Android Wear update adds name-brand watchfaces and interface improvements

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Android Wear is closing out 2014 with significant software updates geared toward personal fashion flair and improved usability. The more showy enhancements include a bunch of fun, style-forward watch faces from name brands and artists. But behind the scenes, Google is improving its smartwatch platform by making tweaks to the on-watch experience itself (everything’s listed in the bullets at the end of this story).

If you’re already a Wear watch user, you’ll want this release, which is based on Android 5.0 Lollipop and rolls out over the next week via over-the-air updates. Let’s get straight to the details...

A whole new watch face platform

Let’s face it: Most of the time, your Wear watch functions as “just” a watch. But that’s OK, and now Google is introducing watch face features that make the basic Wear experience even more personal and expressive.

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First, there’s now an official watch face API that will help speed up the creation of faces that won’t break the essential Android Wear experience. Second, Google is launching its watch face initiative with scads of new dials and readouts from big-name brands. There are too many to list here, but they include games (Pac Man), fashion (Rebecca Minkoff), high-concept visual art (Un Petite Monde), and a few healthy doses of testosterone (Porsche and Red Bull, to name just two).

Third, a new Android Wear companion app will make it easier to browse, download and switch watch faces. Google Play itself is getting a new section devoted to watch faces as well. Bottom line: Google is taking watch faces very seriously—all in the effort toward making watch faces much more fun.

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Quiet, but very welcome, interface tweaks

The new watch faces will certainly cause the biggest splash, because who doesn’t like customizing a smartwatch? But once all the fun dies down, we might remember this latest Wear update for its usability tweaks, many of which respond to user requests. Here’s what to expect:

  • The ability to retrieve cards you’ve dismissed by accident.
  • Tapping on the watch face will show your most recently used actions at the top of the list.
  • Swiping down from the top of the screen will give you a new settings menu (it sounds like the third-party Wear Mini Launcher).
  • A new Theater Mode keeps the screen dim and mutes vibrations in a dark room.
  • Sunlight Mode boosts the screen to maximum brightness (it’s unclear if this mode automatically responds to signals from an ambient light sensor, or is entirely user activated).
  • The ability to block app notifications—on the watch itself, without digging into smartphone settings.
  • A new screen in the Android Wear companion app that shows Wear app battery and storage stats.
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Between new watch faces and lots of nifty user-experience improvements, the latest update looks to touch on the entire Android Wear experience, and not just a limited use case, like offline music, which was introduced in October. Stay tuned for more coverage as our own Wear watches update and we get a chance to play with the new features.

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