The watch on my wrist is big. Too big for my hand, maybe. But I’m more interested in what I can see when I lift my wrist. I peek at my step count, and then tap an album icon to hop into Google Music. I hop back out and scroll up quickly to peek at messages.
Android Wear has gotten a lot more polished since I last used it. And faster. But it’s still not fully there yet.
Google’s delayed software update to its Android Wear watches has finally arrived, in the form of two new LG watches co-designed with Google. The upgrade is also coming to most (but not all) earlier Android Wear models over the next few weeks.
LG Watch Style and LG Watch Sport are for different crowds — one’s slimmer and feature-limited, one’s super-thick and packed with everything from GPS and Android Pay to an LTE connection for phone calls.
But it’s not the LG watches that are most interesting, it’s the software inside. Android Wear 2 promises big changes to a troubled smartwatch platform that’s been losing out to what Apple Watch brings to the table. Can Google’s watches get better thanks to software?
I’ve been wearing both watches for about a week, and the answer so far is definitely yes. The biggest improvements you can look forward to:
Android Pay comes to Android Wear watches with NFC.Android Wear apps run better when away from a phone, or even independently with an LTE phone-connected watch or via Wi-Fi.A lot more info can be packed onto watch faces, and it’s easier to swap faces and customize them.Google Fit updates add more tracking modes and better workout interfaces.Google Assistant comes to Android Wear as a voice-activated upgrade to Google Now.
Do these make Android Wear, finally, a must-have? Not exactly. Or, not yet. But these software updates go a long way towards improving the whole Google watch experience. My testing was done via with beta software provided by Google in advance of release, so the experience could get better.
“Complications” are a watch industry term for little bits of info on your watch face, Such as, the date or your fitness progress. Or the weather.
Android Wear 2.0 is a lot better at accessing information quickly on the fly, thanks mostly to these added watch-face customizations. Apple’s had this already via its Apple Watch complications, but Android Wear 2 now offers them too, and more so than Samsung’s Gear S2 and S3. I studded one watch face with up to eight bits of info, all showing me quick-access info at a glance. Each bit of info can also act as an app shortcut, saving time. In general, it’s great news. But the problem is, few third-party apps currently support complications on the beta-access early software I used prelaunch.
There’s a shortcut for Google Music called “Now Playing” that jumps to music controls, and lots of fitness stats from Google Fit (steps, calories, fitness goal status). Calendar appointments and watch mode extras are there, too (time zones, sunrise/sunset, moon phases). I want sports scores, though, and weather or email. Those aren’t here yet. LG’s Sport and Style watches have a set of preinstalled watch faces that allow up to eight complications at once. That’s lots of customization, but not enough apps yet to take advantage.
Android Pay: Watch as wallet
Much like Apple Watch and Samsung’s Gear S2/S3, Android Wear watches with NFC can now make payments. Setup feels just like those other options: a credit card is added via your phone, and authorized to become a virtualized number. The LG Watch Sport I tried Android Pay on has three side buttons, and the bottom one brings up Android Pay. I tap it and I can make payments wherever Android Pay is supported with a swipe of my wrist. But other, older watches which can receive Wear 2 and Android Pay updates don’t necessarily have extra dedicated buttons — in that case, there’s an Android Pay shortcut that can be added to watch faces. I bought some Goldenberg Peanut Chews out of our office vending machine and all was fine.
Google Fit: Better, but messy
Google’s attempt to make a better on-wrist fitness app has made strides, mainly in how many workout types Fit recognizes and how the workout stats appear on-wrist. Tapping the top button on the LG Watch Sport lets me start a workout (like walking, jogging and more) and while the activity is going, I can look at stats on my wrist. Those three stats can be customized: I can add heart rate, distance or elapsed time, for instance. I can’t seem to add more than that, though. And I found the interface a little sluggish and chunky-looking. Bringing up daily Google Fit stats resulted in a slow “updating” message that felt less responsive than Apple Watch or Samsung Gear S3.
And Samsung’s watch has far more dynamic graphs, charts and ways to peek at your fitness info. Google Fit’s dashboard only has basic stats, and no clever fitness-goal graphics like Apple’s three-ring concept. I couldn’t easily log coffee or water, like on Samsung S-Health. And Google Fit doesn’t track sleep.
Google Fit does track activities automatically, but those sessions are recorded to Google Fit automatically and don’t show up on-watch. The Samsung Gear S3, comparatively, offers more heads-up data on your exercise and trends. Google Fit doesn’t give stand reminders, or any other sort of regular reminder. It feels quiet and sometimes too low-key for my tastes.
A better stand-alone watch
Theoretically, Android Wear is now a lot more independent of your phone than before. With Wi-Fi or LTE, the watch can connect to what it needs to function. Even offline, Wear 2.0 is designed to run apps on its own and minimize the “Check your phone” messages that used to be everywhere.
Android Wear 2 now has Google Play directly on-wrist, meaning I was able to download apps to the watch without messing around with my phone (I reviewed this while using a Google Pixel XL). But the app store experience on-wrist is pared down, and hard to browse. I’d prefer finding apps on my phone and cross-loading.
While Android Wear 2 apps are made to work on-wrist away from a paired phone, so far there aren’t a lot of updated apps to test out. On the LTE-connected, fully independent phone/watch LG Watch Sport, Google Maps handled navigation nicely, I could check messages, and I used Google Assistant to search for things as needed. The Google Play Store will also work even when paired with an iPhone, but the updated iOS app wasn’t available to review prelaunch. Stay tuned for that.
Better navigation, support for a digital crown-like wheel
Android Wear now supports a new type of input: a spinning-wheel crown design, much like the Apple Watch’s digital crown. The LG Watch Sport and Style both have spinning crown-buttons, and can be pressed to launch apps or use Assistant, or spun to scroll through messages or choose apps. Clicking in on the button brings up the app tray, and I then scroll to find what I’m looking for. On my watch face, flicking up on the wheel brings up notifications and messages. It makes peeking at info and navigating the small screen easier. Yes, it feels like the Apple Watch.
But it makes finding apps easier, and the scrollable app tray in Android Wear 2.0 is a better solution than the Apple Watch’s messy grid of apps. It’s also better than Samsung’s spinning wheel-of-apps design, and I got to what I needed faster (with 20 apps or so installed, at least).
Talking to Google Assistant: Better, and more of the same
Using Google Assistant, as it’s been renamed, on my wrist feels useful but all too familiar. Android Wear’s best feature was always its on-wrist access to Google Now and quick-access voice requests. I could get directions, or do a quick calculation.
Assistant doesn’t feel all that different in Wear 2.0, but it is tucked away more; you’ll need to press and hold the watch’s side button, instead of tapping Android Wear’s screen.
Unlike Assistant on the Pixel or Google Home, Android Wear’s version only uses text. It won’t talk back, even on the speaker-enabled LG Watch Sport. I can look for restaurants, check the weather, find appointments, call my wife, set alarms, and could even control Google smart home devices if I hook them in (which I haven’t). Assistant can be paired with a Chromecast or Google Home, too, which is a welcome plus — but I haven’t gone through tests with that yet.
Assistant is better than Samsung’s S-Voice assistant on the Gear S3, and it’s often better than Siri because it can be told to remember things. But it’s not perfect. It is, however, the one reason I’d probably recommend a new Android Wear watch to an Android phone owner over a Samsung Gear S3.
Then again, Google Now was always the best part of Android Wear in the past. It remains a strong part of Android Wear, but with superior voice assistants in devices with far-reaching microphones, like Google Home and Amazon Echo, it feels a little less essential. It could be a key part of knitting together smart home devices, and I think it might get there. But also I kept pressing the Assistant button accidentally with my wrist on occasion, particularly when doing sit-ups or activities (in which case it ended up pausing my progress).
Getting better… slowly
Android Wear 2.0 will be available for a wide range of watches, not just the LG Watch Sport and Style — it’s rolling out as an update, but it depends on your hardware model, much like Android updates on phones. If you already have an Android Wear watch that’s update-ready, it’s nothing but great news! Wear 2.0 feels more like a watch and less like a wrist-gadget with annoying Google pop-ups and few useful customizations. This is what Android Wear should have been originally.
But Android Wear hasn’t eclipsed Apple Watch and WatchOS 3, either. It’s a work in progress. If you’re an Android phone owner, you might even be better off with a Samsung Gear S2 or S3 for some of its features. But once Wear 2.0 settles in, adds more apps and runs on more watches, this could be the answer to better devices. I’m not fully sold, yet. But Wear 2.0 is a lot better than Wear 1.0.