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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.

Want to know how well the smartwatches work?

For a thorough, deep-dive examination of the LG G Watch and the Samsung Gear Live, check out our review Samsung Gear Live vs. LG G Watch: A real-world evaluation.

Once your watch is illuminated, getting around Android Wear is all about swiping. You swipe up once on the screen to get a full view of your first card; you swipe up again to move downward to the next card in your stack. Almost everything you do with Wear revolves around those basic gestures. It's a delightfully easy system to learn and use — the exact kind of dead-simple interaction that makes sense for a wrist-sized screen — and it's sprinkled with tasteful graphics and smooth animations that make for a polished overall experience.

In addition to the up-and-down swipe, you can swipe sideways toward the right on any card to dismiss it or sideways toward the left to get additional info and options. On a weather card, for example, swiping left brings up an extended multiday forecast. On a text message, swiping left once shows you a scrollable view of the full conversation thread; swiping left a second time presents you with a large icon to respond to the message by voice.

The anatomy of Android Wear cards

What's particularly interesting about commands on Android Wear cards is that, for the most part, they're already built into regular Android applications — which means any notification that works on your phone will automatically work on your watch. Wear just takes the same action buttons you'd see on a phone-based notification and translates them into the watch's card-based interface.

At top: A Gmail notification on an Android phone. At bottom: The same notification as it appears in swipe-able cards on a Wear watch.

A good example of this is Gmail. When you get a new message alert on your phone, the Gmail notification there has two buttons with commands to archive or reply. On an Android Wear watch, those same buttons appear when you swipe to the left as large icons on a new mail card. No special watch-specific support is required for the app to be compatible; everything just works automatically out of the box.

That being said, there are things developers can do to make their notifications more smartwatch-friendly — and the vast majority of apps aren't yet fully optimized for the form. If you tap the icon to respond to a tweet from Twitter on your watch, for instance, a reply window will open up on your phone instead of as a prompt on the watch itself. Evidently, developers have to manually enable support for watch-based text input before it'll work, and Twitter — like many other app developers — has yet to take that step.


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