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Notifications on your wrist. Pop-up information from your phone. The potential to interact with a lot of phone apps from your watch. This is what owning a Google watch feels like. Android Wear is the name of the software, and the first watches running it have arrived: the Samsung Gear Live, and the LG G Watch.
Read our deep review of the Samsung Gear Live and know that the LG G Watch is essentially the same experience under the hood, minus the heart-rate monitor, in a differently designed body. Also know that other Android Wear watches will come in the future, in particular the hotly anticipated round-faced Motorola Moto 360. A lot of this review is the same as my Samsung Gear Live review. That's because they're nearly the same watch. The differences are slight indeed: the G Watch has a less-impressive design, a less-impressive screen, lacks the heart-rate monitor of the Gear Live, and costs $229 (£159 in the UK, and AU$249 in Australia), $30 more than Samsung's offering. But it also has slightly better battery life and a better charge dock.
The LG G Watch is like the opening act to a headliner you're waiting for: this isn't the star of the show, and never will be. It's a solidly built piece of hardware, but it's extremely generic-looking, as if it was designed to be a blank slate for Android Wear. It feels like a developer's tool more than a watch you'd want to show off.
To wear the future on your wrist means submitting to a present that can't quite get us there yet. In the case of Google's new Android Wear watches, it also means confronting an odd number of compromises: in particular, some pretty bad battery life.
If you're really serious about Android Wear, you should wait. For future watches, and for software improvements. But if you're curious about what Android Wear is all about, read on.
What is Android Wear, and what will it become?
Android Wear is Android, on your wrist. But it's really like Google Now on your wrist, or Google Glass on your wrist minus a camera: it pushes notifications, can use voice commands ("OK, Google"), and also has a touchscreen for swiping and tapping cards or menu commands. It also allows compatible Android phone apps to load bits of themselves onto your watch, and add on extra features.
Indeed, iPhone users are out of luck -- but we can safely assume Apple's rumored iWatch will be iOS-exclusive, too -- welcome to the increasingly segregated ecosystems of the Apple/Google Cold War. Android Wear is voice command-driven, like Google Glass, but the watches don't have any cameras or speakers: just a microphone, a touchscreen, and a vibrating motor. Android Wear watches can be round or square, but they all need to be connected to an Android phone running 4.3 or later. And they're all supposed to work roughly the same: same operating system, same-looking software. So, no matter what Android Wear watch you choose, it looks like they'll end up feeling like the same type of watch.
That doesn't mean they're all utterly identical: the LG G Watch has different watch faces than the Samsung Gear Live, the other first-out-of-the-gate Android Wear smartwatch.
I tested both the Samsung Gear Live and LG G Watch using a prerelease Android Wear app on a Samsung Galaxy S5, and running a handful of prerelease apps alongside it.
Android Wear pushes cards, just like Google Now, onto your watch face: they could be notifications like incoming emails, Facebook updates, Google Hangout chats, texts, Twitter interactions, or phone calls: it could be the score to a local game, the weather, directions to a place you've been before, or a reminder that music is playing on your phone. Each card can be swiped away, or you can tap to read more, as well as occasionally swipe to reply.
In some cases, you'll need to do the rest on your own phone: with Twitter or Facebook, I clicked a "open on phone" icon and then had to wake up my phone in my pocket. The thing I was trying to read popped up immediately on the phone, but I sometimes wondered whether this defeated the purpose of using a smartwatch in the first place.
You can dictate a lot of things to the watch -- write a note, send an email, ask for directions -- but it doesn't always mean that Google will understand you. And if it doesn't, you'll have a hard time correcting what you said, or canceling that mistaken message before a quick timer expires and it's sent away.
Some of the first Android Wear apps show extra promise: Tinder's Android Wear app has you swipe pictures like you can on a phone. DuoLingo has quick language-learning flashcards. Eat24 lets you quickly order food. Lyft can call a car service. Runtastic can start and track a run. Thomson Reuters Eikon gets quick business headlines and stock prices. Spendable and PayPal are offered for quick finance tools, but PayPal wasn't working for me yet in its early build. Wink will have an app to connect to its smart-home app and connected-appliance controls. That's already more than most smartwatches can boast, and Android Wear should get lots more apps in short time. How useful they'll be remains to be seen, but the potential for Android Wear to transform beyond what it seems to be now could be sky-high.
At the moment, though, it still feels like a hobbled version of Google Glass: notifications, but without the fun ability to record video hands-free.
Pushing notifications has its ups and downs, too: I tried navigating via Android Wear while driving and nearly caused a car accident. Basic vibrations and no speaker mean the display randomly lights up, and upcoming turns weren't clearly indicated. And, it kept losing the GPS signal from my phone even though I was in an unobstructed town in New Jersey.
And if you're saying to yourself, "How's this any different from what I get on my smartphone?" you're right. It all comes down to whether or not you think interacting with a smaller screen on your wrist is more convenient than always whipping out your phone.