Android Wear/Moto 360 Review

Disclaimer: Below is a wall of rambling and poorly worded text. Don’t judge me TOO much…

Just over a year ago, Google unveiled Android Wear, their version of Android specifically tailored for so-called “smart watches” or “wearables”. Among the first devices announced was the Moto 360. As the name implies, it was extremely notable due to it’s completely round display - something almost completely unheard of at the time (and even extremely uncommon today). Though the first two Android Wear devices launched on June 25, 2014 at Google’s I/O, the much anticipated Moto 360 wouldn’t be available until September 5. It seemed somewhat odd that the flagship smart watch wouldn’t be the first to arrive. It was announced at that same I/O that “everyone [there] whould receive their own Moto 360……when they are available…” Why wouldn’t Google just give everyone an LG G watch, since they were already available? The world may never know. That detail isn’t really the point of this post though.

My initial reaction to the announcement was excitement. It came before the Apple Watch was official in any way, so it was really the first of it’s kind. Sure there were things like the pebble and whatever samsung was scamming people into buying, but a major competitor backing their own OS was exciting thing. Developers would enjoy a very similar experience to what they were used to on normal Android (much the same way iOS developers were greeted by the Apple Watch tools). It seemed like an answer to an idea people have dreamt about for decades.

The announcement video had some examples of people using it. There were a lot of people biking. That was my first problem, I don’t bike. Like, ever. Still though, I could use it….driving? Yeah, I could use it driving, I reassured myself. They did things like open a garage by speaking to their watch using the familiar Google Now catchphrase “Ok, Google”. I was and still am a huge user of Google Now so I found that very exciting. I could have Google Now on my wrist at all times! But how did they open the garage? Does Android Wear come with the ability to integrate with all existing garage door openers? (As a side note, I would go on to develop my own IoT garage door opener, though we never made an Android Wear app and I never had a garage.)

Watching the video a second (or third, or fourth) time, my excitment began to wain. Literally every single one of the examples they used were people doing things that I never did. Catching a plane, riding on a bus, giving kids a bath, surfing, literally dancing to Chromeo while waiting in a long line. Chromeo for heavens sake! Google either seriously over-estimated the average consumer, or they were genius in believing they could convince the average consumer that they were cool enough that they did all these things. And lets face it, if I were ever caught riding on a bus, I would be already staring at my phone! If by some miracle I was not, I definately would not be comfortable replying to a text with my voice, out loud, on a crowded bus. Now way, Jose.

So what would I do with a smart watch? I sit at a desk for 8 hours a day, drive home, and sit on a couch for the other 4-5 before going to bed. Now remember, I do use Google Now extensively, but all of the times I do, it is not inconvenient to take a phone out of my pocket. I don’t use Google Now while running down the street, raking leaves, or grocery shopping. Well, take that back, I use it grocery shopping when I’m trying to find out which song they’re playing on the radio (it’s always Fleetwood Mac). I use Google Now when I’m hanging out with my wife or friends and someone says “Which president built Mount Rushmore anyways?” It’s easier to whip my phone out, and from the lock screen say “Ok Google, which president built Mount Rushmore?” I also feel like it’s more conversational as well, as I don’t actually have to be looking at the screen while I’m doing any of those things. I can still be visually participating in a conversation. I do have to look at the phone once the result comes in, but that’s still conversational because I read it out loud, to everyone. It works very well. Doing any of this on a watch would not be any more or less convenient. But hey, it would definatly be cooler, right? Mr. James Bond over here figuring out how deep the mariana trench is by a simple voice command.

I was never really into watches either as a means for telling time or as an accessory. I have small girly wrists, so anything big or heavy is annoying to me. I had a Casio Calculator watch for a while though, and that was okay. Suffice to say I’m not really a watch persion. That was the first nail in the coffin, thinking back.

I think I remember telling myself I would be willing to try an Android Wear device if the price point was ~$100. The Moto 360 was announced for $249 and the LG G watch was $189. So that’s wear my willingness to try and adopt this technology came to a screeching halt. Since then, I’ve tentatively watched as the platform evolved and as a few more devices came along. All of them were still out of my price range. And with every review I still had an unanswered question: What does it actually do? More importantly, what would I do with it?

This progressed for about a year. The Apple Watch was announced to fanfair. I was impressed that people were so excited about it, given it’s cost. It reinforced my suspision that a man will buy anything at any price as long as it’s “cool” enough, and a woman will buy anything at any price as long as it’s “cute” enough. Now that I think about it though, I don’t actually know any women personally who own an Apple Watch. I guess Beyonce has a gold one that’s literally not possible to buy, but she’s not even a real person anyways right? After saying that I half expect Kanye to commandeer my keyboard! I think I’m safe though…

The Obelisk Image courtesy of my friend C. Simmons Campbell. Check out his work here

Interestingly enough, my first real interaction with wearables was indeed the Apple Watch. I just happened to be near an Apple store and had time to kill, so I wandered in to take a peek. I tapped the screen, twisted the wheel, pressed both buttons, and left having absolutely no idea what it actually did, or how someone would actually use it. It was definately cool though. In a way, it was remeniscint of the obelisk from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Oddesey, where I was a monkey and the Apple Watch was the mysterioius obelesk. I’d love to say that upon touching it for the first time I started screeching, or was enlightened into the next plane of existance, but I didn’t and I wasn’t. Then looking at the price tag and having a mini heart attack for even touching something so expensive, I felt alone and fearful. I actually found the display unit more interesting than the watch itself.

That was before the Apple Watch was available for purchase.

Shortly after, it came out and a few friends started posting about it. It became a humorous habit of mine to exclaim “Wow, an iWatch! What does it do?” and listen to cobbled together responeses about how it’s nice to not have to pull out their huge iPhone 6/6+ (how ironic) any time they wanted to do something like check the weather. On the surface, the answer to that question seemed to be “Basically the same thing as my phone, but different and on my wrist” but deeper down the answer was almost dark: “I don’t really know.”

It was then I decided I must finally discover what one actually did with a smart watch. I resolved I must purchase a device and use it for maybe a week, in both extreme situations. On a vacation where I would be up and about in unfamiliar places needing constant directions and travel tips, and at my desk doing the same thing I did every day.

I purchased a Moto 360 for $249.99, but not before expliclity going over the return policy with the cashier. I really actually wanted an LG G watch since they’re a little smaller (and cheaper). They only had white/gold in stock though. So I ended up with the straight black Moto 360. I was actually pretty excited! I love all tech and gadgets, but more importantly I like tools that make my life easier or extend my (limited) abilities. You could say I enjoy checking out power drills as much as I do playing with the newest tablets.

We got back the our hotel room and I was eager to unbox it. I’ll simply state the packaging was nice enough. It comes in a clever little round box. I busted it out, along with the charger stand and cable. Interestingly, it didn’t come with a usb wall adapter and a seperate micro USB cable, it was all connected into one unit. The cable is plugged into the charging stand. The charging stand itself is actually kind of cool, you just set it on there and it charges by induction. There’s no magnet or anything to hold it in place, but it’s on a slight angle so if you had it on your desk or bedside it is easily viewable as a normal clock. That was actually the first thing I tried to do with it - plug it in. Doing that acheived nothing however, so a quick manual consultation told me to hold the only button down for a few seconds. Then, it showed the first signs of life. Again, not entirely unlike the aforementioned obelisk, it felt like magic.

After a few motorola logos and some snazzy boot animations, I was prompted to install the Android Wear app on my phone. After that I synced them together and I was off! There was a quick demo that I just kinda blazed through. The best way to describe the system is like Google Now with a clock. It functions literally the exact same way. A bunch of potentially useful “cards” show up in a stack. Things like pacakge shipments, weather, and appointment reminders show up. It works as well as Google Now, which is to say impressively well.

I don’t really like (slash never really learned how to read very well) analog clocks, so I switched the watchface out for one of the other preloaded ones. It’s important to note that the Moto 360 has one digital watchface preinstalled. In hindsight, it makes sense since this is uniquely round. All of the preloaded watchfaces are customizable to some extent, but to do anything you have to get another app on your phone, one the motorola made for cutomizing the watch. That was a little annoying to me, but whatever, it’s not anything new. I only tried it on one watchface, but I was able to customize the color of the digits as well as choosing white or black for the background. It worked decently well, but more importantly it whispered into my ear a long held suspiscion of mind: you can’t do anything on the watch itself. Sure, you can change which watchface you use, but you can’t change the way the watchface looks.

A long tap on the watchface itself lets you change the watch face. A short tap on the top part brings up a kind of menu or launcher that lets you chose from some default actions like navigations or setting a stopwatch. More than anything, it was just a list of example commands you could give Google Now. Ad the very bottom of the list, below even settings, is a “Start” option that shows all of the apps you have installed. Again though, this is really more an example of a command. For example, I can say “Ok Google, start USAA” and it will start the USAA app.

I use the term app somewhat liberally here. There’s no real way to install an app on the device itself. Instead you install apps on your phone and certain apps also have some kind of limited watch functionality. For example the USAA app asks me for my pin and then shows me a list my accounts and their balances card style. Now hey, that actually is kind of convenient! I can check my bank accounts with exactly 4 taps and one voice command as opposed to probably 4x that amount on the Android app itself. That may be more a flaw in the app design but I want to believe! What’s interesting is that there are some standalone ‘apps’ that will only function on the watch, mostly watch faces. You still have to install them on your phone, but there’s no way to tell from your phone which ones you have installed. I had to go into my settings and view all the apps installed on my phone till I noticed one that I had tried out and then abandoned. Uninstalling the Android Wear app won’t automatically uninstall watchfaces either.

The “Ok, Google” voice command detection works surprisingly well, but I wish I got a vibration feedback to let me know it was ready for a command. I’m convinced that the times this will be most useful will be when I’m not actually looking at the watch. Which brings up another point, the vibration is just a litle “meh”. It’s definately noticable, but I could also see myself missing it because it’s too subtle. Maybe that’s actually a feature though? It would be nice to not be distracted by this device when doing something important or intense.

I’d like to go back to the hardware breifly. As I mentioned, I’m not a watch person due to my girly small wrists. My wife ways the watch looks good on me, but it feels a bit heavy and bulky. It’s definatley nice though. The leather band is nothing out of this world, but it exactly what I want. A metal band would be unconfortable for me. The watch feels a bit thick, though I haven’t been able to compare that to any other watches so as far as I know that’s par for the course. The most interesting part for me is the glass on top. It seems thick, or that the screen is somehow far behind it. I’m not sure if the LCD is laminated to the glass or not. I’d venture a guess that it is, but that the glass is just thicker than on your average smartphone. Somehow the screen feels magnifyed by the glass, making me feel like I’m peering into a crystal ball. That effect may come from the rounded corners of the glass. If the screen is 50mm in diameter, the glass is 49mm and then 1mm of the rounded portion. You might think that the glass would be slightly larger than the screen, however in this configuration it creates an almost “endless pool” illusion in a way. Overall, I think I like that, though I don’t know what it would look like the other way.

The biggest flaw in the display is the portion at the bottom. There’s just a little black bar where they crammed the display driver. I mean, it’s got to go somewhere right? I can’t help but think the 360 theme would look so much better if it didn’t cost you screen space. I’d put money to say that the next version will eliminate that. The only other round watch, the LG G watch R solves this by just increasing the bezel around the screen. That would be unacceptable for me, making a watch that already feels big bigger is just not worth it. Still, it left me wishing for more.

The display itself is on the low res side. It’s a 320 x 290 screen. Compare that to the 312 x 390 for the 42mm Apple Watch and it doesn’t look bad on paper. I can’t speack much for how the Apple Watch screen looks in person, but I don’t remember it looking exceptionally low res. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by literally every other device I own, but looking at the watch face for the first time I was taken aback at how low res it looked. Even if I am spoiled, it just goes to show that a pixel density that low doesn’t cut it in this day and age. That will inevitably be solved someday, likely very soon. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t by any means look particularly bad, it’s just not great.

The first day using the watch had it’s ups and downs. Like I said before, I would be using this on a day that I would be more reliant on my phone than usual. I mostly needed help navigating, but on top of that I’d be doing all of my normal phone stuff: checking email, texts, social media, etc. The first time I raised the watch and said “Okay Google, navigate to…” it was a thrilling experience. I actually really enjoyed having it while driving as well. My phone would chime in with the next direction, and my wrist would vibrate and show a mini map of what I was going to be doing. Also at any time I could glance at the watch and see the same thing. I liked that because I often find myself wanting to peek at what the next direction will be and finagaling with a phone while driving can be distracting dangerous.

It should go without saying that the watch has a maximum potential usefulness as your phone does. If your phone is dead, the watch might as well not exist. I guess it can still technically tell the time, but that’s about it. With the moto 360 you probably won’t have to worry about that ever happening though. We left our hotel at about 11 am and by 3 pm it was at 9% battery. Now, I’ve owned both the Nexus 4 and 5 and despite constant complaints of poor battery life I’ve never been too disappointed by it. But 4 hours of use? Are you kidding me? That’s totally unacceptable. I don’t know what would constitute heavy use on a smart watch, but I just can’t believe naviagation falls into that category. And again, the watch screen is not on 100% of the time while navigating. It’s on maybe 10% of the time. So I have no idea what in the world could be draining the battery.

Charging isn’t particularly fast either. It’s within my due dilligence to actually time it, but I’d guess that it takes maybe 2 hours to go from 0 to 100. Another note is that because the charger itself doesn’t actually connect to the watch in any way, it’s nearly impossible to charge it on the go. I carry a portable battery that I use frequently, and it would be nice to be able to plug the watch in, throw it in my pack and forget about it. But the watch has to be perfectly positioned on the charging stand at all times. I ended up holding the watch on the charging stand while my wife was driving. Pathetic!

I think the best way I can describe the functionality of Android Wear is an external display for your phone that only shows you notifications. So really you just have to decide for yourself how helpful that might be. You can interact with the notifications, albeit in a limited way. Essentially you get the exact same level of interaction that you get in the notifications dropdown.

Using the watch while I wasn’t on the road was a little better, and a little worse. I got significantly better battery life. I could easily make it all day with 50% left. However, the reason for the improved battery life was clear: I never used it! Honestly, I get very few notifications throuought the day. I found that if I cross my arms with one arm on top of the watch, it turns on and starts wreaking all sorts of havoc. The times that I legitimately wanted to use it, it just didn’t work that well. I tried setting a timer for 36 minutes and rather than doing just that, I was prompted to chose a timer in 15 minute intervals. Since that makes a ton of sense? And even more bizarre, after that prompt I was asked to chose a time of day. I have no idea what that did though.

Another gripe I have with the software is that it shows you what I guess is a preview of your most recent notification. I think this is mostly a “feature” of the moto 360 specifically, but it keeps telling me how many steps I’ve taken today. I guess that’s kind of nice, but I don’t want to see it ALL THE TIME. I’d love to be able to just ask Google Now whenever I wanted that that information. I found a setting to disable notifications from that “app” but that did not disable the step counter.

I think that really that is my overall feeling about the Moto 360 and presumably Android Wear in general. Definately some cool tech, but it does too little where it should do more, it tries to do too much where it should do less. Overall it just didn’t really feel that great. When I bought the Moto 360, I had no intention of keeping it beyond the 30 day return policy. Secretly I hoped that something would catch and I’d really fall in love with it, but that just didn’t happen. I took it back early with no regrets. You could certainly argue that I already made up my mind before I even took the watch out of the box, but I really tried to take it for what it was. At the end of the day it’s a really cool peice of technology that just doesn’t really function that well. I’m hopeful that in future hardware and software updates the mechnaics of what could make a smart watch really useful will get tuned in, but at this point I’m not holding my breath.