It’s been nearly three years since Google’s smartwatch operating system, Android Wear, got a major update.
Since then, Apple has launched its own watch twice over and Fitbit still makes the best fitness trackers you can buy. Android Wear’s production partners, like Motorola, have put plans to make more smartwatches on hold.
This makes the launch of Android Wear 2.0 and the introduction of two new smartwatches (in partnership with LG) a telling signal of Google’s commitment to wearables.
I used Android Wear 2.0 on one of Google’s new smartwatches, the LG Watch Style (more on the watch itself here) to test out the flagship features of the new operating system: on-watch apps, fitness, and a built-in Google Assistant.
One of the most exciting features of Android Wear 2.0 is having the Play Store on a smartwatch. As long as the watch has a cellular connection, you can use apps on the watch and even make calls, regardless of whether your phone is in your pocket or at home. Being able to directly download apps onto the watch and cut out the middleman — your phone — makes using the watch a more fluid experience.
The apps themselves are simplified versions of what’s on the phone, a trend that also caught on with Apple Watch Series 2. Rather than squinting at the screen and trying to navigate through a complex app on a tiny screen, the on-watch apps are pared down and provide only the functionality you need. And with the addition of voice computing to the watch, you have three options for responding to messages or using apps: voice commands, typing on a standard keyboard, and drawing emoji.
The experience isn’t perfect yet, but mostly because third-party apps haven’t caught up. Some Android Wear apps still require a phone to either set things up or do more minute computing, like typing out a shopping list. But apps’ capabilities should only improve over time.
Where the on-watch apps are most important is in the fitness realm. The addition of Google Play Music to the on-watch Play Store means your phone can be left at home during a workout and you can rely solely on the watch for music.
There’s one major limitation to that — it means you need wireless headphones — but it’s a sign that Google is paying attention to the future of fitness technology and the gradual shift away from wired headphones.
Improved fitness tracking
Fitness tracking was clearly top of mind for Google in creating the new operating system and building the new watches. I got to try these features when I reviewed the LG Watch Style, one of the two LG-made smartwatches launching alongside Android Wear 2.0.
While the Style doesn’t have as many fitness-focused features as its bigger, tougher sibling, the LG Watch Sport (read my colleague Steve Kovach’s review of that here), it still works as a basic fitness tracker. The new version of Android Wear on the LG Watch Style does count steps and allows you to set goals for yourself, like running twice a week. Its best feature, however, is the ability to count the number of reps for various activities and act as a fitness coach. With the on-watch Fit Workout app, you can track activities like stationary biking or aerobics, as well as try three types of 30-day challenges: push-ups, sit-ups, and squats.
While I was originally sceptical that the watch could accurately track the number reps, its built-in gyroscope was able to track both sit-ups and push-ups I completed with perfect accuracy. The watch also coaches you on proper form for each workout, running through a demo of how to complete the move safely and correctly. It tracks your progress each day and makes it a little bit tougher each time you complete the challenge.
A simplified user experience overall
In Android Wear 2.0, Google lets you to keep your watch face as simple and uncluttered or as customised as you’d like. With personalised watch faces, you can add bubbles that show upcoming agenda items, your fitness goals, or add app shortcuts. Choosing the right watch face was one of the more challenging parts of using the device, as there’s only so much information you want displayed on the face of your watch.
Google Assistant is also now built into the watch, which, on the LG Watch Style, is activated by holding down the side button. Google Assistant is nice to have, as it quickly navigates to apps and saves a few clicks of the dial, but is somewhat unnecessary on a small device that only holds 4 GB worth of apps.
For those still using watches that run older versions of Android Wear, many of those will also support the new Android Wear 2.0 operating system. Google says 2.0 will roll out to the following watches over the coming months: ASUS ZenWatch 2 & 3, Casio Smart Outdoor Watch, Casio PRO TREK Smart, Fossil Q Founder, Fossil Q Marshal, Fossil Q Wander, Huawei Watch, LG Watch R, LG Watch Urbane and 2nd Edition LTE, Michael Kors Access Smartwatches, Moto 360 2nd Gen, Moto 360 for Women, Moto 360 Sport, New Balance RunIQ, Nixon Mission, Polar M600, and TAG Heuer Connected.
Overall, Android Wear 2.0 provided the best user experience I’ve ever had with a smartwatch. It’s intuitive and modern, with an interface that’s both aesthetically-pleasing and functional. The apps load quickly, the battery lasts for more than a full day, and the watch faces are almost infinitely changeable and customisable.
The streamlined operating system makes using a smartwatch more convenient than previous versions. In fact, it felt as though Google re-envisioned the new operating system as a companion to a phone rather than a full-fledged computer. At the same time, since the new operating system is capable of messaging and on-watch music, you can leave your phone at home and rely solely on the watch for your basic needs.
The new Android Wear provides everything you need and nothing you don’t, and can best be described as a smart, unfussy approach to building a smartwatch. Still, it’s tough to tell whether or not Android Wear will help smartwatches in general cross over from “nice to have” to “must have.”