Upcoming Android Wear update cuts ties between smartwatch and smartphone

Both devices can function in separate Wi-Fi zones around the globe

LG Watch Urbane

Google's next Android Wear update will let smartwatch users operate on a Wi-Fi network that could be thousands of miles from the Wi-Fi or cellular network connected to their smartphone.

That would be a distinct difference from what the Apple Watch provides. While the Apple Watch can work at some distance from an iPhone, it must still be on the same Wi-Fi network -- a distance usually less than the length of a football field. (The Apple Watch arrives on Friday for those who pre-ordered it after months of slick promotions.)

Google's approach, announced in vague language on a blog on Monday, takes on the issue of how physically separate smartwatches should be from smartphones that are often paired together via Bluetooth, with a range of about 10 feet.

Some smartwatches like Samsung's Gear S include a cellular capability that allows them to operate independently. But doing so can require a separate number or data bill.

It remains an open question for Apple, Google, Samsung and other manufacturers about whether buyers want an independently functioning computer on their wrists or instead see the smartwatch as a more convenient way to get notifications without having to search for a smartphone in a pocket or purse.

The Apple Watch will allow you to, for instance, go to the gym with the smartwatch on your wrist and your smartphone in a nearby locker -- as long as both are within the gym's Wi-Fi zone. With the Android Wear update -- it's expected "over the next few weeks" -- to seven Android Wear watches, users can presumably leave an Android smartphone at home and have most functions of a smartwatch on the go, as long as the smartwatch is connected to Wi-Fi. Among the watches to get the update is the new LG Watch Urbane.

According to David Singleton, director of engineering for Android Wear, "as long as your watch is connected to a Wi-Fi network, and your phone has a data connection (wherever it is), you'll be able to get notifications, send messages and use all your favorite apps."

This approach would require leaving the phone powered on and connected, so it wouldn't be as if a smartwatch user could go on an extended trip abroad without the phone. But it would certainly allow for some independent use of the smartwatch.

A Google spokeswoman explained via email that establishing a handshake from the smartwatch to an unfamiliar, protected Wi-Fi network would require typing in the Wi-Fi password on the phone to connect. In other words, a watch user wouldn't be able to roam too freely in unknown locales accessing unfamiliar Wi-Fi zones without the paired phone. But for frequently visited places where the Wi-Fi passwords are already input in the phone -- or where the Wi-Fi is free and open -- this could be an advantage.

"If your watch is accessing a new protected network, you would type in the password on your phone to connect," the Google spokeswoman said. "Your watch will automatically join Wi-Fi hotspots and switch back and forth between Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. The user won't even have to think about it. It will happen in the background."

Google didn't confirm exactly how the process works, but promised more details when the over-the-air update rolls out. Some developers have suggested in online comments that Google is using the Google Cloud Platform to connect the watch and smartphone over great distances between the separate Wi-Fi zones.

While there are clear advantages to the Google Wear Wi-Fi approach, there could be a bigger draw on the power and battery of the watch.

"There are pros and cons to connecting to Wi-Fi," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy. "It increases the utility of the watch, in that you don't need to be near the phone for many functions like checking sports scores. The con is power draw, which is higher for Wi-Fi versus Bluetooth."

031015 apple watch tim cook REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

The Apple Watch must be paired with an iPhone and on the same network.

Apple has apparently found a way to lower the power draw with Wi-Fi on its Apple Watch by allowing the power-sucking initial handshake between the two devices to go over Bluetooth with the continuing data exchange allowed over Wi-Fi at a lower rate of power consumption. Apple relies on AirDrop technology to allow this connection in peer-to-peer fashion.

How well the Android Wear watches handle power consumption over Wi-Fi remains to be seen.

Power consumption in general is a primary concern of all smartwatch makers and Google is no exception. In addition to the Wi-Fi support coming in the "Android 5.1.1 for Android Wear" update, Google is providing always-on apps capability, with a bow to power savings.

If a user is on a hike, a mapping app will stay visible as long as it's needed, instead of disappearing when the user drops his or her arm. The screen stays full color when the user is actively looking at it, but turns black and white when not -- to save on battery life, according to Google. Some developers have commented that by leaving the app onscreen constantly, users save on power by not having to frequently re-open it.

Another feature of the update lets users flick their wrist to scroll through cards (pages) to check news and notifications. Users will also be able to draw hundreds of emojis directly on the watch screen to send via message or text, an apparent reaction to a similar capability with the Apple Watch.

LG Watch Urbane LG

LG Watch Urbane

Although the new LG Watch Urbane will get the Android Wear update, there is still no announced release date for the watch. It was first unveiled in February and is arguably one of the more stylish in the Android Wear group of watches.

Urbane features a 1.3-in. full circle display and a 410 mAh battery with a stitched leather strap and stainless steel body with a gold or silver finish.

Pricing for it is expected to start at $346.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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