Google has provided three major updates to Android Wear since it came to market two years ago—every time the version of Android that Wear is built on top of is updated, Google also adds Wear-specific features. Android 5.0, 5.1, and 6.0 all had corresponding Wear releases that smoothed out rough edges, refined the interface, and made the watches more capable.
Today at its developer conference, Google is announcing Android Wear 2.0, a version number bump that reflects the magnitude of the changes it introduces. The update gives the UI a comprehensive Material Design-themed overhaul, enables compatible watches to do more without a phone attached, introduces some new input methods to make communication easier, and copies one of the things that the Apple Watch gets right. And since it’s based on Android N, it picks up support for features like Data Saver, Java 8, and new emoji, among other platform features. Here are the highlights.
Probably the biggest addition to Wear 2.0 is the ability for apps to communicate directly over the Internet via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or (for the few watches that have it) cellular, rather than relying exclusively on a tethered phone or cloud syncing between your watch and your phone for communication.
This mostly just means that your watch will be more useful without your phone, at least when it has Internet connectivity (Android Wear watches can already connect to known Wi-Fi networks automatically when your phone is out of Bluetooth range or on another known network entirely). But Google also points out that this will allow users of Android Wear on iOS to enjoy more capable apps.
Apple doesn’t offer full-fledged smartwatch APIs for Wear to hook into, and so using Wear with an iPhone is an inherently limited experience; with standalone apps, watches will be able to communicate directly over the Internet using Wi-Fi or your iPhone’s LTE connection, skirting around the API problem that currently makes Wear on iOS so lackluster.
The utility of this feature for your particular watch may vary depending on which features it supports; early Wear watches didn’t include Wi-Fi support because the software platform launched without it. But this is great for modern watches with full-featured wireless—smart watches will slowly become less dependent on our phones over time just as our phones became less dependent on our PCs, and this is a significant step down that road.
Third parties have been able to make Android Wear watch faces for some time now, but the kind of information they can display is heavily dependent on the watch face itself—even with lots of options, it might be hard to find one that looks good and gives you the glance-able information you want.
Wear 2.0 introduces a full-fledged API for complications, those little snippets of extra information on dumb watches (or on the Apple Watch, for that matter) that show you things like the current date or moon phases. The Complications API lets app developers pass raw data to watch faces, which can format and style the data however they want to make it look good next to the rest of the watch face. Tapping on individual complications can take you into the full watch app for more information.
These complications should obviate the need for purpose-built weather or fitness-related watch faces, among others. All we need are apps and watch faces that use the API.
Android Wear’s notification cards have been redesigned to be primarily light text on a black background instead of dark text on a white background, which the company says is intended to conserve battery life on watches with OLED screens and to make notifications less obtrusive if they light your watch up in a dark or dimly lit room.
A few other core aspects of the UI have been tweaked and rethought, too. When notification cards are waiting for you, your watch face will display smaller, less obtrusive icons instead of devoting a big swath of the watch face to a notification card. As you swipe through your notification cards, you’ll see a small progress bar scooting along the right side of the display to show you how far you’ve gone down your notification stack. That bar and the revised app launcher both hug the curved edges of round screens, reflecting the fact that most Android Wear watches are now round instead of square (though Google assured us that square screens still work just fine).
We’ll need to get our hands on some actual software to take stock of all the changes—look for that to happen as soon as we can get the preview installed.