Smartwatches running Google’s Android Wear operating system were, until recently, largely irrelevant to iPhone users because they officially worked only with Android smartphones.
Unofficial hacks cropped up here and there to enable a degree of iPhone compatibility, but for the vast majority of iOS users the Google-y watches essentially did not exist.
That changed recently when Google released an Android Wear app for iOS to enable Bluetooth pairing of iPhones with Android Wear smartwatches – a move that had long been rumored to be in the offing.
Google said its Android Wear app for iOS is compatible with iPhone models going all the way back to the iPhone 5, running iOS 8.2 or later.
This makes Android Wear watches somewhat iOS-competitive with the Apple Watch, which is unlikely to ever be Android-compatible, and with Pebble watches that have long worked with both iPhones and Android phones (see “Pebble Time Offers Low-Budget Apple Watch Alternative,” 7 Sep 2015).
The question is: Would anyone actually want to use an Android Wear watch with an iPhone, given alternatives that are more iOS-friendly?
The answer is… complicated.
I’ll admit a bit of a Google bias, being an Apple user who relies almost exclusively on Google cloud services instead of Apple’s weaker variants. As a result, the prospect of having a wrist-deployed Google-cloud console to use in tandem with my iPhone excited me. I had a blast testing the Android Wear app on an iPhone with a couple of Android Wear watches.
But, in doing so, I ran into a number of issues that should give most iPhone users pause. Such potential showstoppers include limited Android Wear model support, and limited access to apps and watch faces compared to those who using the watches with Android smartphones.
Stellar Notifier -- Pairing an Android Wear watch and an iPhone via the Android Wear app is straightforward – so much so I wonder why it took Google so long.
Once paired via Bluetooth, the next steps are just as straightforward. These include granting the watch access to my iPhone’s calendar, and enabling notifications and location tracking.
I did all of this with LG’s recently released Watch Urbane, one of several Android Wear smartwatches that Google recommends for use with the iPhone. The watch and my iPhone 6 Plus were soon simpatico. I wasn’t delighted with the Urbane’s styling, but the watch became a fantastic notification device.
Google has adapted the card-style formatting of its computer- and phone-based Google Now intelligent assistant and notification system for a smartwatch display. This means email messages and other updates appear as compact cards, while groupings of similar notifications (such as a bunch of Gmail messages) show up as card stacks.
Dealing with the cards is enjoyable and intuitive. Swipe right to dismiss a card, left for more info (if available), and up to cycle through a card stack. The cards and card stacks are easy to identify via telltale icons and colors (red for Gmail, say, with the email service’s icon prominently shown), and can be dismissed card by card or en masse.
This is my favorite way to get notifications on my wrist, beating out the Apple Watch and Pebble approaches. That makes Android Wear, strictly in a notifications sense, my favorite smartwatch platform.
An iPhone user has lots of control over an Android Wear watch’s behavior. Google Now can be turned off, for one thing. This does not alter card-style formatting, but it dumbs down the experience. If Google Now is disabled, your iPhone and watch will not anticipate your needs by feeding you relevant, useful information – such as flight, hotel, and public transport updates. Simple notifications will keep coming through, however.
You can decide whether to get calendar notifications from the Google or Apple calendar apps on the iPhone, too, and you can block notifications from some apps (such as Apple Mail, if you’re a Gmail user). Android Wear has optional “rich Gmail cards” with a degree of interactivity, like the choice to archive or reply to email.
I was walking to the bus stop when a Gmail message from my editor came in, for instance. Activating voice control – by saying “OK, Google” instead of “Hey, Siri” – I was able to dictate and send off a fast reply. Android Wear also has an emoji option that turns a finger-scrawled emoticon into a corresponding yellow icon.
App and Watch Face Drought -- My Android Wear love affair soured when I realized how limited this experience can be compared to what Android Wear smartwatch users currently enjoy via an Android smartphone.
Consider apps and watch faces. Those using these watches with Android handsets have access to an immense library of third-party apps and watch faces via the Google Play store, but these apps are mostly off limits to iPhone users at the moment.
Instead, iPhone users get access to only a small set of Google-approved apps, like a flashlight and a stopwatch, along with fitness apps to track calories, steps, heart activity, and so on. Really, Google?
The situation with watch faces is a bit better with a small selection of third-party faces, along with the stock faces. But this doesn’t include my favorite third-party faces, such as those that show comic covers, and works of fine and folk art. One such face, Street Art, is Google’s creation, which makes its absence from the iPhone all the more baffling.
It’s unclear to me if third-party apps and watch faces in the future will originate directly from Google via the Android Wear app, as they do for Android users, or indirectly, by way of Apple and its App Store. I think Apple may have a big problem with the former scenario, which may be what is holding up apps and faces for iOS users.
Regardless, stock apps are also limited when using an Android Wear smartwatch with an iPhone. Hangouts, Google’s own messaging app, does not provide interactive notifications like Gmail. The Hangouts app doesn’t even show up on the watch, as it does when the device is paired with an Android phone. Google Maps also is missing in action on the smartwatch when used with an iPhone. I also miss Google’s feature for locating the paired iPhone, especially after getting hooked on the Apple Watch version of that feature.
Few, Pricey Watches -- Watch compatibility and pricing issues further complicate matters.
With the Android Wear app for iOS, Google supports only one months-old device, the Watch Urbane, along with a small set of watches just now being released or announced by the likes of Asus, Huawei, and Motorola. LG has unveiled but not yet released its Urbane successor, the Watch Urbane Second Edition, which presumably will also be iPhone-friendly.
This dashed my longstanding hope that official support would encompass older, less-costly Android Wear models like Motorola’s popular first-generation Moto 360.
The current Moto 360 is a steal at $150 or less, if you can find it (Motorola has announced next-generation 360 and 360 Sport models). That would have made it a nice Apple Watch alternative for cost-conscious iPhone users who don’t mind a limited feature set.
Unofficially, though, I didn’t seem to have any trouble pairing a first-gen Moto 360 with my iPhone using the Android Wear app. The watch received software updates after pairing, and features like notifications seemed to work just fine. I had access to those third-party faces I used on the Watch Urbane, too.
If you are an adventurous iOS user, therefore, and find an old Android Wear watch deeply discounted somewhere, it could be the iPhone companion you are looking for – and at a big savings over the price of an Apple Watch.
This is not a situation that inspires confidence, however, since you have no guarantee of getting software updates needed to keep your old watch fully compatible with an iPhone in the future.
I’m Not Watching -- On an emotional level, I yearn to use an Android Wear watch with my iPhone because I greatly prefer Google’s style of wrist notifications. I’m enamored of and invested in Google services, generally speaking.
Spending $300 or more for an Android Wear smartwatch doesn’t make a lot of sense, however, given how crippled it is when used via an iPhone, especially with regard to app and watch-face availability. In that regard, an entry-level Apple Watch or even a Pebble is a better investment.
It’s possible, a year or two from now, that now-pricey Android Wear gadgets will have come down enough in cost to become enticing as budget alternatives to the Apple Watch. Hopefully, Google will also have worked out its problems with app and watch-face distribution by then.
If so, my dream of a Google wrist-mounted sidekick to my iPhone may finally come true.