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Android Wear deep-dive review: A smart start to smartwatch software

JR Raphael | July 10, 2014
Google's Android Wear platform is an impressive first step toward making smartwatches people will actually want to buy. Here's an in-depth look at where the software shines -- and where it falls short.

An Android Wear watch face followed by some cards you might see.

What makes the info special is the fact that it shows up when you need it — before you even think to ask. And while that same sort of info is available with a few swipes on an Android phone, having it on your wrist really does change the way you experience it.

This is because Wear puts contextual info front and center — and consequently makes it feel like a natural extension of your body as opposed to an out-of-the-way interruption. Add at-a-glance access to notification-based cards like text messages and emails, and you've got a pretty compelling framework for a wearable-tech platform.

To be clear: Wear is very much meant to serve as a complement to your phone — not a replacement for it. Wear watches connect to Android phones via Bluetooth; the phone runs a special Android Wear app that allows it to stay in contact and transmit data as needed. Without an active connection, the watch maintains its most basic functionality — it keeps time, as you'd expect, and allows you to use a few non-data-dependent features — but compared to its connected state, it's fairly limited in what it can do.

And on that note, be warned: You'll need Android 4.3 or higher on your phone in order for it to work with Wear.

Getting around Android Wear

An important thing to know about Wear is that, unlike the regular version of Android (which phone and tablet manufacturers are notorious for "skinning"), the software is almost identical on any device you use. Google is maintaining tight control of the core user interface to create a consistent experience (and thus also a more streamlined upgrade process) across the platform.

When you glance at any Wear watch, the first thing you see is a face design of your choice along with a peek at your top-ranking card for that particular moment. Wear constantly evaluates your cards and attempts to rank them in order of relevance based on where you are and what you're doing. The system isn't always spot-on — I sometimes saw my footstep count as the top card instead of my flight status while I was in an airport, for instance — but it does get the order right fairly often.

By default, Wear devices live in a dimmed mode most of the time, which means the screen is in a simplified black-and-white state. You can activate the watch and cause its display to become fully illuminated either by tapping the screen or raising your arm upward (an action made possible by an accelerometer that's standard in Wear watches). Pressing your palm over the display, meanwhile, causes it to go back to sleep.


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