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Hands On with Android Wear 2.0

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May 19, 2016, 2:41 PM   by Eric M. Zeman   @phonescooper

Google released a developer preview of Android Wear 2.0. This new platform, which touts a wholly refreshed user interface, is the biggest update yet for Google smartwatches. Here is a quick look at this early version of Android Wear 2.0 on the Huawei Watch.

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Android Wear 2.0 is a huge step forward for Google's wearable platform. The revised operating system is far more intuitive to use than its predecessors and should help expand the appeal of Android Wear smartwatches to a wider set of users.

First, I have to point out that the Android Wear 2.0 Developer Preview is not something you can simply run and download yourself. It is compatible only with the Huawei Watch and LG Watch Urbane 2nd Ed., and needs to be flashed manually from a laptop via Android Studio. I know that's a bummer, but that's the way some developer previews work. If you know how to use terminal commands on your PC and don't mind learning a bit about Android Studio, it only takes a few moments to install on the watch itself.

Google targeted a few tentpole features with Android Wear 2.0, including customizable watch faces, messaging, and fitness. These are all managed through a new user interface. There are new gestures, new menu screens, and new ways to control Android Wear and I like them quite a bit.

For example, when viewing the watch face simply swipe up from the bottom of the display to see your notifications. This includes incoming messages, missed calls, and calendar appointments. As always, notifications can be dismissed with a sideways swipe. Want to put the watch in silent mode? Swipe down from the top of the screen to access the Quick Settings screen, which has been condensed in a finger-friendly way. Swiping sideways from the right to the left lets you quickly swap watch faces.

UI Changes  

Android Wear 2.0 reconfigures how the button works. A quick press of the side button loads the app launcher, which now appears as a semicircle similar to that of the Samsung Galaxy Gear S2 UI. Using your finger, you can move the semicircle of apps sort of like a carousel. It's really neat, but apps are arranged somewhat haphazardly. For example, the top few apps are those you've used more recently, but the rest are just a jumble — not even in alphabetical order. Even so, this is a far better way to reach your apps than the outgoing launcher in Android Wear 1.2.

A long press of the button activates Google Search. The little microphone UI pops up and the watch begins listening to requests / commands right away. As before, you can tell the watch to send messages, check your calendar, and access Spotify playlists. I look forward to seeing how the new (but unreleased) Google Assistant performs here.

The new watch face tool is a bit limited in the developer preview, but I see the potential. Essentially, Android Wear will allow people to (sort of) create their own watch faces with complications from third-party apps. This means you'll be able to add your RunKeeper step count to the watch face along with The Weather Channel's predictions and so on. The watch faces support up to three complications and you can choose different colors throughout the customizable watch faces. A little gear appears under the watch faces that can be customized.

Watch Faces  

I LOVE the new messaging tools. Android Wear 2.0 includes several different ways to respond to messages or emails. First, you can dictate a message via voice, as you can today. Similarly, you can choose from an expanded set of pre-set replies. The watch now allows you to draw/write a response, and can approximate emoji if you draw your own. This is really neat. Last, Google stuffed a swipe-able keyboard onto the watch face. Understandably, the keys are tiny and hard to peck out, but the word prediction is pretty decent and swiping truly helps improve accuracy. Dictation is way faster, but sometimes it's not appropriate to talk to your wrist.

These changes go a long way to improve the messaging experience from Android watches.

Messaging  

Android Wear 2.0 boosts the prominence and importance of fitness. Sadly, the fitness tools are rather difficult to test without having access to running shoes, a trail, or a bicycle. In short, Android Wear can automatically detect when you begin exercising and record that workout. It knows when you're running, when you're hiking or biking, and so on.

The last significant change coming to Android Wear 2.0 is support for standalone apps. This means apps will be able to run without a nearby smartphone. Apps can access network-dependent info via WiFi or cellular and Google expects the net wave of wearables to include one or both of those connectivity options.

Google says this early preview is not meant for use on everyday wearables, but I found it to be finely polished and fairly stable. I look forward to seeing the full release of Android Wear 2.0 later this year.

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