Ultimate guide to the smartwatch update

Ultimate guide to the smartwatch update

Android Wear is dead, long live Wear OS. Google's smartwatch operating system has seen a number of changes over the past couple of years. It was revamped back in 2017 and was then rebranded in 2018 as Wear OS with an all-new version of Google Fit.

Essential reading: Check our best smartwatches roundup

On the way, it's added a host of new features, with an emphasis on custom watch faces, fitness and standalone apps. iPhone users have also gotten a better experience with nice ease-of-use changes. In fact, that's one of the reasons it's now Wear OS – to let iPhone users know they can use it too.

But there's a lot more to Wear OS that you may not know, so read on to get up to speed with everything else.

Wear OS: Standalone apps

Standalone apps were a big change for the Wear ecosystem. You no longer need your phone nearby to use apps on your Wear OS device. Using Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or cellular instead of depending on a tethered phone for cloud syncing, your smartwatch now remains much more functional away from your phone.

Most Wi-Fi enabled smartwatches can already connect to Wi-Fi, but this is a huge deal for
Wear OS watch owners who also happen to have iPhones. It means you can now download apps straight to the watch, making up for the previous lack of app support available when paired with Apple's smartphone.

Worried about security with apps running wild on your wrist? While smartphone-paired watches use secure transfer authentication data via the Wearable Data Layer API, apps will make use of 2.0's input methods – more on those in a bit – for username and password entry.

Which leads us to…

Wear OS: Play Store

As part of the grand untethering of phone and watch, Wear OS now includes a standalone Play Store, meaning you're able to browse and download Wear apps right to your smartwatch.

This also means you don't need to install the apps on your phone – just the watch itself – as Wear OS doesn't require the two to be paired.

Wear OS: Material design

Wear OS: Ultimate guide to the smartwatch update

Google's smartphone design language has now made its way onto Wear OS smartwatches. But it's not a simple cut and paste job.

The design has been adjusted for smartwatches, with redesigned app launchers that curve to rounded screens. You won't have to swipe left and right any more. You can even put your favourite apps up at the top by holding and dragging them.

Taking a cue from the Apple Watch, you can also swipe from your watch face to activate certain things. Swiping from the top gives you your quick settings, while swiping from the bottom gives you your notifications. On the right, you'll see your Google Fit rings and on the left you'll see Google Assistant.

Some of these new menus are easier to use thanks to support for rotational input. Now you can use your rotating dial on smartwatches like the Montblanc Summit 2 to scroll though menus, zoom in and out and so on.

Wear OS: Watch faces

Android Wear 2.0: Ultimate guide to the major smartwatch update

Wear OS has been playing catch-up with Apple's watchOS in making its watch faces more useful. You are able to view multiple data from different third-party apps on the watch face. Think complications on Apple Watch. In fact, that's exactly what Google is calling watch face widgets – complications.

Users can have data from Spotify and Google Fit, for example, displayed on a single watch face and can also interact with them – devs can supply data to any watch face using the API.

As for switching between watch faces, you just have to press and hold on your watch face. You'll be taken to the watch face selection screen, where you can just swipe between them on both the left and right. On the far right, you can add new faces. You can also tap the little cog below the faces to customise them and the complications they hold.

Wear OS: Google Pay

Wear OS: Ultimate guide to the smartwatch update

Google Pay is on board Wear OS, bringing contactless payments to smartwatches that pack NFC such as the Misfit Vapor 2.

Like its Apple and Samsung rivals, you simply load up your bank card to the device and tap away to buy that coffee or pretzel (other items are available).

Wear OS: Messaging

Android Wear 2.0: Ultimate guide to the major smartwatch update

Sending messages is limiting on the wrist since the screens are so small, but that should hopefully be alleviated a bit with Wear OS's input methods. A small keyboard can be swiped to let you type out messages, and handwriting recognition will let you draw single letters or join words to send messages.

Google is offering its own native keyboard but has also opened the door for third-party keyboard apps to offer alternatives.

And that's not all. Google is bringing over the smart replies that Gmail users will be familiar with, giving you the option of three possible responses to quickly reply to a contact. These smart replies are generated on the watches themselves, meaning no personal info is shared with Google's servers.

Responding to messages no longer requires swiping to another screen, either, as you are able to tap on the message and view more data before deciding on your next course of action.

Wear OS: Fitness

Wear OS: Ultimate guide to the smartwatch update

Slowly but surely, Wear OS is becoming a better place for fitness lovers. Especially now that the Fossil contingent – from Fossil Q Explorist to Skagen Falster 2 – is packed with fitness features, from heart rate sensors to GPS.

Google is taking advantage with the all-new version of Google Fit, which adds activity rings not too dissimilar from Apple. The rings are split into two. The first is Move Minutes, which is basically a way of keeping track of all your physical activity. The second is Heart Points, which keeps track of activities you do at a higher pace, like bike or run.

You can keep track of both of these and set your own goals. Google Fit still doesn't hand out too much pure data, but it's much better at keeping you informed of how you're doing and how far away you are from your goals.

Additionally, if you love working out with music it's now much easier to launch your workout playlists – whether that's from Spotify or another music service – straight from the Wear OS homescreen. Your phone doesn't even need to be turned on.

You can also stream tunes thanks to the updated Google Play Music app, which will use either Wi-Fi or LTE connectivity to play music not stored on your smartwatch.

Also, when you work out with a cellular-connected Wear OS device, you can still use the calling and messaging functionality.

In the future, Google wants Wear OS to be better at proactively coaching and motivating users to be active. We'll have to wait and see on that – maybe with the Pixel Watch?

Wear OS: Notifications

Wear OS: Ultimate guide to the smartwatch update

Anyone that has used an older Wear watch will know how those Google notification cards had a habit of obscuring the watch faces and making the place a feel a little cluttered. Now things work a little bit differently.

When you get the cards, the watch face will display smaller icons instead of huge messages that take up space. They are also be more manageable with a progress bar on the bottom display showing you how many cards are left in the stack.

When you raise your watch to activate it, it pulls up the card notification before it hides away again. You are still able to swipe up from the bottom to go through your notifications as normal, but it gives Wear OS a much cleaner look and feel.

The notification cards themselves have been redesigned as well, to show primarily light text on a black background instead of dark text on a white background. According to Google, this should help save battery life and lessen the intrusion of bright notifications.

Expect Google to make some changes to how notifications work moving forward, as the search giant wants to make notifications even more glanceable and give you more information more quickly.

Wear OS: Google Assistant

Wear OS: Ultimate guide to the smartwatch update

Wear OS also adds Google Assistant to your smartwatch, helping you to find answers using your voice. It's like Alexa but less good. Though Google does want this to be a big point for its smartwatch OS, so expect a smarter Google Assistant moving forward.

You can ask Google Assistant about the weather, get it to set timers or remind you to buy a coffee or a pretzel (other items are available) – you just hold down the standby button on your watch or say “OK Google.”

Wear OS: It's not for everyone

Android Wear 2.0: Ultimate guide to the major smartwatch update

Wear OS isn't available for every Wear smartwatch. Older devices such as the original Moto 360 and the LG G Watch miss out. That's not entirely surprising, given that those watches are very long in the tooth now. Google usually stops updating its flagship phones and tablets after a similar time period – and both have been succeeded by multiple sequels.

It's the first notable deviation away from the philosophy of a controlled smartwatch experience for all.

This is the official list of older devices that support Wear OS: Asus ZenWatch 2 & 3; Casio Smart Outdoor Watch; Casio PRO TEK Smart; Fossil Q Founder; Fossil Q Marshal; Fossil Q Wander; Fossil Q Control; Fossil Q Venture; Fossil Q Explorist; Huawei Watch 2; LG Watch Sport; LG Watch Style; LG Watch Urbane and 2nd Edition LTE; Michael Kors Access; Moto 360 2nd-gen; Moto 360 Sport; New Balance RunIQ; Nixon's The Mission; Polar M600; Louis Vuitton Tambour; Montblanc Summit; Ticwatch S & E; Misfit Vapor; Movado Connect; Skagen Falster; Tommy Hilfiger 24/7 You; Diesel Full Guard; Guess Connect; Gc Connect; and the Tag Heuer Modular Connected.

Wear OS: New smartwatches

The world of Wear OS smartwatches moves quick. In the past couple of months, we've seen a number of good to great smartwatches sporting the latest OS. They include the Montblanc Summit 2, Fossil Sport, Diesel On Full Guard 2.5, TicWatch S2, E2 and C2, Misfit Vapor 2, Skagen Falster 2 and more. There's also the lure of the Pixel Watch hanging off in the distance, but it sounds like we'll see that in October 2019.

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