Android Wear and Pebble
Smartwatches: Boulevard of broken dream.

Android Wear is just over a year now, and with the Apple Watch getting lots of attention, and the new Pebble Time starting to ship (mine’s arriving shortly, and as a long-time Pebble fanatic I’ll soon share my thoughts here on Stark Insider) I decided to re-visit Wear. Has Google done enough with its Wearable operating system to compete effectively? Is it useful? And, how good are the latest crop of watches running it?

When I first took a look at Wear last year, I came away impressed. But that positive vibe had to do more with the possibilities than the current reality. The original wave of watches running Wear were — to put it mildly — less than inspiring. LG G Watch. Samsung Gear Live. They weren’t bad. It’s just that we expected a whole lot more, in part because of the Google hyperbole machine, but also because “wearables the market” was a shiny opportunity, and a huge new market beckoned. So we thought.

In early 2014, Wear, which is a version of Android specifically designed for smartwatches, was not quite ready for prime time. I think Google knew that. It’s not the first time it’s pushed a product to market early in hopes of iterating quickly while grabbing market share. Sometimes that strategy works (Gmail). Other times it flops (Google Glass). Either way, execution and getting to market fast are key. Compare that to Apple who, instead, polishes the proverbial stone to perfection. As we’ve seen, these differing approaches have fared not too shabbily for both companies. So, yes, the Wear interface was pretty confusing at first. Gestures, swipes, palm presses conspired to create a confusing honeymoon phase (though, admittedly, I revel in this sort of geekery). It sucked battery at an alarming rate, meaning an overnight charge was a must. Apps were lackluster, and there weren’t many at launch. And prices were steep. Asking someone to pay $350-$400 (at the time) for an add-on accessory, a nicety, which in some is more than the price of a mid-range Android phone, was a tall order. For Google, 2014 was likely more about seeding the market, creating awareness, and collecting market feedback. In that respect I’d score their wearable strategy a success. Sales-wise, we know the numbers are if not a complete disaster, at least extremely underwhelming. Last year, about 700,000 Android wear based devices shipped. In mobile, that’s known as a rounding error.

Google, though, has steadily refined Wear.

It no longer tries to force you to speak to your watch and use (the excellent) Google Now-based voice system at every turn… er, swipe. Instead you can now easily access apps with a swipe to the left, and get to settings and shortcuts with a simple swipe down. And, with the latest release (5.1.1), Google has enabled wi-fi for watches that support it, meaning you can be out of Bluetooth range, and still get notifications on your watch; handy if you find yourself in the yard, or wandering across the office. The new version also adds wrist gestures (I found them not so useful in early tests), an “always on” option for the screen, and a bunch of other incremental, but helpful improvements. If you accidentally dismiss a card, for example, there’s now a simple way to undo that so you don’t lose the information at hand.

On the software side, Wear has come a long way. It feels more elegant. And, if I’m reading Google’s moves correctly, it appears to be positioning these updates in a direction pointed at, not surprisingly, the shiny new Apple Watch. While Google treated smartwatches as an extension of the phone originally, emphasizing notifications, and simple tasks like checking on sports scores, or weather, or flight schedules, Apple appeared to go full-on computing mode, and treat the smartwatch like a mini computer for your wrist. You know what comes next. Apps. Apps. And more apps. The ecosystem grows. And, so, I suspect Google is shifting its course a bit, and you might see more emphasis on apps for Android Wear — so far, I’m more impressed with the (incredible, amazing) aftermarket watchfaces available for Wear (see: 9 exceptional Android Wear watch faces), than I am the app selection.

On the software side, Wear has come a long way. It feels more elegant.

The watches themselves?

Getting better. But still room for improvement.

Now that the second-gen models are arriving, you can score major deals on the older ones. I wasn’t too keen on the idea of spending $300 on a Moto 360. But $150? That’s seems far more palatable. Especially when Pebble plays in and around that price range with their superb, endurance busting smartwatches.

I recently tested a grab bag of Android Wear watches. Here’s some quick thoughts.

Asus Zenwatch

Asus is a relative newcomer to Wear. But its Zenwatch impresses for a few reasons. First, price. At $199 you get a lot of bang for the buck (by comparison, LG’s range-topping Urbane retails for $349). And even though it’s priced at the low-end it doesn’t look the part. I wouldn’t necessarily call it stylish, but overall its pleasing, and its tan leather strap should pair well with most wardrobes and situations. Also, battery life is pretty good. That’s relative, of course. Compared to the Pebble you’d call it pretty bad. But getting over a day, even two days from Android Wear? That’s called a miracle. In ambient mode, the Zenwatch is easy to read and far brighter than, say, the Sony Smartwatch 3. Viewing the Zenwatch outdoors, however, is problematic. I have plenty of California sun here in Silicon Valley to put these displays to the test, and with this Asus you need to cup your hand over the watch, or find some shadows to get any semblance of legibility. For indoor use, though, it’s great.

Asus Zenwatch

Good: readable outdoors thanks to transflective display, GPS, more sport than style

Bad: screen too dim in ambient mode, finicky micro-USB flap on backside, more sport than style

Verdict: Very good indoors, poor outdoors. Nice design, and bright screen when in ambient make this a solid choice.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

$199 retail

Sony Smartwatch 3

Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, Sony opted to use micro-usb for charging. Being ubiquitous the good news is you’re always within reach of power since most of us Android users use them to charge our phones. But, the port is located behind on the backside, tucked underneath a fidgety flap (and you’ll have to fidget with it every night) which, to my mind, kills off any possible convenience of using a standardized connector. In the end, taking off a watch and dropping it onto a cradle or Qi charging mat seems a whole lot easier.

The Smartwatch 3 has a few tricks that do differentiate it from the pack (and that’s one of the challenges for OEMs when building on top of Android Wear — it looks nearly identical across all devices). GPS is one. If you run, this is the watch for you. And, in tandem with that nicety, is the fact that the screen is transflective. The more light you throw at it, the better it gets (sort of, but not exactly like the Pebble e-ink display). Outdoors it’s easy to read. You pay the price, though. In darkness you won’t be able to see it at all unless you move your arm or tap to wake the full display.

Sony Smartwatch 3

Good: readable outdoors thanks to transflective display, GPS, more sport than style

Bad: screen too dim in ambient mode, finicky micro-USB flap on backside, more sport than style

Verdict: Very good. If Sony keeps moving this direction gen 4 should be a smash hit.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

$299 retail

Moto 360

Featuring a bold round face, there was a lot of hype about this watch. The Moto 360 was the smartwatch of 2014, everyone wanted one. Many wanted their smartwatch to look like a watch. And, indeed, the 360 is understated, and very well made, and possibly most looks like a traditional watch (the crown on the right helps sell the aesthetic). Word is Motorola will soon announce its sequel. I’m very interested in that, as what I’ve experienced so far with the launch model — despite the quirks — truly impresses. The display, though based on older LCD technology, looked great to my eyes. Blacks are black. Colors are vibrant. And viewing angles are fine. I never had a problem reading the time, date, or notifications. Surprisingly, and seemingly counter-intuitive, in side-by side testing (with other watches noted below) there was almost always more information on the Moto 360.

I’m a sucker for design and aesthetics. When it comes to how watch faces look, there’s no beating the circular design in my books.

On the downside, battery life, as widely reported, is not great, and you may find yourself employing various strategies (turning down brightness, turning off tilt to wake and the ambient screen, etc) to even make it through a long work day. Also, the screen is not the easiest to read outdoors (the Sony Smartwatch 3 wins easily). Also, I’d prefer the 360 to be slightly less tall on my wrist, it could use some trimming in that regard, although the overall screen size, and comfort I find appealing.

I’m a sucker for design and aesthetics. When it comes to how watch faces look, there’s no beating the circular design in my books. Thanks to a very thin bezel, faces look outstanding on the Moto 360. Check them out on Google Play, and also on FaceRepo, and if you’re like me you’ll find yourself ooohing and aaawing as you switch from one to another, dropping a dollar here and there along the way. So much choice, so much quality design.

Moto 360

Good: classy, understated design that doesn’t scream Look-at-Me!, tiny bezel, trick wireless charging stand, watchfaces look outstanding

Bad: battery life, battery life, battery life. (though, recent updates have improved it to the point where I can get through a day now)

Verdict: Still not perfect, but the Moto 360 is my pick of the gen 1 Android Wear litter.

4 out of 5 stars.

$249 retail

And there’s plenty more

LG makes some quality devices, the G Watch R, and new Urbane. Both receive generally positive reviews, and though I haven’t spent time with either, if you are willing to push your budget (to $349) I’d expect them to perform well. One thing to watch for, though: screen burn. LG uses P-OLED for its displays on its current gen Android Wear watches. It makes for astounding clarity, color. But there’s reports of screen burn. Dig into that before jumping on LG just to be sure.

Huawei, who impresses me with their low cost Android phones, is entering the market with a circular watch. So too with iconic watch brand Tag Heuer.

Motorola will likely soon release the next iteration of the Moto 360. They will most certainly get rid of the pixel cut-out at the bottom of the screen (“flat tire”), and, let’s hope, improve battery life and reduce overall height. If they can achieve some solid design gains, they will have a winner.

For Now, Android Wear is About Trade-offs

I can’t find a perfect Android Wear watch. Yet. I suspect it’s just around the corner. For now, though, it’s all about trade-offs. Find yourself outdoors a lot? Rule out the Zenwatch, go for the Smartwatch 3 and its transflective display. Like tracking your runs, the Sony is the only one with GPS, but be aware its ambient display is not very bright and not at all readable in the dark (unless you wake it up). Like round watch designs, try the Moto 360, but be wary of its short battery life and older processor (or fork out a few hundred dollars more for an LG Urbane). The Zenwatch has a nice strap, and a bright display (only indoors) but if you don’t like fiddling with micro-USB cables (reversible USB-C can’t come soon enough) you should avoid it.

I’m sold on wearables as a whole. But the current crop of Android Wear watches misses the mark, ever so slightly. Considering these are firstgen devices built on a firstgen hardware platform that’s not all that bad. And, on the upside, prices have dropped dramatically making dabbling to see if you find value in wearing one a far more reasonable proposition.

Compared to Apple Watch

This is pretty straight forward. If you have an iPhone you buy an Apple Watch. If you have an Android phone you buy something running Android Wear. They are not cross-platform. So likely your choice is already made. My wife has an iPhone, so she got an Apple Watch. I have a OnePlus One so I have a… Moto 360, Asus Zenwatch and Sony Smartwatch 3 And an OG Pebble. (Did someone say early adopter?). I highly doubt that anyone will make a phone OS decision based on the watch, as the phone itself is the device you’re likely you use more often.

For me, Android Wear is a great extension to the phone. If I’m in the car I can quickly glance at a text, or I can use swipe gestures (without needing to take my eyes off the road) to change music tracks on Google Play (Music Boss). Same at the gym. The convenience of knowing the time and weather… well, bonus!

Apple, though, has a grander vision. And it shows in its launch of its watch. There’s more apps. There’s more you can do on the Apple Watch, for better or worse. There’s little to differentiate at this point from Wear when it comes to battery (a day more or less), and watch style (a matter of personal preference) and price (though Android has the edge at entry level). So apps could become Apple’s silver bullet. In that respect, Apple, in my view, is winning. More marquee brands and developers are on board. And every single app that I compared to Wear was better on Apple. It pains me to say it, I love Android. But reality is that Google has some catching up to do when it comes to the quality of apps on Wear. It could be that users say they really only care about notifications (like me). But that will change. Apple will make everyone care about apps, just like they did with the iPhone, then the iPad. In my estimation, apps will become the key selling point, and differentiator. As much as Wear works a treat for me (woeful battery life aside), sales will not follow until Google can convince the masses that there are good reasons — practical, everyday reasons — to use a Wear watch, and to do so with minimal fuss.

Compared to Pebble

I own an OG Pebble. There was life before Pebble. And, as I wrote in my review, there’s no going back. (Pebble review) I absolutely love my chunky, black, basic Pebble. It looks almost ridiculous, like a Heathkit project on my wrist. It’s got large buttons (1 on the left, 3 on the right). Touch screen? Nice try. This is old school. If the Apple Watch is a spaceship the Pebble is an 80’s hot tub machine.

But you know what?

The Pebble just works.

It has a battery that goes forever. You don’t need to think about it. When it hits 20% and a warning pops up — what, me worry?! — you still have at least a day left!

Notifications work. They’ve never failed me (like on occasion with Wear when they don’t come through, requiring a reboot of the watch).

Watchfaces. Scores of them (still, Wear wins when it comes to aesthetics).

You can read Pebble outdoors, in the brightest sun you can find.

You can read it in the dark. Flick your wrist. Voila, backlight. Remember: old school.

And that price? You can get the OG Pebble, that probably does everything you’re looking for in a smartwatch (sans color and touchscreen), for the ridiculously low, low, going once, going twice… price of $99 (the red and white ones are even less). When you drop it in the toilet you won’t feel too shocked.

The other thing to mention is that Pebble has done a nice job of integrating all of the watch’s functionality, including apps, watchfaces and notification control into a single, unified app (for Android and iOS).

I’m not the only one who’s fallen for the convenience, durability, fun of Pebble. Their recent kickstarter for Pebble Time (which, of course, I backed!) netted over $20 million. This small Palo Alto start-up is onto something. By laser focusing on most-wanted features (battery life, low price, ease of use) the Pebble team has taken on Goliath, and is apparently winning. Yes, long-term, I still see a steep climb. As Apple and Google get better at marketing wearables, and refine their respective ecosystems, it could be a challenge. But I said the same thing last year, and look at these cool kids, $20 million later, rolling out a color-screen (who knew) version of the little wearable that could.

Wearables: Niche Market?

Maybe wearables are a niche. Or, at least, smartwatches are a niche market within the greater wearables category. It’s one thing to get a bucketloads of headlines, as wearables (and IoT) did last year, and another thing entirely to generate sales.

In tech we love to write about the next big thing. Wearables might be it. Or the Internet of Things. Or autonomous cars. Or whatever it is, we will get excited, (attempt to) peer into the future, and dream of what could be. That wearable dream might need a haircut. If we assume an average backer value of $200 for Pebble Time, than the $20 million haul represents about 100,000 units, give or take. Add in Android Wear shipments, brings that total to 800,000. Plus we’d need to add in other wearable maker sales and shipments of existing Pebble product. But if Google (with OEMs Sony, LG, Asus, Motorola) and Pebble are the market leaders to date of the fledgling smartwatch market, that results in, say about a million units moved in the last 12 months (excluding fitness trackers). Approximations. That’s not a big market. We’ll see if the Apple Watch changes the game, and engages consumers beyond the initial euphoria that typically accompanies any of its product launches. But it could very well be — and it wouldn’t be a surprise really — that the number of people who want to wear a computerized watch, and pay $300 or more to do so, is actually very small. Those of us that do, like to get excited about it, so we generate lots of noise about the whole deal. In the end though, sales are sales. The Internet of Things, in that respect, represents a far (far!) larger opportunity.

Pebble Wins… for now…

Pebble Godfather
The Godather of smartwatches.

If I had to take one watch, and couldn’t be my nerd self, and rotate constantly between various Wear watches at the office and home, it would be Pebble (in case you hadn’t guessed). And that includes the Apple Watch.

Battery life is my #1 reason for that choice.

Which is why I think that could change over time. If Google and its partners can get their power-saving act together, and innovate a la Tesla, we could someday see Android Wear watches lasting a week, a month, or more (?). I wouldn’t bet against it. It will take time. Until that happens, though, I’d rather wear a smartwatch that will get me through a week without having to baby it. My suspicion is the larger masses feel the same way… though Apple Watch sales could invalidate that assumption.

Hang on, my wife just texted me… I have the same notification popping up. On Pebble. On Zenwatch. On the Sony. And… on the Moto 360.

Man, that Moto 360. What a screen! Beautiful bezel.

Let me take off this Pebble. Just for a sec. The 360 is calling me… oh, that “Escape” watchface… those colors… that pretty design…

Clinton shoots videos for Stark Insider. San Francisco Bay Area arts, Ingmar Bergman and French New Wave, and chasing the perfect home espresso shot 25 seconds at a time (and failing). Peloton: ClintTheMint. Camera: Video Gear