In theory, Android Wear sounds great. In essence, Android Wear does nothing more than display your phone’s notifications on your wrist. That’s it. This basic idea appeals to me – and it still does – but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. What makes matters worse is that Google doesn’t really seem to know into what direction it wants to take Wear, and more recent updates have made the platform more convoluted and complicated than it needs to be.
The basics: Android Wear’s “homescreen” is the watch face. Notifications pop up from the bottom, and you can tap them to expand them to cover the entire screen. You can then swipe to to the right to perform actions on the notification, or keep swiping to the left to dismiss the notification. By default, every notification on your phone will also be displayed on your watch, but this is configurable.
Developers don’t need to specifically add Wear support, but they can improve the experience by adding contextually relevant actions to the notification on your watch. On top of that, developers can create full applications for Wear that run entirely on the watch. I’ve tried a few of these – browsers, calculators, calendars, that sort of thing – but the lack of any form of working input (more on that later) and the minuscule display makes them nothing more than a gimmick that entertains for about 5 seconds.
The concept of these notifications is sound; it’s the execution where things start to fall apart. First, there’s the big issue of performance, or lack thereof. Touches and swipes often won’t register, the UI lags and stutters all the time, and loading full Wear applications takes forever. It’s a well-known fact that the Moto 360 uses slow and outdated hardware, and it most certainly shows. It reminds me of my Nokia E7, with its touch Symbian interface, and that’s not something a device should remind me of. Ever.
These performance issues permeate every aspect of the user experience, including my biggest issue, the issue that makes the Moto 360 (and I’m guessing, every other smartwatch, including the Apple Watch) next to useless: input. The small size of the device necessitates the use of speech recognition for input, but the recognition is just plain awful and is very hit and miss – with the latter more prevalent than the former. I also have no idea how to input capitals or punctuation, and there’s no way to correct yourself after the fact (you need to start over if the device made a mistake). Performance is slow, so often you’ll be waiting quite a while for whatever you’ve spoken to actually show up on the screen.
After the crappy speech recognition and performance, input has another major issue that you rarely hear about but which affects millions and millions of people all over the world. Back in Mountain View everybody may only speak one language – English – but in most parts of the world, we deal with several languages interchangeably. Half of of my life is Dutch, the other half English, and there’s some German parts in there as well. With Android Wear, you’ll have to pick your device’s language, and be prepared to use that language all the time. There’s no way that I’ve found to change language – I think the only way to do it is to reset the device.
This is actually a very common problem in technology. It seems as if all the engineers and managers in Silicon Valley live in some sort of bubble where everyone speaks only one language, and those of us who use more than one every day are just ignored. I don’t understand how engineers in a country where almost 40 million people indicate Spanish is their primary language can overlook this issue.
In any event, these three issues combined make input on the Moto 360 essentially completely and utterly broken, so replying to e-mails, messages, or things like that was pretty much impossible for me, forcing me to take my phone out of my pocket anyway. Yet another nail in the coffin.
There have been two major updates to Android Wear on the Moto 360, and while the first one was very welcome – it improved performance somewhat – the second one, Wear 5.0, has been a massive letdown for me. Not only did it undo many of the performance improvements from the previous update, the new functionality only serves to make the watch feel even more like a computer, and even less like a watch. The big problem is that the features the update adds to Wear only make the device more complicated, forcing you to spend more time looking at the watch than anywhere else – which is exactly the opposite of why I bought a smartwatch in the first place. I want to spend less time staring at a screen, not more.
For instance, before the update, you could turn off all notifications on the watch by quickly swiping downwards. This was a feature I used all the time when being around friends – it was quick, convenient, invisible, and required less than a second. After the 5.0 update, however, swiping down brings up a menu, where you then need to cycle through three different profiles that mirror those on your phone (“show all”, “priority only”, or “none”). While the three options look like a carousel you can swipe through, you actually need to tap to cycle through them. This means that you have to fiddle with a tiny tap area (which of course often doesn’t register touch) and look at the watch for an extended period of time to figure out if it’s been silenced properly.
This is just annoying and rude, equivalent to taking your phone out of your pocket and holding it up to your face to silence it. The idea behind the smartwatch was – at least for me – to eliminate those kinds of situations as much as possible, which is exactly what Wear pre-5.0 did. There are more examples of this, where things that were simple pre-5.0 are unnecessarily complicated post-5.0. For instance, when you swipe away a notification, Wear 5.0 shows a full-screen undo button that sits there for like 5-7 seconds unless you swipe away that button too. This is done to alleviate accidentally swiping away a notification, but it seems to me like using a jackhammer to thread a needle.
All these things do is make you very aware that you are not wearing a watch, but a computer.
Are there any positive aspects to Android Wear? Well, it looks nice and clean, but the relatively low resolution of the 360’s display makes everything look a bit fuzzy, something we’re no longer accustomed to thanks to our high-DPI mobile displays. More modern displays – high-resolution AMOLED, hopefully – could improve this, but may lead to more strain on the battery.
The ability to switch out watch faces is also a mixed bag. There are quite a lot of them by now, and some of them look really, really decent. However, I’ve found that non-Google/non-Motorola watch faces tend to suck up a lot more battery life, up the point where I just uninstalled all of them and went back to the stock ones.
Another mixed bag is the heart rate monitor. It’s kind of fun to keep track of your heart rate throughout your life, like when you’re working, talking to friends, reading about idiot politicians, while working out, and… Other possible activities, but sadly, determining your heart rate takes about 20-30 seconds, and you have to sit perfectly still… If it even works at all. I’ve found that it will only work about once out of five times, and sometimes, the measured heart rate was clearly inaccurate (like 188 while relaxing). So, after a few days of frustrations, I just stopped using this feature.
When you use the heart rate monitor for the first time, you’re confronted with another boneheaded oversight of the Moto 360, which makes it perfectly clear you’re dealing with an Android device: after you tell it “what’s my heart rate” (and it actually recognises what you said), a dialog pops up asking you to select which application you want to use: Google Fit or some Motorola health thing. It’s the exact same dialog you see on your Android phone when selecting which application you want to open a file/link/etc. with.
I wish I was joking.
The Moto 360 is not a good product. Android Wear is not a good platform. I’m rarely this harsh in a review, but I honestly have little choice here. All the issues I’ve described here – and there are more, but I think my point has been made – illustrate that this product category simply isn’t ready for mass-market appeal. Often you can at least say it’s an answer looking for a question, but the Moto 360 isn’t even an answer. It’s just… A gimmick that will annoy you until you eventually throw it in a corner and replace it with a real watch.
The issue with Android Wear is that despite Google trying to keep it simple and notification-oriented, it is still very much a computer first, that also happens to sometimes show the time, if it feels like it. I am not looking for a tiny smartphone on my wrist; I’m looking for a watch that also happens to display my phone’s notifications. As I’ve said a few times already, Wear is too much computer, too little watch, and consequently, sucks at both.
The Moto 360 has competition, but from what I’ve seen, they don’t really address the core issues. The square ones can be discarded right off the bat, and the only other round Wear device is the LG G Watch R (I wish I made that name up), but it looks too bulky and too much like a toy children’s watch. And, of course, it will inherit all the software problems which are inherent to Android Wear.
Future competition is, of course, the Apple Watch, but going by what we know so far, the Apple Watch is even more computer, and even less watch, than the Moto 360 and Android Wear. First, the obvious, in that it is square. Second, input on the Apple Watch looks incredibly complicated and convoluted, with countless different kinds of swipes and taps and holds, a jog dial, and a huge button hard-coded to a chat application so you can talk to the three other Apple Watch owners you know. The software, too, seems far too dense with information for the tiny screen it’s running on, with tiny on-screen buttons and everything.
In summary, if you want to strap a slow, buggy, and annoying Android phone on your wrist – go ahead and get a Wear device. If you want a tiny iPhone on your wrist with finicky controls, wait a few months and get the Apple Watch. Want something better?
What a smartwatch should be
What I want a smartwatch to be is simple: watch first, computer second – or preferably computer third, fourth, or fifth. The way that I envision a watch-first, computer-later smartwatch to look like is relatively simple: take any traditional, mechanical watch, and turn its glass or sapphire into a fully transparent display. This display would only show computery stuff when needed – and be completely invisible otherwise. This way, you could have a traditional, mechanical watch most of the time, and a window (literally) onto your notifications only when absolutely needed.
There’s a company claiming to be working on something like this, but I honestly doubt they can do it at this time. We’ll probably need a few more years before technology has caught up, but when it does, we’ll finally have what I consider to be the ideal smartwatch. It might actually be the case that technology companies simply do not have the cultural background and history to understand what makes a watch a watch, and that it will actually be a traditional watchmaker that first creates something like this.
I will leave you with a question I asked myself the entire time I was wearing and using the Moto 360: would I feel comfortable wearing this watch to a funeral? Would I need to take it off because people will see it for what it is (an internet-connected computer), making it seem as if I’m checking the web or Twitter instead of paying my respects to the deceased person?
For the Moto 360, and thus for every other current Wear device, as well as for the even-more computery Apple Watch, the answer is a definitive no. Even when just reading the time, they look, work, and function far too much like a computer. In such a situation, any of the current smartwatches makes you look like a rude douchebag.
Smartwatches will hit the mainstream once they can pass the funeral test.