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Wearable Tech

Google's Android Wear: 13 things you should know

What is it? How much does it cost? Should you buy one? Here's what Android Wear is all about right now.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Google's take on the smartwatch is now available: the platform's called Android Wear, and the first two watches, the LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live , have arrived.

But should you buy one?

Before we answer that question, let's look at the big picture: here's what you need to know about Android Wear, and what it does so far.

It's a smartwatch made specifically for Android phones.
It's designed to work and sync well with recent Android phones of all types, but if you have an iPhone, Windows phone or anything else, don't expect to get one of these.

Android Wear watches run nearly the same software.
The design of Android Wear watches varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but underneath they all run Google's Android Wear software: the same-looking interface, Google Now-style notification cards, menus, and voice-driven features.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

So far, the watches have mostly the same hardware, too.
The LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live, the first Android Wear watches, both have the same processors, storage, and RAM, and slightly different screen resolutions, display types, and battery capacities. The Gear Live has a heart-rate monitor, too. But, they each have different styles of Micro-USB-compatible charger dongles/docks. To compare, check out the specs side by side.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

They need an Android phone (running 4.3 or later) to pair with.
You'll need an Android phone running Android 4.3 or later. Android Wear watches are basically always-on accessories to your phone, running similar apps and notifications that work across both devices. Android Wear watches can work offline to some extent when unpaired, but the uses are more limited. The good news? Unlike Samsung's earlier Gear smartwatches , the Android requirement is manufacturer-agnostic -- so you can use the Samsung Gear Live with an LG or Motorola or Nexus phone, for instance.

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Josh Miller/CNET

To get most things done, you have to speak to it.
Notifications and messages get pushed to you automatically, but there's no on-screen keyboard on Android Wear: to get other things done you either need to browse menus, or speak directly to your watch. Google's voice recognition works really well, but it's not always easy to get Android Wear to understand everything, especially in noisy spaces.

Google Now-style cards pop up, but it gets confusing, and can feel random.
Android Wear pushes so many types of cards and bits of information that it can feel like a random bundle of dusty trinkets more than a way to stay connected. Sometimes you'll get current messages, other times you'll get predictive "suggestions" on commuting, items for sale, or friends' birthdays.

You can answer phone calls, but there's no speaker -- only a microphone that takes dictation.
If a phone call comes in, you can send a canned first response instead and then communicate by text after, using the microphone to transcribe what you're saying. Or you can answer the call, but you're really just telling your phone to answer: you'll still need headphones or have to hold the phone up to talk. Yeah, it's annoying.

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James Martin/CNET

There will be round and square watches.
The first Android Wear watches are square. The first round watch, the Moto 360 , is coming this summer. Which do you choose? Round is less boring. But who knows if it's really any better.

Apps are downloaded via Google Play as regular Android software; then they load a bit of themselves onto your watch.
Several dozen apps, at least, already work with Android Wear. They just install themselves automatically on your Android Wear if you have them on your phone and have updated them via Google Play. More will come. That's how apps work: then they either launch themselves when needed, or you launch them via the watch's "start" submenu.

Battery life, so far, is bad.
In basic default settings, these first two watches last about a full day before needing a recharge. That means you'll need to charge them nearly as often as you'd charge your phone. Have an extra power strip handy? You'll need it. Adjusting screen-on settings and brightness and limiting notifications should help, but then what's the point of Android Wear's always-on appeal?

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Josh Miller/CNET

It's a bit like Google Glass on your wrist, minus an eyepiece and camera.
The voice-driven menus, the swipe-away notifications, the scroll-and-tap-to-open apps...yeah, it's a lot like Google Glass , except on your wrist. No Android Wear watch supports a camera right now, either, an interesting turnaround from the more intrusive record-when-you-want-to aesthetic of Glass.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Two models are out now, one more is imminent; more will follow later.
The first two watches that are available are from LG and Samsung: the LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live. The Moto 360 has already been announced and is expected to arrive very soon. But more will be available; how many, we don't know. Maybe five, maybe a dozen, maybe more. HTC is expected to release one that might cost less. Asus and Fossil are also known hardware partners.

So, should you buy one?
No. Not yet, anyway. Wait, for Android Wear software to evolve and for other watches to arrive, to see if one is better. Right now, the options are slim and compromised...but there are some slim advantages to each. Wait for the Moto 360 to be unveiled later this summer, see what software changes and possible firmware updates hit these early watches, and be patient. These aren't worth it yet.