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Motorola Moto 360 review: Motorola's round watch not a full revolution

Android Wear doesn't always make the most of the round design; some apps feel cut off or cropped, and notifications seem oddly laid out. Android Wear's UI doesn't feel organic or customized to a round screen as much as it could have been.

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The charge cradle turns the watch into a bedside clock. Sarah Tew/CNET

What makes the Moto 360 different

Besides being round, the Moto 360 has a few other hardware distinctions from other Android Wear watches I've used: its contact-free inductive charging and dock (which uses similar technology as other inductive charging mats and accessories, like those for the Nexus 5), its heart-rate monitor, and its improved noise-cancelling microphone technology.

The included charger and cradle are clever, too. Just drop the watch in and it starts charging, while the display flips to a bedside-clock mode. A gentle blue ring shows the charge progress. It actually makes a really cool bedside clock, but not a great alarm, because it lacks a speaker (it vibrates instead). It's also not a perfect travel charger -- the cradle's big, and the inductive charging doesn't use magnets or use any manner of clip-on. You need a flat surface to place it on, which rules out backpacks or airline seat pockets.

Motorola prides itself on excellent microphones, and the Moto 360 is better at understanding what I say in a crowded room than any other smartwatch I've seen. It recognizes my voice at near-whisper in crowded rooms, subvocally even, and I've rarely seen it fail. But it only uses that voice recognition for Google Now searches and text transcription: it can't make audio phone calls or send voice messages. And since there's no speaker, you can't use the Moto 360 as a speakerphone, either. This is the same as every other Android Wear watch to date.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The optical LED-based heart-rate monitor on the back is a little like the one on the Samsung Gear Live and works the same as other wrist-worn heart-rate monitors. You can have it ping your heart rate via a cool-looking Motorola app that looks like a needle spinning on a gauge, or you can use Google's own parallel app. Both take similar readings. Sometimes my heart rate wasn't recognized; I had to adjust the watch. Perhaps it was my hairy arms. After a few seconds, its continuous readings stabilized.

But Motorola's app, and Google's, for that matter, have no coaching mode; no way to calculate target heart rate. A separate "heart activity" app aims to measure your active motion each day: 30 minutes of moderate activity, for five days a week. It might say "15 minutes to go," but it's hard to tell whether the app's using heart-rate data or something else, and what you should do next. The heart-rate accuracy seemed to vary at times, too. It's not enough to throw a heart-rate monitor on a watch. People need help integrating one into their everyday lives.

The rest of the Moto 360 is similar to other Android Wear watches: 4GB of onboard storage, 512MB of RAM, and a microphone for voice commands. Its Texas Instruments OMAP 3 processor looks less robust on paper than the processors on Samsung and LG's watches, but performance for all everyday Android Wear tasks feels about the same.

Android Wear: Still a work in progress

All Android Wear watches run the same software: the Moto 360, Samsung Gear Live and LG G Watch work the same. Google's mobile wearable operating system doesn't change, except for the included watchfaces on each watch.

Android Wear runs on Android phones only (Android 4.3 and later), and serves mainly as a way to push Google Now to your wrist. You can talk to Android Wear to search Google, write notes, make appointments, or set an alarm, but sometimes it's hard to tell what Google Now will understand and what it won't.

Meanwhile, notifications from your Android phone get pushed in via banners: some when messages come through, others in more predictive fashion, Google Now-style: what current commute time looks like, what the weather is at home, or what time the next sports game is for the team it thinks you like to follow.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

You can swipe away notification cards or even mildly interact with them, but these notifications have a habit of coming back from the dead. I've had Twitter and sports headlines repeatedly re-appear on my watch after swiping them away. Android Wear needs to be smarter at its pop-up card pestering.

There are a lot of Android Wear-ready apps that install automatically once they're on your phone, and they range from useful to obscure. A Philips Hue app turns lights on and off, and a cookbook app shows recipes and timers. But, launching, finding and curating these apps becomes confusing and difficult. Android Wear doesn't feel interactive enough, or clearly laid-out enough, to be truly useful.

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Moto 360 (round) next to Pebble Steel (square): Pebble has more than double the battery life. Sarah Tew/CNET

Battery life

The Moto 360 originally had pretty bad battery life, lasting less than 12 hours without fiddling with settings. A recent firmware update has improved things: continually connected with an ambient always-on screen, the Moto 360 now lasts about 20 hours on a charge. I tried pairing with a Nexus 5, and a Samsung Galaxy S5. With ambient mode off, which keeps the screen dark most of the time, battery life can lean towards two days. This is similar to what other Android Wear watches like the Samsung Gear Live and LG G Watch achieve.

The battery starts to dip down at night, and you'll definitely need to recharge in that included cradle before going to sleep. Unfortunately, the Moto 360's coolest charging trick, inductive charging, is also its drawback. You just need to rest the 360 in its cradle to top off, which requires a flat surface. Having a magnet, or even a dongle to clip on, would at least let it slide into a bag or airline seat pocket and continue charging. It took a little under 2 hours to charge up to 100 percent from a fully dead watch.

The Moto 360 suffers what most pretty-smart smartwatches suffer: a battery life that needs coddling and attending to. This is yet another gadget to charge at night. Are you ready for that responsibility? I prefer smartwatches that last at least three or four days, like the Pebble, even if they're less technologically powerful.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion

What do you want, proof that a nice-looking smartwatch can be made, or a great smartwatch?

The Moto 360 is the best-looking Android Wear watch, and one of the best-designed smartwatches. But looks don't matter in wearables half as much as function. And at that, the Moto 360 is still mired in what the rest of Android Wear's suffering through: mediocrity.

I really, really wanted to love the Moto 360. But it's not sitting on my wrist now. I've given it a rest. It's not even the battery life, or the oddly flawed not-completely-round display, that turned me off the most. It's Android Wear. Android Wear isn't good enough to make people fall in love with it. It won't make you want to run out and adopt an Android phone.

The Moto 360 was meant to be the hero for Android Wear, and Google wearables. Maybe next year. Right now, it's merely the best Android Wear watch. That might be enough for smartwatch aficionados and wearable tech geeks like myself, but it's not good enough for anyone else.

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