Should You Get Wear? Wearer’s Practical Observations
Wear is said to not offer enough for mass adoption, even though its been in the market for over 9 months. I personally have a Gear Live which I purchased 8 months ago, and my experience with it has had its ups and downs throughout my time with it. For the longest time, I was not able to recommend the platform to anyone. Since then, a lot of updates have hit Wear watches, some improving battery life, others changing the look of the platform, and a few adding much-needed interfaced refinements. Now I can recommend it, but not to just about everyone yet…
In this editorial I want to explore the reasons why you might want to buy Wear, based on my experience. I hope to touch on practical details that normal reviews don’t usually tell you about, and things I wish I had known before committing to the purchase. Let’s get started.
First of all, the bad things about Wear are mostly the way the platform is designed. At first, the card stack approach for notifications seems brilliant, and the vibrant and colorful touchscreens of these devices give the device a lot more life than say, the Pebble. That being said, both of these bring major constraints in usability in comparison to the Pebble: Wear is designed around “short interactions”, but a lot of the time this isn’t the case. When it comes to music controls, for example, something as simple as upping the volume requires you to wake the watch, swipe down a couple of times until you find the card, then swipe to the side and tap on the volume icon, then put the watch to sleep. Is it fast? Arguably so, as it takes 2 or 3 seconds. But the whole process requires attention, where as the static of the Pebble means you could do it without of that. It is simply better to touch your volume keys in your pocket or the buttons on your headphones.
The same dynamism of Wear hurts it with the fact that it has no way of giving you a smart hierarchy of notifications, and it does not prioritize the information you need when you need it. Basically, a lot of spam notifications make it to your wrist. If you are someone with a lot of apps but not much time, seeing game updates or unimportant emails can get frustrating. Wear needs its own fleshed out “priority” mode, as blacklisting apps isn’t quite enough. There’s a lot that can be explored to make Wear more useful, intuitive and intelligent, and as it is the platform has too little customization options. Luckily, updates have made notification handling better, which extra options (“block app”) and the ability to retrieve accidentally-dismissed cards.
Moving on to the good things, Wear grows on you. The stock functionality of Wear is rather useful, and certain commands work beautifully in it. The step-by-step navigation features, for example, are great when you want to walk somewhere new but don’t want to have your phone out the entire time. The vibration of the watch is a very peaceful way of receiving notifications, but alarms (indefinite vibrations) are very useful on Wear: they are (mostly) silent yet very alerting which makes them perfect for classrooms or offices. I use it for reminders all the time, and my personal lifehack is using it as an alarm whenever I take a micro-nap in a public place (such as college lounges early before class). The usefulness of these alarms is underrated, and they are so easily set up that the process is very organic.
Replying to notifications over Wear used to be annoying, particularly Hangouts – but now after many updates, I often find myself having entire conversations on my Watch as I am walking outside. The voice recognition is mostly excellent, and the ability to view past messages in supported applications gives you an IM client on your wrist. Some argue that this takes about the same amount of attention as typing, but in my case it doesn’t (especially since I trust the voice recognition). That being said, sometimes you might see a Hangouts message pop in your computer as well as lighting up your watch and making your phone ring. This is something that doesn’t happen all the time and I am convinced that they didn’t intend for it to happen; but when I see the same notification 3 times in quick succession it makes me grunt faintly.
When it comes to apps, the platform suffers from (relatively) little support, one of the reasons for its slow adoption. I mostly don’t bother with Wear apps anymore, and run a set-up very close to Stock. That being said, there are some really good Wear apps out there – many of which help you fix Wear’s shortcomings yourself such as Wear Mini Launcher. This particular app saves Wear from Google’s design decision to hide the “Start App” function behind plenty of scrolling. Later updates have made it so that commonly used apps stay in your Search menu, however, so the problem is alleviated now.
A lot of people claim that Wear’s battery is atrocious. While this might be true for some watches, my experience with the Gear Live is satisfactory. I typically get two days out of it, sometimes less and sometimes more. I also have been using it more than ever lately, and I still don’t find charging it every couple of days too annoying. Most watches don’t have as easy charging as the Moto 360’s wireless charging, however, and the Gear Live’s charging cradle is obnoxious to put on. Initially, a lot of people were concerned that it could break easily – I think this is absolutely false, as I never felt that the cradle was flimsy enough to break if badly attached, and I’ve never had problems with it. But I would still never recommend the Gear Live over current offerings.
Ultimately I feel that Wear is mostly useful outside or when doing an activity. I have periods where I become a hermit submerged in my work and learning, and during those times where my phone lies on a desk or a table, the watch was not too useful. When I have busy weeks with meetings, dates or events, Wear proves invaluable. Earlier I said that Wear grows on you, and by this I mean that it becomes second nature once you get used to it. Whenever I’m on the street in a pinch and forget my watch, I still have the intuitive reflex of lifting up my wrist to look at a notification whenever my phone vibrates.
When it comes to using it outside, though, a few things hold Wear back. First is the fact that lifting your wrist activates the watch by default, and subtle motions can trigger it. Luckily, a recent update gave us an option to disable this, but the feature is amazing and it is a shame it is held back. The fact that notifications light up even if your watch is covered by your sleeve can get annoying sometimes, and despite the capacitive nature of the screen it is seemingly kept lit every now and then
As for the brightness, I usually leave it at 4 as I found it is a happy medium for battery life and outdoor visibility. But on my device, even the maximum brightness is not capable of giving me good visibility (AMOLED’s contrast plays no practical benefit here either). This is particularly annoying when the screen is in its dimmed state, as I can hardly tell the time (you know, an actual watch’s function). The Sony Smartwatch 3’s transreflective screen supposedly addressed visibility, at the cost of poor colors. The Moto 360’s ambient light sensor gives it auto-brightness, at the cost of screen space. This particular device’s battery and screen also do not play nicely with always-on dimmed screens. So as of now, there’s no perfect solution to visibility.
Early devices like the Moto 360 were reviewed under significantly different software than we have now, and the platform has come a long way since my purchase. On the first couple of software iterations, Wear was clearly not optimized: battery life across all watches was worse than now by significant margins, and the watches stuttered a lot. I was very disappointed with the performance due to this, and it was significantly noticeable right after waking the device. It would virtually always stutter when checking through notifications in quick succession. Now the device is mostly smooth, and the battery is better. There are still some UI glitches here and there, particularly when accessing the settings or apps. The new functions and shortcuts such as Cinema mode (turns off screen and disables touchscreen wake-up) and Sunlight mode (burst of brightness for a quick session) are intuitive and useful, and much needed additions. The refined interface is simply great. That being said, I find it better when paired to a KitKat device, as when using it with Lollipop the Mute shortcut turns into an awkward 3-step menu of Lollipop’s Priority mode.
Should I Wear ?
So is Wear worth it? It depends not just on how much of techie you are, but your lifestyle as well. When I had streaks of spending time inside, I wouldn’t wear the watch. During periods of intense outside activity or work on-the-run, it proved invaluable. If your responsibilities imply being kept up to date with e-mails, news and messages, Wear is a great tool. If you use a lot of social media and apps, expect a lot of notification spam that might drive you nuts. Wear has come a long way, and while it still hasn’t had its year, the platform remains a strong alternative. Upcoming offerings like the Pebble Time and Apple Watch might spice up the competition and accelerate Wear’s evolution, which I feel is rather slow right now. Casual users don’t have much of a reason to use Wear, and the high entry price-points don’t help. What does help is that there is a lot of variety in hardware now, with more coming as the LG Urbane, the Huawei Watch and a Moto 360 successor approach. The different watch styles and the fact that so many will keep coming means you might find that looker you are looking for.
Bottom line is that Wear is a nice toy to have to everyone, but as a toy it loses its charm unless you make it your tool. As it is, apps on Wear are rather underdeveloped and there’s not that many must-have features they offer, which is why I limited this article to the core functionality. There is a lot holding Wear back right now in both software and hardware, but the future of both could hold promising results. If you do get Wear, actively try to make the best of it. It will annoy you sometimes, but when you forget to take it with you, you might find yourself consciously missing it!
What are your opinions on Android Wear? Tell us below!