JR Raphael

9 big questions about Android Wear watches -- answered!

July 08, 2014 10:45 AM EDT

Android Wear Questions AnsweredBack when Android Wear was first announced in March, there was plenty of reason to be excited -- and plenty of reason to be skeptical.

That's why I posed nine make-or-break questions about the platform at the time -- nine giant unknowns that could determine whether the Wear experience would be absolutely awesome or infuriatingly awful.

Now that I've been living with Android Wear and the first two Wear watches for a while, I thought it'd be worth revisiting those questions to provide some answers.

Here we go:

1. How will manufacturers make their Android Wear watches different?

Back in March, I wondered how much control device-makers would have over the Wear experience. Would we see intense skinning of the software, like we do with Android, or would Wear deliver a consistent user interface from one watch to the next? Early product renders raised plenty of uncertainty.

The answer is that the core Wear software is almost completely identical on any watch you use. The basic UI remains the same; the only thing manufacturers can do is add in their own custom watch faces, which sit alongside the stock Wear designs as choices you can select. (The differences in watch face design were ultimately responsible for the variations we saw in those early renders.)

Android Wear Faces

There is one other asterisk: Manufacturers can also add preloaded apps onto the watches. So far, those consist only of a world clock app on the LG G Watch and a heart rate monitor and stopwatch on the Samsung Gear Live -- the latter of which, somewhat comically, actually duplicates functionality already present in Wear itself. Hey, that's Samsung for ya.

Samsung has also said it intends to work more of its own custom apps into the watch in the future, so that's something to (oh yes) watch out for.

2. What kinds of sensors will the Android Wear platform support?

An accelerometer, compass, and gyroscope seem to be standard across the board. Samsung's Gear Live has a heart rate sensor, too -- so as I speculated might be the case, sensors will indeed be one point of differentiation from one smartwatch to the next.

It'll be interesting to see if any other new types of sensors pop up as more products come along.

3. What sort of supplementary hardware will be available/required for home automation?

This is an odd one: When Google previewed Wear in March, it released an introductory video that showed someone opening a garage door by saying "Okay, Google, open garage" into her watch. As of now, however, there's no sign of built-in support for any such command -- and we haven't heard anything about hardware partners that might offer such functionality anytime in the near future.

That said, there are some home control-type functions you can perform with Wear right now. There's a Wear app available for controlling Philips Hue lights via your watch, for instance, and a Wear-ready app from IFTTT that can hook up to devices like Belkin's WeMo Switch. Chances are we'll see more such options appear as the Wear ecosystem continues to expand.

4. How sensitive will Android Wear devices be when it comes to voice commands?

Voice commands are a huge part of the Android Wear experience. In addition to the standard "Okay, Google" wake-up command, Google's initial Wear marketing materials showed users simply saying "Reply" to respond by voice when new text messages came into their watches.

Android Wear Voice Input

That made me wonder how easy it'd be for a command to be accidentally activated -- especially one triggered by a relatively common word like "Reply," with no distinguishing "Okay, Google" in front of it.

As it turns out, it's not an issue -- because the "Reply" voice command is nowhere to be found in the current Wear watches. Maybe Google decided the risk of accidental activation was a real concern. Maybe it's going to be added in later. Who knows.

Android Wear Text Message

For the moment, though, the only thing a Wear watch listens for is "Okay, Google" -- and it responds to that command only when it's illuminated, which means you've either touched the screen or lifted your arm to wake it up. From there, the sensitivity really just comes down to how loudly you're speaking and how noisy your environment is, much like it would with voice control on any other Android device.

The software isn't trained specifically to your voice, like it is on the Moto X, but given the need to activate the watch before the voice command will work -- and the fact that "Okay, Google" is the only command that can initiate a new action -- the risk of someone else's voice activating your watch by mistake seems pretty low.

[Talk to the wrist! 40 handy voice commands to try with Android Wear]

5. What kind of battery life can we expect from the first Android Wear devices?

I'll have detailed thoughts on this subject in my upcoming Android Wear watch reviews, but in short, the LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live seem to be in the same general ballpark when it comes to stamina: Both should be able to get you safely through a full day of use, but you'll almost certainly need to charge either of them every night.

6. Does the screen stay on all the time with Android Wear watches?

It's actually up to you. By default, Android Wear watches sit in a dimmed mode most of the time -- basically a scaled-down black-and-white version of the watch face. When you touch the screen or raise your arm, the watch lights up into its fully illuminated glory.

If you prefer, you can set the display to remain off most of the time and then still light up when you touch it or raise your arm. That'd presumably stretch your battery out a little longer, but I'm not sure that the tradeoff will be worth it for most folks. After all, a big part of the watch's value is being able to look down anytime to see relevant info at a glance; having the display off most of the time takes away much of that usability, especially when the device already has enough juice to make it through a single day in its default configuration.

7. Will apps be able to do anything more than interact via notifications on Android Wear devices?

Yes, indeedly, though we're really only starting to scratch the surface of what might be possible.

Already, apps are available that can do things like track detailed exercise info from your watch, allow you to order food via your wrist, and enable you to request a Lyft ride simply by speaking into your Wear device. (And don't forget the home control stuff we talked about a minute ago.)

The number of apps with Wear-specific components is growing every day, too. Google has a page with a handful of featured titles, but the company won't actually be creating any sort of watch-specific app store -- and in fact, you'll never overtly install an app to your watch. Rather, regular Play Store apps can simply include watch-based components that then automatically appear on your watch when the apps are installed to your phone.

8. Will Android Wear watches be able to function as standalone devices?

Make no mistake about it: Wear smartwatches are definitely designed to be companion devices that stay connected to your smartphone. Without a phone around, though, they aren't entirely useless.

They'll still function as watches, for one, giving you the time and the date (thank goodness). You can still set timers, start a stopwatch, and scroll through any cards already on the device. Basic fitness tracking features are always available as well. Non-data-dependent functions like the built-in compass work fine, too -- and that's about it.

As you'd expect, the watch can't retrieve any fresh info (including alerts that hadn't already been synced for upcoming calendar appointments) without an active connection. Voice commands also won't work when disconnected, though you can still scroll through a list of available options and make manual selections. As for music, Wear watches don't currently have the ability to store any music of their own; they only control audio that's streaming on your phone. So without the phone in place, there's nothing available on that front.

9. How will software upgrades work with Android Wear?

Get ready to celebrate: Google has gone on the record as saying that it -- not the hardware manufacturers -- will be responsible for rolling out software updates to all Android Wear devices (and in fact, we've already seen one early update that hit both the G Watch and Gear Live at the same exact time). That makes sense, given that the software is basically the same across all devices and manufacturers can't mess with the UI.

And as anyone who's spent much time using Android devices knows, that's a very, very good thing.

Android Power Twitter So there you have it: answers to our nine original make-or-break questions about Android Wear. The big question, of course, is whether Wear adds enough value to your life to make it worth owning -- and that's a question I'll tackle in my upcoming real-world review.

It'll be online soon.

UPDATE:

Android Wear deep-dive review: A smart start to smartwatch software
Samsung Gear Live vs. LG G Watch: A real-world evaluation
Moto 360 hands on: A closer look at the Wear watch worth waiting for