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Google’s Smartwatch OS: It’s Like 1975 All Over Again

·Tech Critic

Suppose you were asked, today, to write a review of the IBM 5100 personal computer. How would you rate it?

Ad for IBM 5100
Ad for IBM 5100

Or suppose Motorola introduced its DynaTAC cellphone today. Would you buy one?

DynaTAC cellphone
DynaTAC cellphone

Of course not. You’d scoff. You’d mock their size, weight, bulk, speed, and limitations. You already know that it’s possible to make computers and phones that are so much smaller, faster, more beautiful, and more capable.

You would, however, note that those devices were cutting edge for their time. You might forgive their clunkiness because, well, you have to start somewhere.

Which brings us to Android Wear, the first standard operating system for smartwatches, from Google. And the new watches that run it.

Android Wear watches
Android Wear watches

Like its Android phone software, Google offers this Android Wear to any manufacturer that wants to incorporate it — no charge. Unlike Android for phones, however, the manufacturers won’t be allowed to modify Android for watches. It will be the same on every brand of watch.

(Clearly, Google learned its lesson. Android for phones is so different, available in so many versions, that the market has become hopelessly fragmented. Different controls are on different places on different phone models; some apps don’t run on certain Android versions.)

The first two Android watches are now available: the LG G watch ($230) and the Samsung Gear Live ($200). Both are available on the Google Play store.

LG G and Samsung Gear Live watches
LG G and Samsung Gear Live watches

A third one, a round watch called the Moto 360, is coming from Motorola later this summer.

Moto 360 watch
Moto 360 watch

These watches are useless without an Android phone; they’re meant to be extensions of your phone. Unfortunately, Android watches require phones running Android 4.3 or later — and at the moment, only 27 percent of all Android phones meet that requirement.

If you’re reading this review on an Android phone, you can click here to see if it’s compatible with the watches. The point is that, for now, the answer is “Probably not.”

The first watches
The LG and Samsung are nearly identical: large, square, waterproof, and accompanied by homely black rubber bands. (You can buy replacement bands.)

The LG is a plain black box, free of any attempt whatsoever to be stylish. On the other hand, the Samsung has a silver sloped bezel, which looks nicer. It also has a button that turns the screen on and off (the LG has no buttons), and it has a heart-rate sensor on the back. Since it’s also $30 less expensive, the Samsung is clearly the better deal.

To set up your watch, you download an app to your phone called Android Wear. The phone must have Bluetooth turned on and must be logged in to your Google account.

Setup screenshots for Android Wear watches
Setup screenshots for Android Wear watches

While setting up my test phones, the app directed me to update a different app, the Google Search app, and then to delete and reinstall the Android Wear app. It’s a clumsy procedure. Another bunch of unexplained instructions followed (“Enable contact recognition on your phone,” “Turn on Android Wear notifications”) before the watch and phone would talk to each other.

Hey, Google: You wrote the software on both ends. Why can’t you automate and user-friendlify that procedure?

Wear in action
Anyway. Once it’s all done, you realize what the watch can do for you:

• Show Google Now–type “cards.” Google Now is a feature of Android phones that attempts to display inform-O-cards when and where you need them. When you wake, you see cards for the weather, your next appointment, and the traffic time to work; if you have a flight or a hotel reservation, you see information for that, too.

Cards appearing on Android watches
Cards appearing on Android watches

The watch shows these cards, too. But there’s no way to reorder the cards and, more alarming, no way to get one back. Once you’ve swiped a card off to the right to dismiss it, it’s gone forever.

• Show notifications. Anything that alerts you on the phone now appears, with a little vibration, on your watch: notifications of incoming calls, texts, and emails; Facebook posts; alarms and reminders.

Watch showing a Facebook alert
Watch showing a Facebook alert

The watch doesn’t have a speaker, so you can’t take a call with it (probably a good thing). But when a call comes in, you can use the watch to respond with a canned text message, like “In a meeting — will get back to you soon.” (Better hope the caller is using a cellphone; a text reply doesn’t do much good on a landline.)

• Dictate messages. There’s no mouse or keyboard, of course, so you’re supposed to interact with the watch using two methods: tapping the touchscreen and speaking. The watch’s speech-recognition abilities are amazing when they work but frustrating when they don’t, which is often. (The first time I said, “I’ll meet you at Whole Foods,” the watch typed out “adult amateur foods.” On my second try, the transcript was perfect.)

There’s no way to edit a transcription, which can be a problem when you’re dictating a text message: Unless you tap the screen quickly to cancel, the watch sends your text message automatically, no matter how nonsensical it looks.

Watch displaying a text message
Watch displaying a text message

• Look things up. Google’s specialty is search, of course, and so is the watch’s. When you raise your wrist, the watch wakes up from its darkened, power-saving state. Now you say, “OK Google,” which always means “Turn on your speech-recognition ears — I’m about to say something.” (You can also tap the watch face instead of saying, “OK, Google.”)

Now you can speak all the usual Siri-type queries: “How tall is Bill Clinton?” “What time is it in London?” “When was the Spanish-American war?” And so on.

If there’s a clear-cut answer, you see it instantly, right on your watch screen. If not, you see a list of Web results; you have to pull out your phone to read further.

Watches displaying a search query and answer
Watches displaying a search query and answer

Eventually, you learn other spoken commands that get results right on the screen. You can say, “OK, Google. Take a note: Buy Amy a birthday gift”; the watch stores a note in Google Keep or, if you have it, Evernote. (There’s no way to see your reminders on the watch once you’ve created them.)

“OK, Google. Send a text to Mom’s mobile: See you tomorrow!” works. So does “OK, Google. Email Sharon Scruggs: I got the package.” Or “OK, Google. Show me my heart rate” (on the Samsung). Or “OK, Google. What’s on my calendar today?”

Command recognition works very well — when you’re in a place that’s suitable for talking to your hand. That rules out meetings, movies, public areas, and noisy places.

• Run apps. This page seems to be an app store for Android Wear watches, although there are only 35 apps in it right now. (Many more show up if you search for “Android Wear apps” in the app store, or click here.)

Some of the apps are immediately useful, like the airline apps (Delta, American), which display your boarding-pass barcode right on your wrist. A couple are amazing, like Lyft: Once it’s installed, you can summon a car and driver to your location just by saying to your watch, “Call me a car.” (If you’re in a big city, anyway, and have a Lyft account.)

Screenshot from Android Wear apps website
Screenshot from Android Wear apps website

Google, however, says, “There isn’t an Android Wear app store. We offer a collection of apps on Google Play that work well with Wear, but this is not a holistic catalog of Android Wear apps, and it will constantly change to reflect fresh new apps.” Instead, developers can make their phone apps watch compatible — but there’s no way to know when they’ve done so, or to search out favorite apps.

That’s very confusing. How do you know which apps you can run on Wear? What if you want, say, a run-tracker app? There’s no way to find it.

What’s disconcerting is that you download and install these apps onto your phone, not your watch.

But there’s no home screen on the watch, either. (“We intentionally did not build an app launcher,” Google told me, “because Android Wear is very focused on glanceable, contextual experiences — not launching arbitrary apps on demand.”)

There is a command called Start, which displays some of your apps. But it’s about as buried and difficult to reach as Google could possibly make it. You can also speak an app’s name (“Open Tinder”), but you never see a row of app icons. If you’re coming from the world of computers, phones, and tablets, this invisible-app business is confusing.

• Tell the time. At the very top of the vertical scrolling column of “cards,” there’s a watch face. Yes, your smartwatch can actually tell the time. (If you hold your finger down, you get a choice of different watch faces, although most are ugly or weird.)

Three watches showing different clock faces
Three watches showing different clock faces

• Control the phone. When your phone is playing music, Pause/Next/Previous buttons appear on your watch, so you can control playback by remote control. When your phone’s Camera app is open, you’re supposed to see a Remote button on your watch, so you can fire the shutter by remote control (though that never worked for me).

In search of a point
The watch generally works quickly. The card-based, swipable design of the operating system is often baffling, but you fumble your way through.

Yet this is very clearly an experimental, broad-outlines product, with “1.0” stamped on its forehead. There are four big problems:

First, the watches are huge and bulky. If you’re small of wrist, you look like you’re wearing a TiVo on your arm. The watches remind you strongly of these babies:

IBM 5100 and DynaTAC cellphone
IBM 5100 and DynaTAC cellphone

Second, battery life is terrible. You have to take off and charge your watch every night, which is not something the world is quite ready for.

Each watch snaps into a charger that plugs into the wall or a USB jack; the LG’s is magnetic, making it far less fussy to attach to the watch.

Watch on charger
Watch on charger

Third, there just isn’t enough polish yet. You can turn off notifications from one app or another (on your phone), but there’s no VIP list to winnow down the email notifications. You either get a card on your watch for every single email that comes in — or none at all.

There’s no Do Not Disturb feature, either — automated quiet hours when the watch won’t buzz. (Fortunately, you can manually mute the watch by dragging down on its screen.)

Watch being muted
Watch being muted

You can read the text of incoming Gmail messages, but not messages from other email systems. Google says other companies can update their systems to be Wear-compatible.

Google Maps can help you navigate somewhere, but you can’t zoom in on the map. The watch gives you one direction at a time as you drive.

Watches displaying Google maps and directions
Watches displaying Google maps and directions

The final problem is more philosophical. Before we rush headlong into a crazed zeal for smartwatches, somebody should stop and scream, “WHY?!” Why are we trying to cram functions onto a 1-inch screen, when we’re also carrying (are required to carry) a smartphone with a much bigger screen?

We need to answer this question: In what circumstances is it easier or faster to look at your wrist instead of pulling out your phone?

Google has, at least, thought about it. It says the average person pulls out the phone 125 times a day. If some of that can be moved to the wrist, isn’t that an improvement?

There are also times when it’s awkward, rude, or dangerous to pull out your phone. Driving. Riding a bike. Carrying packages or luggage. On a date, in a movie, in a meeting.

Finding useful features
By eliminating ridiculous functions like built-in cameras and speakers, these Android watches begin to narrow their scope. They begin to focus on what’s actually useful about having a screen on your wrist.

Unfortunately, it’s not that much. You can take action on a card by swiping leftward across the screen — but far too many times, the only option you’re given is Open on phone, which means you have to pull out and wake up your phone. That’s true, for example, of Twitter, Facebook, and non-Gmail email. (Google says those companies can update their apps to enable the Wear goodies like full message display, voice replies, message history, and so on.)

Watch displaying 'Open on phone' message
Watch displaying 'Open on phone' message

This fall, Google says, wearing a Wear watch will serve as a wireless key to unlock your phone, so you won’t have to enter a password. That’s super clever and genuinely useful.

But, no, these watches aren’t worth buying yet — better, smaller, sleeker ones will be arriving in the coming months and years, and the Android Wear software has a lot of growing up to do. (Though my colleague Daniel Bean adamantly disagrees; see I Bought a Google Wear Smartwatch with My Own Money. Here’s Why.)

Like the first wave of smartwatch makers, Google is still hunting around in the dark, trying to discover why we might want computers on our wrists. But the good news is that Google, at least, has a flashlight: the money, brains, and work force it will take to keep searching until it’s successful.

You can email David Pogue here