The first developer previews of Android Wear 2.0 was unveiled by Google yesterday since its original public unveiling in 2014 which was two Google I/Os before.
The developer preview builds, which only work on two more recent (and expensive) Wear watches and the Android emulator, won’t suddenly convince smartwatch haters that the devices have merit. But Wear 2.0 tweaks Google’s smartwatch platform in some intelligent ways while opening new doors for developers. Here’s what the preview is like running on the Huawei Watch.
New look and feel
The original release of Android Wear existed mostly as a wrist-bound notification delivery system. Notification cards would alert you to their presence by obscuring part of the watch face and hanging out there until you had dismissed them. Wear 2.0 is still notification-focused, but it delivers them in a way that’s less disruptive to your newly useful, complication-equipped watch face.
You still swipe up on your watch face to start flipping through your notifications, but Wear is less obnoxious about telling you when you have notifications waiting for you. When you’ve got new notifications and you raise the watch to look at it, you’ll see a small bug at the bottom of the screen that shows you the icon of the app that generated the notification. For communications apps, you’ll also see a photo for the contact that generated the notification. This bug won’t show up if you have older notifications on the watch, so if you’re just trying to look at your watch face for quick information, your notifications won’t get in the way.
The badge that lets you know you have notifications waiting is much smaller and doesn’t stick around for long.
Notification cards themselves have been changed in a bunch of ways. For starters, they now use white text on darker backgrounds instead of dark text on lighter backgrounds. Google says this will make notifications less obtrusive when you check your watch in dim or dark rooms, but more importantly, it makes notifications look cleaner and more uniform. In Android Wear 1.x, notifications from your contacts would use big, blurry, partially-obscured photos of your contacts as background images for notifications. This usually looked bad, creepy, or both, especially if your contact photos happened to be small and low-resolution. Now your notification backgrounds are always flat colors.
Cards still “stack” on top of one another, and you can move through them by swiping up and down—a status bar on the right side of the screen will show you how far through the stack you’ve progressed—but the way you interact with these cards has changed. You used to swipe from left to right to dismiss notification cards and from right to left to perform actions like replying to a text or liking a Tweet. Now you either swipe right or left to dismiss a notification card, or you tap it to expand it. This will show you all the information the notification contains—the text of an e-mail, the contents of a calendar appointment, and so on. Swipe down again to expose a menu button at the bottom of the watch’s screen, and tap that button to view all your options for interacting with that notification. Wear tries to make this process feel more natural by automatically scrolling down slightly whenever you expand a notification.
Honestly, this interaction feels a bit clunky, and it’s a place where a long-press could be useful—why not long-press on a notification card to bring up that interaction menu without all the swiping and tapping? Wear 2.0 is unstable enough at this point that it can be hard to tell the difference between bugs and intentional design decisions, so maybe it will become less convoluted in the final version.
Speaking of long presses, they’ve mostly been banished from Wear 2.0. You used to long press on the watch face to switch between different faces, but now you accomplish that by swiping left or right. This lets you move through a “favorites” menu that you can add to—if you have several watch faces that you like to use in different situations, this can make it faster to switch between them without swiping through a bunch of watch faces you hate.
Now let’s talk about replying to some of those notification cards, specifically with the Wear version of the Google Keyboard app. Any app that supports replies via text will automatically support Wear’s tiny keyboard, which is good for developers. It’s a mixed bag for users, though, since even with swipe support the little Wear keyboard is frustratingly inaccurate. Can you tap or swipe out short messages on the keyboard when speech-to-text or the canned quick replies won’t suffice? Sure! Will it ever be faster than pulling your phone out of your pocket and using it to send the message instead? No. This is strictly for cases when your phone is not available.
Finally, we get to some of the purely cosmetic changes. The menu for launching apps, for instance, will now hug the outer edge of a round watch’s screen. The quick settings drop-down menu, which used to contain several “pages” that you had to swipe through to get to the setting you wanted, is now one single group of buttons that you get to by swiping down from the watch face. These are all small changes, but for the most part, they make Wear look and feel better than it did before.
Under the hood
A careful poke through the actual preview of Wear 2.0 revealed some stuff that Google didn’t talk about when it spoke to us about the update or during the I/O keynote. First, a look at the “versions” section of the settings app lists an Android security update level, the same that you can currently find on Android phones and tablets running Marshmallow. For whatever reason, this is how Google has chosen to track Android security updates in lieu of incrementing the version number; you don’t just want Android 6.0.1, you want Android 6.0.1 with the May security updates installed.
This points to a future where Google distributes monthly Android security updates to Wear watches much like the Nexus phones—Wear updates are largely dictated by Google rather than the watch OEMs, so this should be a manageable task even if every single Android Wear watch ends up getting the Wear 2.0 update. Assuming that Wear also gets the seamless update mechanism from Android N, these more frequent updates shouldn’t require as much downtime as current Wear updates do.
Next up, keyboards. Google’s Android Wear keyboard appears to be a variant of the Google Keyboard that’s offered for Android phones and tablets, and it even asks for the same permissions the first time you run it. More interestingly, the Wear 2.0 Settings app comes with a UI for selecting different default keyboards, implying that third parties will be able to offer their own take on the smartwatch keyboard concept for users to play around with. Limited screen space would limit this sort of keyboard, but at least you’d have options if you didn’t like Google’s version.
A lot of Wear 2.0’s other important features, particularly standalone apps and complications, need developers to make them happen. As the preview continues, we should hopefully begin to see good examples of both, and once Android N and Wear 2.0 launch in the fall those experiments will become available to more people with a wider variety of watch hardware. If all Wear 2.0 brings is a tweaked UI and some new text input options, it won’t matter much. But if it can help you get more information from your watch more quickly and free your watch from being tethered to your phone all the time, it will move the Wear ecosystem (and smartwatches as a product category) in a positive direction.