Android Wear 2.0 is available now — at least in the form of two new smartwatches from LG. But it’s also coming to a pretty big list of existing Android Wear watches — and future smartwatch releases (though fewer than you might think, since HTC and Motorola have officially bowed out of making them for the time being). If you have one of those watches, you’ll probably want this upgrade, which is slowly rolling out over the next few months. If you don’t have them — will Android Wear 2.0 be the thing that convinces you?
Well, no, probably not. But that’s okay — if we’ve learned anything over the past year it’s that smartwatches have found their purpose. They’re mostly good for notifications, fitness tracking, and little bits of information on the watchface. If that sounds useful to you, you will be happy to learn that Android Wear 2.0 is better than ever at them, arguably on par with the Apple Watch in some cases.
The big news with Android Wear 2.0 is that these watches are moving ever closer to becoming standalone devices. They’ll work with either Android phones or iPhones, and because they have their own Wi-Fi (and sometimes LTE!), they can go on and get apps and do stuff even if they’re paired to Apple’s locked-down devices. (The biggest thing Android Wear 2.0 can’t do is work with iMessage.)
We’ll have a full review of the software soon, but for now think of it this way: it’s gone from being a teenager with a learner’s permit to having a real driver’s license. It’s not quite all grown up and ready to face the world, but it’s at least able to handle itself without needing constant supervision.
So here are our favorite features of Android Wear 2.0. Some of them are kind of surprising — who knew a tiny keyboard would actually work in a pinch?
If there’s a big theme with smartwatches in the past year, it’s that their first incarnations were way, way too complicated. Apple figured this out the hard way — having to pare down its initial, high-flying claims about the future of wearable computing to something a little more simple.
Google, luckily, never promised that Android Wear would change the entire world. But it did make a UI that gave us way too many options: long-press for one thing, swipe over for another, swipe again for contacts, swipe down for this, up for that, and so on and so on. It was easy to forget what to do and how to do it.
With 2.0, Wear is a lot simpler. Swiping left and right switches watchfaces, which is easier and something you’ll want to do more often. Swiping up brings up your notifications, swiping down a little setting shade. You hit the main button to launch the simple app list or long-press it to launch Google Assistant. And that’s kind of it — if you want to do something more complicated, you can launch an app or set something as a custom complication on your watchface.
The new UI focuses Wear down to just the stuff that people actually want to do with a smartwatch, and leaves the harder stuff out of your way. It’s there for people who want to set it up, but totally ignorable for people who don’t want to bother.
Last but not least, Wear 2.0 supports “rotational” input, in case your watch has a crown you want to spin or a watch bezel you want to twirl.
Android Wear has always had an advantage over the Apple Watch in that you could download and use any number of third-party watchfaces. And despite (or maybe because) of the thousands of options, finding the right one was always a little difficult. Some were too nerdy or just too ugly, most were about 10 degrees off from what you really want.
So you’d end up installing one of several apps that let you create your own — and in the process discover that your ability to design a nice-looking watchface was far exceeded by your ability to see that you are not a designer. And so you got ugly watchfaces.
With Wear 2.0, you can customize the in-built watchfaces directly from the watch, and there are way more options than there used to be. You can easily change colors, complications, backgrounds, and much more. It will probably take a minute for watchface designers to release faces that work with the new system, but when they do we should be able to have round watchfaces that actually look decent while giving us the information we want — all without requiring a degree in both computer engineering and graphic design.
This is the big deal for a lot of Android Wear users. As with custom watchfaces, it always seemed like you could get this close to designing the face that you want on your own, only to have some critical element like the weather, time zones, steps, or something else missing. All that should be fixed now.
App developers can make complications available to any watchface, and they can both display information and launch apps. In lieu of an impossible (and impossibly slow) contact list, you can just put your favorite contacts right in a complication to send them a quick text.
We’ve only been able to test out a handful of these complications, but they work like they’re supposed to. They’re little circles of key information, displayed decently. Hopefully more will be on their way soon.
The best part? They work when the screen is in ambient mode, so you can always see them.
Apps without your phone
This might seem like a weird thing to be excited about, but having the Google Play Android app store directly on the watch is a Big Deal. It means that iPhone users will be able to do much more on their smartwatches without getting blocked by Apple’s restrictions. Because these smartwatches are just Android devices, they don’t have to follow Apple’s rules if they’re paired to an iPhone.
There are benefits for Android users, too: namely you can choose which apps you want on your watch separately from what’s on your phone. So for me, I have The Weather Channel installed on my watch because it offers a watchface complication, but Dark Sky on my phone because I prefer its rain alerts. And I can finally (finally!) avoid having Delta’s hot garbage smartwatch app installed on my watch. Good riddance tiny QR code that I will never use taking over my watch screen.
Oh, and browsing or searching for apps directly on the watchface is as awkward and weird as you would guess. But the good news is you don’t have to do it on the watch. You can just go to the Google Play website on your desktop, find the app you want on your watch, and click a button there to have it installed on its own.
Google Fit seems way better
Now that Google has figured out what people actually want to do with their smartwatches, it’s beefing up one of the most important features: fitness. Google Fit on Wear 2.0 has a bunch of new exercise options, and some of them even offer guided “challenges.” Select “Push-up challenge” or “Squat challenge” and the watch will show you a little animation of the proper form and then monitor your actual exercise with its motion sensors.
More sensor options than ever
Watch makers have just a boggling number of connectivity options when they make Android Wear 2.0 devices. These smartwatches all have Bluetooth, of course, but they can also feature Wi-Fi, LTE, GPS, NFC, and heart rate sensors. Maybe more. Google says that Android Wear will automatically select the best internet connectivity option available to it, depending on the circumstance. Sometimes that’ll be Bluetooth from your phone, sometimes it’ll just straight up be LTE directly from the watch.
LG’s Sport and Style smartwatches are basically at the two extreme ends of the spectrum. The Sport is a beast with everything possible in it, including LTE for streaming music during your run so you don’t have to fuss with remembering to load up the smartwatch with songs before you set out. (It will also let you make calls and send texts — and on some carriers it’ll do so with the same phone number as your phone.)
The Style, on the other hand, is bare-bones. It has Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, but nothing else. That keeps it skinny, but it also means you’re not going to be making any Android Pay transactions with it.
Replying to message is a key part of a smartwatch, and Google has done a good job of improving those tools in Wear 2.0. For apps custom-designed for Wear, you can tap a little reply button right in the notification. For the rest, you can still reply with a tap and a swipe (it uses whatever it built into your phone’s notification tray). iPhone users will have fewer options.
But when it comes time to actually send the message, Google is using the “Smart Reply” feature we’ve seen in Inbox and Allo. The default replies are contextually aware — so Slack replies are more likely to be about work and messaging replies sent at the end of the working day are more likely to be about agreeing to go to the store to pick up milk.
Want to compose your own message? Google has included two text-entry options above and beyond what was already there (voice input and emoji). You can draw out characters and it works pretty accurately. But the biggest surprise is there’s an option to use an itty-bitty QWERTY keyboard. It seems ridiculous (it’s kind of ridiculous), but instead of tapping at insanely tiny keys you swipe your finger to type in the words. And... it’s accurate — like shockingly accurate, and we found ourselves actually using this dinky little keyboard way more than we expected.