Google just showed off the biggest update yet to its smartwatch platform.
Android Wear 2.0, previewed during the company’s I/O developer conference, adds standalone apps, more customizable watch faces and new ways of inputting text.
Though the update won’t be widely available for some time, it’s already clear it will be its most important to date.
One of the most immediately noticeable changes is the new darker color scheme, which is present throughout the user interface — the redesigned notifications, settings shade and app launcher all take advantage of the darker theme, which makes the whole watch look much sleeker. (It also helps reduce that glaring blue light many watches emit in dark rooms .)
Speaking of the app launcher, the new one is a huge improvement. Rather than tapping through a list of the apps, the new launcher uses a scrolling interface that is much simpler and makes better use of round watch faces.
Using the third-party watch apps themselves is also a much better experience, and the most significant change in Android Wear 2.0. With the update, Google is untethering watch apps from the smartphone with the addition of standalone apps.
This means that watch apps can run independently of your smartphone, even if you don’t have a watch with a Wi-Fi or cellular connection.
This is particularly significant for iPhone users because it will actually allow them to use third-party apps on Android Wear watches — making Android Wear more of a viable alternative to the Apple Watch. (Previously, Android Wear devices were pretty limited due to lack of third-party app support).
“We’ll have a way for people to get apps from the cloud to to their watches so the phone is basically no longer part of the picture,” Android Wear product manager Jeff Chang, tells Mashable. “The great thing about that is if you’re an iPhone user you can still get those third-party apps running on your watch.”
The watch faces themselves are also getting more useful. Google is improving complications — the small widgets that appear on the watch face and surface information from apps — so that that any watch face can be customized with complications, regardless of the watch face design.
Likewise, any app can work as a watch face complication and users will be able to launch apps right from their watch face.
Messaging from the watch will also see some improvements, as people no longer need to rely on canned replies or voice dictation alone. A new QWERTY keyboard that uses swipe-based gestures allows you to input several words at once. While keyboards on tiny displays usually seems like a bad idea, Chang says the keyboard can enable typing at “tens of words” a minute, when using gestures and autocomplete.
If the keyboard proves too clunky (and there’s a good chance it will), there’s also a new handwriting recognition feature, which allows you to trace a few words at a time onto the screen, which it translates to text. The feature will also recognize hand-drawn emoji.
Our full review will have to wait until Android Wear 2.0 is available to everyone later this year, but the updates we’ve seen so far are incredibly promising.
Better watch face customization and standalone apps are extremely welcome additions and — perhaps most significantly — make the platform worth a second look from iPhone users who want more smartwatch options.