Smartwatch news wasn’t good for anyone last year, but it was especially bad for the Android Wear crowd. Lenovo was the only Android Wear device maker in the top five at fourth, alongside Apple, Fitbit, Samsung, and Pebble — and the last one doesn’t even exist anymore. But, Apple reportedly saw good holiday sales following the release of their updated Watch, so maybe there’s hope for smartwatches yet.
For Google, those hopes will be pinned on the Android Wear 2.0 update. Announced yesterday, the 2.0 update streamlines an operating system that had required a lot of taps and swipes (and awkward wrist turns) to navigate. Now, a single swipe will take you to notifications or settings, while swiping from side to side will bring up alternate watch faces, which is more along the lines of how a smartphone UI works. Apps or notifications can now be navigated by scrolling with your finger or using a physical watch dial, provided the watch has one — it’s way better than the interminable swiping through cards required by Android Wear 1.0. Underpinning all that is a new Google Play store built just for Android Wear 2.0 devices — generally, Android Wear 2.0 seems to be built for devices that can be used without a phone nearby, so a lot of these apps will be useful in and of themselves.
One of the most significant additions is the Google Assistant, Google’s new digital assistant unveiled alongside their Pixel smartphone last year. Google Assistant handles a lot of what Google Now always has, including setting calendar events and reminders and performing searches, but can also do things like set up reservations at restaurants.
Also handy is a slew of new widgets that can be used to create more useful custom watch faces. Individual contacts, stock prices, or apps like Uber can be pinned to the watch face using small circular icons that can launch phone calls or request a car with a tap. One of the guiding principles of Android Wear 2.0 (and operating systems in general) appears to be minimizing the amount of navigation required to accomplish something, so these widgets should go a long way in making Android Wear watches more useful.
How good Android Wear 2.0 watches will be at fitness tracking still will mostly depend on the sensors used in each watch, but Google has made some improvements to their fitness app, Google Fit. Google Fit was pretty bare bones in Android Wear 1.0, but it’s now adding pace, calories burned, and heart rate tracking, along with weightlifting reps. They’re nice improvements, although Google will be hard pressed to demonstrate that Fit is preferable to the huge number of third party specialty fitness tracking apps out there.
It’s also easier to respond to messages using an Android Wear 2.0 watch. Besides preset messages, replies can be written and sent using dictation, typing or handwriting. Typing on a watch sounds awful, but it could be the easiest way — Google has used a modified Swype-style keyboard, so you can type out responses by dragging your finger. Still, with how small these displays are, it’s going to be even more difficult to get a keyboard like that to work properly.
As before, Android Wear 2.0 will work with iOS in a limited capacity. We do know that this time around, you’ll be able to add music from Spotify for offline use using an iPhone, and there should be a few other new abilities unlocked. But, Android Wear 2.0 still won’t work with core iOS apps like iMessage, so it’s going to remain hard to justify using an Android Wear watch with an iPhone.
Google is showcasing Android Wear 2.0 with the help of LG. They’ve paired up to create two watches — the LG Watch Style and Watch Sport. The Watch Sport is the concept most aligned with Android Wear 2.0 — it’s a do-it-all watch that features LTE, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, IP68 waterproofing, GPS, NFC, and a heart rate sensor. GPS and heart rate tracking make it a good choice for runners, as it can be used to track runs and routes without a phone, but it’s also a watch that can make payments and calls without the help of a phone. That said, stuffing all that tech in makes for a very large, very thick watch that won’t fit everyone well.
That’s where the LG Watch Style comes in. This thinner, smaller watch comes in silver, rose gold, and titanium and can be used with 18 mm Italian leather or silicone bands. It lacks all the sensors and connectivity (it still has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth) the LG Watch Sport has, although it is rated IP67 for water and dist resistance. It’s got a more minimalist design, to the point where there are no design flourishes at all — in a market loaded with different styles and looks, it’s going to be hard for this watch to stand out as a lifestyle accessory.
The LG Watch Style will be available at Best Buy and on the Google Play store for $250 starting February 10. The Watch Sport, having LTE connectivity, will come to AT&T and Verizon stores along with the Google Play Store, and will sell for $350 starting February 10.
Per Google’s announcement, here’s the list of existing watches that will get the Android Wear 2.0 update. Updates are expected to roll out anywhere from the next few weeks to the next few months.
ASUS ZenWatch 2 & 3, Casio Smart Outdoor Watch, Casio PRO TREK Smart, Fossil Q Founder, Fossil Q Marshal, Fossil Q Wander, Huawei Watch, LG G Watch R, LG Watch Urbane & 2nd Edition LTE, Michael Kors Access Smartwatches, Moto 360 2nd Gen, Moto 360 for Women, Moto 360 Sport, New Balance RunIQ, Nixon Mission, Polar M600 and TAG Heuer Connected.