After months of teases and previews, including yesterday's demo-mode units at Google's I/O developer conference, we've finally gotten the chance to try out Android Wear for ourselves. It's Google's take on the smartwatch, and that's more than just a way of saying it's an Android smartwatch. Instead, Android Wear is Google through and through, from the look and feel that foreshadows the coming "Material Design" aesthetic of Android to the deep integration with Google Search.
After just a few hours with Android Wear on the LG G Watch, consider us impressed. The Pebble smartwatch shows how paring down features to the bare minimum is a compelling way to make something accessible, and the Galaxy Gear showed the potential of cramming in tons of features. But Wear splits that difference while adding the power of Google's voice search features. The result is a compelling combination of simplicity and surprising power.
At its heart, Android Wear is a system designed to show you notification cards. It has an interface with very few visual cues to let you know how to operate it. Instead, it gives you a brief tutorial when you first set it up, teaching you the various swipes and options available to you. That setup process will be familiar to anybody who's used a smartwatch with Android before, but the permissions warnings issued as you set up notifications can be a little off-putting.
The entire system is optimized for notifications
First, you'll need to download and install the Android Wear app from Google Play, ensuring that the various supporting apps that work with it (like Keep and Google Play Services) are also up to date. Once installed, you'll need to do a quick Bluetooth pairing process and also visit Android's settings to give the watch permission to access your notifications.
Getting around Wear involves four basic swipes. You swipe up from the bottom to scroll through your notifications, swipe right to dismiss them, swipe left to access actions for each notification, and finally swipe down to access a special shade that lets you mute notifications. Instead of dealing with apps, you just act on these notifications as they come in.
Each notification presents itself as an informational card that looks like an iteration of the Google Now cards we've seen on Android and on Google search on the web. But they're slightly cleaner and easier to read — it's a design direction that gets us closer to Google's master plan to unify design across Android, Chrome OS, and the web, called "Material Design." High-minded aesthetics aside, the important thing to know is that the information presented is completely "glanceable" — it takes just a quick peek to see what the watch is telling you.
Alongside the clean notifications are subtle background cues. If a contact sends you a text, their profile photo takes over the background of the watch. If it's flight information, stylized planes appear. Weather, email, transit directions, and more all use background images to help you see exactly what's on the screen with the tiniest of glimpses. With smartphones and other smartwatches, you have to look right at them. With Wear, you just need a peek.
Although it's not a core part of Android Wear, at least two of the watches we've seen have an always-on display mode that turns the background black but still lets you see the time and your most recent notification. It saves power, and to activate it you just need to move the watch or tap it. The G Watch and the Gear Live also feature step counters, which Wear can handle natively without forcing you to consult your phone to see their data.
Voice commands are fast and accurate
But the best part about Wear is dealing with notifications. On any of them, you can swipe to get to actions. Every single Android notification already automatically works with Wear, and in some cases their more complex actions also work. If somebody sends you a text, you can swipe over to send a reply by speaking to your watch. You can archive or delete emails, load up boarding pass QR codes, and much more. Finally, when you dismiss a notification on either Wear or on your phone, it also gets dismissed on the other device — a trick no other smartwatch has gotten right before.
It will take some time before developers figure out the best way to utilize these features, but Google's promise that you won't need to pull your phone out as often rings true.
Making almost everything about notifications is a radical kind of simplicity which means that, quite often, there's simply nothing to do with your smartwatch. Where the Gear and the Pebble give you ways to poke around and do random things, Wear does not; even music control uses a notification card. The only exception to that rule is the ability to change watch faces. You access them by long-pressing on the home screen. The G Watch has 20 or so to choose from. Some of them are very neat and some are just plain ugly, and for now you just have to pick among the ones that are preloaded. Google says the ability for developers to create new watch faces will probably come in a future update.
There's one more core element to Wear: voice commands. By saying "Okay Google" or simply single-tapping on the main home screen, you bring up a voice search that's powered by Google. If you haven't used Google's voice search services on Android or Chrome lately, you might be surprised by how deep and rich your options are here. You can see immediate results from Google's Knowledge Graph cards, instruct the watch to send a text, take a note, set an alarm, and more.
If you're the sort of person who's constantly settling bar bets by searching Google (and don't mind using voice search to do it), Wear is going to be your new best friend. Even in noisy environments, voice recognition was shockingly accurate and very fast — though you sometimes have to get the watch up near your mouth to make it work.
There is one problem with the voice commands: Wear doesn't give you the option to train it so it will only work with your voice. It took only a few minutes of playing with the watch before my friends started teasing me by yelling "Okay Google" while I was using the watch. In fact, if you've trained Google Now to know who your boss or your husband is, it's totally possible for somebody to just sidle up next to you and get your watch to send them a text. Cool if you're doing it, not so cool if somebody else does.
"Okay Google, text my boss."
But at the end of the day, the most important thing to remember about Android Wear is that it's essentially Google Now on your wrist. That has upsides and downsides. The upside is that when Google Now can nail the exact context of what you need and when you need it, it's ridiculously convenient. Walking into the airport and having your flight information waiting for you on your watch is incredible.
The downside is that Google Now isn't perfectly aware of what you need. You can't reorder notifications and you can't really be sure when some of them will reappear. So if you accidentally dismiss the weather, you're out of luck unless you want to do a voice search to check it again. Basically with Android Wear you are putting yourself at the mercy of Google Now and its algorithms.
We know what a smartwatch that tries to do everything looks like; it's Samsung's overwrought Galaxy Gear. But Android Wear doesn't try to do everything, it just tries to do the right thing at the right time. Nobody but Google could have built a smartwatch like this, and its success will hinge as much on Google's ability to guess what you need to know as it will on the quality and design of the hardware.