘Dieter/Helvetica’ faces to choose from. The Moto 360 looks set to have a wider selection, and more interesting designs - for instance, analogue-style options showing the date and weather - when it launches. But also bear in mind that the Pebble has a massive selection of custom watchfaces, from classic ‘Aviator’ styles to Super Mario animations. It’s wonderfully geeky and Wear needs to open up watchfaces sooner rather than later if it wants to compete on this front.
The watchface screen can and should be set to “always on” (or what’s the point?) but of course this does have an impact on battery life. The screen does at least dim and go monochrome when not in use (some faces look cooler this way), with one tap required to wake it up again. The likes of the G Watch have a built-in motion sensor designed to turn the display on when you flick your wrist, but in our experience this doesn’t work every time.
READ MORE: Pebble Steel review
Welcome to Notification City
You can easily show off most exciting tech by getting it to do something awesome on command. That's not the case with Android Wear though - instead, the awesome stuff just happens.
That’s because the OS pushes you two types of alerts. The first type is any notification on your smartphone - that’s anything appearing in your notification pulldown (Vine post failed, download complete etc) plus calls, emails, text messages and Facebook/WhatsApp/Twitter messages and mentions. So far, so does any other smartwatch system.
The second type of alert is where the magic starts. Wear uses Google Now - Google’s card-based personal assistant on Android - and all of the search-, calendar- and location-based info it holds on you. Your cards aren’t available all the time on one screen as they are on the smartphone version - instead they pop up when Google thinks you might need them.
So if you’ve saved your ‘home’ and ‘work’ locations to Google Maps, it can tell you how many minutes you are away from home and give you public transport times. In the morning, it will show you your calendar appointments for the day and give you a weather forecast. If you’ve looked up a pub or restaurant or cinema on Maps on your phone earlier and are now on your way, a card will pop up on your watch telling how far away you are and how to get there. See, magic.
As you might have guessed, this means a lot of notifications and that means a lot of little buzzes on your wrist. Problem number one is that the first type of alerts are all or nothing. Anything that comes through on your phone comes through to Wear, as you’ll discover in the dedicated Android Wear app. Individual apps can be muted but there's nowhere near the control you get on a Pebble. So all those alerts you’ve been ignoring in your pulldown: now’s the time to sort them out, by turning off all notifications for that app on the smartphone.
Problem number two is that the second type are all or erm, all and there’s no way to guide Google Now towards showing you what’s useful. On the smartphone version of the assistant, you can tell Now not to show you updates on that sports team or directions to that location any more. Not so on Wear. Yet.
There is at least a wonderfully simple way to mute the watch’s buzzing (for bedtime, for instance) - just press and swipe down on the watchface screen to mute/unmute.
Google Addicts, You're In Luck
Getting around Android Wear is fairly intuitive but it might require an initial half hour of head-scratching as you figure out how the OS is structured.
There’s no notifications centre or list of apps to scroll around - as there are on the Pebble Steel - but you can tap the watchface once then press the arrow under the voice command to get instant access to your agenda for the day, Google’s step counter and settings.
Nothing else is stored in a neat list like that but when you do get a notification the rule is tap to open/read, swipe right to dismiss and swipe left for options. That said, there's a bit of a two-tier system here, with Google apps such as Gmail getting more options than third-party programs. So, swipe left on a Gmail message and you'll see 'archive', 'reply (via voice)' and 'open on phone'. Do the same for a Hotmail message and you'll just see 'open on phone'.
Gmails also stack in a group when there’s more than one and you can tap on any email to expand - not yet the case for other notifications such as WhatsApp.
You Will Use voice - No, Really
Voice on Android Wear is the one feature that clearly beats its smartwatch rivals. The Pebble Steel doesn’t bother with voice at all and on the Samsung Gear 2 it’s still a slow and frustrating experience.
It’s not perfect - recognition will never be 100% given the stage voice technology is at right now - and we had to rename some friends with foreign names that Google just wasn’t picking up. Given that we wanted to voice-text them some abuse, we think it was totally worth the effort.
The dictation feature for messages and emails is also way too hasty - it will decide on a contact and start sending as soon as you take a pause. So, if it mishears you, you could easily find yourself sending a message saying ‘free ninja urine’ to your boss. Unlike the Gear 2, Wear won't speak back to you to clarify the sender and message, so the only way to avoid this kind of mishap is to keep an eye on who it's selected and hit the cancel button swiftly if necessary.
But even so, this is the first time we’ve been confident enough about voice control on a wearable to use it frequently. In fact, when the embarrassment of it not working is gone, we’re much more likely to use it in public too. For short messages to contacts you know it will get right, it’s much quicker than pulling out your smartphone. Likewise, using it for navigation - just say the name of the bar you’re going to and Wear will open up Maps on your phone. Genuine time saver.
READ MORE: Samsung Gear 2 review
For now, Pebble’s app store means you can do more with a Steel than a G Watch - but that won't last for long. Wear was only formally revealed a month or so ago and already scores of devs are making their apps Wear-patible. Give it a couple of months and we'd expect Android Wear devices to have streaked ahead in this regard.
Fire up the free Android Wear companion app and you'll find a link to Wear apps on Google Play. Inside, you'll already find the likes of IFTTT, DuoLingo, RunTastic, Snapchat, Tinder, The Guardian and Pinterest. Most offer notifications but some include wrist-based controls - for instance you can take charge of your Philips Hue Wi-Fi bulbs in this way. FlyDelta gives you a QR code boarding pass on Wear and Wear Mini Launcher gives you an app drawer.
And remember, this is still Android. Pebble devs will probably build for Wear too and pretty soon someone out there will have created almost any smartwatch feature you could ever desire.
While we’d like to see apps such as CityMapper, Moves and Twitter show Wear some love, the really big advantage Pebble still has is proper Spotify controls. Google Play Music is well catered for here but Spotify just gets (admittedly lovely) album artwork and a play/pause button that doesn’t always work. We’d like buttons to skip tracks, please, and Play Music-style voice controls.
Announced at I/O with Android Wear, Fit is Google’s own health platform and its answer to Apple’s Health app. But on Wear, Fit amounts to nothing more than a step counter with targets (such as 10,000 steps) and the option to display steps as a card on top of the watchface.
The Gear Live has a heart-rate monitor, sure. But, right now, Android Wear devices aren’t going to trouble sportswatches and trackers. Still, Google has big plans to capture our health, fitness and sleep data and a ton of partners - Nike, Adidas, Polar, RunKeeper, HTC - have been announced.
Android Wear Verdict
A platform with the simplicity, smarts and openness of Android Wear couldn’t have been built by anyone but Google. Google Now, Google Search, Google Voice - even Apple won’t come close to matching these features and services. For that reason, there’s no other tech giant we’d rather strap to our wrists.
It’s far from perfect. But when we look at our list of complaints, there’s a lot of ‘yet’s. Google Fit isn’t ready yet. There’s not many apps yet either but Wear compatible updates are flying into the Google Play Store daily. There’s no proper Spotify control yet but an unreliable pause button indicates more will come. Navigation is patchy too but if anyone can crack on-wrist maps, it’s Google.
The underdog, Pebble, also still beats Android Wear in a few crucial ways. You can glance at a Pebble Steel 24/7 and see the same watchface - no flicking or tapping to wake the screen. Its app store is impressive, considering the company’s Kickstarter beginnings, and Wear will have some catching up to do. And with colourful, fullscreen notifications and images that need mini LCD or AMOLED screens, we just don’t see any Wear devices getting anywhere close to the e-paper Pebble’s awesome five-day battery life.
But while Pebble gets the basics right, Android Wear offers something more - after a week with it, we really struggled to untether ourselves from Google’s all-round helpfulness. The G Watch is the first wearable we’ve used that feels like a personal assistant and it’s the one that’s come closest to curing our smartphone addiction.
In short, Android Wear is the best evidence we’ve seen yet of wearables becoming can’t-live-without-them gadgets. Maybe 2014 will be the year of the smartwatch after all.