Review: Google's Wear OS 2.0 can't fix its obsolete smartwatch hardware


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Ron Amadeo

Google’s major Wear OS revamp is out today, and soon it will arrive on most devices released in the past year and a half (although Ars has already spent a week with a pre-release version of the OS). In the face of relentless competition from the Apple Watch Series 4 and Samsung Galaxy Watch, Google’s most obvious change in the new Wear OS is a new UI for most of the main screens. There’s not much in the way of new functionality or features, but everything is laid out better.

Google hasn’t done much to publicize the actual name of this release, but it identifies the update as “Wear OS 2.0” on the “About” page, so we’re calling it that. Don’t confuse “Wear OS 2.0” with “Android Wear 2.0,” though, because the latter launched in 2017. When the name change from “Android Wear” to “Wear OS” happened, the version numbers reset. Android Wear started at “1.0” and made it all the way to “2.9;” Wear OS then started over at “1.0” and counted back up to “2.0.” Continuing the old version numbers would have made things a lot easier: Google and terrible branding—name a more iconic duo.

The new layout

The core of the Wear OS 2.0 changes revolves around the new layout, which puts a useful screen at the top, bottom, left, and right of the main watch face. Quick Settings is the top screen, and the notifications panel is the bottom screen, making them in roughly the same spot as Phone Android’s pull-down Quick Settings/notification panel. The left screen is a predictive cards page, just like the old Google Now feed on an Android Phone. The right screen is the new home of Google Fit, which was recently revamped with separate metrics for steps and more intense workouts. Besides the top Quick Settings, the other three directions represent the three pillars of the new Wear OS: Notifications, the Google Assistant, and Google Fit.

Compared to previous versions of Wear OS/Android Wear, this is a big improvement. Quick Settings and notifications haven’t moved, but, previously, Wear used left and right swipes to change watch faces. That always seemed like a waste of premium real estate. On Wear OS 2.0, you can still quickly change watch faces by long-pressing on the watch face. Watch faces are still the only things OEMs are allowed to customize in Wear OS and haven’t changed in version 2.0.

Besides the four main screens that you can swipe to from the watch face, the rest of Wear OS remains unchanged. There’s still an app list you can get to by pressing the crown button, and all the apps are unchanged. There’s a packed-in Google Play Store for apps and a big settings section with lots of options to scroll through. For messaging apps, you can still reply with voice, canned replies, emoji handwriting recognition, or by swiping on the world’s smallest QWERTY keyboard, which is easy to ridicule in screenshots but surprisingly good in person. This is all covered in our Android Wear 2.0 review (which, again, is the previous version of Wear OS 2.0).

The notification panel

The notification panel represents the biggest change for Wear OS 2.0. Notifications have switched from a paginated list to a single scrolling pane. This not only makes it more like Phone Android’s normal notification panel, but the change also makes it a lot faster to scroll through when you have multiple notifications. With Wear 1.0’s paginated model, four notifications meant four vertical swipes on the touch screen, one to get through each page. With a single pane, all of the usual touchscreen momentum-based scrolling tricks work—a medium-power flick will scroll past multiple notifications at once, and a harder fling will zip to the end of the list. You can also still spin the crown button like a jog dial and move up and down the list.

Notifications on the pane are each separated by a horizontal line, and these will show short previews of the content (usually the app name, time, and two lines of text). Just like on a phone, you can swipe a notification left or right to dismiss it, and at the bottom of the list is a “Clear All” button. If you want to actually interact with a notification, you can tap on it, which will expand the notification in-line to show more text and a lot of action buttons. For a Gmail message, you’ll see “Archive,” “Delete,” and “Reply.” But for a message from something like Google Hangouts, things get a bit more interesting. Besides “Reply” and the “launch app” app, you get in-line smart replies, just like on Android 9.0 Pie’s new notification panel. If an app supports them, you’ll get simple machine learning generated responses, which are sometimes nicer than trying to speak or type out a response on your tiny watch.

The nice thing about the expanding notifications and extra buttons is that this all happens in-line. While Wear 1.0 would have had you going through lots of different pages, it’s easy to deal with multiple notifications on Wear 2.0 without losing your place.

Just as it is on all the previous versions of (Android) Wear OS, the whole notification system is powered by an Android API. Every watch notification, then, has the same notification text and action buttons as a phone notification, regardless of the individual app support for Wear. Every app works automatically.

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