6 improvements we want to see in Android Wear

by: Darcy LaCouveeFebruary 9, 2016
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android wear

As smart watches become an ever increasing part of our lifestyle, the battle is on for supremacy amongst the platforms that power the devices that adorn our wrists. Google’s Android Wear is just one of these platforms and while its smartphone counterpart continues to dominate the smartphone market, Android Wear hasn’t had as much success.

Coupled with the dominance of the Apple Watch in the market – Apple sold 1 million watches in the first day, while Android Wear took a year to reach the same milestone – Google’s platform certainly faces a challenge. What does it need to be able to dominate in wearables though? We’ve used Android Wear across many devices (as well as the Apple Watch and the Gear S2), so here’s a few of the features we’d like to see in the next version of Android Wear.

1. Freedom for OEMs

The biggest improvement we’d like to see in the next version of Android Wear is freedom for OEMs to innovate and create unique experiences. As we’ve seen from the Gear S2, Apple Watch and the Pebble range, having the freedom to customise the software to suit a particular style of smartwatch can create excellent – and very unique – experiences.

Unlike its smartphone-powering sibling, Android Wear offers the same experience across multiple devices and this lack of freedom means OEMs are limited to innovating via hardware only. This could potentially be one of the reasons that Samsung opted to use its Tizen OS – as opposed to Android Wear – for the Gear S2, as this offered it the freedom to create an interface that is capable of utilising the unique rotating bezel.

gear-s2-thumb Samsung Gear S2 review66

In comparison to this, Android Wear offers a cards approach that relies heavily on touch input for navigating the smartwatch. Offering a homogenous experience across devices is certainly not a bad thing as it means you can use any Android Wear smartwatch and feel comfortable, but it can result in the platform becoming stale.

There’s no doubt that sales of Android Wear devices have been less than initially estimated and the initial buzz around the platform seems to have worn off as a series of updates – that, admittedly, have bought a range of improvements and new features – have failed to excite. Can you imagine if an OEM like Motorola or Huawei had been able to create customised interfaces running atop Android Wear to make full use of the round display on the Moto 360 2nd Gen and Huawei Watch respectively?

samsung gear s2 review aa (9 of 24)

2. Physical buttons

In a world dominated by touch screens, it seems strange to be saying we want to see more physical buttons, but this is exactly what Android Wear needs. Take two of its chief rivals – the Gear S2 and the Apple Watch – and both offer a physical element that is crucial to the experience. The former has a unique rotating bezel and the latter has a digital crown, and while Android Wear devices have had physical buttons on the side, they don’t actually serve a purpose.

Imagine having two buttons on the right of your Android Wear device and – exploring this further – being able to customise them to suit your needs. If you frequently interact with your watch via your voice, you could have one button set to launch Google’s voice search. If you prefer to have different watch faces for different times of the day, you could easily switch by pressing a physical button.

moto 360 2nd gen review aa (4 of 27)See also: Best Android Wear watches (February 2016)67

Furthermore, instead of swiping up and down to navigate the display, you could even use the two buttons to replicate that feature, or even have one button to go back a step and another to launch an app drawer. Relying solely on touch inputs has worked so far for Android Wear, but offering physical buttons may provide the extra – and unique functionality – that is arguably missing from Google’s wearable platform.

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3. A slicker experience

At launch, Android Wear’s cards-first approach certainly offered something unique as it brought the power and familiarity of Google Now to your wrist but more than 18 months later, the interface hasn’t changed all too much. Broken down to the essentials, Android Wear is a collection of cards displaying useful information and notifications seamlessly together in one list and while it’s definitely functional, we’d certainly expect Google to offer an evolution of an experience in the next version of Android Wear.

A key problem with the cards approach is notifications; if you have ten or even twenty unread notifications, scrolling through them on a small smartwatch display isn’t exactly user-friendly. Furthermore, notifications are in a chronological order and if you’re like me, not checking notifications for a couple of hours results in an endless list of cards. By way of comparison, the Gear S2 offers notifications to the left of the home screen with each app having its own “screen” and while this approach has its own problems, scrolling left and right is a lot easier than navigating a long list of notifications.

Obviously, each platform has its own approach and there’s plenty that like the chronological cards layout of Android Wear, but in the next version, we’d like to see Google change up notifications a little. Whether it’s revolutionising the entire interface or just tweaking notifications to make them more user-friendly, Android Wear’s approach is certainly in need of a revamp, and in the next version of Android Wear, we’d like to see a revamped experience that has less swiping around a small screen.

moto 360 2nd gen review aa (24 of 27)

4. A revamped interface for round displays

While notifications may need a little tweak, the biggest problem facing Android Wear is its interface on round displays. From its initial launch, Android Wear has been designed with square displays in mind, and while this is acceptable for some devices, a lot of OEMs are opting for round displays.

OEMs have approach round displays and Android Wear in a multitude of ways but no approach yet has felt completely natural. On most round Wear devices, cropped notifications and text only appearing in the middle of the display are ‘normal’ occurrences, yet there is definitely a need for innovation here.

Whether it is Google itself innovating in Android Wear as a whole or individual OEMs having the freedom to innovate with the experience on round displays, Android Wear definitely needs to improve on how it handles round displays. As we see smartwatches rise in price and hardware improve, Google needs to ensure its software keeps up otherwise we may see OEMs looking at alternative platforms to power their wearables.

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5. Multiple input options

Unlike smartphones, replying to messages or notifications from your wrist poses a number of input challenges. At the moment, Android Wear supports voice input or quick replies and while its voice recognition is certainly impressive, there’s definitely room for improvement, not least as voice input isn’t always appropriate for a particular environment.

In the next version of Android Wear, we’d definitely like to see the list of input options expand past its currently-limited offering. Instead of limiting users to just voice input, it would be nice to see Google include support for additional inputs. For example, having a keyboard – however basic – on your wrist would certainly be useful for when you can’t use voice input. The lack of screen real estate does limit what Google is able to do but adding a T9 keyboard like the Gear S2 would offer a potential solution to this problem.

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6. Improved Battery Life

If there’s one area that Android Wear certainly fails to deliver, it’s in the battery department; we’ve seen improvements in battery life since the launch of Android Wear but none have quite delivered the excellent battery life we’ve all been hoping for.

From my personal experience, most Android Wear devices can last a full day, but will then require recharging during the middle of the following day. This then means you have to charge your wearable every night and on more than one occasion, I’ve walked out my house in the morning without putting my wearable on. In comparison, as I covered in my Gear S2 follow up review, I’m able to get two days minimum from the Gear S2 and often, it can last three days (albeit with very low usage). While it may not seem like much of a difference, having to charge your wearable every other day instead of every day does improve the overall experience.

Wearables in video:

Whether it’s through optimising the software or reducing the requirements of Android Wear, battery life is a key feature that Google definitely needs to fix in the next version of its wearable OS. Sure, manufacturers could increase the size of the battery but, as an example, the 250mAh battery in the Gear S2 is smaller than most Android Wear devices (that are atypically 300-400mAh in capacity) yet offers much better battery life. With wearables having much larger limitations in terms of design compared to smartphones, the onus is on Google to improve Android Wear so it is optimised to offer the best possible battery life.

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What do you want to see from Android Wear?

Google’s smartwatch platform is certainly heavily adopted by both, manufacturers and developers alike, but it is running the risk of growing stale. The next version of Android Wear is likely to bring several improvements but we’d like to see Google present a well-thought out experience that has been optimised for wearables.

There’s several improvements we could have listed but we’ve opted for the major improvements that will really enhance the experience on Android Wear devices. What do you want to see from the next version of Android Wear and is there anything you’d like to add to our list above? Let us know your views in the comments below.

  • Cristian Marine

    Do you realize the first of the improvements you suggest (Freedom for OEMs) might lead into more delays from OEMs to bring updates to the Wear device?

    • I agree with you on this one. Google doesn’t need to give OEMs android level of freedom what it needs to do is to adapt quickly the best features from competing OSes to Android wear.

    • wingzero0

      Exactly. The second this happens, people will begin to complain about lack of updates.

    • Nuno Estêvão Costa

      You’re totally right. First, everyone (me included) points the fragmentation of Android as one of the biggest problems… Google avoids that on Android Wear and it is also a problem. Please make up your mind!

    • daftrok

      There is a way to do it without risking the lack of updates to a device: Just have an official Android Launcher Experience app. Let people like Samsung, HTC, LG, or whoever make their own custom skins, menu options, launchers, etc via the application. Then when a new Android update comes out and they don’t have the elements of the Launcher working on the new OS, remove it and have Vanilla Android on your phone. Done and done, easy to update and forces manufacturers to keep their launcher up to date.

      • Mike Bastable

        `sensible reply

      • This would not work well at all. Can you imagine the number of complaints people would have if the whole user experience changed every time there was an update until the manufacturers eventually got around to updating their custom interfaces?

        • daftrok

          Easily fixed with a pop-up notification. “Warning: Updating the OS will reset your custom launcher to Vanilla Android if the custom launcher is not compatible with the latest version of Android. Are you sure you want to do this?”

  • HG

    Definitely battery, fast processor and less heavy to wear.

  • D K

    What is the watch inbetween points #5 and #6?

  • Nuno Estêvão Costa

    Another thing, many time has passed and no one ever told us what was the real reason behind the LG G Watch Urbane SECOND EDITION cancellation…

    • Comk4ver

      The watch wasn’t carrier locked…

  • Bradley Uffner

    1: No, please keep it consistent.
    2 – 6: Yes please!

  • Kiss my Asthma

    To be honest, looking at this list I am inclined to believe that Samsung has come the closest to the perfect smart watch. However, knowing Samsung the app ecosystem will remain lackluster, then again I always think how useful are apps on a smart watch, as in I use mine only for notifications and step counting that’s about it, I could be proven wrong though and apps may turn out to be very important on smart watches.

  • databoy2k

    Stability. These are good starts, but are all irrelevant if we keep seeing “There Was A Problem communicating with Google Servers” as often as we do currently. Whether a previously-unnoticed lack of wifi connection, a blip in the bluetooth connection, or just the watch itself farting and needing a reboot, the software is just unreliable. Options to fix are simple: offline recognition capabilities, better background noise cancellation (what about a “push to talk” button to ensure that only our voices get captured and the watch quits listening to the background noise?), or even just saving those failed attempts at recording our voices and retrying automatically. The rest of these things are icing on the cake.

    • Ben Miller

      Agreed.

      Androidwear is great as a ‘read-only’ notification delivery system. I couldn’t be without it now. I can tell in a second if the notification is worth pulling my phone out for with a quick glance at the watch.

      But time and again, it’s so f&*king flakey when it comes to voice input. If you’re phone doesn’t have a perfect ‘there and then’ internet connection or bluetooth isn’t stable, the dreaded ‘offline’ notification appears. There really is nothing more frustrating (first world problems) than speaking a voice command, seeing your watch think about it for about ten seconds before reporting it’s offline. All that wasted effort. The human being hates wasted effort.

      Either:

      1) Implement some kind of buffer that saves failed voice commands until an internet connection is restored. Provide feedback when the transaction is successfully completed.

      or

      2) Admittedly much more difficult; separate the voice commands that can operate without an internet connection and have them run offline (like calculator input, stopwatch, countdown timer etc). Then all the commands that DO require an internet connection (like Google Now stuff), just save them in a nice little cache somewhere until the internet appears again. Again, haptic feedback when the internet reconnects to confirm processing.

      I just don’t see the problem. Either live or cached, Google still get their precious analytical data. In fact, surely cached offline commands that get re-transmitted to Google will provide even MORE juicy analytical data?

      Still. Wearable tech is still so young. Not out of diapers/nappies yet. Guess we keep forgetting that. Until then, patience is a virtue! :)

      • ichuck7

        Well said. I couldn’t agree more.

      • gadgety

        @databoy2k @ben miller.

        Geat suggestions. The whole point of voice input is convenience. If it doesn’t work reliably Google needs to find a work around. My device is set for a language other than English, which makes voice input in English even more flaky.

  • I’m just after NFC support! Would love Android Pay on my wrist.

  • Badelhas

    I want to see much better battery life

  • Mista_Mr

    Battery life is a big one!!

  • Danger Dan

    Who ever wrote this must have forgotten about the urbane 2 which have 3 buttons, sure you can’t program each button but it still shows that Google is working on adding more button options. Also who ever wrote this must also have forgotten about doze will be on AW and AW now group all notification from one app together

  • Diego Opazo SV-Cross

    Finger controls.

  • Mike M.

    Number one on your list made me laugh. Do we really want to end up with a TouchWiz or MotoBlur watch?

  • gmaninvan

    Smaller hardware. I don’t mean diameter. All current smart watches are bulky and project too far off your wrist. This has been my biggest detractor. Better offline capability would be nice as well from a fitness perspective

  • Keg Man

    The cards design, feel and look. I really never liked the look of wear and it is really getting old at this point. No launchers, no options to customize, did i buy a moto iwatch?

    • gadgety

      I agree, as a user I’d like to be able to color code the garish card color schemes so that they match the watch face.

  • Keg Man

    bug fixes, there are a lot of dumb errors, tweaks or features that just disappear for reasons I can’t always explain. For example, vibration for EVERY turn by turn direction no longer happens on my moto360. I stopped getting text notifications until I turned some other feature off which somehow prevented that notification.

    • JasonL

      I had the same issue. search all over. finally found this gem of an app called GPS Nav with Wear vibrations. everything functions the same just it integrates vibrations

      • Keg Man

        Thank you, I’ll gladly pay for this feature back

  • Except for number 6, I think every idea here is terrible! Freedom for OEMs means updating all the different watches to the newest version of Android would take forever. I got Marshmallow on my first generation Moto 360 without having to wait very long. Even though Google stopped selling it, I’m hoping that it might continue to get updates in the future because it is the same across every watch. Custom watch interfaces would also mess with new features Google adds like gestures. I love gestures and would be very upset if I got a new Android Wear watch that didn’t work with them. When gestures first appeared in Lollipop, I wanted them to do more, like function in the menus as well. Now they do in Marshmallow, and I couldn’t be happier.

    Familiarity is going to be key to the success of Android Wear. If I wanted a new Android Wear watch that can play sounds, I could go get one of the new ones with speakers built in and know exactly how to use the watch because it would be the same as my Moto 360. If Android wear gets NFC support or my Moto 360 eventually gets too far behind in future updates, that’s when I plan to upgrade. It’s hard enough to find one of these watches that fits my skinny wrist well. It would be even more troublesome to find one with the right version of custom Android Wear on top of that. With everyone harping on Android for fragmentation over the years, it was smart of Google to lock down Android Wear and Android TV. Google shouldn’t have to worry about making a Nexus watch.

    Whether you like it or not, Google has created Material Design to be the foundation for how Android looks and functions on all devices. They said from the very beginning that they were designing Android Wear to work nearly the same on both square and round faces. They also said they didn’t want tiny little icons that people have to touch or navigate through like you see on the Apple Watch or the Gear S2. These screens are too small for all that clutter, especially for people with poor vision (and there are a lot of people in the world with poor vision). With that in mind and the principles of Material Design, cards are the ideal and logical solution for the best Android Wear experience.

    I’m a quadriplegic with limited use of my hands so any watch that relies on buttons and tiny keyboards would be more trouble than it’s worth. If they are there as an option but not needed for the watch to function, then it wouldn’t be a bad thing but why make things more complicated than they need to be. I think the average person would just be confused by them.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts. I really want to see NFC and Android Pay support in Android Wear. It would be much easier to pay with the tap of my wrist than to try digging for my cards or even my phone to hold up for tap and pay.

  • ScottinWinterHaven

    In wet and cold weather conditions under a long sleeve coat, fleece or rain jacket my LG W100 watch will change watch faces by itself. There needs to be away to turn off touch display so that clothing and water can’t change any settings. By not using maximum brightness settings at night and not using the alwthe-on display I can get 2 days on one charge so I do get excellent battery life. The way slide works now doesn’t bother me. I don’t get a bunch of google cards. If you don’t want them you can block apps from the watch. I think the writer blames google way to much instead of how he uses his watch. Voice texting sucks sometimes because google gets my words wrong and it has to have it’s AI system to get to know human speech patterns far more humanisticly & what you want to say should not come out of google the exact same way you are speaking to google. I hope google can learn how to voice text with inputting every text word. Plus it has learn how to text more than one sentence without stopping.

  • James Thomas Gary

    For it to have a speakerphone, like the Gear 2. Why is the tech going down?

  • ekngee

    one part of card notifications was the “Stack” feature for multiple notifications, which NOBODY except Inbox for Google uses!

  • gadgety

    Tailorability for the user, not the OEMs, please. Let me decide whether I want to remove notifications from the phone as well as on the watch. Let me decide whether I want my phone to stay COMPLETELY passive, while my watch vibrates. Is that so hard to accomplish? As for limiting the manufacturers on the hardware front, well, there’s so much to do for the manufacturers. For example a slick watch like the Huawei one, but 10atm proof. Nixon’s doing it, which is great, but the watch is far too big. So manufacturer’s having to differentiate on the hardware front is GOOD. That said, the active turning bezel on the Samsung Tizen is a big deal and basically the only draw for that platform. I did look, but I stayed in the Google corral. I’d like to see 10atm, or more, GPS, and NFC on a dress watch. Design does a lot for these wearables.