Google breathes new life into Wear OS smartwatches with today’s update

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Today, Google will begin rolling out a software update for Wear OS smartwatches. I’ve been using this new version for about a week, and although it’s nowhere near as advanced or as fast as what you’ll get on an Apple Watch, it’s a big improvement over what we had before.

As I wrote last month when Google first announced that the software update was coming, Google is changing what happens when you swipe on the main watchface. The new interface represents a more opinionated and focused take on what a smartwatch’s purpose is supposed to be: simple fitness tracking and replying to notifications. It also leaves room for Google to experiment with new features without interfering with the core stuff you care about.

That’s a much less ambitious set of goals than what Apple elucidated for the Apple Watch Series 4, which is entirely appropriate. Wear OS has long had a hardware problem: the partners creating Wear OS smartwatches have tended to produce pretty enough but technically deficient devices. And so Wear OS needs to have simpler goals, ones achievable on the out-of-date processor it’s typically running on.

I’ve been testing on two different Fossil-produced smartwatches: the Skagen Falster 1 and the new Fossil Gen 4 Q Explorist HR. In both cases, I think the new software seems nominally more responsive than before. But it’s just as (if not more) likely that the new animations and gestures just feel better.

You should be aware, however, that even the newest, just-released Wear OS watches like that Fossil still use the same, out-of-date Qualcomm 2100 processor that has caused so much consternation. Newer watches with the next-gen Qualcomm processor are still pending, but the main improvement it will bring is increased battery life, thanks to a co-processor. The main app processor is the same as before.

So Wear OS still doesn’t feel fast, especially when loading apps. Google Maps took as long as five seconds to start filling in the map — that’s loading time, not waiting for data.

Here’s what the new interaction behavior will be once you get the update:

Those four swipes will take you to a screen that’s been improved over what was available before. Google Fit, for example, has recently been updated with a new set of health-tracking rings that abstract your step count and heart rate into two different health rings. I prefer the new rings, but those who want more detailed fitness info might think it’s a little too simplistic. Neither Wear OS smartwatches nor Fit can do nearly as much as Apple’s ecosystem, but Google’s system is a better foundation to build on than what we had before.

The recurring theme with this update is about setting a better foundation. The same thing applies to notifications. Instead of having to swipe through them one by one, you can now smoothly scroll through them in a single pane that more closely mirrors what you see on your phone. You can still expand them, use Google AI-created quick replies to send messages, and swipe them away.

Quick settings also has a more useful set of buttons — six of them now — including one to toggle on Google Pay. I especially like that when you’re playing media, this panel surfaces a now-playing button that shows your current song and a pause button.

The reason I think this update serves as a nice foundation for future updates is that Google has shunted off the “ambient” information bits to the left-hand side of the screen inside what is now being called the “Proactive Assistant.” It’s a feed of personalized information like the weather, upcoming calendar events, flights, and so on.

That kind of information used to sit in your notifications, and putting it all to the side in a single place makes a lot more sense. It also means that if (or, let’s be more realistic, when) Google wants to experiment with what its AI will show you, it can do it over there, instead of being more intrusive about it.

Wear OS 2.1 is a very nice update for existing users, and my understanding is that it should be available via a relatively simple update for nearly all of them. However, it’s not the sort of update that I believe should change your calculations about buying a new watch. It handles the basics much better than before. But I think for most Android users, it’ll be worth waiting to see what a new generation of watches can do before spending your money. And though Wear OS watches work with iPhones, you would have to really like round watches to pick one over an Apple Watch.

This update constitutes a small reset for the platform, one that lays a better foundation for future upgrades. It’s enough to bring me back to using a Wear OS watch without gritting my teeth, but it’s not enough to make me want to get a new one.

Comments

If google is serious about wear, they need to build their version of what wear should be. Just like what they do with the Pixel phones.

Just like what they do with the Pixel phones.

Pixel phones, while they have good cameras and fast updates, the hardware is truly mediocre.

There’s a LOT to be said for fast updates and decent cameras. Midrange hardware as long as it provides a nice smooth user experience isn’t a deal breaker for me. I guess, what I’m saying is what people pay for is a premium phone EXPERIENCE, and I think for most people, Pixel offers that.

2013 – the iPhone is the best because of the overall experience!
2018 – the Pixel is bad because it doesn’t have a maxed out spec sheet

Asking for something better than a dated design and middling displays isn’t maxing out the spreadsheet.

I don’t know if ‘truly mediocre’ is an accurate description of the Pixel hardware. It’s pretty unadventurous, I’ll concede; same processor as all the other flagships at time of release, similar amount of RAM, similar storage options, similar waterproofing etc.

Pixel phones don’t tend to break new ground hardware-wise, but they do tend to be pretty reflective of current flagship specs, which almost by definition isn’t ‘mediocre’.

To me its the OLED display of the Pixel 2 XL and the dated design or the standard Pixel 2.

Isn’t Wear their version of Wear…? They control the whole experience and don’t allow much customization as far as I know. I will say they need their own watch, hardware. And they need to improve Wear in general, add more features, fluidity, battery life, health features, etc.

They should take control over the SoC more than anything, the Qualcomm ones really suck.

If google is serious about wear, they need to build their version of what wear should be. Just like what they do with the Pixel phones.

What a ludicrous statement. WearOS on fossil or Huawei Watch is completely unskinned. it’s Google’s best efforts at the software, and it isn’t good enough just yet.
Given that the Pixel phones have middling hardware (minus the cameras), there’s not much rationale for a belief that they can outdesign their OEMs best efforts.

This opinion seems rooted more from a deep love for Google than actual facts.

New Pixel phones are newsworthy, a new fossil smartwatch is not. It doesn’t matter if it’s twice as good as the latest apple watch on every spec and they sell if for $99. If no one knows it exists, it won’t sell.

Google taking the lead and showing off what their money can do is the only thing that can beat Apple at their own game. Showing off non functioning mock ups at best buy is the opposite of hype.

‘Newsworthy ‘

Yes. To the niche group that buy them. They sell in irrelevant numbers compared to many other Android OEMs. But I digress.

This line of thought from you folks is that it’ll take Google to magically make smart watches capable of taking on Apple. And people have rightly pointed out that that seems to be a pipe dream since their best software efforts paired with excellent 3rd party hardware have so far failed to yield fruit.

They can’t just do that though. The problem is that there isn’t a good watch CPU available and Qaulcomm isn’t interested in making one (their "new" one is fabbed in 28nm technology with the same CPU core as the original – the 845 is fabbed in 10nm). The smartphone market is so big Qualcomm will create good CPU’s here because there is a good enough market to justify the investment.

Here, you need to do the investment because this will be a good enough market down the line. Google literally needs to make their CPU (and several follow year revisions) with top tech or pay Qualcomm to do so….otherwise this market won’t get a CPU until its developed (under Apple) and Qualcomm can say that’s worthwhile now…. JMHO…

Wear OS Proactive Assistant sounds a lot like its Google’s version of the Siri Watch Face on Apple’s WatchOS.

Or like Google Now, which was always a fantastic idea that needed to be fleshed out. I’m so glad, it’s the best predictive useful ai system in the industry.

Yeah. Google really blew It by abandoning Google Now. I always felt the way iOS displays Card-like Widgets these days was influenced by Google Now.

aren’t the card-like widgets just an evolution of the notification system on iOS? They look exactly like incoming texts, mails, etc.

It should be. I’m hoping Apple
Unifies the Widgets and Notifications into
one swipe down screen, by using AI and Machine Learning. Certain Widgets like Weather could be pinned to the top.
Others could appear as needed based on time, location and use History.

No they are not.
Also Google Now has been introduced in 2012.

One killer feature that would push for a mass adoption of Wear is compatibility with WhatsApp push to talk voice messages, I’m not a fan of that but I could say the majority of people I know only/mostly use that

Looking forward to this for the Google Now/Google Assistant features alone. The assistant has been SO helpful recently for me.

"I’ve been using this new version for about a week, and although it’s nowhere near as advanced or as fast as what you’ll get on an Apple Watch, it’s a big improvement over what we had before."

Last week, referring to Apple’s new phones you guys seem to be dismissive of iterative design.

The whole idea of the tech industry being credible enough to review a product, is laughable.

You do know the iphone and the apple watch are two different products right?

I’m sure he does, he’s pointing out the hypocrisy

When I bought my S3 Frontier, with the possible exception of the Huawei watch, it was the only non-Apple Smartwatch worth considering in my mind. The other, non-Google watches were either too expensive or were closer to fitness trackers than smartwatches.

I’ve been pretty happy with my Samsung watch, but I DO miss Google assistant from my Moto 360, SVoice sucks, and I don’t believe Bixby will ever be as good as even Cortana.

This can only be considered good news.

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