Android Wear: Way Better Than You Think

Monday Jun 30th 2014 by Mike Elgan
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Android Wear is a computer minus everything but the essentials, and it’s a user interface very carefully designed for the wrist.

Google’s Android Wear operating system got very real last week. Google executives demonstrated the platform to 6,000 developers and press at the company’s annual Google I/O conference in San Francisco on Wednesday. And then they gave each attendee a watch running Android Wear. (I accepted an LG G watch as an evaluation and will be returning it.)

That event triggered a flood of reviews, commentary and social media posts about the platform. Rather than shedding light, the rush to judgment probably confuses more than clarifies.

So I’m here to clarify the situation. Here’s what you need to know about Android Wear.

What It’s Like to Wear Android Wear

Google gave attendees a choice between the LG G watch, and the newly announced Samsung Gear Live watch. Both are nearly identical in how they work. Both can be pre-ordered on the Google Play store. The Moto 360 is expected by the end of summer.

You strap the watch on, and it shows the time. You can change the watch face by pressing and holding on the screen. LG offers two dozens options, many of which look like groovy designs from 1972.

Nothing happens until something happens. Action can be started by the user, or by the Android smartphone you pair it with. (Android Wear requires pairing with a phone running Android 4.3 or better -- only a minority of Android phones currently meet that requirement. You also need the latest Google Play Services 5.0 app installed on your phone.)

Each Android Wear action falls into one of three categories: Google Now, notifications and apps.

Google Now is the basic interface, and other apps appear more or less like Google Now-style cards. This is a very good thing. Google Now is very similar to the app as it appears on iOS, Android and in the Chrome browser.

I can’t help but think that Google Now was created for wearables, and that all the iOS and Android and Chrome interfaces for Google Now existed merely for the development of the interface and database and service for wearables.

Notifications are the same ones that appear on your phone. If it appears on your phone, it will appear on your wrist. If you dismiss it in one place, it goes away on the other, too.

And, of course, apps do whatever their app developers created them to do.

Android Wear watches slip into a low power mode, which shows the clock but dimly and in black and white. Holding the phone up to look at it as you naturally would makes the screen bright and in color and in that mode it’s also listening for the command “OK, Google.” That enables the voice search or voice command feature. You can then say, “send a message” or “what’s the weather,” or “what’s my next meeting” and the watch will do what you say.

You can even use the voice interface screen to use the watch without speaking. Simply tapping the screen brings up the “Speak now” screen, at which point you can swipe down and choose from a list of actions, such as “Take a note,” “Remind me,” “Show me my steps (revealed by the watch’s pedometer feature),” “Send a text,” “Email,” “Agenda (which shows appointments from your calendar),” “Navigate (which launches Google Maps on both your phone and your watch, directly taking you into turn-by-turn directions to the destination you specify),” “Set a timer,” “Start a stopwatch,” “Set an alarm,” “Show alarms,” “Settings” and “Start” -- “Start” is how you launch apps (more Android Wear apps are promised for July 7, and in the near future you’ll be able to control your TV or Android Auto dashboard with an Android Wear watch).

These serve as menu options that can be selected and also reminders about what some of the spoken commands are.

The voice feature deserves special attention here. I’ve found it to be noticeably faster and more accurate than the same feature on my Moto X phone. There are other differences. On Android Wear, the result comes in a condensed summary form in writing on the watch screen. On the Moto X, it’s typically a larger result, but with the summary spoken out loud. Also, Android Wear results often have a blue icon that when tapped launches the result on your phone. And Android Wear will recognize anyone’s voice. So anyone nearby can launch commands on your watch (unlike the Moto X, where the phone recognizes your individual voice and ignores others).

If the watch is in active mode, and you want to put it into low-power mode, you just cover the screen with your palm.

An important but subtle part of the interface is an optional vibration feature. It gives your wrist a gentle and short Bzzt! You look, and there’s the information. It’s kind of a perfect way to be quickly informed. The cumulative result of this is that Android Wear gives you situational awareness without you being an obsessive and desperate checker of smartphones (Google says the average user checks their phone to look for new information 125 times per day -- Android Wear replaces this behavior by notifying you without you having to go check, and in my case that’s about 20 times per day).

What’s so Great About Android Wear?

Until you’ve got experience with an Android Wear watch, it’s hard to understand how they’re different from the smartwatches most of us have been rejecting or ignoring for years. The way I’m thinking about it is to compare it to the differences between Windows Tablets from 5 years ago with the Apple iPad, which emerged in 2010 and took over the market.

Windows tablets were flawed because the desktop Windows interface was applied to a tablet. The iPad dominated because the minimalist touch iOS was right for a tablet -- because it did less. iPads had less power, fewer options and less flexibility (for example, they didn’t have USB ports).

Likewise, previous smartwatches were essentially a port of a smartphone user interface, with apps you installed on the watch, and launched via mini screens of icons. Newer watches, like the Samsung Galaxy Gear, were closer to the mark -- essentially hybrids of the old and new -- whereas Android Wear feels like a fully watch-native user interface built from the ground up as a wearable OS and interface (and influenced by what Google learned from their ongoing Google Glass project).

Information is stripped to its core essentials, and much of it is visual. For example, when you get a Google Hangouts message from someone, you see a bar across their profile picture with the message and a tiny Hangouts icon. The message is text, but the information about who the message is from and what app delivered it is both given to you in the form of pictures only.

That’s the essence of the Android Wear interface -- minimalism, non-verbal communication and contextual relevance, which adds up to an interface made up of screens that you can instantly and intuitively understand.

Then you can swipe to the right to get rid of it, swipe to the left to move into the app, swipe down to go back and swipe up to go to the next item in the queue.

Deliberately, you can use Android Wear in most cases while running, or without your reading glasses, or while in a meeting while an important person is talking to you without making that person feel like you’re ignoring them.

And that, in a nutshell, is what makes Android Wear so great. It’s not just a computer on your list -- it’s much less. It’s on your wrist, which is great. It’s a computer minus everything but the essentials, which is great. And it’s a user interface that is very carefully designed for the wrist. And that’s the greatest thing of all.

So ignore the grumbling. Critics and naysayers are focusing on the wrong things. Instead of looking at the watch and complaining about the clunkiness of the UI, or the limitations of the small screen or user interface, they should instead look within and ask themselves how much better informed they are about what’s important.

Android Wear is better than you think, because it very simply gives you situational awareness, and constantly, without making you feel like you’re “using” a gadget. Knowledge just appears on your arm when you want it. And that’s pretty great.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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