Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Samsung Gear Live & Android Wear - A Quick Review

As a lover of all kinds of techie toys, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of smartwatches since they were first introduced. I even bought a first-generation Sony SmartWatch when they were being heavily discounted not long after they were first introduced in 2011/12. It worked fine (indeed, it still does), but it’s pretty limited in what it can do. It was an interesting concept, but it clearly needed a lot of work, and it didn't take me long to work out why the first-generation smartwatches never really captured the world’s imagination.

But move along to late 2014 / early 2015 (a couple of years is a couple of generations when it comes to consumer electronics!), and Google’s announcement of Android Wear (and of course Apple’s pre-announcement of the as-yet vapour-ware Apple Watch )

Now THIS has the potential to really change things - the two biggest names in mobiles getting seriously behind the whole concept of “wearables” and smartwatches.

In Australia right now (January 2015), there are only three Android Wear watches officially available through the Google Play store - the LG G Watch (Google Play price AU$249) and G Watch R (AU$349), and the Samsung Gear Live (AU$250). The Moto 360, Sony SmartWatch 3 and Asus ZenWatch are not on sale through the Google Play store or most mainstream retail outlets yet (although I believe you can get the Moto 360 in a few shops, if you know where to find them).

Even though Android Wear devices have only been on the global market for a few months, I was pretty surprised to see the Samsung Gear Live listed at OfficeWorks for the knock-down price of AU$188:

This was the one I had been looking at anyway, as it adds a heart-rate monitor to the sensors available on the cheaper of the two LG watches. Naturally, I hot-footed it to my nearest OfficeWorks, but couldn't see them anywhere. When I asked at the counter - yes, they had them (plenty of them) in a locked cabinet behind the counter, but none on display. (So I guess the reason OfficeWorks have dropped the price is because they aren't selling many - and the reason they aren't selling many is because they hide them from view, and you have to ask to even be aware that they have them.)

I got it home, charged it and paired it to my Nexus 4 (running stock Android 5 Lollipop), and it all worked seamlessly. The first thing it did after pairing was to upgrade its own firmware – and a few days later, it did so again - it now reports that it is running Software version 5.0.1.

I have to say this thing is about a hundred light years ahead of my previous smart-watch (1st Gen Sony SmartWatch), for not much more than I paid for the Sony – both in build quality, and functionality and features. I suspect that's at least partly because the Android Wear platform is so much more "mature" and capable than the limited functionality that the Sony could offer a couple of years ago, but of course the hardware has moved on a lot in 2 years as well. I love the integration to all of my stock Android apps. (Did you know that when you start the Camera app on your phone, you get a remote release button that automatically pops up on the phone? Neat – but I'm not sure when I'll ever use it!)

First impressions:

The watch fits comfortably, and even though it’s quite big physically, I don’t notice it once its on. (My “real” watch is a Tag-Heuer diver’s chronograph, so I’m quite used to a big watch - the Samsung is comparable in physical size, but a lot lighter.) I don’t have any problems with the strap fastening system that some people complain about (pins that plug into holes, rather than a conventional clasp or buckle ), and it hasn’t once threatened to come undone.

The display is bright, colourful and sharp - indoors, anyway. It’s a bit difficult to read in full sunlight (depending on what watch face design you use - some are more contrasty and therefore daylight-readable than others. (Recent updates in Android Wear 5 mean that you can temporarily brighten the back-light using “Sunlight mode”, and this helps a bit, but it’s still a bit hard to read in bright direct sunlight.)

And of course, there are dozens of downloadable watch face designs to choose from , or you can design your own with a suitable app. I use Intellicom Watch Faces for Android Wear , and I’ve designed this face, which is easy to read, and shows me the time and date, as well as the remaining battery charge on both my watch and phone:

I use the “Display always on” feature, which shows a “muted” watch display (to reduce battery drain) when you’re not actually looking at it - this is the “muted” version of my watch face:

I get through a full day even with the display always on. One thing that really bugged me with the old Sony was that you had to touch the watch to activate the display, which really limits its functionality as a watch, in my opinion. The muted display option in Android Wear does the job for me, while still giving me acceptable battery life.

Of course, Android Wear’s big party trick is voice-control - raise your watch to the normal viewing position, and say “OK Google” to activate it, and then tell / ask Google what you want it to do (e.g. "Remind me to ...", "Set a timer for ...", etc). It actually works very well - I get near-100% accuracy for my voice controls, even outdoors, or in moderately noisy environments. (If there's a lot of background noise, it can help to bring the watch closer to your mouth, but generally, it’s not necessary.) Of course, you do feel a bit of a dork talking to your watch, but I guess we’ll all get used to people talking to their wrists soon enough. If it bothers you, you can still access all functionality by tapping and swiping on the display, and the touch interface is very intuitive, especially if you’re already familiar with Android 5.

Out of the box, your watch will present a lot of pre-loaded shortcuts, offering to “Send an sms to Jim” (who’s Jim?) or “Ask Eve if she is available on Friday night” (who’s Eve?) These are just prompts to help you get used to how you're "supposed" to use the watch, and they go away after a while, after you have started to interact with the Android Wear interface, when it thinks you’ve got the picture. Even when they’ve gone, if you tap and scroll down, you will see the "prompts", which can remind you of some of the sorts of things your watch can do, but you might have forgotten about.  

Some of them are actions in themselves which require no further action (e.g. "Show me my steps" or “Show me my heart rate”), while others just start the next part of the instruction sequence, but still require additional voice input (e.g. "Send a text", after which it will prompt you first for an addressee, and then for the message content).

There is a growing collection of apps and games which you can load onto your Android Wear device. In many of these apps (especially the Google apps, which are heavily integrated), the main app resides on the phone, and there is an augmented "extension" which automatically uploads to the watch, and the user doesn't have to do anything to enable this – if you have a Wear-enabled app on your paired phone, the watch will automatically get the "extension" from the phone without you having to consciously do anything to enable it.

E.g. cast a YouTube video from your phone to a Chromecast on your TV, and the YouTube player controls automatically pop-up on your watch, so you can pause, advance etc from your paired watch without needing to touch the phone. Or play music from your phone to your car's paired Bluetooth audio system or a Bluetooth speaker, and control it by talking to your watch (without needing to touch or even look at the screen), while your phone stays in your pocket: "OK Google ... play Rolling Stones"

THAT'S what Android Wear is really all about!

There is also a growing collection of stand-alone apps and games for Android Wear, which have no UI on your phone. (You still install them via the paired phone, but that’s it - the only display / interaction is via the watch.) Some of them are OK, but ultimately, they’re all going to be limited by the small display size. (Which all seems  a bit ironic to me - we’ve seen a trend for steadily increasing smartphone displays, from 3 ½ ” to 4” to 5” to 6” and even bigger - and now we’re going to start relying on a 1 ½” display?!) Most of the games and apps that you’re already used to are much more usable on your phone. Playing games and running productivity apps on the watch  isn't really what I bought my Samsung Gear Live watch for - the real power of an Android Wear device to me is integration / extension of your smartphone's capabilities to a second-screen on your wrist. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what comes up in the next few months - I wonder what the first “killer app” for smartwatches will be?

I’ve heard lots of reports of “abysmal” battery life on pretty well all smartwatches (with the exception of the Pebble series, which use a B&W e-ink display). I get through a full day easily, with about 30% charge or more remaining, which is pretty much the same state my phone is in when I go to bed. I can live with that - sure, 3 days or more of battery life would be nice, but it’s never left me embarrassed by running flat part way through the day or evening. My nightly routine now means I plug both my phone and watch in for a charge, and I don’t see that as being a deal-breaker.

Speaking of charging - the Samsung battery charger adapter isn’t very nice - it’s a cheap-feeling click-on plastic thing, and if you lose it or break it (or forget to pack it for a trip), you’ll be unable to recharge.

Wireless charging would be much nicer, but I guess that’s what you get for buying the cheapest Android Wear watch. I don’t think it’s particularly likely to break with sensible handling, and it lives by my bed, so there's not much risk of it going astray. (Given that I get comfortably through a full day, I don’t need to take the adapter to work for top-ups - but I  might pick up a spare one anyway, just in case …)

One nice feature that arrived with Android Wear 5: you now have the ability to download music from your phone to the watch, and pair your Bluetooth headphones directly to the watch, so that you can use it as a music player when you don’t have your phone handy. I always have my phone in my pocket, so while I’ve tested it and it works fine, this isn’t a feature that I’ll use much, but I can imagine it will appeal to people, who like running with a minimum of devices to weigh them down. (Of course, you’ll have no phone or messaging capacity if you run without your phone, but at least you can still listen to your music and tell the time, as well as get updates on your step-count and heart-rate.)

So … is it a must-have?

Well, for most people, probably not - yet. (Unless you’re  tech-junky like me! At $188, the Samsung Wear Live is probably the cheapest way for experimenters and early adopters to experience Android Wear for themselves.)

It doesn't tell me anything that my phone doesn't tell me, but it does a lot without having to reach for my phone. I can discretely scan incoming calls, emails and text messages from my wrist, and decide whether I need t respond immediately. My phone’s battery life is significantly better than it was. Sure, some of this might be battery improvements in Lollipop 5.0.1 compared to KitKat 4.x, but some of it is certainly due to not actually reaching for my phone nearly as often as I used to.

I’m looking forward to seeing what new features and apps get added over the next few months.