Dear Lifehacker, Is Android Wear any good? I haven't been sold on other smartwatches, but Android Wear seems pretty cool. Can you actually do anything useful with it, though? I think they look nice, but I'm not sure what the killer new functionality is. Sincerely, Who Watches the Watches
Android Wear is still in its infancy, so asking what they can do is a bit like asking why you'd want to buy a G1 or an original iPhone. There are some cool features, but the best answer is probably "They will do more in the future." If you can't find a reason to buy an Android Wear watch right now, that's OK. That just means you're not an early adopter.
The initial promise of Android Wear is that it's an integrated companion with your Android phone. Do you like Google Now? Voice commands? Good, because those make an appearance. The question is whether it's more useful to have them on your wrist than in your pocket. After a few days of living with a Moto 360, my personal answer is "Yes", However -- and this is key -- your use cases may vary.
What Android Wear Does (And Doesn't Do)
Android Wear primarily does three things: accept voice commands, relay (some) Google Now cards, and mirror most of your notifications. You can put apps on your phone that either relay or install extra components on your watch, but so far this mostly comes in the form of extra features for existing apps like Runkeeper or Duolingo.
Out of the box, though, there's not much you can do with an Android Wear watch. Android's notification listening service means you can interact with existing buttons like archiving email or favoriting tweets the same as you would from your phone's notification shade. But, in terms of apps that run exclusively on your watch, there's very little. The Moto 360 comes with a heart rate monitor and it occasionally lets me know how far I've walked. Duolingo also added a flashcard set of vocabulary words, but frankly it's a little clunky and difficult to use. For the most part, the thing the watch is good at is the thing it does most often: show you your notifications.
Some of these notifications include the occasional Google Now cards. This isn't the full Google Now experience, but cards would pop up letting me know about the weather, travel time to home, stock updates or calendar events. If you have Google Now well-trained, you can get this info on your wrist as well. It's perhaps a better fulfilment of the initial promise of Google Now: giving you the information you need when you need it.
Voice actions are perhaps the most standout feature (though, again, not a unique one). While performance will vary by the model you get, the Moto 360 did an impressive job of picking up my voice, even in crowded areas. You can use voice actions to get basic info like "How tall is Jeff Goldblum?", set notes and reminders, send text messages, or get driving directions. The latter is the only one that seemed at all slow on the watch, but this is because the voice command for directions launches the app on your phone and only relays directions once Navigation is activated. Everything else seems to run on the watch, using the phone's data connection as a conduit.
Of course, none of this is particularly unique to your watch, and most of the features are for getting information, not for accomplishing any tasks. The result of all this lack-of-functionality is that you spend very little time staring at your watch. Speaking on behalf of your wrists, this is a good thing. Holding your wrist up to your face is a natural gesture, but it's not one you want to maintain for very long. While on my phone, I'll keep certain apps installed just on the off-chance I might need it someday, I've already uninstalled at least three applications because it showed up on my watch more than I needed. I don't want my wrist to pester me all the time.
What Makes Android Wear Great
The notification shade has become the de facto heads-up display for our digital lives. When something happens that you need to know about, it shows up there. Google Now has taken the concept a step further by bringing you cards for info when it thinks you might need it. In the olden days, watches performed a similar function with the only information it was capable of providing: the time.
Despite reservations about yet another gadget, notifications and watches are actually a perfect fit for each other. You can easily glance at a watch when you need to get some information, but it mostly stays out of the way. You don't need to dig through a purse or pull it out of the pocket. It seems like a minor distinction, but keep in mind that watches used to come in pockets, too. The wrist-mounted approach is almost universally considered better (as well as fashionable).
Once I started using the 360, it started to feel as natural as using a watch would be. When I'm at the desk, it disappears. I can glance at the time or my notifications on the screen in front of me. While away from home, responding to the buzz on my wrist is considerably more natural than the one in my pocket. I can see a text message and determine whether or not it actually needs my attention without being disruptive. It's there when I need it and disappears as soon as I drop my hand.
More importantly, I can only reply to so much. Archiving emails or favoriting a tweet is easy enough. I can send a quick reply to a text message with my voice if there's no one around to judge me. Outside of that, though, I can't do too much responding. This is a blessing more often than it's a hindrance. I can see that someone is trying to get my attention, but I'm not tempted to reply to them, then click some link, and somehow end up on Facebook at the dinner table. However, I can still see that my package shipped or my girlfriend is on her way home. Good. Now I have information I didn't have before, and I don't need to pull my phone out of my pocket.
If you're looking for a killer feature of Android Wear, this is it: distraction feels unnatural. Ironically, adding an extra gadget doesn't make me feel more wired in, but less so. In fact, I still feel a little bit of separation anxiety when I leave my phone in my pocket. Despite knowing that anything important will go to my wrist, the phantom twitch is still there. However, I have the assurance that if something needs my attention, I'll get it. What I don't have is the instant gratification of endless feeds of junk content. In a counterintuitive way, putting the important stuff on my wrist helps set me free from everything else.
Who Android Wear Is For
Of course, this kind of immediate access to information isn't for everyone. Smartphones are (more or less) for everyone by now. Most people can benefit from having internet access in their pockets. Not everyone gets a hundred emails a day they need to sift through. Headsets are specialised tools for people who need to make phone calls all day, and pagers are still useful for doctors who need to be notified when to come in and can't risk missing a phone call. In the same way, Android Wear helps you filter through the flood of notifications without staring down at your phone all day, but it's only useful if you have a lot of those to begin with.
If managing notifications doesn't sound like a problem for you, then Android Wear may not be something you need. And that's OK! Not everyone needs a tablet, either. This form factor is less about necessity and more about convenience.
However, if you're on the go a lot, you receive numerous notifications throughout the day, or you just have a really big phone in really tiny pockets, using Android Wear is great. It reduces the amount of time you spend distracted by your device and gives you a built-in filter against distractions.
Somewhat ironically, Android Wear's limitations make it useful for being productive, particularly away from a desk. Not because it can get stuff done by itself, but because it accomplishes that most difficult goal: notifying you of the important stuff while keeping you from being distracted by everything else. If that sounds good to you and you can afford it, take the plunge.
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