Android Wear first impressions: The most useful wearable interface I've ever used

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No messy interface buttons. No superfluous features I’ll never use. I’ve only spent a scant few hours with Android Wear, Google’s new smartwatch OS, but much of what I’ve seen so far gives me hope for the entire smartwatch category.

LG would appear to have the most simple Android Wear device in its G Watch. It doesn’t have a circular display like the Moto 360 or a heart rate monitor like the Samsung Gear Live. But simplicity is the basic operating principle behind Android Wear, and my G Watch test platform does a great job of staying out of the way while the OS does its thing.

It all comes down to voice control. When the watch is performing its basic watchly duties—and the G Watch always shows its clock display unless you set it otherwise—you see just a static screen. But the device’s microphone is always in a ready state, and is quick to respond to “OK Google” voice commands.

Need to do some quick math? “OK Google... what is 20 percent of 132.58?” The answer appears directly on a card on the watch.

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Need to figure out a tip? You can have an answer in seconds. Except everyone will know how much you tip.

Need to know a baseball score? “OK Google... who won the A’s game last night?” A card showing the score quickly appears on screen.

Need to reply to a text notification that appears on the watch? Hit a big, bold interface button, and start speaking. Your reply will shoot back to whomever texted you. Voice recognition appears to perform more accurately than on my HTC One. I have pretty much joined the rest of the U.S. population under 55 who no longer makes voices calls, so quick, accurate and phone-free texting is an epiphany. To this extent, voice texting on the G Watch has been a win so far.

But there are two drawbacks.

First, just like on Google Glass, voice replies send automatically. You have to deliberately cancel a reply if you don’t like what speech recognition picked up. Second, your voice replies—and in fact all your Android Wear interactions—are far from inconspicuous. All your texting content, Google searches, and everything else that really drives Android Wear can be fodder for public scrutiny.

send a text

Unfortunately, everything you input can be heard by those around you.

Maybe I’ll be the first to say it: If Android Wear really takes off, “OK Google” could become the techie douchebaggism that makes us all forget about Glassholes.

But let’s not dwell on negatives as there are other great features: The G Watch includes a built-in step-tracking function, and your daily step counts can be summoned with a quick voice command.

And I am loving the note-taking function. If you have a random thought throughout the day (an idea for a new screenplay) or just need to save some critical information (the number of your parking space) you can say “OK Google... take a note” and then voice whatever you need to save. Your note will be sent as an email to your Gmail account. It’s a wonderful feature, though I’m interested in an option that sends Android Wear notes to a note-taking app instead of email.

So those are some of the deliberate things you can do with “OK Google” voice commands. Anyone who owns an Android phone should already be familiar with them (here's an entire list of commands), but trust me, they really come alive when they’re accessible on your wrist.

Unfortunately, in the few short hours since activating Android Wear on the G Watch and writing this article, I haven’t gotten a vivid impression of the other Android Wear promise: Contextual alerts sent from other Android apps. For instance: The Google Now cards that appear on my phone aren’t miraculously appearing on the face of my G Watch. I’ve received Twitter notifications—and replying and favoriting on the G Watch is awesome—but I’m really looking forward to much more contextual information slipping in and out of the Android Wear interface.

Of course, The G watch isn’t even a shipping product yet. Nor have app developers had any chance to build software yet. Nor have I mastered all of Android Wear’s interface settings. But the good news is that everything I’ve played with so far suggests a device and an operating system that’s easy to use, and packed with utility.

I love the fact that I don’t have to dig through app drawers. I love the focus on ready information, and quick voice replies. Android Wear keeps wearable tech simple, and that’s what this so-often-confounding product category needs. 

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