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Google is revamping the Wear OS smartwatch user interface

Google is revamping the Wear OS smartwatch user interface


And adding a Google Assistant feed

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If you have a newer Wear OS watch, sometime in the coming month, you’ll get a software update that will change what happens when you swipe on your watchface. Alongside the new UI, Google is also adding a new feed of information from Google Assistant, faster access to Google Fit, and a more information-dense view of your notifications.

It’s a much-needed cleanup and refinement for the big changes that came in Wear OS 2.0 (née Android Wear). That update changed a bunch of stuff to make it easier to get to apps and switch watchfaces, but it also felt like a significant step backward when it came to reading notifications. Currently, you can swipe left or right to change watchfaces. But when the new update hits, those gestures will map to something new, and you’ll need to long press to change faces.

Here’s what you will see on your watch using the new system, starting from the main watchface:

  • Swipe right: Google Assistant feed of information
  • Swipe left: Google Fit’s new fitness-tracking rings
  • Swipe up: notifications
  • Swipe down: Quick Settings shortcuts
  • Long press on the watchface: change watchface
  • Short press the main button: see all apps
  • Long press the main button: invoke Google Assistant to ask questions via voice

Let’s examine the changes one by one. The most important change is the one you see above: a feed of information from Google Assistant. It’s designed to show you relevant info about your day, like calendar details, package-tracking info, and the weather.

It’s very similar to the Siri watchface on the Apple Watch. It’s also similar to the “visual snapshot” feature that was recently added to Google Assistant on phones. (However, on both iOS and Android, that feature is buried under a confusing button.) Most of all, it’s similar to a once-highly touted thing called “Google Now,” which purported to give you predictive information cards about your day.

I’m not sure what Google is calling this feed. It’s just referring to the information as “proactive” help. The company seems more interested in pushing the general idea of Google Assistant than putting a clear brand identifier on this feed.

Next are notifications, which operate basically the same as before. They still mostly mirror what’s on your phone. Dismissing a notification on your watch will do the same on your phone, and many apps will allow you to quick reply with suggested chips. But the best feature here is that Google is going back to a more information-dense display that puts all your notifications on a single, scrollable pane instead of having them fill the entire screen one by one.

Swiping left will now take you to the new Google Fit interface, which shows the two new rings that Google is has created to track your health. One is “move minutes” and the other is “heart points.” You can read more about what those rings mean and why Google changed up Fit here.

Last but not least, swiping down takes you to a slightly revamped Quick Settings pane, which adds two oft-requested buttons: one for finding your phone and another for Google Pay. More (but perhaps not enough) Wear OS watches come with NFC now, and the Google Pay button will make sure that the chip is on and ready to pay when you walk up to the point-of-sale terminal.

Oddly enough, Google wasn’t willing to say whether this update to Wear OS is getting a version number; until it rolls out, I can’t say whether it’s Wear OS 2.1 or 2.5 or whatever. It’s a relatively quiet update for a platform that has had a relatively quiet year (or more). I’m glad to see Google iterating on the software, and the changes do seem to be an improvement. But software tweaks aren’t the problem.

Wear OS needs new processors more than it needs new software

The problem is that we are still waiting for a good processor that fashion brands and tech companies can use to make watches that don’t all look like variations on the same theme: a kind of thick, kind of slow, circular watch that can only make it through a single day of use before dying (less, if you use GPS or LTE). Qualcomm says that it’s coming — potentially this year.

For both Android and iPhone users right now, Wear OS has a ton of different watches you can choose from, but none of them are very good. There are a bunch of signs that Google is looking to change that: this software update, the coming Qualcomm processor, the revamped Google Fit, and a new emphasis on increasing the quality of Wear OS apps are all signs that point to a more serious attempt to take on the Apple Watch.

If that’s all true, we should start seeing a new generation of Wear OS watches that are actually worth considering, and rumor has it that Google may make a “Pixel Watch.” It’s very nearly make-or-break time for the platform — and the clock is definitely ticking.