Just in time for the arrival of the much-anticipated Apple Watch, Android Wear is getting an array of new features to compete with Apple’s smartwatch. A post on Google’s official blog announced an update that brings new features to Android Wear watches to enable users to get “what you need, right on your wrist.” The update, which represents the biggest change that Google has made to Android Wear since launching the platform to the public last year, will make Android Wear smartwatches useful even when they’re far away from a smartphone.
While most smartwatches, including the Apple Watch, can’t do much without a paired smartphone nearby, the Android Wear update will turn on Wi-Fi for those watches with Wi-Fi chips already built in. The change provides much more flexibility when you’re using a smartwatch without your smartphone nearby. Android Wear watches currently communicate with a paired Android smartphone over a Bluetooth connection, which requires the devices to be within about 30 feet of each other. The update enables them to communicate even if you have your watch on at the office but left your phone at home.
When your watch is connected to a Wi-Fi network and your phone has a data connection, whether it’s beside you or if you left it at home, you’ll be able to get notifications, send messages, and use apps. The watch will remember any Wi-Fi networks you’ve logged onto with your phone, though to connect to a new network, you’ll need your smartphone with you.
Wired’s David Pierce reports that because connecting the device directly to the Internet would require re-architecting everything about Android Wear, the phone is still “in charge” of most of the processing and information. But regardless of the structure needed to make it happen, enabling your smartwatch and phone to communicate from a distance is a big step forward.
The Apple Watch, for instance, relies on a paired iPhone to run apps so far. As iMore’s Serenity Caldwell notes, many key features of the Apple Watch won’t be available if the Apple Watch and iPhone aren’t within range of each other. When the two devices aren’t connected via Bluetooth, you can play music or view photos you’ve saved to the Apple Watch, track your fitness but not distance, or use Apple Pay or Passbook.
But you won’t be able to complete tasks like sending or receiving messages or making phone calls. Siri will also require the iPhone’s data connection, and apps and Glances won’t be updated or functional. “Think of it like going into a kind of Airplane mode until the iPhone connection is restored,” Caldwell writes.
The update also expands Android Wear’s always-on screen capability to apps so that they can stay visible as long as you need them instead of disappearing automatically when you lower your arm. That way, you’ll be able to check your progress against a map or a grocery list without needing to continually turn on the screen. The screen will display in full color only when you’re actively looking at it to save on battery life. Always-on capability will appear first in Google Maps and in the note-taking app Keep, and third-party developers can add it to their own apps.
Additionally, Google’s update to Android Wear adds a number of smaller improvements. To check news and notifications, you can flick your wrist to scroll through the feed, rather than having to swipe through different screens to access them.
The update also improves on the inconvenient experience with the Android Wear launcher and enables you to tap the watch face to access your apps and contacts. And in an addition that seems a response to the Apple Watch’s capabilities, you can now draw one of “hundreds of different emojis” as a response to a message. But instead of sending from your watch as-is, the watch will convert it to the corresponding emoji.
Bonnie Cha reports for Re/code that Google argues that the emoji feature will be more helpful than the equivalent on the Apple Watch because it offers another way for people to answer messages when they can’t use voice dictation to compose a reply. The feature uses new handwriting recognition technology that Google recently introduced, and emoji drawings will be available on any app that supports voice replies.
The updates will arrive on all seven Android Wear watches — the Moto 360, the LG G Watch, the Asus ZenWatch, the Samsung Gear Live, the SmartWatch 3, the LG G Watch R, and the LG Watch Urbane — over “the next few weeks.” They’ll arrive on the upcoming LG Watch Urbane first, with other models following soon after.
Writing for The Verge, John Lowensohn points out that keeping Android Wear in line with the Apple Watch (or, in some cases, equipping it with features that surpass those of Apple’s wearable) could become important if Google eventually releases Android Wear for the iPhone. When Apple introduced the Apple Watch, many were curious about how the companies behind existing smartwatches would respond to the competition.
The new features introduced with the Android Wear update — particularly, enabling apps to stay on, integrating emoji in a useful way, and making Android Wear watches less reliant on a paired smartphone — help keep Google and Android Wear manufacturers on par with Apple, and even go beyond what Apple’s offering with the first version of its smartwatch. However, as Lowensohn notes, Google will need to prove that it can quickly distribute the updates to existing smartwatches and demonstrate that Wi-Fi connectivity won’t make battery life significantly worse.
While users choosing a smartwatch are limited by their choice of smartphone — you can’t use an Apple Watch with an Android phone and you can’t (yet) use an Android Wear watch with Apple’s iPhone, and many users don’t want to consider switching mobile operating systems — the so-called smartwatch wars could get much more interesting if Google does manage to make Android Wear a choice for iPhone users.