I jumped into Android Wear with the release of the Moto 360 back in September 2014. My initial impressions of the 360 were generally positive, though my feelings about Android Wear as a platform were somewhat mixed.
I’ve been living with his device every day for six months now, and with the impending release of the Apple Watch and conclusion of the Pebble Time Kickstarter campaign, this seems like an ideal time to check in on Android Wear and see how the 360 is holding up.
Most of my initial impressions from six months ago hold true today, in that from the software side I still wish that the Google Now system, as it relates to Android Wear in particular, offered users more control with regard to the timing of cards, and I’m still unsure as to why Google chose not to include easier access to Wear apps; on the hardware side, the battery life is just long enough to be functional as an all-day device. Both the battery and the screen resolution are the key features that need to improve for Android Wear devices to go critical mass.
I’ve also become accustomed – and perhaps even addicted – to receiving notifications on my wrist. Reading emails, receiving texts and Maps Navigation prompts, and have Calendar reminders and tasks coming through in a way that is impossible to miss but also silent to everyone else is convenient and, well, just generally awesome.
What puts the device over the top for me is that I like how it looks as a watch, and I also really admire the thought process that Motorola put into the charging cradle and how the watch also functions as a stylish and modern nightstand clock while charging.
I don’t at all regret purchasing the Moto 360 and as it continues to have occasional sales, even as a first-gen device, I can still recommend buying one as we’re probably six months or more away yet from the 2nd major wave of Android Wear watches.
Key Updates from Motorola and Google
There are some major changes in the user experience on the Moto 360 due to the update that Motorola pushed out over the air in late October 2014. This update provided a fix for the main criticism of the 360: poor battery life. While the older TI OMAP 3 processor at the heart of the Moto 360 is still more power-hungry than the down-clocked Snapdragon 400 processors used in most other modern Wear devices, after the OTA update the 360 has easily lasted a full day of use, even with Ambient Mode on. For reference, Ambient Mode prevents the screen from turning off as it does normally, instead lowering the brightness almost but not quite, completely down. The result is that the device uses more power as the screen never truly shuts off, but as a result it also lights back up almost instantly in response to touch or to moving your arm to look at the watch, rather than the slight lag from the screen off to powering back on when Ambient Mode is off.
If you go back and look at the pre-release and release reviews, you’ll see people claiming barely 8 hours of battery life even with Ambient mode off; some claimed to get even less. However, with moderate use and Ambient mode off, since this OTA update I’ve been able to stretch the 360 to almost two full days of use. With regular use and Ambient Mode on, the watch still lasts me a full day, every day, from 8am until 10pm, often even longer.
In fact, I see little reason at this point not to keep Ambient Mode set to on, as in either case you really have to charge the watch each night.
The other major update that came later from Google was to Android Wear itself, going to 5.0 Lollipop, which brought some nice updates to functionality and design. These were less impactful as the Motorola device-specific update, mostly minor tweaks to how you interact with cards and updating the visual design to closely mirror Lollipop on Android. They did add a nice temporary dismissal of a Google Card.
I’ve been very impressed with how well both the Gorilla Glass and stainless steel which make up the watch itself have held up over six months. Despite literally being worn daily for that entire time, there are no visible marks, scratches, or damage on my Moto 360.
This is also despite multiple times having banged or whacked my watch against various things, chiefly in the first few months of ownership. It had been many years since I had worn a watch prior to buying the Moto 360, and it isn’t exactly a tiny watch. Thankfully Motorola did a very good job choosing materials that will hold up to daily use.
The leather watchband certainly appears more worn than it did when I took it out of the package, but it has an appealing worn leather look to it, rather than appearing ragged, torn, or damaged. I’ve been terrified a few times of water stains, but these have all completely faded once try. The one exception is the inside of the watch band, which definitely shows the impact of its time on my wrist.
I have not had any issues with cracking, dead pixels, or “burn in”/ghosting which some users have reported.
One of the main things I’ve learned about Android Wear after owning the 360 for half a year is that Android Wear-specific apps almost all fall into one of two categories:
- OS and UI tweaks that Google should probably offer in Wear itself
- Additional watch faces
While it is probably worth getting the “Facer” app, I definitely recommend trying some of the free watch faces before going on a shopping spree for others. That said, there are some very nice and reasonably priced 360 designs you can buy.
[Note: If you don’t already use it, think about installing the free Google Survey app; this app regularly gives me a couple bucks worth of Google Play credits every month or two for all of 30 seconds of survey questions, which can be used for any Google Play apps, including Wear Apps.]
There are some other applications that offer phone dialers and app trays, which seem like options that Google should put in the stock Wear OS. While I said that six months ago and still believe it to be true, I also have to note that despite having both installed, I’ve barely used either function at all. If I don’t have my phone in my hands, dialing by voice on the Moto X is easier than trying to punch numbers into my watch.
As far as the app tray, there just aren’t many apps that I want to open in Wear; more typically if I’ve opened an application with support for Wear, the appropriate controls just show up on their own. “Keep” is probably one of the few apps that I do find myself opening via Wear.
Before I bought the 360, I imagined that I’d want a smartwatch to have both a support role for my phone, and standalone functions that let the device function on its own. However, this isn’t really what Android Wear offers. Wear is almost exclusively designed to offer support to your connected smartphone. It has very limited ability to open and control content like music, and of course you can respond to and issue texts via voice, among other functions.
Chiefly, though, the watch receives pushed content from your phone apps and Google Now cards. While I thought I wanted standalone functions, in reality I’ve not looked for that at all, instead becoming addicted to the ease and convenience of receiving notifications on my wrist.
Using Lollipop and Wear, it is quite difficult to miss a call, text, email, meeting, or navigation prompt, even if my phone is set to silent, and I love this. In meetings, you can quickly and easily see text messages, email content, or who is calling by a quick flick of the wrist, as the watch will (more or less silently) notify you via vibration even if your phone does not. Of course, you can use Priority app notification setting controls as well as the Wear application to get very granular about which applications go through to your phone.
Pebble, Apple, and to a lesser extent Samsung seem far more interested in stand alone functionality on your wrist than Google does. By nature of its button controls rather than touchscreen, the Pebble Time – which I backed and will review upon release – demands more attention and user bandwidth than Android Wear, but offers the potential of more stand-alone applications for those who desire it. It also offers far more control over what you receive via the timeline as compared to Google Now cards, which you have minimal control over.
Even more down that path is the Apple Watch, which has an interface so deep with options that early feedback from almost all parties is that it is confusing to use. That’s probably not a great sign for the casual user, but it promises more depth for this willing to invest the time; at a minimum it is a huge differentiating factor between the Apple Watch and the Android Wear UI.
All that said, outside of the multi-platform support offered by Pebble, most smartwatch shoppers are only going to look at whichever watch matches their phone OS. That’s why it is somewhat humorous to constantly read and hear about the upcoming “battle” between these smartwatch platforms. If you own an iOS phone, there’s no point to buying an Android Wear device, and vice versa.
The best case scenario is that Android Wear gets free publicity due to attention on the Apple Watch, and the Pebble devices offer a viable alternative that keeps both Apple and Google’s OEM partners from getting stagnant. But Wear and Apple Watch devices aren’t really in competition the way Android and iOS battle in the smartphone arena.
It will, of course, be interesting to see which approach is most popular:
- Google’s “glance”-centric, touchscreen approach to notification and Google Now connections to your phone
- Pebble’s “timeline” approach to past, present, and future, as well as stand-alone apps and smartbands
- Apple’s “digital crown” and a very clear focus on applications for your watch, not just connected to your watch
The main thing to remember when discussing smartphones is that users will continue to be tied to their phone’s ecosystem, and Apple Watch or no, I still think these devices will sit just outside true commercial critical mass until they have sharper screens, smaller and/or thinner designs, and much longer battery life.
I’ve grown quite attached to my Moto 360, to the point that the couple of times I’ve forgotten it at home, I’ve noticed its absence quite actutely all day. Once you get used to the convenience of having your phone on mute and still catching all your notifications at a glance on your wrist, going back is difficult, but an expensive device that is either limited in use, difficult to use, or unattractive – or some combination of these – is not yet a viable mass market product.