If you rely heavily on your phone for notifications, be prepared for some good and bad news. The good news is that you have access to all of those notifications on your wrist, so you don't have to take your phone out. The bad news is that while you can filter out certain apps from sending you notifications (bye-bye, Candy Crush Saga invites), you can't pick and choose which notifications you receive from within a particular app -- in other words, the watch can't decide which emails make it to your watch and which ones don't, so you have to see all of them.
When I pull down from the top of the screen, I see a shade with battery percentage and today's date; I can also mute my notifications if I continue pulling. This is handy when I don't want to be distracted or am trying to sleep, but I wish Wear offered quiet hours during which it would automatically turn off notifications when I go to bed. (That's if my battery lasts through the day and night, which wasn't always the case with the early Wear watches I've played with.)
The Samsung Gear Live comes with a button on the side that lets you turn the display off, but covering the screen with your palm will do the same thing on every Wear device.
To pair the watch with your phone, you'll need to download the Wear companion app through the Play Store. It's essential for setting up your watch, but you'll find little use for it otherwise. The main screen shows a link to Wear-compatible apps in the Play Store and a list of eight voice actions. You can choose which app to use for each particular command, which will come in handy as more apps start showing up. So, let's say Uber adds the same ability to call a car as Lyft does, and I want to use that service instead; I'd have to select the "call a car" voice action and choose Uber from the list of possible apps, so that Wear doesn't keep defaulting to Lyft.
The companion app also has a list of settings tucked in the top-right section of the app. You can mute specific apps, as mentioned earlier; turn off the always-on display; silence notifications on your phone when the Wear is connected (why get vibrations on your wrist and in your pocket?); show calendar events; and keep the top card from showing up when your display is dimmed. Finally, you can use the app to pair a different Wear watch if necessary.
The app doesn't have an option to manage watch apps, which seems odd since there isn't a way to do this on the watch either. Perhaps it's because Wear-compatible apps automatically get installed on your watch once you've downloaded them onto your phone. This seems like an oversight. There may be certain apps that you barely use on your handset and have no interest in using on your watch; why not give users the option to get rid of the unnecessary clutter?
Essentially, Wear is a version 1.0 product, which means there's still a lot of work to be done. It's been a good experience thus far, but there are plenty of ways that Wear simply doesn't fit the bill, and you'll need to be aware of them if you're going to plunk down $200-plus for a smartwatch.
First, there's the excessive touching. If users have to go through the effort of tapping or swiping the screen on a regular basis, there's little incentive to use the watch instead of simply pulling out a phone. Most activities on Wear eventually point back to your handset anyway: Nearly every card in the Context Stream (excepting the step tracker) has an option to open on your phone, as if it's somehow faster to swipe down to the card, swipe across to that button, tap on it and then pull out your phone to access it. If you're going to use your phone, you might as well just whip it out from the start. What's more, if you give a voice command that isn't included in the supported list, or if you ask a question that can't be found in the Knowledge Graph, the watch provides you with a series of three cards, each one representing a different website that -- shocker -- you can tap and open up directly on your phone. Congratulations, you just wasted a minute by using your watch.
If you're going to use your phone, you might as well just whip it out from the start.
I'll discuss this more in the next section, but battery life is a big challenge here. There's a huge amount of computing and processing going on behind the scenes, on a colorful, capacitive touchscreen that by default doesn't turn off. Throw in voice commands, keyword detection and a tiny battery, and it makes sense: Of course the battery life is going to suffer. The problem is, users aren't going to want to plug in their watch as often as their phone. Until Google can find a way to extend the battery life by a few days, Android Wear will struggle to be anything more than a niche product.
Navigation is also an issue. Google Maps is technically compatible with Wear, but it only shows one step at a time. Given that card-stacking is an option on other apps, it'd make sense to use this style to display upcoming steps along your route so you could plan ahead. Swipe to the left to reveal a high-level map of the entire route that's void of any useful details; my brain comprehends visual maps more quickly than text, so I'd find this screen more useful if I could zoom in closer.
Additionally, voice commands for navigation will automatically default to driving directions. You can specify if you want biking or walking. Oddly, if the phone can't find a route, it doesn't bother telling the watch -- you simply get taken back to your clock face as if nothing even happened. And when I asked Wear for walking directions from my office to the Golden Gate Bridge, it presented me with a card with Google search results for three unrelated websites. (OurSausalito.com? Really?) Unfortunately, transit directions aren't supported either.
I've already mentioned the problem of excess notifications. The longer my Context Stream, the more inconvenient the watch experience becomes. Not only am I wasting time with countless swipes, but my anxiety increases when my wrist is vibrating a hundred times a day (this is actually a low estimate for me). There's no VIP list and no way to block out unimportant emails. It's possible to mute specific apps, but that's of little help when you're getting a flood of messages that don't require your immediate attention. At least when you do dismiss a notification, it disappears from both the watch and the phone.
Hardware: Samsung Gear Live and LG G Watch
LG and Samsung are the first companies to produce Wear watches, and both are available in the Play Store (LG's G Watch is $229 and Samsung's Gear Live is $199). A third watch, the Moto 360, was shown off at Google I/O last week and will be released later this summer. I'll touch briefly on the G Watch and Gear Live; since Google won't allow custom firmware or user interfaces, you'll essentially get the same Wear experience on both watches.
When it comes to firmware, the only differences you'll see between the two are in the clock faces. That said, Samsung's found a loophole by adding its own stopwatch and compass, so you can choose to use either those or the stock versions. In any case, those are minor alterations, so the important points of differentiation are in the hardware, with each offering a unique personality.
The Gear Live is definitely your best looking option. At least, until the Moto 360 comes out.
Which one is better? Suffice to say, the two watches each have trade-offs you'll need to weigh, but the Gear Live is definitely the best looking (at least, until the Moto 360 comes out). Their internals are similar too:
| ||Samsung Gear Live ||LG G Watch |
|Display ||1.63-inch sAMOLED, 320x320 pixels ||1.65-inch IPS LCD, 280x280 |
|Battery ||300mAh ||400mAh |
|Processor/RAM ||1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon 400; 512MB RAM ||1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon 400, 512MB RAM |
|Water resistance ||Yes, IP67-certified ||Yes, IP67-certified |
|Dimensions ||37.9 x 56.4 x 8.9mm, 59g ||37.9 x 46.5 x 9.95mm, 63g |
|Storage ||4GB internal storage ||4GB internal storage |
Both have the same dual-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon 400 processor, 512MB of RAM and 4GB internal storage. They each offer interchangeable wrist straps -- I especially appreciate this on the Gear Live -- and both feature a square shape. They're also IP67-certified, which means they have the same water and dust resistance as the Samsung Galaxy S5. I wouldn't take either one scuba diving, but you'll be fine wearing them while washing dishes or taking a shower.
Because both watches have the same engine underneath the hood, I didn't notice any difference in performance. They both smoothly, with only the occasional frame skip. In my comparisons, apps loaded in the same amount of time, and each one processed voice commands quickly.
I've already alluded to battery issues, but let's get specific. The Gear Live's battery is a mere 300mAh, while the G Watch has a capacity of 400mAh. That sounds small, and it is small. I strapped both watches on my wrist and used them during a full workday. My to-do list included four navigation routes, at least a hundred emails, hailing a Lyft driver and countless voice commands. When I finally got home 12 hours later, the G Watch had 20 percent life remaining, while the Gear Live had 15. After leaving them on mute overnight -- a seven-hour event -- I woke up to find the G Watch at 5 percent and the Gear Live at 2 percent. All told, LG's watch lasted around 90 minutes longer than Samsung's. The G Watch almost made it a full 24 hours, while the Live came in at roughly 22.
On weekend days with lighter use, I was able to push the life of both watches another eight hours or so, at best. There are a few ways to extend your battery life further, but since they significantly reduce how useful the device is, it completely defeats the point of using a smartwatch. You can turn off the always-on display setting so you're just staring at a black screen whenever the watch sits idle. You can turn down the brightness (I tested the watch at about 60 percent), limit the number of routes you navigate, mute notification-heavy apps and so on. But if you're constantly worrying about battery life, you're basically chained to yet another device.
Samsung Gear Live
You might confuse the Gear Live for one of its Tizen-based siblings, the Gear 2. It has a chrome band around all sides of the display, but it's all for show; you won't find any cameras or buttons here. There is, however, a button on the right-hand side, which powers off the active display with a quick press and brings up the settings menu when you hold it down for a few seconds. (I'd love the option to map this button to other actions.) Just like the latest Gear watches, the Live comes with a heart rate sensor on its belly, along with some pogo pins to connect a charging cradle.
It has a 1.63-inch Super AMOLED display, with a resolution of 320 x 320. Breaking out my trusty pixel-density calculator (or cheating by looking at Google's product page), this translates to 278 ppi, which is actually good for a smartwatch. Of the two watches, the Live is easily the sharpest and most color-saturated, but it's also a fingerprint magnet and hard to see in direct sunlight.
Because the back of the Gear Live has a slight curve on the top and bottom, it's more comfortable to wear than the G Watch. That is, as long as you don't count the miserable wristband that feels like you need five hands and divine intervention to snap together. It's a mere four grams lighter than LG's watch, but a full millimeter thinner.
The charging cradle is nothing new for Samsung, but it's just as annoying. For a device that you'll need to charge once a day, it's not so easy to manage. It's a tiny cradle that has to be fitted just right onto your watch, and then you have to make sure it's snapped in securely before plugging the charger in.
LG G Watch
The G Watch has many redeeming qualities, but attractiveness isn't one of them. Featuring Gorilla Glass 3, stainless steel on the sides and a polycarbonate back, it's very solidly built, but it's also a boring square with no stand-out features. In fact, though, this was very much done on purpose: According to LG's design team, the G Watch is designed to help content look like it's floating above the screen. Extra tweaks often distract from the point of the product. I get the concept, but unfortunately it also works the other way -- the lack of any design whatsoever can often be just as distracting. It's a stark contrast to the gorgeous LG G3, which successfully found the middle ground between too flashy and not flashy enough. This watch falls in the latter category, and it's going to struggle to stand out from the Moto 360 when it launches. (Admittedly, the white option is a little more aesthetically pleasing than the black one.)
The IPS LCD screen is slightly bigger than the Gear Live -- 1.65 inch versus 1.63. The difference in resolution, however, is much more noticeable. At 280 x 280, it's easier to see pixelation without squinting. On the upside, it's more readable in bright sunlight than the Gear Live, and the screen has brighter whites. Then again, the darks aren't as dark as the Gear, and the colors aren't nearly as saturated.
Like the Gear Live, the G Watch also requires a separate cradle to charge up, but LG smartly uses a magnetic base that's much easier to attach the watch to than that of its Korean rival. The magnets do a great job of holding the watch in place.
The company's pricing strategy is a little confusing. It's $30 more than the Gear Live, even though it doesn't add any features or performance benefits (aside from a meager increase in battery life). I'd be surprised if this cost doesn't come down quickly -- especially once it has even more competition from the Moto 360 -- but in the meantime, LG is facing an uphill battle by selling its premier smartwatch at a higher price.
Android Wear has me more excited about the future of smartwatches than any other platform or device. It's more solid than I expected in a first-gen product, and of the options on the market, it has the most opportunity for growth. Wear enjoys a universal user experience; it's backed by a robust operating system with tons of user and developer support; and there's buy-in from manufacturers.
Still, there are plenty of issues that need to be fixed. Few users will be content charging their watch on a daily basis or wasting time scrolling through endless cards and unwanted notifications. A smartwatch should make life simpler, more productive and more efficient, and at the present time, it's just as easy -- if not more so -- to do most things on a phone. The platform will blossom as more apps come out, but it still has a long way to go before shoppers will be willing to spend hundreds of dollars on accessories.
For now, Wear is the best OS for Android users who are in the market for a smartwatch, but since these devices aren't necessities, they'll need to be more stylish and add more convenience to your life if they're going to attract the average consumer. Unfortunately, the Gear Live and G Watch just don't have what it takes for Wear to go mainstream, although I'm holding out hope for the Moto 360.