One of the surprise announcements on the day 1 of Google I/O was a new version of Android Wear. Even if I had seen it coming, however, I didn’t expect it to be quite such a major overhaul, with the look and feel of the UI changing, the structure of the menus and a whole bunch of extra features thrown in for good measure.
1. User interface revamp
This is a biggie, and the most immediately noticeable change. Android Wear 2 has a new, darker look, and Google has also restructured the way a lot of Wear works, so it’s simpler to use and understand.
A swipe down still pulls down the quick settings screen, but there are now more switches to play with: flight mode, silent mode, do not disturb, brightness and settings. Swiping up from the bottom of the screen still accesses recent messages, but swiping right or left now from your main watch face now brings up the watch face menu. There’s no longer a long-press action.
The other major UI tweak is a new app launcher menu (accessed with a button press), which at last takes advantage of the extra screen real estate on circular-faced watches like the Huawei Watch to scroll the apps around the perimeter of the watch face. This is excellent. Not only does it look super cool, it allows you to see more of your apps onscreen at the same time.
Overall, the Android Wear UI is a far more polished affair now it’s been upgraded. It looks more grown up and yet Google has somehow found a way to make it a lot simpler, too.
2. A keyboard on your wrist!
One of the other major new features is a couple of new ways to reply to messages. I’ve been waiting a long time for this one, and from what I’ve seen so far, Google is onto a good thing.
So, in addition to voice recognition capabilities, and canned replies, with Android Wear 2 you can type out your message using an onscreen keyboard or write directly onto the screen with handwriting recognition translating your scrawls to characters and words.
I wasn’t able to get the handwriting recognition to work on the developer preview, but the cramped-looking keyboard works remarkably well. The highlight here is Swype-style word tracing that means you don’t have to peck out letters individually. For short messages it’s amazing, and even if you do get it wrong, a number of suggestions lined up along the top of the keyboard give you the chance to correct error.
The only really fiddly bit comes when you have to enter something that isn’t in the dictionary. Names, times and dates, admittedly, are a bit more of a pain.
Google will also soon add something called Smart Reply, a feature that analyses the sorts of things you tend to write in message replies and uses machine learning to give you three suggestions before you even start to type.
3. Standalone apps
The biggest upgrade in Android Wear 2.0 could be the one you’ll never notice is there. Just like the Apple Watch, Android Wear watch owners will soon be able to install apps directly onto the watch where they’ll be able to access network resources without the need to be paired with a smartphone.
App developers who use the new features, will be able to give their apps access to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and for watches with 4G built in (something I think we’ll now see more of) direct access to the cloud while you’re out and about. Spotify streaming direct to your wrist anyone?
I haven’t been able to try this out just yet because there aren’t any standalone Android Wear apps in the wild just yet, but the feature has great promise, loosening the shackles on developers and giving them more freedom to create apps that can do much more than they could before.
Perhaps more importantly, according to Google at least, the development is something that should enable those who use Wear with an iPhone to enjoy a fuller, more Android-esque experience from their smartwatch apps.
4. Apple Watch style third-party app complications
Another feature Apple Watch owners have been enjoying this feature for some time now: the ability to embed widgets on a watch face and launch directly into those apps with a tap. Thanks to a new API, any watch face will be able to show data from any app.
This is great news for those who change watch faces all the time, and means that if there are one, two or even three apps that you use all the time, you’ll be able to access them with a single tap, saving time and unnecessary fiddling.
Finally, Google has improved the Fit app that comes preinstalled on all Android Wear smartwatches. What’s different? The big change is automatic activity tracking, so if you decide to break into an impromptu run on your way home from work you don’t have to fire up the app first and tell it what you’re doing.
The automatic detection will work for walking, running and cycling. No sign of swimming, yet, but Google has introduced a number of behind-the-scenes optimisations designed to improve inter-app fitness data communications.