Sunday, June 21, 2015

Chai Time: Android Wear 5.1 on the Moto 360-Sahen Rai

After owning a Moto 360 for about 4 months, I've enjoyed having it quite a bit. It provides me with quick, easy to access notifications at a glance, allows me to use certain apps in an entirely new way, and has pretty solid battery for such a tiny device. It's obvious that soon wearables are going to become a major platform, and the 360 is a big part of that. Being able to use parts of your phone quickly, and always having a device immediately at hand makes a pretty big difference once you start using it. But as much as I love the 360, there have been some things I definitely wish it had done better. Does the new version of Android wear fix those things for me? Let's find out.

Wear 5.1 was a massive feature update for the platform. Bringing a big update to the feature set of the device, and adding the ability to use your watch through wifi. One of the first big, new features you'll notice when first using the device is the new app drawer. It's basically a 3-column menu that includes contacts, the app drawer itself, and your quick Ok google search options accessed by holding down the device's physical side button.

The app drawer is pretty simple, and is pretty much just a giant vertical list of all the wear apps you have installed. But it's a pretty elegant fix to a problem I've dealt with by using a third party solution before. It's simple, but to me it's actually a really nice fix.

The contacts list is a swipe away from the App drawer, and is a functional vertical (what a surprise) list of your contacts that allows you to quickly contact one

A quick tap on a contact allows you to send them a text, call, or email depending on what information you have on their card in your phone's contacts app. It's a small convenience, but one that, in my short time testing, makes a pretty big difference. I found myself using this list a decent amount trying to quickly text my friends and family. The final part of the new "App Drawer" is basically an unchanged version of the Ok Google menu, not a lot to talk about here. It's nice to have I guess, but it's already pretty easy to access so it's not a huge deal.

Another cool feature introduced in the newest version of Wear is the wrist scroll.

After enabling it in settings, it allows you to control your device with quick wrist flicks instead of swipes. A flick up or down is like an up or down swipe, and a flick left or right is like a similar swipe. This isn't that useful all the time, but at times when you can't touch your device's screen (hands are dirty, hands are full, in the middle of a fist fight with an Apple fanboy, etc....) it can really come in handy.

For those of us that take our watches on and off a lot in public. Google has heard your prayers! You can now set a pattern lock on your Android Wear device

Once active, your screen lock will activate any time the device thinks you've taken it off. In my experience this far, this works pretty accurately. Although I don't normally take my device off much, so I don't really have much of a need for the feature overall. That being said, it's definitely a cool feature and also makes the Moto 360 seem a lot more like its own device rather than just an extension of the phone.

Along with all the feature updates to wear, there have also been some new additions in the way of text communication. Google has added new text phrases, and has also included the addition of drawable emojis. Something that sounds stupid, but is sorta fun to use in practice. Just go to a text conversation on your watch either through the app drawer or responding to a previous text, hit draw emoji

It may look like I just took a black crayon and rubbed it on my watch, but it's actually just the lighting and my camera

 and draw the general shape of an emoji you'd like to use.

Yes, I'm an artist....
 and voila!

Curse you black crayon!

The last(but certainly not least) new feature I'm gonna go over is the ability to use your Android Device through wifi connected to your phone. It was pretty easy to setup, I just went to settings-Wifi, found my SSID,

 and entered my password through my phone. From there, I was almost instantly connected. The connection works pretty much the exact same as through Bluetooth. Although occasionally your watch will turn off wifi to save battery, which is a minor inconvenience. However, the option to do this is a huge leap for Android Wear. Not having to lug your phone around everywhere makes your watch feel like it's own device and not just second fiddle to your phone. This was one of the main obstacles for Android wear, and wearables in general,  and it made them seem  obsolete, but now Google has successfully overcome that hurdle.

Although I haven't had the update that long, I can say that the battery life has been pretty decent overall. Consider how much has been added, it's surprising to say that the battery seems to last as long as it did pre-update. While do I wish it had gotten a little better, I'm sure they're working towards longer battery life with the next Moto 360.

The new version of Android Wear has fixed a lot of small grievances I've had with the device. But it's also done something a lot bigger than that for me, and for the platform as a whole. As I mentioned before, pretty much every feature the new version of Android wear brought has added up to something big: making seem more like its own device. The ability to use it over wifi allows you to use it without your phone nearby, the app drawer gives you apps that work without your phone, even the screen lock gives you more peace of mind when bringing it along and using it for more things. There's still a long way to go before everyone can necessitate buying one, but this update was a giant step in that direction.

Experienced Android Wear 5.1 for yourself? Let me know what you think about it on twitter @masala_tech, and remember to always keep things spicy!

By Sahen Rai