Why Android Wear is the smartest smartwatch platform yet

android wear gwatch
Ryan Whitwam

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The first few Android Wear devices on the market could be described as inelegant, if you’re being kind. The G Watch and Gear Live are both somewhat bulky, and not the most attractive pieces of technology ever developed, but there's something incredibly important going on inside them.

Strapping one of these chunky watches to your wrist instantly changes the way you interact with your smartphone. Android Wear has a shot at being a transformative technology on the level of the iPad, and this is why.

It saves your phone's battery

Android Wear is explicitly not a phone platform, even though some people seem to want to treat it like one. Developers have already created experimental keyboards, file managers, web browsers, and other poorly optimized experiences for Wear. But these apps are missing the point of Android Wear as a smartwatch OS—it’s supposed to assume many of your phone's low-level duties, not replicate your phone on your wrist. Sounds minor, right? When you add up all these little features, you get a big chunk of mobile computing, and it happens all on a watch.

android phone wake time
A phone’s battery life levels off nicely when using Wear for the little things.

Think about how many times in a day you wake up your phone just to see what time it is or to check for new messages. It’s probably dozens of sleep/wake cycles at least. Android Wear can tell you the time (duh), show you notifications, let you reply to messages, and even run some very limited apps that bring in contextual data from your phone. For example, the money-tracker app Level alerts you on the watch when a large charge appears on your linked bank accounts. You can get the gist of what’s going on, but if you want more information, the watch app opens the full app on your phone.

Getting the basics from deeply integrated apps and services on your watch means the phone stays asleep longer and its battery takes less of a beating. Google recently analyzed Android’s battery usage and found that every second the screen is on burns through two minutes of potential standby time. From my purely anecdotal experience with Wear, my phones easily see 15 to 20 percent less drain over the course of a day, even with that active Bluetooth connection. Android Wear saves your phone for the times you actually need it to be a phone.

The right stuff out of the box

Google is hasn't started from scratch with Android Wear app support. Any device running Android 4.3 or higher will be able to send actionable notifications over to the watch. For example, if a notification shade item features buttons (like play/pause in Netflix), they automatically work on Wear without any additional tweaking.

In fact, the Wear app can route notifications only to the watch and keep your phone’s notification shade nice and clean. Just having your notifications and some app integration isn’t enough to transform how you use your phone, but luckily, that’s not all Wear does.

It also ties into Google Now to show you relevant cards based on your location and the time of day. It’s the same experience you’d get by going to Google Now on the phone, but it’s right there on your wrist. Have an appointment coming up? Your watch will tell you when to leave.

You see the power of Google Now when you check it while away from home, but how often do most people pull out their phone to load it up? Android Wear puts the most important cards front and center on your watch to deliver data before you even ask for it. This is the perfect solution for a watch, which necessarily has limited input options.

android wear cards
Wear shows you useful cards based on time and location.

Because we’re talking about a tiny 1.6-inch screen, typing is an absolute no-go. Oh, there’s already an experimental third-party keyboard for Wear, but you don’t want to get involved with that. Google built Wear interactions around voice commands, taps, and swipes, with no text entry fields.

Android Wear is always listening for the “OK Google” command, so you can quickly launch apps, send messages, and perform searches. The only reason this makes any kind of sense on a smartwatch is the robustness of Google Knowledge Graph—those cards you see at the top of some search results. You don’t want to scroll through a list of blue links on a watch, just to end up opening them on your phone's browser, and the cards help you avoid that. It’s like Google had wearables in mind when it built out its semantic search capabilities. And maybe it did.

android wear google services
You can use voice commands to call up information without even touching the screen.

Android Wear doesn’t have a massive feature set, but it doesn’t need to. Smartwatches aren’t going to take over for the smartphone in your pocket; they work best when your phone and watch share the load. This is exactly what Android Wear does, and once the first-generation kinks are ironed out (and more attractive hardware arrives), it might seem like a no-brainer to pick up a smartwatch just to make your phone better.

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