Two weeks with Wear

Written July 24, 2014

Is Android Wear any good, and should you buy a smartwatch?

I have been a Google fan for years. One of my most memorable moments from early school days was making the switch from Dogpile to this new, “Google” thing. I begged on forums for a Gmail invitation, tried my best to get our family to coordinate Christmas presents through Wave (for the whole one Christmas it existed), and even considered buying the HTC Dream when my job meant it could only be used a quarter of the day.

Since the appearance of Google Glass in 2012, I’ve been hooked on the wearables ecosystem and the flexibility it offers. When Google announced Android Wear at I/O this year, I made sure to get an order in for an LG G Watch as soon as possible.

For just over two weeks I have been using Android Wear as “normally” as possible: wearing it daily, using it when it makes sense, and only changing my routine in minor ways to suit Wear. After fifteen days, even as early as it is, I am completely certain that Google has a winner.

What does it do?

The first question on most people’s minds, certainly mine, was what a smartwatch would actually do?

First, it puts your notification bar on your wrist.

Any notifications and the actions that appear underneath them are put on your watch. Instead of seeing them all at once, you swipe through the list vertically, and slide across to see each action you can take. This is the one, killer feature, that Wear gets so perfectly right you can’t possibly imagine why it didn’t exist earlier.

Instead of pulling your phone out of your pocket, pushing the lock button, unlocking your phone, sliding the notification bar down, and reading your friend’s “lol”, you just twist your wrist. No buttons. No swipes. No effort.

The other major feature is immediate access to voice search with the “Okay, Google” hotword.

Combine the two together and you start to get a sense that the real point of Wear is being able to conjure up the most relevant piece of information at the exact moment you care about it.

Does it work well?

In the grand scheme of its lifetime? It’s a bit awkward right now.

Wear is a very early product, and it shows in almost every facet of its design. There are confusing omissions, strange inclusions, and some general wonkiness about how the system operates which made it tough to get my head around for a few days. I have no doubt these will all be patched up and smoothed out over the next few months, but right now it’s a little bit of a mess.

For example, its only methods of feedback are to show something on the screen or vibrate. But the only indication a voice command was understood — or even worse, misunderstood — is visual. Looking back at my watch a few seconds after (I presumed) sending a text message, I was greeted with a screen asking “Which one?” and a voice prompt, leaving me confused for a few seconds about exactly what it wanted me to clarify. A simple double buzz of the vibration motor to let me know the watch had a question, or single buzz to acknowledge my command would have been appreciated.

A watch that reads "Which one?" with no indication of the valid options

Connecting Wear also doesn’t tell your phone not to notify you. If you thought your phantom vibrations were bad before, now you’ve got twice as many buzzers going off every time somebody likes that Facebook picture of the cat doing something dumb.

The core functionality, however, works well. Voice recognition performs as expected, the UI is (mostly) clear and understandable, communication between the devices is quick, and it does a pretty good job of giving me the information I want at the right time.

The reason I bought in now is to see what we can do with this new functionality. What sort of interesting things will happen with a screen that’s always on, right there on my wrist, with the power of my phone to run it?

Should you get one?

There are two questions I ask myself when I’m trying to review something:

  1. If it broke, would I buy another one?
  2. If this was just a test period, would I buy it now?

I’m biased on these answers, because I think Wear is a fantastic idea and will turn into a sizeable product segment for Google in a few years. I want to be part of the conversation as it grows, so I’m willing to put forth the early adopter’s fee.

Would I still buy one if the front-row seat to the cutting edge wasn’t important? Probably not. The next generation of watches will likely have heart rate sensors, better accelerometers, sharper screens, and Qi charging. On top of it all, they’ll be cheaper.

At the end of the day, Wear still has some growth before it’s “ready” for the brunt of Android’s billion users. It needs to include more of Google Now, it needs to give more feedback, and it needs developers to make experiences that aren’t possible from your pocket. But it sure is cool.