Android Wear

How to make Gmail infinitely more useful on Android Wear

One of the most basic but valuable features of an Android Wear watch is its ability to help you deal with notifications quickly. Managing alerts on your wrist is absurdly convenient -- but if you aren't careful, it can also get absurdly annoying.

The risk is especially apparent with email, since Wear doesn't yet have a simple native way to control which incoming messages buzz your wrist and which stay silent. With a little bit of behind-the-scenes customization, though, you can turn Gmail and Wear into an intelligently coordinated team.

Android Wear Gmail

Here's how:

First, set your phone's main Gmail notifications to be silent

Little-known fact: Notifications will only cause your Android Wear watch to vibrate and light up if they'd also make a sound on your phone. If a notification is set to be silent on your phone, it'll show up and be available on your watch but won't do anything to alert you to its presence.

Now, if you want your watch to vibrate with every single email that hits your inbox, this doesn't apply to you. But if you're anything like me and would prefer to get alerted only when something important comes in, this is what you need to do:

Head into the Gmail app on your phone, tap the icon in the upper-left corner, and scroll down to Settings. Tap the name of the Gmail account you want to configure. Make sure there's a check mark next to "Notifications," then tap "Inbox sound & vibrate."

On the following screen, make sure there's a check mark next to "Label notifications," then set "Sound" to silent and make sure "Vibrate" is not checked. (You can leave "Notify for every message" checked -- or not. It really doesn't matter.)

Android Wear Gmail

And with that, our foundation is in place: Emails will appear on your watch but not cause it to vibrate or light up by default.

Now let's create some exceptions.

Option #1: Use Google's categorized inbox to determine what's important

Google's default Gmail setup (as of last May) automatically categorizes your emails into a handful of categories intended to separate out things like promotions and social media updates from your more important fare.

You can use those same categorizations to determine which types of emails trigger alerts on your Wear device and which remain silent. First, head into the Gmail Web interface and click the small arrow next to the "Inbox" link in the left sidebar to switch to the "Default" inbox setup, if you aren't already using it.

Gmail Default Inbox

Next, open up the Gmail app on your Android phone and head back into Settings. Tap the name of your Gmail account and scroll down to the option called "Manage labels."

Tap the option for "Primary" and make sure "Sync messages" is set to "Sync: Last 30 days." Make sure there's a check mark next to "Label notifications," then tap "Sound" and pick one of the sounds that appears in the list.

(If you don't see an option for "Primary" yet, wait a few minutes and try again. It might take a bit for the changes you made in the Web interface to show up in the Android app.)

Last but not least, make sure there's a check mark next to "Notify for every message."

And there ya have it: Your Wear device will now vibrate and light up anytime an email arrives into your "Primary" category but won't notify you for messages that land anywhere else (in categories like Social, Promotions, and Updates). If for some reason you want to get notifications for any of those other categories, simply repeat the above process as needed for each additional category.

Option #2: Use Google's Priority Inbox to determine what's important

If the categorized inbox isn't your cup of tea, Google's Priority Inbox is another relatively simple setup to consider. Priority Inbox uses a variety of cues to determine which incoming messages are important and then marks every email accordingly. It learns from your habits over time and actually works quite well in my experience.

To set up Priority Inbox with Wear, first open up the Gmail Web interface, click the arrow next to the "Inbox" link in the left sidebar, and select "Priority Inbox" from the list that appears.

Next, open up Gmail on your Android phone and head into Settings. Tap the name of your Gmail account and scroll down to the option called "Manage labels."

Tap the option for "Priority Inbox" and make sure "Sync messages" is set to "Sync: Last 30 days." Make sure there's a check mark next to "Label notifications," then tap "Sound" and pick one of the sounds that appears in the list.

(If you don't see an option for "Priority Inbox" yet, wait a few minutes and try again. It might take a bit for the changes you made in the Web interface to show up in the Android app.)

Last but not least, make sure there's a check mark next to "Notify for every message."

Congratulations: Your Wear device will now vibrate and light up anytime an email that Gmail marks as "Important" arrives but won't notify you about any less pressing messages.

Option #3: Set up your own custom Gmail alerts

Our last option is the most powerful and customizable but also the most complicated to configure. In short, it lets you decide exactly what types of emails will generate alerts based on a variety of specific variables.

The key is to create filters within Gmail to assign alert-worthy messages to a special category -- then to configure that category to trigger alerts in your Android Gmail app and thus also on your Android Wear watch. If that all sounds like gobbledygook to you, follow my custom Gmail alert guide for step-by-step instructions.

The beauty of this setup is its flexibility: You could have Wear notify you only when messages come in from certain people or with specific words in the subject line. You can use it by itself or even in conjunction with one of the other two methods, if you're feeling particularly adventurous.

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It'd be nice if these types of nuanced controls were built natively into Wear so the setup could be streamlined and a little more user-friendly. Maybe one day. For now, though, these workarounds will let you take control of your Gmail notifications and make them work the way you want with your Wear device.

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