One of the surprise announcements from Google's keynote session at I / O this year was Android Wear 2.0. Wear 2.0 is a major update to the platform — the biggest update yet, according to the company — and is designed to make Android Wear devices more functional and independent than they've ever been before.
There are three new highlights in the platform: a new, darker user interface with an all-new carousel app launcher; intelligent message replies that provide suggestions when you receive a message and a new handwriting and full-QWERTY keyboard; and new third-party app complications that can be used with both Google's and third-party watch faces. Additionally, Google has expanded the platforms fitness capabilities with automatic activity detection for strength training exercises, such as bicep curls and deadlifts.
The new user interface, which takes more advantage of hardware buttons on watches, is much more responsive and easier to navigate than earlier versions of Android Wear (at least on the LG Watch Urbane LTE 2nd Edition that we were demoed it on). The carousel app launcher is much easier to use than Google's earlier versions, and it takes advantage of a round display's screen real estate much better than before.
Complications for third-party apps is something that's very useful on the Apple Watch, and it's good to see it coming to Android Wear, as well. Apps can have widgets embedded in a watch face — even third-party watch faces — which launch specific apps or perform set actions when tapped. A to-do list complication could display how many things are on the list and take you right to it when tapped. Some watch faces have offered this functionality on earlier versions of Android Wear, but it's nice to see it integrated into the platform directly.
I'm less impressed with the new input mechanisms, such as the QWERTY keyboard and handwriting recognition. We unfortunately weren't able to demo the intelligent reply system, but we did get a look at the new keyboards. The QWERTY keyboard is just as you'd expect — very small and cramped on the watch display. Fortunately, it supports tracing, so you don't have to peck out each letter, but it's still a bit clumsy to use. The handwriting recognition may be more useful, especially if you're just tracing out a simple one-word reply to a message.
Android Wear 2.0 is available today for developers and will be launched publicly later this year. Google's big pitch with it is that it makes your Wear watch more independent from your phone, and takes advantage of new technologies like LTE connected watches. We're looking forward to spending more time with it to see how it shakes out in the real world.