Some Time with Android Watches

Watching Android

In late June, Google announced Android Wear, a solution to the age-old problem of how to augment and interact with your smartphone via jewelry. Like all things Android, Wear presents us gadget-lovers with the impossible task of explaining what it is, what it does, and how an OS differs from hardware, without boring or confusing the listener. The inaccurate but socially-appropriate description is, “Android Wear is watches with screens that show you stuff from your phone and take simple voice commands.” To date, there are just two Wear devices on the market: The LG G Watch, and the Samsung Gear Live. Several of us at MeetMe, including our entire Android team, have adopted the timepieces into our lives for the last couple weeks. What follows are some of our individual thoughts, first on the LG model, then the Samsung (scroll down a bit).

LG G Watch

watchesLG

Bryan Emmanuel,  Android Developer

I like the watch so far, but it’s not quite what I thought it would be. I was expecting to be actively navigating around apps and content, but instead it’s more like remote notifications for my phone. That’s not a bad thing though, as it’s more convenient, and extends the battery life on my phone as I’m checking it less. I do occasionally respond to Hangouts from the watch, or ask “How far to home/work”, which is nice as well. Even when using navigation on the watch for over 2 hours of daily commuting, the battery on the watch easily exceeds 24hrs. As far as comfort goes, I’m still getting use to wearing a watch again after using a phone as my clock for the past 15 years. It’s light and not as bulky as I expected, so the transition has been easy enough.

John Spivak,  Mobile QA

Used the LG Watch for a few days.

Pros:

  • Weather Alerts, with all the recent thunderstorm activity, was great.  A good enhancement for either a weather app or just the builtin weather alert functionality would be working with municipalities to provide options for flood/tornado shelter nav directions.
  • Betterer notifications on the wrist.  Pebble has it, but it’s a much better experience on the Wear, making use of the notification icons and full text.  Wish it had more granular controls, though.  I’d like to get email notifications for Wear for my personal Gmail’s Primary category, but no notifications at all from my work Gmail, while still getting work Gmail notifications on my phone.
  • Search from wrist is handy, and will be getting better the more stuff Google adds to Google Now.

Cons:

  • No off/lock button on the LG watch to force it into “dim” mode or prevent accidental touches.  I know there’s an app for that, but it seems like something that should be part of the device.
  • Solid plastic/rubber straps don’t breathe very well in the summer, or at all.
  • Lots of apps don’t have any significant support for it, if anything at all.  I feel that most developers aren’t going to leverage it fully, since the goal here is to know when the user is going to need your app before the user does, and get out of the way otherwise.
  • It’s ugly as sin.  I bought the Pebble with knowledge that it would be dorky as hell, but the Wear watch is even worse.  This is basically the “Apple wins on design, every time” thing that a theoretical iWatch will beat everyone out of.  Hopefully the Moto 360 is better.
  • It’s very difficult to tell the time in the sun until the display automatically un-dims.  This is kind of a pain for something that should be immediate; those milliseconds add up.
Brian Herbert,  Android Developer

After a week of use, I still find the watch to be uncomfortable. The curved Samsung form-factor feels better than the flat LG unit, and the stock wristband isn’t arm-hair friendly. The charging dock is really nice, though, and I been averaging about 24 hours of battery life. I really want a reason to keep using it, but if it weren’t for the opportunity to write Wear software, I think I’d go back to bare wrists. The whole philosophy of Android Wear is passivity: it’ll tell you what it thinks is relevant when it wants to. For me, that’s annoying on two fronts. First, I can’t easily approach the device with an intent to DO something, and second, I don’t like to be randomly interrupted by notifications on my phone, let alone my wrist. When trying to demo the watch to my friends, I either have to dig awkwardly through the menus to find an interesting utility (or try to launch it with voice commands), or flip through my notification cards, which display the same thing as my phone, only with a fraction of the information. It’s occasionally nice when play controls show up after you launch Netflix, or you get a really short text message that you can read at a glance, but as far as convenience, I haven’t found any use that isn’t better and just as culturally acceptable to do on my phone. So if this were a closed-platform devices with no hardware options, I’d say it’s not for me.

But this is Android, in an era of customizable peripherals, so regardless of the implied uses for this watch, I still have a device on my wrist that can do a ton of cool stuff, given the right software. I installed an app launcher, accessible like a menu drawer, and now it feels like I control the watch, rather than the other way around. The play store also has a couple calculator watch apps, so you can go retro with your geekery. After a tiny bit of hacking, I was able to port one of my old games over. It ran smoothly at almost 60 fps, so decent gaming is possible. As a developer, I’m almost overwhelmed with grandiose ideas, and I think we’re gonna see a lot of cool apps soon enough. I wish there were a camera and speaker, but the screen, accelerometers, haptic feedback, and connectivity through the phone still allow for some great creativity.

In short, I think this is a device purely for hackers and early-adopters. It needs another generation or two before there are enough apps and use cases for Apple to sift out the marketable features.

 Kenny Campagna,  Android Developer

Pros:

  1. Google Now Integration. Easily one of the best features as I use this daily, whether it is weather/traffic updates, setting reminders/alarms or the dozens of other things it does.
  2. Notifications. I have a Nexus 5 and for some reason it has a very low vibration so I can never feel it when its in my pocket. The watch takes care of the need to have to feel that, or even look at it for a notification. It is also useful when I am at home. I can leave my phone plugged in charging and not go over and look at it whenever I get a notification.
  3. Battery Life. I’ve read reports of battery life not being spectacular, but in my experience the watch last 2+ days before needing a charge.

Cons:

  1. It’s A Watch. This really isn’t a knock against the functionality of the watch but I’m not a watch person. I’m still getting used to it so it sometimes is awkward.
  2. No Speaker. When I google something I got used to hearing it spoken back to me, I have been spoiled, I now have to Gasp Read!
David Weinstein,  Senior UI Designer

For nearly ten days I’ve been wearing my new LG G watch and unlike Glass it’s not even there. I will preface this by saying that I wear watches frequently and own about a dozen different ones for many occasions. When I saw the sub $250 price tag on the first two watches I was elated. I’ve spent more on a watch that does less. Throughout my childhood to present day I have always been enamored with the idea of a computer as a watch. From classic Dick Tracy, Penny on Inspector Gadget, to Zordon calling the Power Rangers, a watch that could act as a communication tool has always seemed very logical.

To my dismay when I strapped on the LG G I did not get the call from Zordon, but I did get the weather. Having Google Now feed me information to my watch is very useful. While I work, I generally keep my phone silenced with vibration off since its usually on my desk. Having an extension of my phone on my wrist is quite fantastic. Getting a Hangout or Hipchat notification directly on my watch have made missed text messages pretty infrequent. The ability to reply to a Hangout with quick replies or voice is also fantastic. So far I’ve found most of the quick replies to be sufficient enough at least to let the other person know I saw and understood their message without having to take out my phone.

I have found some physical detractors for the LG G though. It’s poor battery life is the most disappointing. If I forget to charge it at night I’m likely to run out of battery before I hit work. On the plus side since the battery is so small, it charges very quickly. The second annoying factor is terrible direct sun viewing. Add polarized sunglasses to the mix and it’s impossible to read making its usefulness during the summer lacking a bit depending on the shades I have on that day. One thing I had not considered was how distracting it would be in a dark movie theater. While you can dim the watch it still puts out significant light in a dark room. I didn’t want to be ‘that guy’ so I made sure to slip the watch off during the film. An option to make the watch go completely dark via a gesture would be very useful.

On the software side of things, with most applications currently not supporting Android Wear the phone mostly acts as a notification center, which I already knew going in. This does make the current generation of watches more for early adopters than for the masses. The general public’s expectations of what a smart watch is capable of is tempered by science fiction and mass media. What it’s actually capable of is much less. For example my dreams of being Dick Tracy, answering a call on my wrist, is a mixed bag. While phone calls do forward to my wrist; answering them leaves me awkwardly reaching for my phone in my back pocket. The watch has no speaker therefore can not act as a headset, unless I am already paired with a bluetooth headset, which I am not. The call functionality is reserved more for dismissing a call or sending a quick response via text to the person ringing me. One feature that seems to be a horrible oversight is lack of call status on the watch. I have no ability to hang up or see who I am talking to on the watch.

Where science fiction does meet reality is with GPS navigation and Wear integrated apps. Walking directions are even better on my wrist than they were with Glass. With Glass I was constantly calling attention to myself and many people would ask me about it, making actually getting anywhere quite the challenge. With the LG G no one thinks twice about a man checking his watch making walking navigation a breeze. And while the list of integrated apps is currently slim, fitness apps shine showing off just how useful the watch can be. By providing me with minimalist controls for starting and stopping a workout it makes my progress tracking that much more accurate since I no longer have to fumble around with my arm band or zipped pocket where I awkwardly carry my phone during a run or workout.

Overall my experience has been a pleasant one. Android Wear does what Glass did not. It provides information at a glance without getting in the way or calling attention to itself. Making wearable computers innocuous is the crutch that is required for them to succeed. Having an obvious computer strapped somewhere on your body defeats the purpose of wearables and makes breaking into the mass market that much more difficult. When you make the item a fashion accessory you’ve succeeded. Wear is on the right track and now it’s in the hands of the developers to make it killer.

Samsung Gear Live

 watchesSamsung

Joe Hansche,  Android Architect

Pros:

  • It didn’t take as long as I was fearing to get used to wearing a watch again, after not having worn one for about 7 years.  The last watch I wore got lost at some point after I moved here, most likely due to the fact that I used to hate wearing it while working at a keyboard, so it would come off as soon as I sat down (which hasn’t been much of an issue with the Gear, thus far)
  • I like getting quick-glance previews of what is going on on my phone without having to look at the phone.  This is important especially when I’m at work, because my phone sits in its charging dock, so I don’t actually see or pay attention to notifications that come up on the phone.
  • I like the gentle buzz on an incoming notification;  something that my phone typically doesn’t do very well.  It’s enough to get my attention if I’m interested, but unintrusive enough to allow me to easily ignore it if I’m not.
  • Step count has been an interesting one, since I haven’t had a device that counts steps for me (and I walk to/from work every day).  An app on my phone to do that would be a no-go, since that requires the accelerometer sensor, and that would drain my battery.
  • Speaking of battery, the battery on the Gear has been great, usually getting down to somewhere between 50-70% after a full day of using itand then I take it off and put it on the charger before I go to bed.  After dealing with sub-par phone batteries that often can’t even last a full day, it’s nice to see that this gets a good 24+ hour charge.
    But that’s kinda sad if you think about it:  we are all infatuated with the idea that it can last over a day without being charged.  Our phones are such battery hogs, that we are ecstatic to see something that doesn’t yell at us at the end of the day because it’s on its last breath.
  • I like the fact that the wristbands are replaceable [1] [2], because while I am hesitantly in favor of the Samsung wristband as of now, I fear the day that the holes wear out from the band snapping on/off multiple times a day, and the pegs will no longer hold the band properly.  Or I’ve had visions of walking across the bridge and the band catches the inside of my pants pocket, ripping the band completely off my wrist as the gadget goes for a swim in the Delaware River ¬_¬
    Again, I do still prefer the Samsung band over the LG one, but I think a more traditional strap will be better in the long run.

Cons:

  • Speaking of chargers:  the Samsung Gear charger is absolutely terrible…  it’s a tiny, odd-shaped chunk of plastic that snaps onto the back of the watch (after about 2-3 attempts, anyway, if you’re lucky), and then forces you to leave the watch laying on its side with the charger cable sticking up.  I’m just waiting for the day that one of those tiny clips breaks off and then I’m totally screwed (since it won’t even lay flat in order to hold against the contacts while charging).  The LG G charger/cradle was a much better design, and I wish Samsung had taken a similarly simplistic route when designing their charger.
  • I seem to get multiple Now cards for daily agenda, each containing the same set of 2-3 events that I am not interested in (two separate weather forecasts for the day and a 10am meeting I don’t attend).  Weather forecast is great, but I don’t need to get the notification from my calendar (I use Google’s weather calendar, so it shows today’s temperature as an agenda item, and that’s not really where it belongs).  I do like having the weather forecast as its own card, including a weekly view.  I just don’t want to see it in my agenda.
  • The heart rate monitor doesn’t work well at all..  About 80% of the times I have tried it, it says “tighten band and try again.”  Sometimes it’ll work if I hold the watch face tightly against my wrist, but I feel like if you’re going to add something like that as a core selling point of the device, it should Just Work™.  I’ve also noticed it works much more often when I’m inside, as it virtually never works outside in the daylight:  probably because it uses a small green LED to detect the pulses, and the daylight entering from the side of the watch is just too bright for the sensor to detect the variance properly.  One time I did get it to work outside (on the 2nd attempt) while playing company softball, and it registered my heart rate at 63bpm, which is 100% incorrect (I had just hit a homerun!).  My heart rate had to be over 120bpm, and it just couldn’t seem to figure that out.
  • Speaking of the heart rate monitor:  I think it would also be a nicer feature (assuming it actually worked reliably!) if it took regular heart rate samples without me having to ask for it.  It counts my steps without me asking it to, so I should also be able to look at the history and see an hourly (or whatever) history of my heart rate throughout the day.
  • Sensitivity…  This is an issue on a couple different fronts.  As John mentioned, holding the watch in the “I’m looking at you, please turn on now” pose is not as reactive as I would like.  In fact, as I’m writing this, I can’t even get it to turn on at all without touching it.  That makes it difficult to see the time, because now I have to waste a couple seconds starting at a black screen before finally deciding to tap the screen to turn it on.
  • Related to why that previous item annoys me so much:  I disabled the screen-always-on feature, because at night, that small amount of ambient glow is actually super distracting.  I’d like to be able to keep the screen always on (dim) during the day, and have it automatically switch to turning off the screen entirely either based on time-of-day or ambient light (I don’t think it has an ambient light sensor, so that is probably not possible).
  • Also tying into the annoyance of turning the screen on is the touch sensitivity and/or lag issues…  Sometimes when I get impatient in my “I’m looking at you, please turn on now” pose, I’ll tap the screen preemptively to turn it onBUT if it’s one of those rare times that it actually recognized my pose, it might actually turn on just before I tap (or more likely, it happens after my tap, but the tap recognition is so lagged that it doesn’t register a touch event until after it’s on), and then it brings up the google voice search screen… not what I wanted.  So now I have to try to swipe it away.  I’m used to being able to do pretty sloppy touch gestures on the phone, but in using the watch, it seems to be far less forgiving of slop.  So now not only does it incorrectly think I want to search for something, it is also incorrectly ignoring my swipe gesture to get rid of the search screen (or incorrectly interprets it as a swipe-up to see the menu options)!  Sometimes when I tap to get the menu options, the lag issue makes it incorrectly think I’m long-pressing, and that causes the “choose a watch face” screen to appear, which makes me choose a sad face 🙁  Swipes are interpreted as taps, taps interpreted as long-press, etc…  All adds up to being mildly annoying.

In the end, I’m still wearing itfor now, at least.  I think part of that is I’m just anxious to start playing around with the development aspect of it, since I have unfortunately not had a chance yet to play with developing anything for it.

[1] http://www.androidcentral.com/changing-strap-your-android-wear-watch

[2] http://natostrapsco.com/collections/22mm-straps

 James O’Brien,  Android Developer

The Samsung Gear Live is the first watch I’ve worn in maybe 8 years, and I’m happy to report that it tells the time successfully. Personally this feels like what the next step in personal computing should have been, rather than Google Glass, as the smart watch is a pre-existing medium and is far from a distraction for those who wear it or those who the wearers interact with. At first I was disappointed with the lack of functionality, but over time I found that I liked that it isn’t a standalone device, rather an extension to your phone.

If I were to critic the Gear Live, my first port of call would be the strap. I do not feel comfortable with its fastening mechanism. I now take my watch off while riding my bike, which is unfortunate because riding is almost the perfect use case for the wear. While the watch has never unbuckled accidentally yet, there is something uncomforting about a $200 watch that could pop off at any moment.

Charging is the next issue I found with the Gear Live. The charger is a small block which clips to the back of the device and then connects via micro-usb. At first this was very stiff and difficult to click into place and then remove; I wasn’t surprised by the number of complaints from owners of this breaking. The strap also makes it impossible to charge the device face up because of the slight curvature where it is joined to the watch face. I was able to combat this by fastening my watch to a glasses case, or alternatively by forcefully bending the bottom strap inside.

The battery life has been very impressive. I turn the device off at night, and I have managed to easily have two days of constant use. The device doesn’t feel sluggish while navigating the cards and when the heart rate monitor works, its a nice novelty feature. Those around me will be happy to hear that I now leave my phone on silent, because the incoming buzz on my wrist means I no longer have to reach for my pocket.

Android Wear as a concept is a great. These two devices are not quite the finished product, but neither was my G1 and just like the G1, the more I use it the more I like it.

I think I’m going to get a Motorola 360.

 Bill Donahue,  Android Developer

Android Wear took one of the most annoying aspects of the Android OS, constant notifications of largely unwanted or irrelevant data, and made an entire experience around it. With a lot of work I think it has the potential to be useful, but as it stands today it feels like a product just for tech enthusiasts and hackers.