Five things Android Wear needs more of to really take off
By Eric Mack
August 12, 2014
Android Wear-powered watches have made their way into the wild, but the wider public of consumers seems to have taken little notice. Join Gizmag, as we list five things that the Android Wear ecosystem could use a bit more of to really get the general public excited about the prospect of wearing Android on their wrists.
For early adopters and mobile or gadget-obsessive types like me, the northern summer kicked off with the kick-off of Android Wear at Google I/O, and by the first week of July, new Wear-powered smartwatches from Samsung and LG started to make their way into the wild.
At least a few of them did. There's no official data on sales of Samsung's Gear Live watch or the LG G G Watch, but so far I'm the only person I've seen wearing one. Media attention and general interest in Android Wear has also appeared to wane in the weeks after the release of the platform and two initial watches running it.
It's a bit of a shame, too, as I found my time with an LG G Watch – generally considered to be slightly inferior to Samsung's Gear Live watch – to be quite enlightening with regard to the clear potential of Wear. With that in mind, here's my list of five things that the Android Wear ecosystem could use a bit more of.
This is a problem that seems to be taking care of itself, although too slowly for my taste. Search the Google Play Store and elsewhere for Android Wear-compatible apps and you'll find perhaps a few hundred apps of varying usefulness and quality, but so far Google has only seen fit to include less than 50 of them in its curated collection of Wear-able apps. (Google does appear to be updating this list, although I can't say how frequently.) Of that list, I only count about a dozen that I could ever foresee using, and I'm including apps like Tinder and Lyft that are of little use to me personally, but I can imagine how they could be useful to other people in Wear mode.
Of course, Android apps that use notifications will at least be capable of pushing those notifications to your wrist, but most non-Wear smartwatches also have this capability. It's the ability of Wear to go deeper and interact with apps that makes it an exciting platform. Not being able to act on notifications from big names like Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook makes me worry that the Wear app roster will remain devoid of significant value, much like the current lineup of Windows 8 "metro" apps.
The good news here is that I hear about cool new Wear apps just about every day, from the first game, called Swip3, designed with an Android smartwatch in mind, to simple apps that use the watch to control the volume on your phone or set off an alarm to help you find it in your sofa cushions. There's even a Wear app to help you quit smoking and Facebook has announced Wear support for its Messenger app is on the way. That's a great start, but it's going to take a deeper library of well-known apps to keep average consumers from being disappointed with the platform.
The entire concept of smartwatches is built off the notion that it should be easy to view notifications without having to pull out your phone, but again, Android Wear's advantage is its ability to go deeper with apps. Ordering a car from Lyft by simply speaking a command and getting turn-by-turn navigation instructions via vibrations on your wrist are delightful slices of the Jetsonian future we've all been waiting for.
Within a few days of using Wear, I found myself increasingly frustrated when I ran into the platform's equivalent of a brick wall – a screen asking me if I'd like to open the app in question on my phone. This is the default option Wear gives when there are no further actions that can be taken from the watch.
The answer was almost always no, I don't want to open this app on my phone. Perhaps my phone is charging in the other room or I'm trying to be subtle without pulling it out, or yes, maybe I'm just too lazy to dig in my pocket right now. Often I would find myself wanting to browse through my entire Gmail inbox on my watch, not just the latest notifications. And once notifications are dismissed, they're gone forever, which I found to be another frustrating limitation in Wear. Even much simpler smartwatches like the Martian Notifier have a notification history feature.
And yes, I would be willing to watch a YouTube video on my tiny watch face if only Google would allow it.
My complaints in this section are pretty minor. For the most part, Wear does seem to be a stable, almost ready for prime time product, but I did stumble across some bugs pretty quickly. When navigating for example, the Maps app on my LG G Watch didn't always display all details of my route on screen. I'd need to swipe back and forth to make them appear after being buzzed to prepare for my next turn.
I also found that voice dictation had a very low tolerance for any background noise. I can't say for sure if this is a software or hardware problem, so the fault could lie with either LG, Android or both. Even just turning up the air conditioning fan in my car would greatly reduce the system's ability to correctly recognize my commands – more than once I dictated a text that Wear transformed into complete nonsense and then sent to the completely wrong contact before I had a chance to cancel. There's at least one architect in Wisconsin that I've met in person only once who is probably still wondering why I offered to bring home some sushi for him from New Mexico.
Finally, and I know I'm getting picky here, but how about some pinch to zoom capability in Maps and other apps? That tiny image displaying my full route when navigating isn't of much use.
More battery life
Plain and simple. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that a device with a screen that stays on most of the time wouldn't last much more than a day per charge, but I found it jarring. The watch screen can be set to turn off when idle, but I found the extra step of waking it up to be a pain that partially defeats the purpose of a watch in the first place.
I did easily get into the routine of nightly charging, but the proprietary charger on the G Watch was a little bulky and easy to forget when on the go. So, while it's not a deal breaker, the endless pursuit of the holy grail of better batteries applies to smartwatches too.
Let's see that Moto 360, already! LG's half-hearted design of the G Watch and Samsung's only slightly better Gear Live watch are not the devices that will ignite a wearable revolution. Ordinary consumers will get more value and satisfaction out of a Wear watch than they currently realize, but they'll never be willing to give it a try without a selection of watches that bring a little more style and feel a little less like strapping a tiny computer screen on your wrist.