In-Depth Look at Google Now for Android Wear
Google Now is arguably the single biggest “wow factor” of Android, and if $300 notification bands (aka smartwatches) are solutions in search of a problem, Now is certainly their saving grace. After all, Google’s virtual assistant serves up answers, launches apps, sets reminders, takes dictation, and forms the central pillar around which the entire Wear platform is built. Without that red bubble pulsing with intelligence, Android smartwatches are nothing more than one-way notifiers – products that are handily beaten by $15 fitness bands from China on everything from battery life to sleep tracking & price. Therefore, if Wear is to find purchase and prosper in this growing world of wearables, it is vital that Google Now gives us its all. Unfortunately, the watch-mounted version of Now comes up short – 36.5% short – of even its smartphone counterpart. Where does this leave potential customers? Should we even buy Android watches when our phones beat the bands at their own game? Here is a peek into the voice actions of Google Now on phones, desktops, and smartwatches, with an emphasis on Wear’s room for improvement, and the apps tackling the issue head on.
For the lazy, here are a few quick links to for jumping right to the heart of the story.
- The Breakdown
- General Answers
- App Integration (Google)
- App Integration (3rd Party)
- Comparison chart – the thing that brought you all here
- Filling The Gaps With Better Apps
- The Verdict
Wear will always deliver phone notifications as-is, so in this regard there is absolutely no difference between the two mobile versions of Now. The issue at hand is summoning the Google genie with that familiar phrase: “Okay Google.” All platforms respond, but the commands they recognize are shockingly unequal. With this in mind, let’s begin.
Feature disparity of 37% is a brash accusation, and we will come to that in a moment. Right now, it’s important to understand what platform comparisons are, and what they are not. For starters, remember that phones, watches, and desktops address similar problems at different scales. We may go on a quest for pizza using each, but our hunger likely grows as our devices shrink. Does this mean that a watch and its lesser information density is a worse device? Of course not; just the opposite. The comparison below only lists what each platform’s Google Now can recognize, not this vital context of use case.
Second, the value of each voice command is a product of how often it is used, and how much we care about the information we receive. For example, using the watch to set reminders and alarms without pulling out an over-sized phone is only marginally convenient, but I call on this feature many times each day. For me, this is a big deal. Conversely, what about flight delays and gate changes being delivered to the wrist in a crowded airport? I only fly a few times per year, but knowing how long I have to sprint from terminal A to Z while my hands are full of luggage is an under appreciated asset. However, these value judgments are subjective and have been omitted in the results. I implore you to instead find your own rubric when looking at the raw data below.
Wear’s “Okay Google”: great with simple questions, passable with simple apps, but terrible at using your apps, emails, or contacts for things the phone can answer with ease.
Wear’s version of Google Now excels at general knowledge questions like “how far away is the moon,” “who is Nikola Tesla,” and “what time is it in London?” These types of queries have always been a strength of Google’s, thanks in part to the acquisition of Metaweb and its knowledge graph project back in 2010, and they are heavily integrated into Google’s core search. This plays right into Wear’s strength as a platform as well – quick answers to everyday questions for which pulling out a phone is a bother.
Single-serving tools like calculators, currency converters, and weather widgets are a logical extension of the simple search queries above. These are generally displayed as interactive cards on the desktop and phone, offering condensed information alongside a few sliders. For the most part, they are faithfully represented on the watch alongside their text-based counterparts, but one or two have slipped through the cracks. Most notably, tip calculation is conspicuously absent on Wear.
App Integration: Google
The biggest categorical let-down, however, is a lack of app integration. Google has a wealth of user data at its disposal, from emails to contact details, to location info, and more. Google Search plays butler to this data, serving it to us on request in exchange for valuable marketing insights. Forget your flight number? Google is quick to respond with “American Airlines flight 321,” along with local weather, gate changes, and maybe a target ad. What about the bills you have coming due this month? Desktop and smartphone search pulls an itemized summary from Gmail as if by magic, just as it does with hotel reservations and shipment trackers. Unfortunately, the digital butler is left stammering out a generic Google search when asked these same things on Wear. No birthdays, no flights, no package tracking. Nothing that you couldn’t find on Ask.com.
Going beyond answering questions, it seems that asking apps to do things also falls on deaf ears. These aren’t difficult requests, either; both phone & desktop search have no trouble. Still, setting calendar events, sending Hangouts messages, calling businesses, and opening the camera by saying “take a picture/selfie/video,” are all beyond Wear’s grasp.
App Integration: 3rd Parties
Okay, Google’s grasp on its own apps may be shaky when it comes to Android Wear, but what about integrating with third-party apps and services? So far the picture is much the same, but efforts are at least being made to bring developers on board. Let’s start with a few basics:
- Call Dominoes
- Post to Twitter
Both commands work flawlessly on mobile, but not Wear; a real shame. However, it should be noted that these types of commands are still uncommon on Android’s Google Now. “Post to Twitter” and “post to Google+” may succeed, but “post to Facebook” falls flat. It’s unclear how much corporate rivalry has to do with Facebook’s absence, but the takeaway is that integration is an app-by-app process, and it’s nowhere near complete.
In October, Google expanded Now’s voice search with an API for third-party developers so that anyone with an app and a dream can let users query their service with Google.
- Search for pizza on Eat24
- Search TripAdvisor for hotels in Honolulu.
- Search for cat pictures on Tumblr.
Android? Check. Wear? I’m sorry, did you mean “run a Google search?”
To be fair, this isn’t entirely Google’s fault, nor is it the fault of developers. On the phone, these searches open Eat24, TripAdvisor, Tumblr, etc. directly, then perform the search. This has no “card UI” analog, and even though Google opened up card creation to devs in January, searches were not its intended use. Therefore, Wear’s Now may understand app-specific queries, but it has no way to respond. This is forgivable, but closer app integration is still a pipe dream worth having.
- @here for Android Wear – answers two important questions: where are you right now, and what’s nearby?
- Mini Maps for Wear – proof-of-concept alpha of Google Maps running on tiny displays.
Google Now’s built-in forecasts are a work of art, but Wear frustratingly limits its knowledge to the next four days. This means that if you’re looking for the weekend’s weather on a Tuesday night, you’re flat out of luck. Same goes for asking about specific dates one week in advance; desktop and smartphone Now have no trouble, but Wear is left in the dust. While these next two suggestions don’t fill the voice-action void, they do offer superb forecasts (and radar) to ease your weather woes.
- InstaWeather for Android Wear – an assortment of weather-focused watch faces that double as stand-alone apps. Functions include radar, detailed forecasts, wind info, and more.
- WeatherTime for Wear – weather info reminiscent of Google Now’s “current conditions” card, but with multiple themes, layouts, and backgrounds.
If you would rather stick to the weather apps you already use, read on for our section on Wearable Widgets to give existing widgets a new home on your wrist.
“Take a picture.” Despite the action-oriented phrase, this does nothing of the sort on phone or watch. The best you will see is the default camera app and rear camera load into view (even if you shout “take a selfie”). On the watch, not even this works. For a supercharged remedy, check out Wear Camera Remote. The app both opens your camera, and allows for full watch-based control including snapping a photo, switching cameras, toggling flash, and (of course) viewing a live preview.
This one is a bizarre omission on Wear. As long as you’ve come to terms with talking to your phone in public, asking Google to calculate tips is downright useful. Yes, Google is a bit stingy – 15% by default – but running these numbers on the watch as well should be a no-brainer. Luckily another Now command has you covered: math.
- Q: What’s 20% of $47?
- A: 9.40 U.S. Dollars
Bonus – foreign currency conversion!
- Q: What’s 20% of 1200 pesos?
- A: 15.75 U.S. Dollars
Using Wear for voice activated texting has been around since day one, but unfortunately users of Google Voice / Hangouts have been limited to strict replies; starting a conversation from scratch is simply not possible. This was the case on Android smartphones as well up until last month, but now the Android side is finally up to speed. When will watches catch up? Nobody knows for sure, but the hope is “soon.”
Thankfully, impatient messengers can already fill the gap with a handful of apps and a some petty cash. The workaround is called “Start Hangouts from Watch,” and relies on four paid apps: AutoContacts, AutoWear, AutoInput, and Tasker. The first three cost around $4.50, or a lower monthly rate of $1.35 using the AutoApps market, but you’ll want to pick up the associated Tasker profile from the forums to avoid an additional fee. Tasker itself will set you back about $3, though it’s an incredibly versatile package.
Once payments are out of the way and the downloaded Tasker profile is in hand, it’s time to set up your new communication hub!
- Open each app and make sure the “pro” features are unlocked.
- Open AutoContacts and start importing your friends. To make life easier, it’s a good idea add nicknames while you’re here; you’ll find them under “Manage Contacts.”
Hangout_From_Watch.prf.xml, and import into Tasker (tap “Profiles” and select “Import”).
- You’re done! Try out feature by asking your watch to “send message to <contact>”.
Note: none of this works with an active lock screen, but using Wear as a trusted device is a simple fix.
Obviously paying $7 and disabling your lock screen is a hassle, but it’s the imperfect remedy at hand until Google gets its act together. Perhaps Wear 5.1 will be better.
Few apps come with Wear support out of the box, but widgets are nearly universal. We can exploit this. Wearable Widgets adds all the widgets you know and love to your wrist for one-tap access.
- Media controls – add the Plex widget (or any other media controller) for playback that goes beyond volume up/down and play/pause.
- Song ID – Google and Shazam both have shortcuts for picking out that catchy tune from the radio, but neither support Wear. Thankfully, now they do! Google’s 4×1 widget even animates and shows results right on your wrist. It’s worth noting that SoundHound also has a widget shortcut, but adding the 1×1 to Wearable Widgets proved problematic during testing. If you are not tied to any of these three services already, an alternative solution is Sony’s Track ID with native Wear support.
- Custom Layouts – Remember the all-in-one widget creator, Zooper Widget Pro? Now is yet another opportunity for it to shine. The app is a little intimidating at first, but don’t worry – there’s a free version for you to get your feet wet with templates before taking the financial plunge.
Wearable Widgets supports one widget at a time in the free version, but a $2 upgrade lifts this restriction.
Previously mentioned AutoApps may be a playground of pre-built modules and tools of elaborate customization, but there’s something about the straightforward voice actions of Commander that make it an immensely satisfying alternative.
Commander comes bundled with a suite of voice actions to supplement Google Now (including actual picture/selfie taking), along with Tasker support for creating as many custom actions as your heart desires. There’s only one catch – you have to say “take a note” before issuing commands on Wear. The Xposed framework can bypass this limitation, but remember that not all versions of Lollipop have support just yet.
Google Now’s voice actions are central to the Wear experience. Not only do they provide quick answers and a reason to drop $300 on a watch, but these spoken keywords define much of Wear’s scope as a utility. What’s more, the familiar pulsing red dot links all Google products with a common thread, seamlessly transitioning users from one platform to the next. Need an answer? Look for the red microphone and speak your mind. Unfortunately, not all red dots are created equal (as we have seen above). Straight “google searches” work as expected, including math questions and anything involving the people, places, and things in Google’s database. On the other hand, the finer details of your contacts, emails, bills, orders, and apps are beyond reach. There are a few well placed exceptions, such as the flawless composition of SMS messages, but on the whole, Now doesn’t play well with others (including Google’s very own Hangouts).
Petty differences aside, Wear’s version of Google Now feels like the complete package – a testament to how well the existing command list fills our needs. It’s disappointing that not every action is present, and we hope this changes in the near future, but this is hardly a deal-breaker. At the end of the day, setting reminders and searching Google are far more useful than looking up menus on a postage-stamp screen. And who knows? Maybe feature parity is right around the corner with Wear version 5.1.2. In the mean time, load up the apps above and regain some of the features you never knew you were missing.
Wear-ers of the world, what do you think of your Google Now experience? Do you notice or miss the commands above? Did we leave out one of your favorite voice actions? Let us know in the comments below, and we will update this post as new information (and OS updates) come to light!