Google spent several extra months on the Android Wear 2.0 update after delaying its release last fall. Now the latest version of Google’s wearable platform has debuted on two new smartwatches, and it’s about to roll out to many of the older devices. Has Google done what it needs to make smartwatches work? Not so much. Google definitely fixed some things in Wear 2.0, but it also broke other things. Here are the best and worst things about Wear 2.0
Google is cleaning up the way apps work on Android Wear in the v2.0 refresh, and it’s about time. Previously, apps you installed on your phone that had Wear components would automatically sync over whether you wanted them to or not. Now, you can go into the new on-watch Play Store client and choose which ones you want installed.
Additionally, the on-watch Play Store lets you find standalone apps for your watch that don’t require a companion app on the phone side. The web Play Store even lets you push these apps directly to your watch likes any other Android device.
Some of the apps you install will, of course, be watch faces. The selection and customization of watch faces is much better in Wear 2.0. Now you can simply swipe left or right to change the face, or long-press to access the settings. There’s a standard UI for setting colors and complications (the added info widgets on watch faces), and the watch face selector lets you mark your favorites for easier access in the list.
Complications themselves have gotten a big overhaul as well. Developers can now include third-party complications that can be added to watch faces. So, if the built-in complications a watch face comes with aren’t good enough for you, simply add an alternative. For example, some watch faces have limited weather display functionality, but the fantastic Weather Timeline app has a third-party complication that can be added instead.
Android Wear 2.0 also adds support for an Apple-style digital crown. Yeah, it’s a blatant imitation of the Apple Watch’s signature navigation mechanic, but it works. It’s nice for scrolling through long lists, which you tend to see a lot of in Wear 2.0. The new LG watches have them, and future watches will surely adopt this design as well.
Notification management is one of the most important functions of a smartwatch, and Google made some big mistakes here. One of the most aggravating things about the Wear 2.0 beta was the unbundled, clunky notifications. Sadly, Google didn’t fix that.
In past versions of Wear, multiple notifications from a single app would be bundled together in the main UI. You could tap to unbundle them and open individual items. Everything is unbundled in Wear 2.0. That means each and every email, SMS, and other notifications are displayed as an individual item. If you get a lot of emails or messages, this gets tedious very, very quickly. What’s worse, the notifications for Gmail messages don’t even tell you from which account they originated. Media controls that are paused also tend to fall to the very bottom of the notification list, making it annoying to restart playback from the watch.
Another perplexing decision in Wear 2.0 was to disassociate Do Not Disturb mode on the watch and phone. Previously, setting DND on one also set it on the other. Now these are separate things. Setting DND mode on the watch only applies to the watch. So, if you want to stop both your devices from bugging you, you need to interact with both of them. This only makes sense in the context of Google’s efforts to make the watch more of a standalone device, which I think is a dubious idea at best. It makes more sense to treat the watch as an extension of your phone, and thus connect the do not disturb settings.
Android Wear 2.0 also adds more full-featured text input to the platform. A nice idea, but it’s not done well. Google just slapped a full keyboard on a watch and called it a day. When sending messages, you can still use voice input, but the keyboard is now an option. You can tap the letters or use swipe input. Neither one works very well at all.
Samsung actually nailed text input on wearables with its Tizen smartwatches. You just draw the letters and the watch continuously interprets your input and changes it into text. It’s fast and very forgiving of errors. Android Wear has this as an option, but it’s hidden in the settings and doesn’t work nearly as well.
Wear 2.0 is not going to make smartwatches a mainstream product. It even makes Android Wear less appealing in some ways for people who already like wearables. The improvements to watch faces, app management, and navigation are all good things. At the same time, notifications are more annoying and text input is still lacking.
It seems like Google is taking wearables in the wrong direction, attempting to make the watch more powerful as a standalone device. Instead, it should be working on perfecting smartwatches as a phone accessory.