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.

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Android Wear and apps

The core operating system and Google services may be the real stars of Android Wear, but apps play a critical supporting role on the platform. Like Wear itself, apps are generally designed to work as extensions of their smartphone counterparts, making it easier for you to accomplish certain tasks that make sense on the wrist.

Notably, Google isn't going to create a standalone store of apps for Wear devices; in fact, you'll never install an app directly to a Wear watch. Instead, certain Android apps offer watch-specific components -- and when you install any of those apps onto your phone, the watch elements automatically appear on your Wear device.

And remember: Any Android app will already work with Wear natively via its regular notifications. What we're talking about here are apps that offer more complex functions designed to run on the watch itself.

For instance, Google Maps lets you initiate navigation and view turn-by-turn directions from your Android Wear watch. Lyft lets you request rides and monitor your driver's status. Runtastic and RunKeeper help you track runs with detailed info on duration, distance and calories. And an app called Allthecooks lets you view step-by-step directions for preparing recipes on your wrist; all you do is swipe on the watch's screen to move from one step to the next.

Beyond that, both Google Keep and Evernote give you the ability to browse existing notes and leave yourself new notes by speaking into your watch; a delivery service called Eat24 allows you to place food orders by voice via a Wear device; and both Delta and American Airlines offer apps that'll put boarding passes and easy-to-view travel info on your Wear device's display.

More Wear-ready apps are showing up every day, some of which work with special hardware to create cool possibilities. You can control appliances in your home with the combination of a Belkin WeMo Switch and the IFTTT Android app, for example, or control Philips Hue light bulbs from your watch with an app called Hue Control.

Google's Android Wear
A sampling of cards you'd swipe through horizontally while cooking with the Allthecooks app. Tapping on the blue-highlighted numbers in the last card causes the watch to launch timers for those values.

Wear comes preloaded with a couple of standalone applications as well, including a compass and an app called Fit that tracks your footsteps and heart rate (provided that your watch has a heart rate monitor). Manufacturers can also preload their own standalone apps onto devices.

The line between useful and annoying

The million-dollar question with a device like a Wear watch: Is having instant wrist-based access to information and notifications actually useful -- or is it a new type of annoyance we're signing ourselves up to receive?

The answer ultimately depends on you. But after two weeks living with Android Wear, I can tell you this: For anyone who likes to stay connected, the platform offers a practical and convenient new way to communicate and keep up to date.

When I was flying cross-country after Google I/O, for instance, I found myself hustling through the Denver airport on a tight connection. While I briskly walked from one end of the airport to the other, I was able to quickly read and respond to texts from my wife on my wrist and get vibrating notifications when my connecting flight had its gate changed and then was delayed. All of that happened while I was walking with my hands full and my eyes barely off the path in front of me.

I've been aware of Wear's influence on my habits during more mundane activities, too -- like when I'm out to lunch and can quickly scan and dismiss incoming emails in a split second on my wrist instead of having to whip out my phone and futz around with it 20 times an hour.

As for the annoyance potential, Wear has some tools built in to help you manage how much your watch alerts you. First of all, cards and notifications only buzz and light up your watch if they would also make a sound on your phone. That means most Google Now cards appear and are available on the watch, but don't overtly alert you to their presence. The same goes for any type of alert that you have set to be silent on your phone -- so if you want new emails to be available on your watch but don't want to be alerted every time a message comes in, all you have to do is set the Gmail notification on your phone to be silent.

The Android Wear phone app also offers an option to blacklist specific apps from ever sending notifications to your watch. And if you don't want anything to interrupt you for a while, you can always swipe down from the top of your watch to activate a "mute" mode in which no notifications will arrive and the watch won't illuminate.

Google's Android Wear
The Android Wear phone app allows you to mute specific apps and prevent them from sending any notifications to your watch.

All of that being said, there's certainly room for improvement. Right now, Wear includes a lot of all-or-nothing functionality. Since most Google Now cards never sound an alert on your watch, for instance, you sometimes don't notice important ones -- like those informing you of flight delays -- right away. (I use a third-party service called TripIt that manages my travel itineraries and provides its own push alerts, which is why my watch buzzed when my flight was being changed.)

It'd also be nice for Wear to offer a more nuanced way to manage things like email notifications so you could receive alerts for important messages but not for every email that hits your inbox. A custom Gmail alert trick I shared earlier this year will actually let you accomplish that, but it's a fairly involved workaround and not the kind of thing a typical consumer is going to know how to do.

Bottom line

With Android Wear, Google has created a foundation for smartwatches that actually makes sense. It isn't about complex commands or cramming every feature imaginable into your wrist; rather, it's about supplementing your phone in ways that make your life easier in small but meaningful measures.

And that's an important point: Getting a Wear device isn't going to be like getting your first smartphone. When it comes down to it, Wear doesn't bring any new functions into your life; it merely gives you a more convenient way of handling the functions you already have. But by doing so, it creates an innovative type of interaction that's much more than the sum of its parts.

To be sure, Wear is in its infancy -- and it's far from perfect. More apps need to be updated to work better when it comes to notifications on the watch interface and Google still has some kinks to work out in terms of the operating system itself. For an initial release, though, Wear gets a lot of things right -- and gives us plenty of reason to be excited for the future.

So all considered, is an Android Wear smartwatch something most of us need? Not at all. It's very much an accessory -- and a luxury one, at that.

But is it something many of us will enjoy? Absolutely.

And this is only the beginning.

[Android Wear revisited: 3 months with Google on my wrist]

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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