We’ve waited all day — nay, actually we’ve waited all year and now Android Wear is here as an official, shipping, customer-facing product. A few members of the Ausdroid team received their brand new LG G Watches today, so we thought it high time we offered our thoughts on the first Google wearable.
So what’s in the box? Unsurprisingly, you get the G Watch itself, along with a Micro USB cable, a power adapter (850 mA), the infamous charging cradle, and a quick start manual. I think I’ve already lost the manual, too.
The design of the watch itself is a bit utilitarian, It’s basically a big black slab with rounded corners on the edges, but no curvature to the face. I’m concerned that when putting on a backpack that the watch will become caught on the straps. It also forms a fairly large chunk around the wrist of a jumper which could end up making a permanent impression on your clothing. This seems like a “version one” problem, and it’s something that Samsung’s Gear Live looks like it has a better design for – maybe Samsung’s experience with watches helped them here?
The watch itself is a bit thick, but in general usage you won’t notice. It’s not super heavy, but it’s got a reasonable heft to it considering the size. There’s no buttons on it, but there’s a set of pogo pins on the base and there’s a reset button near them for emergencies.
The lack of physical buttons seems silly, but we shouldn’t be surprised given the direction Google went with Android’s onscreen navigation buttons in recent years. The device powers on when it’s in its charging cradle. If you accidentally power it off, you’ll need to find a paperclip or a pin to hit the reset button to turn it back on.
That charging cradle is also a bit bulkier than I expected it to be, but then it doesn’t need to be portable. It’s got a Micro USB socket on it (right way up, thanks LG) and has magnets to ensure easy placement of the watch. Mind you, the magnets don’t stop you putting the watch on the cradle the wrong way around.
The cradle also has a fairly adhesive surface on the back to keep it in place on whatever surface you put it on. It’s already picking up bits of junk and dust from my desk, though so I’m not sure how long it’ll really remain adhesive before I have to break out the Blu-tac. Dan tells me that this is actually the same adhesive surface used on the infamous Orb Qi charger for the Nexus 4 – you should be able to wipe it off with a wet cloth to clean it and renew the stickiness.
The supplied band however is literally the worst thing ever* and is the most disappointing thing about the G Watch, out of the box.. It’s a very thick piece of rubber with a plastic fastener – grey, in the case of my black watch. The $100 Z Watch from Millenius has a better band than this, and that’s purely because it has a metal fastener. It’s pretty disappointing after paying $250 for this watch to find LG has basically phoned-in the band – just not good enough. Hilariously, it even has the words “Exclusive LG Electronics” etched into it – why anyone would care about that I haven’t a clue. Fortunately it takes a standard 22mm watch band, so replacements are easy to find and fit. Chris has replaced his for the moment with a leather band from the Pebble Steel and also tried out the bright orange band from the Gear 2.
* Yep, it’s worse than the Galaxy S5’s charging port cover
It took me a while to work out how to turn the watch on. There’s absolutely no buttons on the G Watch, save for an embedded reset button on the back that you need a pin to press. Turns out, you have to insert the watch into the charging cradle and it powers on by itself.
As Phil described in his Gear Live hands-on, the setup process is pain free. Google’s put a lot of effort into this, and it shows.
There’s an impressive range on the connection. I’m used to Bluetooth audio dropping out because the phone is simply on the wrong side of my body and can’t reach the receiver, but I found I could get up and walk away from my desk and still receive notifications at quite some distance in the office. Chris also found that it works from the other end of his house.
The UI is all gesture- and swipe-based. You’ll swipe a list of cards up and down and swipe left/right to interact with them. One fun gesture control allows you to cover the face of the watch with your palm in order to dim the screen – the equivalent of turning the screen on your phone off.
That said, you can actually pull up an arrow while Google Now is listening for your voice in order to access a list of things to launch. I didn’t actually know how to launch the settings app, but it’s in here. Once I looked in here I realised the brightness on my watch wasn’t set up very high. This also brings up a quibble – there’s no light sensor on the watch, so it can’t adapt the screen brightness to your surrounds.
I’ve also found the “lift and twist” motion that turns on the screen is really hit and miss – it worked once. At least the always-on screen means you can just tap it to turn it on, though. Chris says he’s managed to perfect the required movement to get the lift and twist working fairly consistently, so I’m just going to make a joke about wrist movements and move on.
Cards and Notifications
Notifications from your phone become cards on the watch, and their arrival is signaled by a vibration. The buzz is fairly slight, and is just enough to get your attention.
Cards are shown on the screen one at a time, and can expand (for example, you might receive messages from multiple hangouts). They’re often accompanied by a customised backdrop (usually the icon you’d see in the left of the notification on your phone, blown up to full screen, but not always). This tends to make the cards feel a little more like a “scene”, and holds true when you open up actual apps as well, such as the step counter or compass.
Swiping a card off screen by flinging it to the right dismisses it, while flinging it left allows you to go deeper and explore actions associated with the card.
It’s notable that while you can manage notifications from the Android Wear app on your phone, it’s a “mute” control rather than an “allow” control. This means you have to tell the app which apps you don’t want to hear from, rather than selecting the ones you do. This involves far more work for the user, but it also means that you don’t need to whitelist every new app when you install it.
Swipe controls do represent a learning curve. I can see some better tutorials needed for this. They are similar to the way notification swipes dismiss on the phone, but you have to actually be conscious of the direction in which you swipe now if you want to do anything. It’d be nice if there was a better indication of the actual controls available should I swipe into a notification – many of them just show “Open on phone”, which I could have done with a tap, anyway.
If you’re playing music on your phone, the media playback controls will appear as a card on your watch. The card has a play/pause control and if you swipe into the card you’ll get next/previous track controls. The album artwork is also transferred across to the watch. This seems to be automatic, a literal translation of your Android phone’s lock screen controls.
It’s going to be interesting to see where developers go with their UIs in this small space.
Google’s voice recognition system – and in general, Google Now – is what drives interaction with the watch. You’ll ask it to do things, like “Send a message to John, hello”, and it’ll respond.
Voice recognition is about as good as you get with your phone at the moment. You’ll be pleasantly surprised as it catches a few words and phrases you wouldn’t expect it to pick up one minute, and the next minute it’ll spectacularly fail to figure out what you said. Maybe it’s not tweaked for Australian slang yet.
If the voice recognition system fails, there’s no way to correct particular words – you just have to cancel and go back and repeat yourself. If your words aren’t recognised a second time around (which happened to me earlier), you’re likely to just give up and pull out your phone.
What can you do? Google Now gives you a handy list, including: Take a note, set a reminder, show your step count, send an SMS, send an email, see your agenda, navigate with Google Maps, set a timer, start the stopwatch, set an alarm (and show alarms), go into Settings, or Start an app (Compass, Fit or World Clock). I also noticed that IFTTT popped up in the list of apps I could start.
Making calls without looking at your phone is pretty cool. Paired up with a Bluetooth device, or in the car, this is an amazing experience and using voice control to place a call feels pretty futuristic. Of course, if you haven’t got a bluetooth device then you need to find your phone…
Taking a wider view, this is the first time we’ve really had a chance to play with Android Wear, so it’s apt to take a moment and share some thoughts about the OS rather than the product.
The UI is nice and responsive and playful. This is where Google’s going with Material Design and it’s a good test for the UI concepts. In many ways it feels like the ultimate evolution of what Google started on Google Glass. Cards, swiping, etc. I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see Glass turn into an Android Wear device – at the time I tried it, it felt like it was better suited to a watch interface anyway.
Interacting with the watch in a noisy environment (like a shared office environment) is pretty much never going to happen. A few times I raised the watch to my mouth and then got fairly selfconscious that I was about to talk to a piece of technology — and I didn’t really know what to say. I’d pick up the phone instead. This isn’t really a flaw of Android Wear, but it’s a notable aspect of the usage and control of your wearable device.
So, Android Wear is here … now what? It seems like the proof of concept period is over and now we want apps! Maybe we don’t necessarily want apps, but we want integration. It’s great that I can reply to Hangouts messages with the watch, but I can’t yet reply to tweets. How long will it take Twitter, Facebook, Skype and more to add Wear components to their apps?
Perhaps this is an area in which we’re likely to see small teams beat the big companies. There are already some third-party apps that allow you to send a tweet, though I’m not sure how they go with replies.
What Apps Do We Need?
So that’s the G Watch and an early run through of Android Wear.
Like any nascent ecosystem, there’s a limited number of Android Wear apps but it’s growing by the day. We thought it was worth doing a whip around the editorial team to see what apps we actually want in a watch, and whether or not Android Wear can satisfy those needs.
Jason: For me, Twitter needs a reply ability. It could also do with Retweet and Favourite options, actually. Ingress needs deeper integration in its notifications already on the phone, so I’m not holding my breath for that on a watch but while I’m playing the game on my phone, wrist-mounted controls would be awesome. I want to hack and attack using my watch.
Some PocketCasts integration for playlist control (as opposed to just the standard media play/pause/next/previous controls) would also be nice.
Chris: A dedicated WeMo app would be nice, but IFTTT makes it work fairly well. A voice command to send a Hangouts message as opposed to an SMS would be nifty as well, given Google’s focus on Hangouts as its communication platform.
Over to you
So, that’s the G Watch and that’s Android Wear. The general consensus amongst the team so far is that neither the device nor the OS are a home run. There’s quibbles and quirks and things don’t necessarily work the way we want them to, but it’s early days yet. The G Watch hasn’t yet been in consumers’ hands for a day.
We’d love to hear from you – what do you think of your watch, and what are your must-have Android Wear apps? Have you found any cool bits we haven’t covered? Tell us in the comments!