84
Engadget
Score
84

There's a lot to like about this in spite of a few flaws.

How we score

The Engadget Score is a unique ranking of products based on extensive independent research and analysis by our expert editorial and research teams. The Global Score is arrived at only after curating hundreds, sometimes thousands of weighted data points (such as critic and user reviews).

Image credit: Chris Velazco/Engadget

Latest in Gear

    Image credit: Chris Velazco/Engadget

    Wear OS review: Google puts usability first

    There’s still plenty of room for improvement.
    239 Shares
    Share
    Tweet
    Share
    Save

    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.

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Navigation is more intuitive than previous version
    • Assistant is smarter and more helpful
    • Fit redesign is rewarding and motivating
    Cons
    • No battery improvements
    • Lacks the fitness-tracking prowess of competing platforms
    • Some minor bugs

    Summary

    The third major release of Google’s Wear OS is a satisfying update to its predecessor, though it lags rivals in sophistication. While most of the changes here feel incremental, overall this is a system that helps you get stuff done quickly and makes you want to keep wearing it. The emphasis on the overhauled Fit draws in users who care about their health and motivates folks to meet fitness goals. Too bad you’ll need new hardware to see any battery improvements.

    Be the first to review the Wear OS?
    Your ratings help us make the buyer’s guide better for everyone.
    Write a review

    Software, not hardware

    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.

    Gallery: Wear OS review | 13 Photos

    New navigation

    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.

    Chris Velazco/Engadget

    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.

    A more helpful Assistant

    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.

    Gallery: Wear OS screenshots | 11 Photos

    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.

    Finally, Fit for your wrist

    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.

    Cherlynn Low / Engadget

    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.

    The competition

    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.

    Wrap-up

    I was surprised to realize I missed wearing my watch when I forgot to charge it. Individually, the new features and tweaks seem incremental, but collectively, Wear OS feels more useful and polished. I'm still waiting on more Assistant features to arrive and am basically praying for better battery life. Even with some of those shortcomings, though, this is a huge step forward for Google. Wear OS is finally something I'd actually feel comfortable recommending to people.

    From around the web

    ear iconeye icontext filevr