Android Wear 5.0 Lollipop Has Arrived!
It took a while, but Google has finally gotten around to updating their Android Wear OS for smartwatches and bumped up that version number to the latest 5.0 Lollipop release and I for one couldn't be happier. Just having started a new job, in which cellphone use is somewhat limited, I've found myself using my LG G Watch more and more. I get all of my text based notifications, such as email alerts and SMS and What's App messages right on my wrist within seconds and just a quick look down and swipe and I'm done. While it would be nice to be able to respond right from my wrist without using voice, reading gets the job done for now, as sitting there typing on a tiny keyboard would be as awkward as using my phone. (UPDATE: Just installed the Coffee Messenger which promises texting from a smartwatch device without needing to talk to it. Will try this out soon and share my thoughts).
While Android Wear stills acts mainly as a larger and more powerful notification bar, it still has its use in daily life. What it does it does a pretty good job at. As an email tool, you can view your incoming emails. You can't scroll through past emails however, which would be ideal. As a watch, you can totally tell time on it in any of a number of awesome and/or hilarious ways. As a navigation aid, you can have turn by turn navigation right on your wrist. Assuming you're okay with having your phone on in your pocket. It's not going to replace your phone, but it is going to help you manage it better. And if you work in a no nonsense company like I currently do, it will be your gateway to the human world :|
Android Wear is getting better with each iterative release. This latest update packs a ton of new stuff, mainly many fixes to the many annoying traits that it had in the past. Getting around is more natural now and the battery life seems to have improved for me, but just maybe that's just me being hopeful. Nine hours at work later though, and I'm a solid 60% charged still, and that's after spending most of the day surfing tracks and checking emails on my watch, all while gazing at my latest 500px watchface seeing all the pretty photos people take, while I sit in my chair wondering why I didn't major in photography instead. So there's plenty of stuff for the watch to do throughout the day, and having to charge it once in the morning for 45 minutes isn't as much of a hassle anymore.
Best New Features
The New Watchfaces
Most noticeable, and the biggest draw with this update, is the addition of brand new watch faces. People awed Apple when they unveiled the many faces of their upcoming Apple Watch, and were just as disappointed when Android Wear first hit the market with a limited pallet of options. This time around Google has opened up watch face development to developers to tinker with and make their awesome creations. There's a couple of cool options in the Google Play Store currently to start off, many of which I've tried, including Bandai's Pac-Man watch face which shows the seconds by having Pac-Man move around the watch eating pellets and ghosts along the way, very nice touch. And this is all still very new, so give it a few months and someone out there, perhaps yourself, will come up with some awesomely insane new watch faces that can do all kinds of crazy things.
Some watch faces offer functionality as well as looks, such as Surfline's watch face which will tell you the current tide, surf height, current wind, all in a beautiful interface, perfect for anybody who hits the waves and who has a waterproof wearable. The 500px app accompanying watch face will present to you various photographs throughout the day or, if you have an account, will present you with photos you've marked as your favorites. That's probably my favorite watchface so far as it's pretty cool to get something new to watch whenever you go to check that latest notification. I'm looking forward to the to do list watch face or the food tracking one that's sure to come out at some point soon.
New Settings Panel
One of the most annoying things about having to use Android Wear before was getting to the Settings option. It took turning the screen on, tapping it once to open up the "OK Google" menu, then scrolling to the very bottom of the page in order to get to it. Developers even want as far as to making their own apps to remedy the problem, but it would of been nice to get an official fix, which we finally have. The current build has the settings menu tucked away in the new top drawer region that you can get to by scrolling down from the topmost card. In the past, this hidden menu was only visible while you held the scroll, and as such had no real purpose. Now, you can open up the menu and change basic watch functions, such as lighting and muting notifications, including a "daytime" feature that keeps the screen lit for when outdoors. Definitely very handy stuff that I'm not surprised Google brought out, as it's very similar to Androids own top drawer on phones.
Huge points to Google for figuring this one out! One of the most annoying things about scrolling through a watch UI was the fact that once you scrolled a card away from you to dismiss, even if by accident, there was no way to get it back. Say you're looking at an email you've received and in attempting to scroll left in order to reply to the message you accidentally scrolled right. Well, now the message is gone for good, and there's no way to get it back. Not anymore, now when you scroll a card away you will still have a short amount of time to get it back. A timer bar will appear in place of the card, and you can cancel the dismissal within a few seconds of having gotten rid of it. I've used this feature the most probably since the latest update rolled out. Sometimes you just want to keep a card in the stack as a reminder for later.
Google Inbox On Your Wrist
While Google Inbox is still a relatively new product, it's good to see that it's already getting ready for the future. With the new update you'll be able to view new emails, send replies and mark them as done all from Android Wear. Personally, I can't vouch for it as I still can't seem to get Google Inbox notifications on my phone even. But from the screenshots I saw it looks like a useful feature once working.
What Still Needs Help
A couple of things still aren't perfect, and these go back to pre 5.0 versions of Android Wear. My current major peeve is the fact that I can't navigate through music albums through the built-in music controls. I can skip tracks and increase/decrease volume, but I can't for example go to the next album in my collection, which for me is pretty big as I hear music for most of my work day. 1 hour into it, I need to change albums. Give me full music control all from my wrist, and now we're talking a tool that you can't leave home without.
This has nothing to do with Google itself, but app support. Some big companies are making huge strides in bringing their product out to the public in any way that they can, but many times more aren't. Yahoo Mail for example is totally useless on Android Wear. The only features that it offers is the ability to read a tiny snippet of a message. After you dismiss it, it's gone. It would be great if you could literally take your emails with you. If they were archived on your watch temporarily for easy look up. A contact list would be great. A calendar view. All of the things that would normally fit on my lock screen should be implemented for Android Wear devices.
It's still super limited with what you can do. Scroll right on all of the cards and you're left with a plain watch. The watch can carry on-board apps such as Amazon and Google Keep, but getting to that app listing is still a huge hassle as it is tucked away in the bowels of Android Wear. Many of the current wearable devices come packing several Gigs of storage and I think it's time app's start making use of that.
Should You Still Buy It?
I think this is as good a time as any to pick up a smartwatch. Some people would say "once it's more polished pick one up" or "soon as they add this and that, then pick it up". The truth is that goes for any product ever. At some point you need to give it a try, and I would say that Google Wear is ready for everyone to start giving it a try. The more people use it, the more app developers can make a living off of their work and the more awesome apps can be brought out.
There's tons of features that I left out in this write up, such as controlling your phones camera from the watch itself and the many built in features of the voice search functionality, and many cool apps that developers have made, like calculators and calendars and to-do lists and such. The only choice now really is which device to get. Any of the ones below would get the job done quickly. They each offer their own unique twists. If you want style, you go for the Moto 360, if you want more power and functionality, like a heart-rate sensor you go for the LG G Watch R and if you want an in between more affordable watch you can go for Samsungs Gear Live. These aren't devices that you need technically, but once you start using them daily they will become that.
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Walter G. is a software engineer with over 10 years of professional experience. When he isn't blogging or being a CTO he enjoys coding randomly complex things that he hopes many people will get a chance to use one day.