At Google’s I/O conference a few weeks ago, we were introduced to the first watches to run Google’s Android Wear OS: Samsung’s $199 Gear Live and LG’s $229 G Watch.
Samsung chose to give the Gear Live a Super AMOLED screen with 320 by 320 pixels, a bit higher resolution than that of the LG watch. The Samsung also has a brushed metal band around the display.
I’ve been wearing the Gear Live for a few days, and I have mixed feelings about the device.
Out of the box, you get the watch, a small charger piece that snaps onto the back of the phone, and a special cable that connects the charging piece to the power.
The Gear Live “remote controls” your Android smartphone (Android 4.3 and higher). So you feel a little buzz at your wrist, the thinking goes, then quickly glance down to get the information without having to pull out your phone.
In general, any notification that appears on your phone will also appear on your watch. If the notification is coming from an app built with an Android Wear extension, it will also include a snippet of content from the app in most cases.
Google wisely made it easy for app developers to make their apps extend to the smartwatch. The Android Wear code is a built-in subset of the Android SDK developers use to build apps.
On the user side, when you install an app that extends to the smartwatch, that extension happens automatically. No need to install anything on your smartwatch.
The apps on your phone connect to the corresponding “satellite” app on your watch using low-power Bluetooth. The Android Wear apps on the watch can connect with the Internet, but only through your smartphone’s existing mobile connection.
The Android Wear OS consists of a group of cards, each of which displays information from and about email, text messages, notifications, alarms, and alerts.
In general, you can flick the content cards to the right and you’ll either drill down into further information or arrive at a screen that lets you launch the corresponding app on your phone. Flick further to the right and you’ll see an icon that lets you launch the corresponding app on your phone.
On the Samsung watch, I could see the text clearly indoors but less clearly outdoors. When I went to use the watch, I often found it in power-save mode and had to wake it up by tapping the screen or by pushing the small button on the side of the watch.
The touchscreen seemed to react to my touch quickly and accurately. In my tests, I never had to select something twice to get it to respond.
Notifications: Too much or too little
Notifications seem to be the main job of the Gear Live smartwatch. When an app on the phone receives new information you might want to know immediately, the Wear OS tells it to send an alert to the watch.
Of course, you have some control over what things trigger a notification on the phone and what things don’t.
However, I agree with what some other reviewers have said: In its current form, the OS seems to give you a choice of whether to receive a lot of notifications or almost none. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground, which, I suspect, is where many users would want to be.
If you have Google Now on your phone, and you have all the Android Wear notifications options turned on, you’ll soon find that most of your notifications are coming from there. You’ll see a wave of notifications like alerts about events happening nearby, friends’ birthdays, sports score updates, flight or hotel check-in reminders, weather alerts, and a host of other things.
I ended up turning these alerts off. There were just too many of them. That narrowed my notifications down to the basics: email, text messages, reminders, and alarms.
When I got an email alert, I could see stacked up all the emails I hadn’t read yet. I could click on any one to read part of the text. Another tap, and I could read the rest. When I was done reading, I could swipe the reminder to the left to dismiss it.
In order to launch a function or an app, you say, “OK Google,” followed by a command. So you might say “OK, Google, send a text message to John Doe” or “write an email to Dave Smith.” It’s basically the same as using voice commands with Google Now on your phone.
You have to tell the phone to give your watch access to your contacts list. Only then can you give the watch an order to send a text to John Doe, before dictating the text. I found this to work fine — until I was done dictating the text.
Android Wear sends your text off to its recipient “as is,” right after you stop talking. That is, if you don’t hit the blue “X” button in time. Anybody knows from experience that it’s always good to proofread your texts before hitting send. Here, you can easily miss your chance.
I would suggest using your watch to get notified of texts, but when it comes to responding, it’s better to use your phone.
Some of the functions on the Gear Live worked well, while others didn’t.
I had trouble getting the navigation to work. When I asked for directions to a nearby location, the watch usually thought about it for a while, then told me to go find the directions on my phone.
The Gear Live has a small sensor on the back that detects your heart rate. However, I know that my heart rate is about 60 or 65, and the watch consistently clocked my heart rate at around 80.
Using the accelerometer, the watch counts and graphs your steps throughout the day. But I also found the accuracy of the step counter to be questionable. After setting up the watch for the first time, then playing with it for about half an hour, it told me I already had 288 steps.
I tried out a few of the apps that are available for Android Wear in the Play store. The two that I found most useful are the Lyft and Eat24 apps.
Eat24 lets you order a pizza from your watch — provided that you already have your profile information and credit card entered into the app on your phone. The app works especially well if you’ve made an initial order of a favorite item using your phone. Then you can just order the same thing with a few taps on the watch.
The Lyft app makes it easy to order a car from your wrist. Just like on the smartphone app, you can make the order, track the car, and make the payment using the smartwatch. That is, provided you’ve preloaded your phone with profile and payment information. You can say, “OK, Google, call me a car,” and the Lyft app launches. Soon your watch is telling you the name of the driver and the person’s location on a map.
Unfortunately, there is no Twitter app for Android Wear watches yet. It would be very handy to quickly dictate a tweet into the phone and send it off.
All in all, the Samsung Gear Live with Android Wear seems a little rough around the edges. Some of the things it does could be very useful in certain situations. It might useful to be able to glance down at a message while in a business meeting, for example.
But it’s certainly nothing I can’t live without. And that, in a nutshell, may be the problem with the smartwatches on the market now. They enable a convenience, but they don’t perform some crucial task.
And here’s that fatal flaw.
The Gear Live, like the LG G Watch, is completely reliant on the smartphone to do anything. It would be great to go out running or biking (or swimming!) wearing the watch, leaving the smartphone behind. You could get route directions, times, coaching, and messaging while you’re doing your workout.
But since Android smartwatch designs don’t leave enough room for a GPS radio, they’re no good for this use case. Hopefully, the second generation of these devices will be more autonomous.
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