Wear OS review: Google puts usability first

There’s still plenty of room for improvement.

It may be time to give smartwatches another chance. Companies like Apple, Qualcomm, Samsung and Fitbit have kept trying to make these devices actually useful, and the industry seems to be gaining momentum. Google is rolling out the latest iteration of Wear OS, and its continued efforts seem like they're starting to pay off. This third major release of the OS offers a more proactive Assistant and puts more emphasis on health-tracking, making it a platform that you'll actually want to keep on your wrist.

Before we dive into it, I want to be clear: This is a review of Wear OS, not the watch I happen to be using, which by the way is the Fossil Q Venture HR. There's no official number attached to this release, though most people will likely think of this as Wear OS 3. You also won't see any battery-life improvements. There are new battery-extending modes coming to the OS, but you'll need Qualcomm's new Wear 3100 processor to take advantage of them. We're looking only at the OS you'll get when upgrading existing hardware.

The biggest difference you'll find when upgrading from the previous version of Wear is navigation. Before, you'd swipe horizontally to change watch faces. Now, swiping left and right brings up Google Fit and Assistant, respectively. You swipe up to see your notifications, and down for quick settings and shortcuts. And if you want to change your watch face, just press and hold on the home screen, like you would on the original Android Wear. To access apps, just press the button on the watch's side.

On my review unit, which has three buttons, the crown rotates, letting you scroll through your notifications or apps. It doesn't have a satisfying click or haptic feedback like the Galaxy Watch or Apple Watch 4, but it's a nice way to zip through long lists and makes getting to what you want faster. You can even use it on the home screen to scroll down to the settings panel or up to your notifications instead of swiping. Other Wear OS watches may not offer the rotating dial or more than one button, though.

Speed is one of the biggest things that Google wanted to address with the new Wear OS. There's no reason you should have to look at your watch for more than 5 seconds. At that point, most people would probably just pull out their phone. For the most part, Wear OS is faster than its predecessor. It takes some getting used to, but the new placement of everything feels intuitive, and most things I need are just one or two taps away.

Assistant is also noticeably faster. It no longer pauses for several seconds before transcribing my replies or decoding my requests. Plus, the new notifications stream shows more messages than before, and displays actions within the feed (instead of launching a whole separate page like before). But there are still some parts of the UI that are a little slow. The Play Store, in particular, takes a painfully long time to load, and starting a workout in Google Fit requires a few more taps, especially if you're not launching an activity you've recently done.

Some of these delays might be addressed with Qualcomm's Wear 3100 chip, which promises better performance and battery life than this review unit's Wear 2100. Until we get our hands on one of those new watches, though, it's hard to say if the lag in loading the Play Store on the watch will disappear.

The redesign isn't only about speed. Wear OS is now more helpful. The new Assistant page shows useful information about your upcoming day. For example, when I was checking in at an airport, I quickly found my confirmation number on this page, instead of having to hunt for the code on my phone. This is a more proactive Assistant, like it is on the phone, instead of a passive listener that's waiting for you to tell it what to do.

Assistant on the new Wear OS also feels smarter than before. I asked it "How far am I from my hotel?" and because Google had my reservation details from my inbox, the Assistant showed me the distance and time from my lodging that night without missing a beat. It also displayed a thumbnail of the directions from Maps. I'll admit, I was blown away by how easy this was. I was also impressed when Assistant (or Google's voice-recognition tool) correctly transcribed: "That all appeared on camera, you doofus." (Editor's note: The "doofus" in question is Chris Velazco.) That's right, it wrote "doofus" and even inserted the comma in the right place. It was nice to be able to dictate replies the way I'd actually talk to Chris (don't worry, we love each other, but only as friends).

Assistant also appears elsewhere in Wear OS, like your notifications stream. When our editor in chief, Dana Wollman, told me a picture I sent her was cute, the Assistant suggested Smart Replies like "Aww," or two heart emojis. That's better than the previous canned replies like "OK," "Yes," "No" or "Can't talk now, call you later." Occasionally, the suggested responses were repetitive -- like when it offered me the options of "OK" or "Okay." Google is aware of this bug and is working on a fix.

I could see smart replies becoming more useful once the system starts to understand how I text. I also want to see more Assistant suggestions throughout Wear OS, like on the home screen and in the Fit app, to remind me of appointments or encourage me to meet goals. Of course, this might become a tad repetitive if the watch also pushes through similar notifications from my phone. Google said we'll see more of Assistant in Wear OS in the future.

It feels like Google's finally figured out what to do with the prime real estate to the right of the watch face. In the past, that was where you'd see your apps list or other watch faces. Now, it shows your activity progress via the redesigned Google Fit, which is smart, because most people care about their health even at the most superficial level.

The new Fit is now more than a glorified exercise tracker -- it actually motivates me to put on the smartwatch every day. With the onboard heart-rate sensor, the watch is much better at awarding me Move minutes and Heart points, and I feel more driven to meet my daily goals. It's very much like closing the circles on Apple watches.

Though you'll need Qualcomm's new processor to get the new battery-extending modes coming to the OS, I still naively hoped the software update alone would improve battery life. I was disappointed to find that the Q Venture HR with the new OS generally dropped to about 17 percent in 24 hours, making it impossible to use without daily charging. The good news is that it recharged quickly, getting up to 80 percent in about 20 minutes.

I'm hoping that Google's partnership with Qualcomm on the new Wear 3100 chip will mean dramatic improvements in battery life.

Because it works with both Android and iPhones, Wear OS goes up against Apple's watchOS, as well as Samsung's Tizen. Apple's software offers more features for iPhone users. They can use it to reply to messages or make calls, which isn't possible via Wear OS, and is the best option for those using Apple's devices.

Compared to Tizen, Wear feels a lot less cluttered. Though Samsung's platform is more customizable and does more out of the box (like let you input your caloric and water intake), it's not as easy to navigate. Assistant is also a whole lot better than Bixby. The Galaxy watches work well with other Samsung products like phones and smart-home devices, though, so those who have bought into that ecosystem will find Tizen more useful. Plus, it uses that satisfying rotating bezel effectively and offers more health-related features like stress testing and swim-tracking.

There's also Fitbit OS, which is surprisingly similar to Wear OS. It has fewer third-party apps than Google and isn't as robust, but is a more suitable option for those who care about their fitness.

Software, not hardware

New navigation

A more helpful Assistant

Finally, Fit for your wrist

The competition