Android Wear’s second coming is finally here
After months of delays and more than a few leaks, Google is finally launching Android Wear 2.0 with two new watches from LG: the LG Watch Style and the LG Watch Sport, both of which go on sale Friday. The update, which will roll out to more watches later this month, is a complete redesign of Google’s smartwatch platform, bringing the Google Assistant and standalone apps to your wrist.
At first glance, what’s most noticeable about the new Android Wear is the darker color scheme. Like we saw with the developer previews, the card interface of previous versions is (thankfully) gone and everything, including notifications, is instead set against a dark background.
“We’ve really tried to simplify things and just make it easier on the eyes but also easier on the battery,” Google product manager Jeff Chang said.
The user interface itself has also been simplified with streamlined navigation, thanks to what Google has dubbed “rotational input.” Most noticeable in the redesigned app launcher, which makes it easier to navigate apps and notifications with a quick scrolling action rather than a series of swipes. On the new LG watches, this takes advantage of a new rotating hardware button that works a lot like the Apple Watch’s Digital Crown, but it also works on square watch faces and other older models.
Watch faces have also been improved. Now, any app can be accessible from the watch face via a complication (previously, complications were determined by the watch face and not fully customizable).
But perhaps the most significant change in Android Wear 2.0 is a new, watch-based version of the Play Store, which allows you to download and run apps independently of your smartphone. If you have an LTE-enabled watch, this completely untethers your watch from your smartphone, at least in theory.
Those with non-LTE watches will still depend on a Wi-Fi connection to download apps but having the phone version of the app will no longer be necessary to run the watch’s counterpart. This could be particularly game-changing for iOS users, who until now have been greatly limited with what they could do with an Android Wear watch.
With the change, any developer can now make an Android Wear app that works with iOS. And, running natively on the watch, these apps are all much more useful. You can now use an app like Strava to track your run, get directions with Google Maps or call an Uber from your wrist, While non LTE-enabled watches still won’t be able to receive texts and phone calls from iPhones, iOS users will be able to respond to messages from other apps, like Hangouts and Telegram, directly on an Android Wear 2.0 watch.
To help with that kind of messaging, Google has added a new keyboard that allows you to to input text via swipe gestures (you can also use gestures to hand-draw emoji or set shortcuts to canned responses).
The update also marks the latest expansion of Google Assistant, which is coming to all Android Wear 2.0 devices. The feature works much the same way as it does on Google’s Pixel phones and Google Home. You can “wake up” the assistant by either holding down the side button (on the new LG watches) or simply holding the watch to your face and saying “Ok, Google.”
Notably, Google Assistant on smartwatches won’t speak answers to your queries. This is intentional, says David Singleton, VP of Android Engineering at Google.
“We looked at the kind of places where people are using the assistant and, quite often, you’re asking a question to get some knowledge back about yourself, so sometimes it’s private information. This is really for much more on-the-go kind of use cases.”
Taken together, Android Wear 2.0 is without a doubt Google’s most compelling update to its smartwatch platform since it launched in early 2014. Will the new features will be enough to truly challenge Apple, however? That’s another matter. (Mashable’s senior tech correspondent Raymond Wong’s verdict is that LG’s new watches are no Apple Watch killer, though we haven’t been able to test them out with iOS yet.) Still, the long overdue update will no doubt be welcome news to those who have been waiting for it ever since it was announced last year at the Google I/O developers conference, and Android Wear 2.0 will roll out to compatible older watches later this month.
Whether or not the update moves the needle for Android Wear, as a platform, depends on the hardware that comes in its wake, however, and how much it sways those in the market away from the Apple Watch. With the smartwatch market in decline and Apple eating most of what’s left, that’s a tall order. You’d need something like the entire power of Google to do it, but that’s arguably exactly what just arrived on your wrist with Android Wear 2.0.