Not quite ready for primetime
Google’s smartwatch OS has finally arrived, and Android Wear is probably the best wearable platform that’s ever hit the market—although, considering the horrendous state of past smartwatches, this alone isn’t a remarkable achievement.
Android Wear does a lot of things right even at this early stage in its development, but there are glaring usability problems too. You can’t use a Wear watch for more than a few minutes without getting annoyed by some of Google’s decisions. Let’s take a look at the things Google needs to fix in Android Wear before it’s going to be ready for primetime.
Starting apps can be ridiculous
Apps install to Android Wear automatically from your phone over a Bluetooth connection. It’s a handy way for developers to add Wear functionality to existing apps, and distribute standalone Wear apps through Google Play. However, actually opening those apps on your watch can be a challenge.
Starting apps by voice is fine most of the time, but if you’re in any situation that makes shouting at your wrist awkward or impossible, you have to open the search screen and scroll all the way to the bottom to get to the app list. It’s a really unintuitive, inconvenient location.
No card history
The main Android Wear interface is a series of vertically scrolling cards—essentially smartphone notifications and Google Now alerts brought over from your phone. However, this scheme also suffers an annoyance of the Google Now interface: You can’t recall a card that you’ve already swiped away. Wear doesn’t even get the short-lived “undo” popup.
Sometimes the lack of a card history isn’t a huge deal. If you lose an email notification, you can just check your phone later. But may the gods of technology help you if you swipe away the weather card. It’ll come back in about a day, when Google Now decides to show it again. There really needs to be a way to reinstate dismissed cards because cards define the entire interface.
There’s no way to start a new Hangouts conversation
If someone sends you a message via Google’s data-only Hangouts chat system, you can reply by voice right from Android Wear. However, you can’t start a new Hangouts conversation. It defies logic, but for some reason, there’s no voice command to send a Hangout message in Google’s universe. Your only choice is to send a new SMS from the watch, which depending on the app your friend is using, could be seriously confusing.
Navigation is a mess
Android Wear automatically produces a card when the connected phone is doing turn-by-turn navigation, which is pretty neat. Just glance at your wrist and see the next turn.
However, the distance to the turn doesn’t show up when the screen dims—only the road and direction display. This makes it much harder to use, and sometimes the street name is so long that even the full card cuts off the distance. Think you’re off the hook if you’re walking? Nope. Initiating navigation from the watch will always start driving navigation, and there’s no way to change it.
You can’t choose the top card
When you’re looking at the Wear watch face, one of your cards will always be peeking up from the bottom of the screen as a visual cue that you can swipe downward. It’s a great place to show important information—like who sent your most recent email, or the current weather—but you don’t get to decide what goes there.
Android Wear uses some befuddling system to determine which card gets to be at the top of the list, and there are no settings to change it. It would be fabulous if you could simply make the weather card hang out at the top, for example.
The message sending timer is way too fast
This should be an easy fix, and it’s one Google should make immediately. Despite its surprisingly accurate voice recognition, the system will still make bizarre errors on occasion. That’s why Wear lets you review a message before it is auto-sent.
The problem is that the delay is far too short: You get barely two seconds to read over your words. If you need more time, you have to tap on the screen to pause and then send manually, which rather defeats the purpose of hands-free voice input.
No user-defined screen timeout
Wear pulls in messages from any app that adds a notification to your phone, and sometimes that means a lot of text. To actually read more than a sentence or two, you basically have to touch the screen repeatedly.
Unfortunately, the screen automatically dims and goes back to black-and-white mode in about three seconds, and there’s no user-configurable option. This is a power saver on the Gear Live with its AMOLED display, but not so much on the G Watch. All you have is always on, or not always on. There really ought to be an option to set your own timeout.
Custom watch faces are busted right now
Developers have been turned loose on Android Wear, but not all parts of the SDK are complete. For example, all custom watch faces right now are essentially hacks. They don’t work very well and aren’t able to call for “shorter” peek cards on the watch face screen. This means that top card is going to cover a big chunk of the watch face all the time.
The stock watch faces have the access required to shrink that card, so you can actually see what time it is. Google has said the watch face API is coming, but developers don’t seem to be waiting… although they really should.
Settings are buried
Let’s say you want to change the brightness level of your Android Wear watch. You have to tap to enter the search screen, then scroll past half a dozen suggested commands, and there you’ll find the settings. It’s not very convenient, and there are no shortcuts to common functions like brightness. For a device that doesn’t have a light sensor, that’s a big pain point.