Android Wear: great now, awesome soon!

15 Jul

As everyone who pays attention to tech probably knows by now, Google gave away the LG G and Samsung Gear Live watches at I/O, as well as early access to the Android Wear companion app. I went with the LG G watch and have been using it since then.

The Watch

This post is mainly going to be about Android Wear, but I will share a little about the LG G watch first since I’m sure some people are curious. I actually think the Samsung is a much nicer looking watch with the curved edges vs the LG’s blocky square look. At first glance the LG actually made me nervous that it was going to stick out too far and I would end up catching and hitting it on things, but early reports of poor battery life on the Samsung convinced me to go with the LG. I also figured that if I changed my mind the higher retail price of the LG would make it easier to sell and replace with the Samsung later.

I’m happy to report that while it’s not the most stylish watch ever, it’s not so chunky that it gets snagged on things, so far it has never been in the way.

The battery life does seem to be significantly better compared to the what my friends with the Samsung are seeing, especially on the first night when they were new and we couldn’t stop playing with them, their watches died when mine still had over 60% battery life remaining, despite their having immediately charged theirs when they got them (I didn’t have time to top mine off). Under normal circumstances they have had no problem with the watch lasting a whole day, but my this is what the battery is like when it’s new; as it ages it may indeed have difficulty staying alive for a whole day, especially if I’m right and they end up getting a lot more use than we initially anticipated (more on that later). Obviously comparing battery life is difficult because everyone’s usage patterns are going to be different, but I should mention that we all had at least turned off the always-on feature, requiring a flick of the wrist to turn on the display, so it was as close to an apples-to-apples comparison as we could get under the circumstances. I’ve since switched my display to always-on, and still have plenty of battery left over at the end of the day.

Even though I am generally happy with my decision to go with the LG G, I do have some complaints, some of which may be eventually fixed by software:

Notifications – There is no way to change the length or intensity of the notification buzz. The default notification buzz is so short and gentle that I often do not feel it. The buzz for an incoming phone call or alarm is stronger and more persistent so I have no trouble feeling those, so I would love to be able to increase the strength of the buzz for a normal notification. I do not know if Samsung allows you to customize this, or what the default buzz is like.

Screen on gesture – Turning on the screen with a flick of the wrist is not as elegant as it sounds. It does not seem to be controlled by a gesture or motion at all, — This complaint has actually already been fixed by an update since I started writing this blog post! It is indeed now controlled by an actual gesture, but it’s still not perfect: about half the time when I flick my wrist the gesture isn’t recognized, especially if the strap is a little loose. There’s also still a magical angle that, if you hold the watch at exactly that angle the screen is on, no matter what. You can turn the screen off and it will just turn right back on even if you are perfectly still. It’s a minor annoyance though, the worst case if the gesture is not recognized is that you try again, or touch the screen to turn it on.

The band – The wrist band material is uncomfortable. I may be in the minority but I really strongly dislike the synthetic rubber material that both the LG and Samsung watch bands are made from. It traps sweat, is generally uncomfortable, and eventually gives me a rash. Not to mention that it looks cheap to me. Fortunately, the LG accepts a standard band so I replaced it with this one which I’m happy enough with (but any 22mm band will work). I’m told the Samsung can accept a standard band as well, but I think it would look really bizarre because of the way the band integrates with the watch.

Charger – The charger is completely nonstandard. Not a big deal in general for the LG G since the battery life is generally pretty good (with the screen set to auto-off, I’m usually around 80% battery life before I go to bed, with always on about 50%), but it will be annoying to have to take another proprietary charger with me when travelling. The charger at least accepts a standard micro USB connector, so it’s really just another random dongle to lose in my bag. At home the cradle is certainly more convenient than micro USB would be, but it would be nice to be able to charge with the cradle at home and fall back to standard micro USB on the road, especially since the cradle includes an adhesive to hold it in place on your nightstand. The Samsung also has a proprietary cradle charger thing, and I’ve seen reports of the clip-on tab breaking easily, which can’t happen with the LG since it’s only held on by magnets.

Charging at night – The screen is always on when it’s connected to the charger. I was strongly considering keeping the charger in another room because the amount of light from the screen is enough to be annoying, but I eventually realized that the watch charges so quickly that there’s really no need to charge it overnight. Now I actually turn the watch off when I go to sleep, and pop it on the charger in the morning, which automatically turns it back on. By the time I’m done with my morning routine, the watch is fully charged.

Android Wear

On to what this blog post is actually about: Android Wear. I have to admit that if I didn’t get an Android watch for free, I would have passed up the first generation and waited to see if there was something truly exciting that I could do with them. Despite being psyched about the wearable computing movement, I just didn’t find the smart watch a very compelling application, with such a small screen and limited forms of input, it just seemed pointless. But even after my few days with the LG G, I was sure that if something happened to it, I would buy a new one in a heartbeat.

Why it’s great right now

Some of my favorite features:
Timer/reminders – I can say “ok google set a time for 30 minutes” or “ok google remind me to write a blog post at 4:30pm” and I get a buzzing reminder on my watch at the appropriate time. It’s not only super convenient but it’s way less disturbing to other people than a noisy alarm on my phone, and unlike a buzzing reminder on my phone, it’s completely impossible to miss when this is going off. I would like if it was possible to manage these timers/reminders from my phone, because part of the appeal of not disturbing people sometimes is also not having to loudly talk to my watch.

Agenda – Every night a card pops up remind me of tomorrow’s agenda from my calendar. This is great because I’ve actually never been good about consistently checking the night before to make sure I am prepared for the next day. Now it’s automatic. This may not work for people who go to bed before midnight because right now it seems to just be based on the date; the card pops up at exactly midnight. Since I’m a night owl, that’s more than enough time for me. If you want to see your agenda any time when the card doesn’t automatically pop up you just have to say “show agenda” to see it.

Navigation – Currently the only useful use case for this is when you are walking around in a strange city, but when you are it’s so nice. I feel much less conspicuous glancing at my watch periodically than walking around with my phone out. I feel this app could use some visual tweaks as it’s very plain/ugly right now, and I’d love for them to find a way to fit a little more information on it (a way to see the next step, landmarks, alternative street names) but even as-is it’s highly useful for walking.

Weather – Weather was the one thing I consistently went to Google Now on my phone for. Now it’s on my watch, usually right under the time. A swipe to the right shows the weather for the next 4 days. I’d love to see them add support for another swipe to show me the hourly breakdown for the next 24 hours like I can in Google Now on my phone, that information is often more useful to me than what the weather is going to be like in a couple of days.

Messaging & hangouts – It’s nice being able to read most SMS messages at a glance, but what’s really cool is how much less annoying it is to be in a group hangout with a bunch of chatty people while you’re busy doing other things. No more constantly having to pull out your phone to keep up with the conversation. It’s also really handy to be able to send a text message when my hands are otherwise occupied/dirty, like when I was in the middle of cutting up raw chicken and needed my girlfriend’s help with something but she was outside tending the garden, or like when I was kayaking and wanted to let her know I was getting close to where we were meeting up. Did I mention that the watches are water resistant?

Grooveshark & other media players – Grooveshark works right out of the box on this, even though our most recent release predates the existence of Android Wear. Once music is playing, a card appears on the watch with the album art along with artist and song names, with a Play/Pause button. A swipe to the right shows a Next button, and another swipe to the right brings up a Previous button. All of these work, right now with no work necessary on Grooveshark’s side. The only annoyance I have with this is that the card doesn’t come up until music is actually playing. So I can’t say “ok google, start Grooveshark” and then immediately control playback. I still have to get it started playing on my phone. But after that, controlling via the watch works perfectly. There are two use cases this is awesome for: When I’m cooking in the kitchen, I have my phone plugged into a small speaker system playing music. I can now see what is playing, and control playback, without having to walk over to it and unlock my phone. The other use case any time when I am listening to music on my bluetooth headset and my phone is in my pocket – I no longer have to fish it out of my pocket to control playback…that makes the whole experience so much more convenient in general, but it was especially nice on the insanely long flight back to Gainesville from San Francisco; fishing anything out of my pockets when sitting in a cramped airplane seat is a chore.

Netflix & Chromecast – Much like how you can control Grooveshark with the watch, you can also control Netflix when casting to Chromecast. I can just run into the kitchen whenever I want, and if it turns out I’m missing something I can instantly pause it. Previously if I wanted to have that option I would have to make sure to bring my phone with me, then turn it on, unlock the screen and finally hit pause…by which point I’ve already missed whatever I was trying not to miss, and of course half the time I’d forget to bring my phone with me anyway. It’s one of those things that I never really thought of as annoying before but I find myself greatly appreciating the watch for solving anyway. I do wish they had the “skip back 30s” option like the app does on the phone, and there is a minor bug that I expect will be fixed soon where the card stays on the watch after the show has finished playing and it’s impossible to dismiss until you toggle play/pause on the watch, even though it’s not even playing (even if the TV is off!)

How it can be even better
Even though Android Wear is great today, I’m especially excited for the future because it has so much potential to be thoroughly awesome. Here’s hoping even a fraction of these come true.

Better Casting: The way Netflix & Chromecast works, anyone in the house can control playback no matter who started it. Right now though, if my girlfriend starts something on Netflix, I have to start up the app on my phone, switch to our shared profile, turn on casting, wait a few seconds for it to figure out what is going on, and then I can finally pause. If Android Wear could just figure out that hey, something is playing on the Chromecast, so you should have control options, that would be truly awesome. Obviously the same would be true on the Android phone, but my expectations for awesome context awareness as so much higher for Android Wear because it already delivers that experience for some things.

Payments – I want to stop carrying a wallet, or at least credit cards, and I don’t think NFC is ever going to get us there: retailers need to buy new equipment, more than just flagship phones need to support it, and a standard that everyone can use and be OK with needs to emerge. Imagine if whenever you walked into a store you got a card on your watch along the lines of: “It looks like you’re in Starbucks. Swipe right to pay.” swiping right shows a one-time-use QR code that the retailer can scan. That’s a system that I think would actually have a chance of succeeding because it utilizes equipment that retailers already have, and doesn’t require users to fiddle around with anything, the information is just there when they need it. If, instead of Google Wallet, that was supported directly by Visa, MasterCard, etc., the friction to adoption would just melt away. In fact Visa and MasterCard might have a strong incentive to go along with it since the one time use nature could reduce fraud by eliminating stolen credit card numbers. The same technology could and should exist on the phone as well, but it would be truly convenient on the watch.

Where’s my phone?! – Maybe it’s just me but when I’m at home I have a penchant for leaving my phone in odd places and then forgetting where that was. If the watch is in range (and the range is quite good for bluetooth), I’d love to be able to make my phone buzz or ring from the watch.

Better media player support – As far as I can tell there’s no way to send a Play event like you can from bluetooth media devices. For example in most bluetooth enabled cars there’s an option for it to just send play to your phone the moment you turn the car on. I don’t want that to be automatic with my watch, but I’d love to be able to say “ok google, play” and have it send a play event to whatever media player I had open most recently (usually Grooveshark of course!)

Soundhound/Shazam – I’d love to be able to say “ok google, what’s playing right now?” and get an answer on my watch.

Fitness / health / sleep tracking: Some of this will have to come on a different watch from either of the ones available today, because even the Samsung doesn’t have continuous heart rate monitoring. There’s no denying that fitness is a killer app for wearables, and one that’s more or less ignored in this version. It does include step counting, but that’s it. Continuous heart rate monitoring, sleep tracking, waking you up at just the right time, and food/calorie monitoring are all good places to start, and it’ll be interesting to see what Apple’s take on this will be since rumor has it their watch will be health focused.

Speaker This one is tricky because one of the things that nice about the watch most of the time is that it is silent. But there are times where it would be really nice if it could read something back to me, or even reading it back to me via the phone’s speaker would be an improvement.

Wireless charging – The charger for the LG isn’t bad or too annoying, but the magnet isn’t really strong enough to guarantee that it seats properly without fiddling. What would be really nice is being able to just take my watch off and plop it on a tray without paying any attention to where or how it lands.

For the love of god let me turn off the screen when charging! – My current solution of turning the watch off at night feels weirdly old fashioned, and it’s not exactly easy, you have to dig through the settings to find the option to turn it off. Really I just want to be able to put the watch on its cradle at night and turn the screen off, there’s no reason for it to be on lighting up the whole room when I’m trying to sleep.

Make everything dismissable – Certain notifications are impossible to dismiss (like that Netflix one I mentioned earlier). It really should be possible to tell every single notification to fuck off if I really want to. Go ahead and make it a 3 step process, as long as it’s possible.

Pin/resurrect cards – At the same time I also occasionally find myself accidentally dismissing cards when I actually wanted them to stick around and was just trying to get back to the “main” screen. A stronger hint that you’re about to dismiss a card would help, but really it would be nice if there was a way to quickly undo. It’s especially bad because dismissing a “Google Now” card seems to teach it that you don’t want that card anymore. I accidentally dismissed the weather card and I had to look up the weather a few times a day for a couple of days before it started coming in on its own again.

Better watch faces – I know it’s super early, but for now I’m stuck with a black watch face because I wanted one that shows the time and date, and none of the colorful ones do that. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time, there have already been a bunch of 3rd party watch faces made so I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the perfect one for me exists.

Camera I’m officially in fantasy land on this one but some day in the distant future it would be cool to be able to take pictures straight from my watch. This was inspired from the most recent of many attempts to take a picture of an interesting creature in my back yard — by the time I got my phone out and fired up the camera app, it was gone. The biggest impediment to ever getting this is the creepy/spywatch factor, and the last thing Google needs is the same set of concerns people have about Glass.

Multiple device controls – This isn’t entirely Android Wear specific, but really in all of Android if you have multiple devices tied to the same account, dismissing a notification on one should dismiss it on all the others. My tablet constantly ends up with tons of useless notifications on it that I have already seen on my phone. Android wear has raised my awareness to the possibility of dismissing a notification on one device affecting the other, so now we just need to make it do that from my watch to all my devices, rather than just the phone it’s paired to.

Desktop integration – It would be really awesome if my watch could be more than just a remote extension of my phone. If there was a chrome extension, Android Wear would become even more useful: Controlling YouTube, Grooveshark, Netflix when they are running in the browser too? Yes please! I’d also love to see the same automatic lock/unlock functionality that’s coming to Android L, on my windows desktop. Even if it meant pulling up some card on my watch to lock the screen (or check whether it’s locked), that would be great.

3rd party integrations – Hangouts has me spoiled. Whenever I get a Facebook notification about a comment for example, I expect to be able to actually read the comment by tapping on the notification or swiping to the right, but right now all I can do is choose “Open on Phone” and then go find my phone. When app developers start including the full context in their notifications, they will be incredibly useful.

Wrapping it up
Android Wear is a great platform today, with a lot of potential to become truly amazing in the very near future. The watches available today are not perfect, but their drawbacks are minor, at least in the case of the LG G which I have experience with. If you have any interest in wearable computing or just making your life a bit more convenient, I think picking one up today is well worth it.



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