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Android Wear - A Makers View of the Samsung Gear Live

This post is a little bit different from the normal content I have here - I recently bought myself a Samsung Gear Live running Android Wear. Now that I've had it for a few days I thought it would be worthwhile doing a review from the point of few of someone who likes to tinker with their devices.

In this review I'm more interested in what I can do with the watch so I'm not going to go into a lot of details about the hardware and software that make it up. If you would like more details about those aspects I recommend the series of reviews at Ars Technica:

  • In-depth with Android Wear * Android Wear Hardware Review * Android Wear Software Review

    In my review I'll give an overview of the device itself and the Android Wear software that runs on it and then show you some ways you can start using it as an accessory for your own projects. I'd like to apologise in advance for the quality of the photos - it turns out to be very difficult to take good quality photos of an LCD screen that wants to turn off very quickly. Where possible I've used images from other sources instead.

Overview

Samsung have released a number of smart watches over the past few years, from the original Galaxy Gear (running Android) to the Gear 2 (running Tizen) and the Gear Fit. The Gear Live, despite being one of the first devices running Android Wear at launch seems to be almost a side project for them (it's not mentioned on their wearables site for example).

Unlike the version of Android for phone and tablets Android Wear seems to be far more tightly controlled by Google so the hardware vendor has much less influence on the behaviour of the device - just about everything I describe here (at least in terms of the software) will behave exactly the same way on the LG G Watch (the other launch device) as well as the upcoming Motorola Moto 360. The biggest differences involve form factor, battery life and what embedded sensors are included.

It's worth making clear that Google Wear devices are not standalone devices, they are an accessory for your phone - a bluetooth screen instead of a bluetooth headset if you like. Take away the phone (or even go out of range) and there is very little you can do with them (apart from tell the time of course). To use the watch you need an Android phone running Android 4.3 or later - there is no support for iOS or Windows Phone and I doubt there ever will be. Choosing a wearable will lock you into the ecosystem - with Android Wear it is Google, the rumoured iWatch will be Apple. Migrating from one to the other will most likely be a difficult process.

Physical Appearance and Performance

Digital vs Real

Neither the Samsung or LG device could be called stylish - they are more solid, functional devices designed for use rather than looks. They are quite large and clunky for a watch, but not overly so (see the image to the right for a comparison). A nice feature of the Samsung over the LG is the curved back - this lets it fit comfortably on the curve of your wrist where a flat back may feel awkward given the size.

The display is nice and large, it's easy to read indoors but can be difficult to see in bright sunlight. The screen on the Samsung has a slightly higher resolution (320 x 320 pixels) and uses an OLED display rather than LCD.

The watch responds quickly and animations are smooth. The CPU embedded in the device is a quad-core ARM processor running at 1.2GHz with 512Mb of RAM so it has plenty of processing power available. Interestingly the LG and the Samsung both use exactly the same chipset in their watches - I'm assuming it's some sort of Google reference design that the manufacturers have then extended slightly.

An aside: I am forever surprised by the amount of computing power that we routinely carry around with us without thinking much about it. In the late 90s I worked with high end (at the time) Unix workstations worth many thousands of dollars that had less processing power and memory than this watch.

The battery life is more than acceptable - you do have to charge it every night much like a mobile phone but you easily get a full day worth of charge out of it. I've been using mine fairly heavily through the day from about 7:00 AM onwards and still have a 65% charge left by 6:00 PM when I get home - you could probably, at a stretch, get a charge to last two full days if needed.

Communications between the watch and the phone is done over Bluetooth and seems to have a range somewhere between 20 and 50 meters. This varies a lot though, it depends on a lot of external factors including radio interference. I can safely go to the next room without losing the connection but further than that is a bit random - at home it seems to work fine from anywhere in the house, at work more than a room away and it will drop out.

I've found the easiest way is to simply carry my phone in my pocket all the time, which a lot of people do anyway so it's not a big change in behaviour. There are a number of apps available already that will cause the watch to notify you when it is out of range (normally you just get a small icon in the top right of the screen). Currently I'm using the Find My Phone application for this and it has the added benefit of helping you to find your misplaced phone with an audio alert.

Overall there are not a lot of behavioural changes to make to start using the device - it simply replaces your existing watch. Rather than adding a new device to your collection you are simply substituting an existing one - unlike Google Glass the watches are far more subtle and quickly feel comfortable.

Setup

The setup process is driven through the phone - simply download the Android Wear application and follow the instructions it give you. This will find the device, synchronise it with your phone and then manage the communications for you. Once set up there is very little you need to do in terms of managing the device.

When you set it up out of the box it will download a firmware update (it has done this twice for me now, new features seem to be appearing on a regular basis). Over a Bluetooth connection this is a fairly slow process so be prepared to wait for a while.

One issue I had during setup was that it didn't recognise all the Android Wear compatible apps I already had on my phone - I had to power cycle the phone and use the 'Resync Apps' setting in the Android Wear application to get everything up to date.

Notifications

The primary purpose of the watch (apart from telling you the time) is to display notifications. Basically any notification that would normally appear on your phone will now appear on the watch as well. Cards from Google Now will be added as well which means you get all those predictive notifications (traffic reports, where you parked your car, etc) that make Google Now so useful. The interface uses the same card metaphor that Google Now and Google Glass use as well which makes it very easy to navigate on a small screen.

Main Screen

Initially notifications are shown on the main screen as small cards, swiping up will allow you to scroll through the current notifications. For each notification you can tap on it to get more information (the full text of an email for example) and then swipe left to display more detail or display the actions available for that notification. Swiping right will discard the notification altogether. It is a very simple set of operations that gives you a lot of flexibility and makes it extremely easy to deal with incoming notifications.

It seems like overkill to have a device that simply shows you notifications but it is really very useful. For a start, Google did a lot of work with the 4.3 version of Android to provide a richer interface to the notification system which means they are no longer limited to simple strings of text - they can be associated with images and linked back to the original application (or a smaller 'Wear' version of the app) so you can do a lot more things with them. The older, plain notifications will still show up as well so you don't have to wait for an upgrade to the application to see events from it on your watch.

You can filter the notifications you see as well - the Android Wear application on the phone has a settings dialog that lets you block notifications from specific apps. They will still appear on your phone but won't be sent to the watch itself.

It is difficult to describe how much of a difference this actually makes. After a few days of using the watch I am so used to it that it has become integral to how I work on a day to day basis. You often hear the term 'information overload' bandied around to describe how we are bombarded with small snippets of information on a daily basis - there is only so much you can do to reduce the amount of incoming information so the obvious next step is to simplify the management of that information, sorting the useful and important bits from the flow in the current context. Google Wear, if not solving the problem, certainly goes a long way in the right direction. The video below gives you a good overview of how you interact with it: