Android Wear 2.0 was worth the long wait

When Google introduced Android Wear back in 2014, the smartwatch industry was young. The only players worth noting were Pebble, Samsung (with its Tizen-based offerings) and a few other niche options (like Sony’s proprietary Smartwatch OS). Google, however, aimed to kick the door wide open with the same approach it had taken with phones: Instead of making both the watch and the software, it would court different hardware manufacturers, cultivating a diverse set of designs along with a robust third-party app ecosystem.

Three years later, the bet seems to have paid off. Although it’s had to fight off tough competition from the Apple Watch, Android Wear has survived and, according to Google, thrived. “If you compare the holiday season of 2016 with the holiday season the year before, we saw more than 70 percent growth,” says Android Wear VP David Singleton (not that that’s necessarily saying much). And so with all of that success comes time for the second iteration of Google’s wearable OS, Android Wear 2.0. It’ll be available first on the newly announced LG Watch Style and Watch Sport on Feb. 10th and will roll out to compatible existing hardware in the coming weeks.

This update, according to Singleton, is the platform’s biggest one since the birth of Android Wear three years ago. “With 2.0, we really looked hard at what people are using their watches for,” he said. “We saw that usage was really focused around watch faces, messaging and fitness. So we really optimized 2.0 for those things.” But Google improved a lot of other aspects of Wear as well, including the user interface, navigation and notifications.

First, let’s talk about watch faces. As with the previous iteration of Android Wear, you can swap in whatever face you like, either by selecting it on the companion Android Wear phone app or by adding it directly on the watch. But with Wear 1.0, there was often a tradeoff: You could either choose the stylish but barren design, or the complex but informative one.

With Wear 2.0, however, you can have the best of both worlds. That’s because any watch face, as long as it supports complications, can now be customized with data from any app. Swapping out the complications is as easy as long-pressing them and then picking its replacement, which can be anything from calories burned to an app shortcut.

As with Wear 1.0, tapping on each complication brings up the related information card. So for example, tapping the calendar launches the agenda for the day, while the step counter shows how much progress you’ve made towards your 10,000-step goal.

And say you want different complications for different times of day — you want the Nest function when you’re at home, but not in the office, for example — you can customize different watch faces for different use cases. Switching watch faces is as easy as swiping left or right on the active watch screen, so you can simply change from one to another depending on where you are.

Indeed, the Android Wear team took care to make navigation a priority with the 2.0 update. “We really condensed and simplified things,” said Jeff Chang, an Android Wear product manager. “We measured the number of taps and swipes between things, to get that down as few as possible.” So for example, oft-accessed settings are now combined into one display. Swipe down from the active screen and you’ll see toggles for airplane mode, Do Not Disturb and as a settings shortcut.

One press of the side button launches the app menu, and navigating through the list can be done either via a rotating crown (if your watch has one) or the touch screen. If you’d rather not scroll through your lengthy list of apps, you can also long-press a favorite to pin it to the top. The menu will list recently accessed apps first, followed by favorites and then the rest by alphabetical order.

Notifications have changed drastically as well. Instead of glaring white cards that take up the bottom half of the screen, there are now subtler notification icons. Also, the notifications themselves are now color-coded and contextual. So Gmail notifications have a red background, for example, while Hangouts are green. They only appear when you bring the watch up to your eyeline; a few seconds later, the watch face resurfaces again. If you like, you can access all of your recent notifications by swiping up on the main screen. The watch’s overall UI is also much darker. “It’s not only easier on the eyes, and it’s a lot easier on battery life as well,” Singleton says.

As for those incoming message notifications, replying is as easy as tapping; do it once and you’ll immediately be brought to the reply menu. (Though bear in mind this is the experience on Android; the feature is extremely limited on the iPhone.) In addition to using your voice or drawing an emoji, Wear 2.0 introduces a full-on touch keyboard as well. At first this sounds pretty ridiculous on such a small screen, but it’s surprisingly intuitive. You can either swipe through words like you can on Swype or Swiftkey, or you can use handwriting recognition. Either way, I found that the word detection to be surprisingly accurate, with only a few occasional errors.

Another way to reply to messages is through Smart Reply, which is powered by Google’s machine learning. You’ll see a list of what it thinks your reply will be depending on the context of the message. Much like the feature of the same name in Inbox, Smart Reply should be able to offer smarter and better responses over time as it learns more about you.

Speaking of machine learning, Android Wear 2.0 also finally brings Google’s Assistant to the watch. Say “OK Google” or long-press the power button, and you can ask all sorts of queries, like “How did the Warriors do against the Cavaliers?” or “How many tablespoons are there in a cup?” or “Is it going to rain today?” It can also be easily integrated with third-party connected devices like the Nest thermostat or Philips Hue lights, or services like Uber and OpenTable.

Now onto fitness. Android Wear 2.0 has Google’s preinstalled Fit app just as before, but the experience is much more improved. You can see your calories, pace, distance as you sweat it out, and if your watch has a heart rate sensor, you’ll see your beats per minute too. It’ also keeps track of how much you’ve been walking and cycling throughout the week, and offers gentle reminders to get going towards your goal if you haven’t met your mark. Plus, it will congratulate you when you succeed.

The new Google Fit is also a lot better-suited to indoor workouts as well. Simply say you’re on a treadmill or a stationary bike, and it’ll track your workout accordingly. Another great feature for strength-training fans is that it can also now count reps when you’re weight lifting and coach you through push-ups and sit-ups. “The watch actually recognizes that you’re doing it,” Singleton says. “So there’s no cheating.”

There’s also a special treat if your Android watch has LTE. With Wear 2.0, you’ll finally be able to stream music to the watch, without having to download the songs first. The default option would be with Google Play Music, but Spotify should be compatible soon as well. You’ll probably want to use Bluetooth headphones to listen to your tunes, unless you want to blast your playlist to the world around you as you’re running.

Oh, and say you’d really like a refreshing drink after you’re done with that run. Well, if you happen to be close to an establishment that accepts Android Pay, you’re in luck. That’s because Android Pay is finally coming to Wear 2.0. So if your watch happens to support NFC, you can just tap it to the reader to pay for that bottle of water.

Last but certainly not least, Wear 2.0 has a completely reimagined App store model. Before, the only way to load apps onto the watch was via a companion app. Not anymore. Now you can browse the Play Store right on the watch and even download certain apps directly, without the need for a corresponding phone app. This is especially useful if you have an iPhone — you’ll finally be able to download and use third-party apps regardless of what phone you have. Of course, not all apps can be operated as standalone — some will still require an Android phone for full functionality. But if you are an iPhone user, you won’t see them in the Play Store anyway; only compatible apps will show up on the watch.

On the whole, Android Wear 2.0 is a welcome improvement. It doesn’t just look better; it’s also much easier to use than before. What used to take several taps and swipes now just take one or two. The new messaging and fitness features are welcome as well. But it’s the introduction of Google Assistant and the standalone App Store that takes Wear 2.0 from good to great. Not only does it make Android Wear much less dependent on the phone, it’s also now that much more compatible with iOS — making it the toughest contender against the Apple Watch yet.

Engadget RSS Feed

Android Wear is getting a massive overhaul this fall

It’s been over two years since Android Wear was introduced, but smartwatches are still very much an unproven commodity. But Google has been making plenty of tweaks and refinements to its watch-based OS to hone the features owners find most useful. Today at its annual I/O developer conference, Google is announcing what Android Wear VP David Singleton is calling its “biggest platform update yet”: Android Wear 2.0. It’s a visual and functional overhaul organized around the three things Google has found to be most important for Android Wear users.

The core uses for Wear so far are glanceable information, messaging and fitness. Each of those parts of the OS have been improved, but the changes actually reach far beyond just that. “For the very first time, we’ve been able to take a holistic pass across the design of the entire system and UI to really hone and tune the interactions around key things that people want to do,” Singleton says.

Some of the most profound changes to Wear come under messaging, so let’s start there. Many of the changes Singleton outlined go far beyond messaging apps, most notably notifications in general. Gone are the white cards that you’d swipe through to see what info Android Wear is pushing to your watch. Now each card has a dark but colored background as a visual cue to what app wants your attention. Hangouts is dark green, Gmail is red, and so forth.

The bigger change is that notifications no longer take up the bottom 10 percent of your watch face. Instead, if you receive a notification, the next time you raise your watch to your eyeline, you’ll see the card slide up into the display as a visual cue. It then recedes and gives you a clean view of the watch face. “It’s an obvious but also quite subtle cue that there’s something to take action on in the stream of cards, but then it goes away again,” Singleton explains.

Of course, you can still swipe up from the bottom of the watch face to go through your various notifications and cards — and there’s a host of new features if you want to reply to a message. You can already reply by voice or with the emoji-sketching feature introduced last year, but now Google’s gone mad and added a full keyboard, handwriting recognition and smart replies to Wear. All are available to third-party apps, as well.

All three of these new reply features are powered in large part by Google’s machine learning. Smart reply works like the same feature in Inbox: After reading your message, the app will suggest salient possible replies that you can just tap to send. If those smart replies don’t say what you want, you can sketch letters on the watch screen or use a tiny keyboard to swipe out a message. You can hunt and peck if you want, but swipe seems like a much better experience on such a small screen.

“We’ve worked really hard to make this work well for small screen devices,” Singleton says about handwriting recognition. “Our machine learning techniques recognize both the strokes that I draw, but also if I draw multiple strokes it can actually adapt the word that’s being recognized based on the context of what went before.” And once you type or swipe a single word with the on-screen keyboard, Wear will start suggesting words to follow it, again based on machine learning. In a lot of cases, you should be able to type or swipe out a couple words and then tap the suggested options to complete your message. I was extremely skeptical of a watch-sized keyboard, but in the brief demo I saw, it worked far better than I would have expected.

There are a few other UI changes, as well. Across the entire system, Google is using swipe-up-and-down gestures to hide navigation and actions. If you pull from the top of the screen, you’ll get the “wearable navigation drawer,” which lets you move through the various screens in an app. Pulling from the bottom brings up the “action drawer,” which is where you’ll find buttons to perform specific functions. “Having to give over a lot of real estate to moving between screens or taking actions means that the user has to do more scrolling,” Singleton says. “It’s harder for apps to just show at a glance the information that you care about.”

The next major change to Android Wear was introduced as a fitness feature — but the implications go far beyond fitness. Any app for Wear can now operate in a “stand-alone” mode, running on the watch itself with unfettered network access. Whether pulling data from your phone’s connection, a WiFi network or a built-in LTE connection, these apps can now operate fully untethered from your phone. If you want to go running with just your watch, for example, this means you can stream music from Spotify without having to sync songs in offline mode first.

Furthermore, stand-alone apps mean you’ll be able to find and install apps directly from your watch. Previously you had to go through your phone to add new apps. Perhaps the most notable thing about this change is that iPhone users with an Android Wear watch will have access to far more apps. Right now Wear is extremely limited if you’re pairing it with an iPhone. But with 2.0, you’ll be able to browse and install stand-alone apps straight to your watch, regardless of what phone you pair it with. So far it’s been hard to recommend Wear devices to iPhone users, but that may change when Wear 2.0 arrives.

The big fitness-focused change here is a new API called the activity recognition API. As you might expect, this lets the watch better identify what your body is doing at any given moment and launch the appropriate app to track your activity. “If I just start running, within about 10 seconds [fitness app] Strava can launch and show my time, my distance and my pace for my run,” Singleton says. “It just launched itself, in the right context.” Unfortunately, it sounds like the API only recognizes walking, running and biking, at least for now.

As for glanceable information, Google has built a new complications API that’ll let any third-party app display whatever it wants on any watch face. The watch face has to support complications, but once it does, any app can plug into it and share information there. The app developer decides what (if any) data it wants to make available. But if you’re building a watch face, as long as it’s designed to support complications, any app will work with it.

That’s a big change from how things have worked: Developers needed to design and build their own custom faces to share data from their app. And there was no way to have a variety of complications from different apps. Now end users will have a lot more options for customizing their watch to show the info they want to see.

Ultimately, Android Wear 2.0 doesn’t radically change the OS: It’s still based primarily on your notifications and Google Now cards, with richer app experiences becoming more common. That said, Google is definitely improving what it sees as Wear’s most important features. That should benefit all users. The updated UI, notifications and complications will be useful to everyone with a Wear device, and compatibility with the iPhone should take a big step forward. Unfortunately, you’ll need to wait a bit to get your hands on version 2.0. Google is seeding it to developers today, but consumers won’t get to try it until later this year.

For all the latest news and updates from Google I/O 2016, follow along here.

Engadget RSS Feed