Google's new Android Wear platform for smartwatches may soon change the way you look at your wrist. But just how will it look, feel and function? We've installed Google's emulator to run the new OS in a window on our PC, read the SDK documentation, and combed through the various press releases from Google, Motorola and LG. Here's what we know about Android Wear so far--and what remains a mystery.
What We Know About Android Wear
After installing the emulator and connecting it to our smartphone (via USB), we've learned a lot about how the user interface works on Android Wear. Google also reveals a fair amount of information in its official Android Wear video.
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Two Screen Shapes and Resolutions
In Google's Android Wear video, we see users staring at both square and round timepieces and we already know, from Motorola's announcement, that the Moto 360 will be round. The SDK provides options for 320 x 320 Round and 280 x 280 Square emulators, meaning that the two shapes will have different resolutions. We're not quite sure how developers will build circular apps, though.
Takes Google Voice Commands
We can see in Google's video that people are issuing Google Now commands to the watch. In one scene a user asks Google assistant about a sports score and, in another, a person issues a voice response to a friend on Google Hangouts. We do not hear a speaker on the device in the video.
Simple Interface Focuses on Alerts
From what we can tell, Android Wear looks and feels a lot like the notification drawer on an Android phone. There are no apps in the emulator, no settings menu, no widgets and no watch faces. This could change, but it looks like Google is taking a very streamlined approach.
At least on Google's Android Wear emulator, the home screen only displays your most recent alert, along with the time and a button that launches Google Now voice commands, which are unavailable on the preview. Swiping upward with one finger takes you to the next alert and the next alert, all from different apps on your phone.
As with Google's notification drawer for phones, the alerts on Android Wear are usually brief, providing the subject line of an email, the date and title of an appointment or the first few words of a direct message. There's no way to read the full text of a message in the preview build, but tapping on an email alert for a Gmail message allowed us to scroll down and read several lines of text.
While it looks like you won't be able to read long messages on your wrist, Google's developer site explains that developers can add in longer notifications that let you swipe to the right to read more.
Most alerts appear as bland white boxes against a completely black background (no wallpaper on the emulator). However, Facebook and Google Plus incorporate your message-sending friend's profile picture in the background, though the alert covers most of the face. It's not clear which other apps might also include pictures. On Google's developer site, we see that Google Now can also display images with its card alerts as there's an example of a flight reservation popping up with an image of the city you're traveling to.
Apart from dealing with alerts, there's nothing else you can do right now in the Android Wear emulator. The only other command we found was that swiping down from the very top of the screen brings up a status bar with the time and battery level.
Most Actions Force You to Pick Up Your Phone
Underneath each alert, you see a set of small boxes that show how many actions you can take on that alert with the first box representing the alert itself. You can then swipe to the right to see buttons for the actions with just one button per screen. One of the actions is always "Open" which, like Samsung's Smart Relay feature on its Gear, opens the message in question on your phone.
While most alerts, only allow you to hit Open right now, others have one or two other actions. For example a single Gmail alert gave us the option to Archive or Reply to the message. When we hit Reply, it simply opened a composer screen on our phone rather than allowing us to write our reply on the watch. A calendar alert gave us the option to Snooze (aka dimiss) the event.
However, it's important to note that the emulator does not support voice input while real Android Wear watches will have microphones. As we can see in Google’s video, you will be able to compose messages by voice, though it's unclear how long of a message you can write and what apps will let support this feedback.
There Will Be Watch Faces
Though the emulator has no faces, in photos of the Motorola Moto 360, we see what looks like an analog watch face on the screen, complete with graphical hands.Most other smartwatches provide a choice of faces so we can expect that you will be able to customize your watch with a face.
What We Don't Know
We're still left with a number of important questions about Google's Android Wear platform and the watches which will run it. Still, in many cases, we can read the tea leaves to see where things might be going.
Will You Be Able to Make Calls with Android Wear Watches?
We've seen no indication in the videos or press materials that the Android Wear smartwatches have a speaker on board. Looking through the SDK information on Google's site, we did not see any API for sending information to a speaker, only receiving it from a microphone.
Can You Install Apps in Android Wear?
All of the developer information on Google's site right now deals with modifying on-phone apps to provide more detailed notifications and take better responses from the watch. Google's info page says that developers will be able to eventually "create custom card layouts and run activities directly on wearables" but it's not clear whether that means we'll have truly discrete apps.
Will Manufacturers Be Able to Customize Android Wear?
In the world of Android phones, hardware vendors are free to add skins to the OS and create new core functions such as the multi window mode on Samsung devices. We have no idea whether Android Wear will be that open to modification or if, like Windows Phone, it will look the same on every device.
What Will Android Wear Watches Cost?
Both LG and Motorola have announced devices that are due in the next few months, but neither company has provided even a ballpark price. However, we might expect these devices to cost less than the $300 Galaxy Gear, because they don't have a camera and appear to not have a speaker either.
Will Android Wear Watches Stay Illuminated All the Time?
One of the most frustrating things about many current smartwatches is how they turn off their screens while asleep, forcing you to wake them just to see the time. Pebble gets around this problem by using a low-power, e-paper display while Sony has a dual-mode screen that changes to grayscale while asleep. Google bought WIMM Watch, which had such a dual mode display on its prototype WIMM One device, so we can hope that its partners are using this technology.