REVIEW: Android Wear is coming of age

Android Wear has come a long way since Google first announced it at its I/O developer conference in 2014. Although manufacturers have been somewhat slow to release new devices, the software has continued to go from strength to strength.

With the latest version, which has been rolling out steadily to Android Wear devices globally for a few weeks now, I’m firmly of the opinion that Wear has fully come of age.

What’s new in Android Wear 5.1?

The latest release doesn’t change anything fundamental in the way in which Android Wear operates.

It remains a lightweight OS designed to serve as a companion to a smartphone or tablet. It still ferries alerts and notifications to your wrist via Google Now-style cards, and it still allows you to issue searches and initiate various actions with your voice.

The changes to the UI in 5.1 and additional features, however, make Android Wear feel more rounded, more controllable and more intelligent than before. You can now do so much more with Android Wear. Finally, it feels like Google is making headway with the OS.

Android Wear 5.1 review: The app launcher is now more accessible

The first big change in 5.1 is to Wear’s app launcher, which makes it far easier to access your Wear apps. It’s available with a quick swipe from the right edge of the screen (or a tap of the watch face), revealing a vertically scrolling list of apps with the three most recently used at the top.

Previously you had to tap, scroll down and select Start to view a list of your apps, or install a third-party launcher. This is a big improvement.

Swipe right again and you can now view recently accessed contacts – it’s possible to dial or text directly from this screen – while yet another swipe brings up the old Android Wear actions screen. As with previous versions, it is from here that you can activate voice control (handy if you feel silly shouting “Okay Google” into your wrist all the time) and carry out quick actions manually, from setting reminders to viewing your steps.

That’s not all, though. The latest version of Android Wear solves one of the key problems I’ve always had with smartwatches: the need to use two hands to operate them.

Android Wear 5.1 review: Wrist gestures allow you to scroll through notifications with a flick of your wrist

With “Wrist Gestures”, it’s possible to scroll through your notifications with a quick flick of the wrist, without having to put down what you’re holding in your other hand, or employing the rather ungainly “nose dab” technique.

In other developments, it’s now possible to respond to incoming texts by drawing an emoji onscreen, which Wear cleverly converts to a proper icon. Google Maps on Wear now displays a fully moving, scrollable map when asking Google Now for directions. And Wear finally has its own “Find my phone” option.

Always on screen

Possibly the most significant development for Android Wear in 5.1, however, is that third-party apps can now make use of Wear’s “Always-on” display function.

Previously only available to watch faces, this allows an app that needs to take over the screen of your smartwatch to retain a minimalist display when your watch goes into standby, so you don’t have to tap the screen, flick your wrist or press a button to wake it up.

I’ve found this handy when using the countdown timer and stopwatch, but less useful for Google Maps, whose spindly looking streets don’t really show much useful information in Always-on mode.

Android Wear 5.1 review: Always-on screen display lets apps show information on-screen in standby mode

Wear still needs work…

Along with previous updates, which have added new features such as Cinema mode (a flight mode for your smartwatch), notifications management and a useful Brightness Boost mode, plus numerous usability improvements, these new updates turn Android Wear 5.1 into a seriously good smartwatch OS. And the apps are improving too, but there are still areas that need some work.

Adjusting screen brightness is my biggest bugbear: it still requires far too many taps. Why is this important? Because there are still smartwatches (such as the LG Watch Urbane) that don’t have an ambient light sensor.

I’m going to place Wear 5.1’s new Wi-Fi capabilities on that list of things that need improving, too. The idea is great: dubbed Cloud Sync, it allows your smartwatch to continue communicating with your phone when out of Bluetooth range, by logging on to a nearby wireless router or hotspot, and it works over the internet as well as local networks.

Google really needs to set stronger guidelines for developers on how to implement notifications

However, I’ve experienced noticeably poorer battery usage with the feature turned on, even when I’ve had my smartwatch in range. Fortunately, Cloud Sync can be turned off.

In addition, Google really needs to set stronger guidelines for developers on how to implement notifications, because there’s a huge disparity in how much, or how little, information the various apps display on screen.

Recent Slack messages, for instance, are delivered in one ugly block, making it difficult to tell where one message begins and another ends; Outlook’s notifications grow into a huge list of messages throughout the day that shows so little information it’s barely worth the bother to try to decipher it on your watch; Facebook, meanwhile, merely informs you when you receive a notification, offering no preview text nor any information on who it pertains to.

Verdict

Despite the niggles, and the fact that I’m still not entirely happy with having to charge my watch every day or two, I’ve been genuinely impressed with what I’ve seen of Android 5.1 so far.

Android Wear may have been a bit too basic when it launched, but it’s coming on in leaps and bounds now. It’s a fully mature operating system that feels like it’s becoming a major part of the Android family, and Wear smartwatches are now far more useful as a result.

I have but one wish: that the hardware manufacturers would make the most of Android Wear’s potential by delivering watches with dramatically improved battery life. Then I’d be completely sold.

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