Android Wear

Android Wear deep-dive review: A smart start to smartwatch software

An in-depth look at Google's new platform -- where it shines and where it falls short.

Android Wear

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The anatomy of Android Wear cards

What's particularly interesting about commands on Android Wear cards is that, for the most part, they're already built into regular Android applications -- which means any notification that works on your phone will automatically work on your watch. Wear just takes the same action buttons you'd see on a phone-based notification and translates them into the watch's card-based interface.

Google's Android Wear
At top: A Gmail notification on an Android phone. At bottom: The same notification as it appears in swipe-able cards on a Wear watch.

A good example of this is Gmail. When you get a new message alert on your phone, the Gmail notification there has two buttons with commands to archive or reply. On an Android Wear watch, those same buttons appear when you swipe to the left as large icons on a new mail card. No special watch-specific support is required for the app to be compatible; everything just works automatically out of the box.

That being said, there are things developers can do to make their notifications more smartwatch-friendly -- and the vast majority of apps aren't yet fully optimized for the form. If you tap the icon to respond to a tweet from Twitter on your watch, for instance, a reply window will open up on your phone instead of as a prompt on the watch itself. Evidently, developers have to manually enable support for watch-based text input before it'll work, and Twitter -- like many other app developers -- has yet to take that step.

Twitter's notifications, like those on some other apps, can also become cluttered and unmanageable on a watch's small screen. A notification from Twitter with a single piece of information works fine. But when a notification from Twitter contains multiple pieces of info -- more than one mention or a combination or mentions and direct messages -- all of the text ends up getting squished into a single card instead of being spaced out properly. As a result, it becomes impossible to read on the watch's display.

Other apps' notifications are even more confounding. Google's own Google+ app, for example, will show you that someone has commented on your post or left you a message -- but it won't let you view the actual comment or message from your watch. That's because the corresponding phone-based notification for that app shows the same limited amount of detail, and Google (rather ironically) has yet to optimize it to work more sensibly on the smartwatch form.

Google's Android Wear
From left: A Twitter notification with a single piece of information; a Twitter notification with multiple pieces of information; a Google+ notification.

Beyond the basic notifications, Wear gives you the ability to control audio playback on your phone via your watch -- stopping or starting play, skipping tracks and so forth. Controls show up on the watch as a card any time audio is being played from an applicable app on the phone. They're also available when content is being streamed from the phone to any Chromecast dongle.

Google's Android Wear
From left: A Google Play Music control card; two specific functions that appear when you swipe left on the Play Music card; a playback control card for Netflix content being streamed via Chromecast.

When you get a phone call, meanwhile, Wear shows you who's calling and allows you to swipe left or right on the watch to accept or reject the call. If you accept the call, it'll pick up on your phone. (By default, the phone will ring in addition to the watch vibrating, but there's a setting with which you can opt to silence the phone and receive all alerts on the watch only if you prefer -- which actually makes more sense to me.)

You can't actually conduct a call on the watch itself -- which, let's be honest, is just as well; it's refreshing to see a company opting to leave out the gimmicky stuff and deliver a device with purposeful focus.

Notifications on Wear are completely synced with all of your other Google devices, by the way, so if you dismiss a notification on your watch, it'll automatically disappear from your phone, computer browser and any other places where you're signed in.

Voice control

When it comes to issuing commands and inputting text, Android Wear relies almost exclusively on your voice -- no microscopic on-screen keyboards or other such silliness. And by and large, Wear's voice input system works surprisingly well.

You can wake a Wear watch and start giving it commands by activating the screen and then either tapping the display or simply saying "Okay, Google." From there, you can speak a variety of commands for tasks like taking a note, setting a reminder, checking your agenda or sending a text or email (which you would then dictate by voice).

Again, that's all stuff you could do on an Android phone as well. But when you're walking around or in a moving vehicle, being able to quickly send a text or set a reminder by raising your arm and saying a few words into your wrist is insanely useful. I've gotten spoiled by telling my watch to remind me of things when I get home (yes, Wear can do that) or by sending quick texts by speaking into my wrist on the fly. There's no fumbling through your pockets or fussing with your lock screen; the process just feels natural and intuitive.

Basic commands aside, you can ask Wear for all sorts of information and the system will provide the answers on your watch's screen. You can ask about sports scores, calculations and conversions, or even general facts -- who's the mayor of a certain city, how many calories are in a particular food, how old is a certain celebrity and so forth. If Google has the data in its ever-expanding Knowledge Graph, it'll present it to you in a clean and concise card; if not, it'll give you the top few Web results with the option to read more via your phone.

Good as it's become, of course, Google's voice-to-text technology still isn't flawless -- so you do have to accept the fact that your Wear-based dictation will have the occasional misinterpreted word. I've also had some scattered instances where the system has returned an odd "Disconnected" error after I've attempted to set a reminder or send a message, but that seems to be more of an occasional glitch than any sort of regular occurrence.

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