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Tag: android wear (page 1 of 2)

25 Miles on a Bike with the Apple Watch and RunKeeper

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Introduction

I’ve been a bit obsessed with gadgets and fitness tracking since I discovered RunKeeper on the iPhone 3G in 2008. It wouldn’t run in the background, and it murdered my battery, but I still loved tracking the stats and maps of my walks and bike rides. It was primitive, and it was messy, but I had a taste of how gadgets could encourage me to be more fit, and I wanted more.

Since then, things have grown a bit more sophisticated, though still not as much as I’d like. Other tracking services came along, but I stuck with RunKeeper but, well, it has all my data, and I have a community on there. What I didn’t love about RunKeeper is that I had to fish out my phone every time I wanted to interact with it or view my current stats.

Enter the original Pebble. I was mildly intrigued by the possibility of notifications on my wrists, but I was excited to finally have an interface for RunKeeper. I missed the original Kickstarter, but managed to grab one at Best Buy, and it was my first step into a larger world.

I’ve also tried the Moto 360, and now the Apple Watch.  In addition, I use a Fitbit One, which is great as a generic fitness tracker and social platform, but generally a bit lacking when it comes to accurately tracking bike rides, and obviously can’t work with RunKeeper at all. My holy grail fitness tracker has always been one that could replace my Fitbit and my Pebble, could accurately track my heart rate,  all while still acting as a display for RunKeeper and performing other smartwatch-y functions.

The Ride

So, today, I took my new Apple Watch on a 25 mile bike ride to find out if it is truly the Chosen One. The short answer? Not quite – but it’s really, really close, and all-but-one of the failings are on the software level, not the hardware level – so things could change.

Let’s cover the hardware failing first – the first-gen Apple Watch has no built-in GPS. For many, that could very well be a deal-breaker. If you still have to carry your phone, why bother? Personally, I like to have my phone with me, especially on bike rides, in case something goes wrong. It’s also how I listen to podcasts – shout outs to The Adventure Zone and the Android Central Podcast for keeping me company today. So, relying on my phone’s GPS is just fine for me.

Software-wise, the biggest issue is that third-party apps can’t tap into the Apple Watch’s heart rate monitor, so I have to use both RunKeeper and the built-in Workout app if I want to get heart rate information. That’s the bad news. The good news is that a double-tap of the digital crown will switch between your last two apps, so it’s really easy to jump between RunKeeper and Workout. It makes it harder to manually pause my workouts, but both apps automatically pause if I stop for a short time, so that’s not a huge deal.

The other software issue is the RunKeeper watch app itself, which is the most bare-bones version of RunKeeper I’ve ever  it. The actual during-activity display is fine, but you can’t change the type of activity you want to do from the launch screen, so you have to dig out your phone for that. It’s a dumb limitation, and one I have to imagine will be fixed sooner rather than later, but if you try and use the app today, that’s what you get.

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That’s the bad stuff.  Now let’s talk about the good stuff, which is basically: everything else. It’s by-far the best smartwatch I’ve used for working out – it combines most of my favorite aspects of the Pebble and the 360, while correcting some of the issues with both.

Vs. The Pebble

The Pebble’s RunKeeper integration and fitness tracking functionality are appropriately simple. The RunKeeper app will display your current stats, and will pause the run if you hit the side button.  This is one case where the Pebble’s always-on interface truly shines, as I can always see my information and it’s always visible regardless of lighting conditions. The Pebble itself serves as a basic pedometer, which tracks my runs well enough, but fails when it comes to bike rides.  That, combined with the lack of a heart rate monitor, means it’s a fantastic RunKeeper display, but too basic as a fitness tracker.

Vs. The Moto 360

I’ve already extensively covered my use of the Moto 360 as a fitness tracker, so I’ll focus on the differences between it and the Apple Watch.  My biggest issue with the 360’s RunKeeper integration was that, while it kept the screen always on, it was usually too dim to see without tapping on the screen, and the usual “wake the watch up” wrist gesture wouldn’t work to turn the screen on. This is likely to save battery life, but having to tap every time I wanted to view my stats wasn’t a great experience.

The Apple Watch, in comparison, just times the display out like normal, which sounds worse, but there’s one major difference – you can set the Apple Watch to display the last-used app on wrist-raise, so your fitness stats are still just a glance away. While you can turn the display off on the 360, if you raise your wrist, you’re going back to the watch face, meaning the stats you care about at least a swipe and tap or two away. Not the end of the world, but also not ideal.

The other big difference is the heart rate monitor. While the 360 will passively monitor your heart rate during a workout, which is great, the Apple Watch goes one step further by surfacing that information and taking it more frequently, so you can accurately judge your level of effort mid-workout.

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While I don’t have the equipment to judge how accurate the heart rate info is,  but others who do have vouched for its accuracy:

At the end of three workouts, both the Polar and the watch reported similar average beats per minute. That’s far more accurate than the Fitbit Charge HR and Microsoft’s Band.

The only real issue here again seems to be software-related – while Apple uses the heart rate information to calculate calorie burn, it doesn’t seem to be surfaced anywhere else. I’d love to see how my heart rate varied during a workout.

Finally, battery drain during the workout was (obviously) more substantial than it is on the Pebble, but better than the 360, even with me constantly checking my  heart rate. Over the course of the nearly-two-hour bike ride, I lost about 30%, and I could probably mitigate that by not checking my wrist as often. The only real downside is that it means I’ll likely need to charge after a morning workout if I want to make it through the rest of the day, but that’s no different than my experience with the 360.

Other bits and pieces

Some other things of note:

  • The Exercise app and RunKeeper app recorded almost the exact same distance, which is unsurprising as I imagine the Exercise app is using the phone to calculate distance.

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  • Calorie burn between the Apple Watch and RunKeeper weren’t really in sync, though strangely, my Apple Watch and FitBit were quite close. I also like that the Apple Watch differentiates between Active and Resting calories. Given that the Watch has my heart rate information, I’d imagine its calorie estimation is more accurate.

 

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  • I love that the Apple Watch differentiates between reaching your active calorie burning goal and staying active the rest of the day. The fact that the Watch expects you to stand at least once an hour definitely calls out folks like me, who are inclined to go for a morning run or ride, but then use that as an excuse to remain mostly-stationary the rest of the day. In the image below, the blue circle screams: You spent two hours on the bike, and that’s awesome, but you aren’t done yet!

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  • Apple’s Activity app on both the phone and the watch is actually pretty slick, complete with Achievements, but it’s going to be fairly limited until some social aspect is incorporated – after all, what’s the point of earning trophies if I can’t compare those trophies with my friends? I could probably stop wearing my Fitbit at this point, except for the social ecosystem I’ve built there. It’s fun to compare my days and weeks with others, and competition encourages you to get just a little more movement in.
  • I was worried about screen visibility in the sunlight, but I was able to view my stats without a problem in Arizona’s morning Asun. Some of the illusion is lost, however, as you can easily see where the screen ends and the bezel begins, which is much harder to do when you’re indoors.

Conclusion

So, 25 miles later, where does that leave us?  I was expecting trade-offs similar to what I’ve seen with the Pebble and the Moto 360, and while there are a few, they are relatively minor, and nearly all of them can be fixed with software changes. It’s easily the most capable wrist-worn fitness tracker I’ve used, and we’re only day two into it being publicly available. It’s hard to imagine where we’ll be in a year or two, with or without new hardware. This is the first smartwatch I’ve worn that legitimately convinces me I could ditch my Fitbit, and I would, if it weren’t for the social aspects of Fitbit and the tie-in with MyFitnessPal, which I use to track calorie intake. Of course, if I lose my Fitbit, I’m much less likely to replace it now than I was before.

Here’s what I’d like to see in the future:

  • I won’t even need to start the Workout app, as the Watch will figure out what I’m doing based on accelerometer activity and track accordingly.
  • The RunKeeper app would be able to access the heart rate monitor, and I could view my heart rate data on RunKeeper the same way you can if you pair a heart rate monitor to your phone.
  • My active calorie burn information would be sent to MyFitnessPal, so that my calorie goals for the day would be adjusted accordingly.

Still, all of this is software. Hardware-wise, the pieces are already there for my ideal fitness wearable, and even today, it’s more capable than most-if-all of its direct competitors. Of course, it’s also more expensive, but, well, that discussion will have to wait until a full review.

(Addendum: I’d like to thank Apple on behalf of bloggers everywhere for providing an easy way to take and sync screenshots on an Apple Watch. No more awkwardly taking photos of my wrist for these sorts of posts!)

Watch This: 4 Weeks with the Apple Watch

Today I stumbled across this video, and thought it was pretty great:

Basically: if you’ve already used a smartwatch, and aren’t already sold on the concept, then the Apple Watch doesn’t do anything new or amazing enough to win you over. Personally, as someone who loved his Moto 360, I’m pretty excited to see Apple’s take on the same ideas.

While I know smartwatches aren’t for everyone, my experience is that people tend to only realize their usefulness after having one. What the Apple Watch could do, that other smartwatches so far haven’t, is win over otherwise-skeptical customers on brand name alone. A smartwatch is more than the sum of its parts, and I think millions of people are going to try the Apple Watch and be pleasantly surprised. In a way, the Apple Watch may very well be the best thing to happen to Android Wear since Android Wear was announced.

Apple Watch Guided Tours: Dammit, I’m buying one, aren’t I?

Despite the smartwatch fatigue I experienced a month ago, I find myself getting strangely excited about Apple Watch as we get closer to release. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen Apple release an entirely new product category, and while I’d generally recommend that most people wait until the 2nd generation of any Apple product before jumping in, I find myself more and more tempted to pre-order come April 10th.

I wasn’t initially sold on the interface, but today Apple released the first few in a series of guided tours, and it looks…pretty great. Like better-than-Android Wear great, which if you recall, I actually like quite a bit. Of course, demos are one thing, and I’m hoping that, in practice, Watch OS feels less more like a complete product than Android Wear, which   to me still feels somewhat like a beta, especially since Lollipop took what I’d consider a few steps back.  I’m more and more sold on the Digital Crown as well which, along with Force Touch, seems like a pretty clever way to add functionality when your screen real estate is limited.

My initial concern with Watch OS was that it was too complicated when compared to the beautiful simplicity of Android Wear, but watching these demos, it actually seems pretty straightforward.  Swipe up for Glances, which are a lot like Android Wear cards, except thankfully more persistent. Swipe down for Notifications, just like you would on any phone. Finally, press the Digital Crown to get to your apps. I find myself starting to wonder if Android Wear simplicity is actually a detriment, but it’ll be hard to say without actually using Watch OS for awhile.

This whole thing is a reminder of how the Apple Store is the biggest advantage Apple has in the smartwatch game. I think Watch OS truly shines once you’ve had someone guide you through it, and right now, there’s really no equivalent experience for any of the available Android Wear devices. It’s going to be one hell of a month, and I can’t wait to see how most people respond to what is arguably the first mainstream smartwatch.

Google needlessly fucked up Android Wear notifications in Lollipop

Over the weekend, I decided to flash a shiny new Android 5.0.1 ROM on my HTC One, and it’s been mostly great, except for one thing – it’s changed the way I use my Moto 360 (also running Android 5.0) and not for the better.

The details on how things have been changed has been covered in greater detail by Android Central, but the tl;dr  is my standard setup of “silence the phone only get notifications on my wrist” – something you’d think would be simple – is broken, for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that Google arbitrarily decided that I want to have the same notification setting on my watch as I do on my phone. But…why? Aren’t there completely reasonable situations where I’d want my phone muted but still get notifications on my watch, or vice-versa?  Apparently not in Google’s eyes.

The second reason is that Google also arbitrarily decided to replace “Silent” mode (a standard feature on phones for who-knows-how-long) with “Priority” mode, which is great in theory but frustrating in practice. This effectively silences all notifications except the ones I specifically allow through, which would be great if it wasn’t also putting my watch in priority mode.

The key to this seems to be the “Mute Connected Phone” feature option in the Android Wear, which unfortunately at this point seems to only work when it wants to, which, as far as I can tell, is entirely random.

Muted by Android Wear! You know, maybe. We'll see. Honesty, probably not.

Muted by Android Wear! You know, maybe. We’ll see. Honesty, probably not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing quite like seeing my phone claim it’s muted by Android Wear, only to then vibrate or make a sound. Nailed it, Google.

I realize my complaints are pretty specific, but I imagine the use-case I describe for Android Wear is actually a pretty common setup, if not the most common. Why would I ever need my phone to make a sound or vibrate if I have a connected watch?  Sure, give me the option if I really want it, but muting the connected device should be the default, not something that, as of this writing, doesn’t even work. 

Also, I’m not sure if it’s a related bug or not, but sometimes my watch decides it doesn’t want to buzz anymore, which, well, is a pretty frustrating flaw in a device whose primary purpose is to notify me of things.

I love many of the things that Google does, but find myself constantly baffled by why they feel the need to change things that aren’t broken.  You know what worked fine?  The Sound/Vibrate/Silent modes that have existed in Android for years, and separate notification settings for my watch and my phone.  Sure, add a Do Not Disturb option if you want to, but that should be an additional feature, not something that replaces what everyone has already gotten used to.

In the past week, my phone and my watch have both been “updated”, yet I feel like my personal workflow has taken a step back, not a step forward.  Get your shit together, Google.

Not quite Fit for consumption: Google Fit impressions

When I shared my experiences with the Moto 360 and RunKeeper, my biggest frustration was that the valuable fitness data that was being collected by the device wasn’t actually going anywhere, and instead lived only on the device itself in the form of a card that gave me my daily step totals, and a notification that I’d hit my daily heart rate goal.   At the time, I figured Google Fit was the solution to this data-siloing.  Fortunately, it appears I was correct – Google Fit can, in fact, download data from my Moto 360.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to do much else of value.

So what is Google Fit?  That’s…actually a frustratingly difficult question to answer. Ideally, it’s supposed to be a silo for all your fitness data – so the data gathered by my Moto 360 and RunKeeper could live in the same place as data gathered by my FitBit and Withings scale, all of that coming together in a glorious data-gasm that would, in theory, paint a fairly accurate picture of my personal activity.  Looking at their announcement, they claim:

You can also connect your favorite fitness devices and apps like Strava, Withings, Runtastic, Runkeeper and Noom Coach to Google Fit and we’ll surface all of the relevant data in one spot, giving you a clear and complete view of your fitness. No need to check one app to see your weight and another to review a run – with Google Fit, that data will all be surfaced in one, simple place.

Great, awesome, let’s do this thing.  What services are currently available?

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Oh, good, a list of Fit-friendly apps.  Let me just click on that link, and…

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…what the fuck?  When I first saw this, I ignored it as launch day hiccup, but as I sit writing this two days later, all I can think is…what the fuck?  I imagine no Google Fit-compatible apps are available just yet, but there’s still no reason to link to a dead page.  That shit is amateur hour.

So, unfortunately, at this point, all Google Fit really seems to do is gather data from my 360 and sync it to the web.  Poorly.

So close, but so far.  Wait, not close at all.

Yesterday: So close, but so far. Wait, nope, not close at all.

Today: Better, but still pretty terrible.

Today: Better, but still pretty terrible for a modern web service.

Perhaps I’m coming across as overly harsh here, but it’s important to remember that this isn’t a start-up company with their first fitness product, this is Google, and web services are kind of their whole thing.  There’s absolutely no reason for my phone app and the website to be so outrageously out of sync.

The good news: my Nexus 5 and Moto 360 get along great.  The Steps card has been replaced with more health info, as seen here:

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Nothing to complain about here, and as I’ve mentioned before, I continue to be impressed by the fact that the Moto 360 (and thus Google Fit) can track bike rides and runs, something my FitBit can only do if I wear it at the bottom of my bike shorts, near the knee.  I believe it’s forward-motion based, however, which means it doesn’t work on my stationary bike, and I’ve heard reports of people driving incredibly slow in traffic and having Google Fit log that as cycling minutes. Whoops.

Unfortunately, that’s about where the positive section ends.  I mentioned running and bike rides…and those are two of the three activities Google Fit can track, the third being walking.  That’s it – even if you add an activity manually:

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Yup, that’s all anyone ever does! No other type of workout is possible.

It probably goes without saying at this point, but by-far the biggest problem with Google Fit is that it just doesn’t do anything of value.  It asks for my height and weight, but doesn’t give me any sort of calorie burn.  It lets me manually enter activities, but I better hope I didn’t go hiking or swimming.  I can view charts, but those charts provide me very little of value:

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What value does that data have?  Why does this chart even exist?

Compare it to the charts I get from FitBit’s website:

Holy shit! Useful data!

Holy shit! Useful data! Literally every one of these is more useful than what Google Fit tried to stuff into their single graph.

The only thing I can think of is that this was rushed out the door to go along with the Android 5.0 release, but there’s still no excuse for such a low-quality, barebones product from a company like Google.  The fact that none of the partner apps are even ready just underscores the lack of care and polish in this release.

It’s not that Google hasn’t stumbled before, but usually they at least bring something new and exciting to the table.  Android Wear is still basically beta software, but it also does things other wearable software doesn’t, and it has so much potential.  Meanwhile, Google Fit, at least inn its current form, seems to exist just for the sake of existing, and that’s not enough in a world with Apple HealthKit and, more recently, Microsoft Health.  Health, in particular, seems to basically be everything Google Fit should be, but somehow isn’t:

Microsoft Health is a cloud-based service that helps you live healthier by providing actionable insights based on data gathered from the fitness devices and apps that you use every day. Activity-tracking devices like the new Microsoft Band, smart watches, and mobile phones plus services like RunKeeper or MyFitnessPal connect easily to Microsoft Health. Using this fitness data and our Intelligence Engine in the cloud, Microsoft Health provides valuable, personal insights so you can reach your fitness goals.

Microsoft Health is designed to work with you, no matter what phone you have, device you wear, or service you use. The power of the cloud platform lies in its ability to combine the data from all the devices and services you use to give you a more holistic and insightful picture of your fitness.

Google Fit’s only real use for me is that it interfaces with Android Wear, and now, it looks like Microsoft Health might do that, too.  There’s absolutely no reason that Google Fit couldn’t have been this, but Microsoft has beaten them to the punch in a dramatic way.

know Google can do better than this, and that’s perhaps why this frustrates me so much.  It’s not that they did their best, strived for something new and exciting, and then failed – that, at least, would have been an admirable failure.  Instead, Google has done something I’ve never seen them do – release a product with almost no potential value to my life, and while I acknowledge that it will almost certainly get better in the next year, as they add more functionality and more partner apps come onboard, that’s no excuse for releasing it in the state it’s in today.

Google Fit is now available!

When I wrote about my experiences with the Moto 360 and RunKeeper, one of the major downsides is that the data collected by the watch was stuck in the watch itself and unavailable on the phone.

Today, that’s changed with the official release of Google Fit.  Stay tuned in the coming days for more on how well the Moto 360 cooperates with Google Fit.  Thus far, I’ve found that it didn’t bring in the hour-long run I did this morning, so I’m essentially starting from scratch, which is unfortunate, but hopefully it’s just a one-time hiccup.

More to come soon!

Goodbye Any.Do, Hello Wunderlist

I’ve been a happy user of Any.Do for a couple of years now – I use it every day in an attempt to at least pretend my life is somewhat organized.  One of my favorite aspects of it is that I can tie into the “note to self” command in Google Now and generate to-do items that way. In fact, it’s quickly become the most common way I add items to it.

Last week, The Verge did a “This Is My Next” on to-do apps and came to the conclusion that Wunderlist was the best.  I tried Wunderlist years ago during my initial search, but wasn’t impressed, and eventually ended up settling on Any.Do.

So why was I looking at switching in the first place?  Well, primarily because Any.Do doesn’t support “note to self” functionality on Android Wear.  This may sound trivial, but considering how much I’m using voice commands recently, I find it’s a pretty glaring omission.  Even worse, it appears as though Any.Do has no interest in adding Android Wear support any time soon:

A little bit of research (read: Google searches) quickly revealed that Wunderlist did support Android Wear, and as a bonus, even had a native OS X app. After using it as my only to-to do app for the last week, I’m definitely matching the switch.  Not only does it have the Android Wear support I wanted, but Wunderlist’s style of list organization seems to better match the way I want things organized – Any.Do’s choices of “Today”, “Tomorrow”, “Upcoming” and “Someday” weren’t quite cutting it, especially when I knew I wanted to do something later in the week on a specific day. As a bonus, its DashClock extension is a bit better, as it shows my total count for the day as well as multiple items, rather than just the single item of the Any.Do extension:

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Really, though, my choice comes down almost entirely to the Android Wear support. Many ideas often come to me only when I’m biking or running, and if I don’t immediately write them down in some way, they’re forgotten.  With Wunderlist, a quick “note to self” voice command ensures that the idea is safely tucked away in Wunderlist’s Inbox, ready to be assigned a due date and specific sub-list if needed.

Ideally, in the future, Wunderlist will have a full-fledged Android Wear app similar to the Google Keep app I use as a hands-free shopping list:

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For now, though, I’m thrilled that the functionality I’ve been looking for since I picked up the Moto 360 is available – it’s just a bonus that Wunderlist’s style of organization seems to better match my own than Any.Do’s did.

I still think Any.Do is a great service, and I’d still recommend it – but it’s no longer my first choice.  This just goes to show how there’s multiple “great services” in almost every mobile app category, and that even the smallest feature can be a differentiator for some people.

Wearables and voice commands are like peanut butter and chocolate

Ever since Google added “OK Google Everywhere“, I am constantly barking orders at my Nexus 5.  This rarely happens in public, but when I’m at home, my phone is generally resting on a Qi charger near the couch, or a Qi charger near my bed, so it’s always listening, even when the screen is off.  Some of my most common tasks are checking the weather, creating calendar events, creating to-do items, setting reminders, and sending text messages – all of which can be done through voice commands.  It’s not just become the lazy way of doing something, but often it’s actually the most efficient way –  Google’s voice recognition software has become good enough that I rarely have to correct it.

However, until I had an Android Wear watch, my use of voice commands in public was basically non-existent.  Now that I’ve had one for almost two weeks, I continue to be surprised by is just how comfortable I’m becoming whispering short commands to my wrist – I’m even reaching the point where there are times I’d rather dictate a quick text message through voice than on my phone’s keyboard.  I thought it would look silly and obvious, but for the most part, people aren’t even noticing when I do it.  It’s certainly more subtle than the act of taking my phone out of my pocket every time I want to perform even a trivial task.  Even when people do notice, it somehow feels less rude than taking out my phone, since they can tell what I’m doing – no, I’m not ignoring you to text my friend, I’m writing down what you said so I remember to look it up later.  It’s also proven to be invaluable when it comes to remembering things that only come to me on a bike ride or a run – ideas or tasks that, in the past, would have likely been forgotten by the time I got home.

Of course, there are still large functionality gaps – common tasks that I still can’t do through voice commands.  I can’t change my Nest’s temperature.  I can’t arm or disarm the alarm system in my house. I can’t start a particular podcast.  I can’t start a Hangout or Facebook Messenger conversation, only an SMS conversation.  Some of this will come if and when Google opens up voice commands to third-parties, the rest will come as Google Now becomes more and more aware of context – both in regard to where I am and what I’m doing, as well as the last few commands I’ve given it.

We are tantalizing close to being able to do almost anything with our voice, though – and as we get closer and closer, I think wearables are going to be come more and more important.  I don’t necessarily want microphones and speakers all over my house, but that becomes entirely unnecessary when I have a microphone strapped to my wrist. Android Wear still has a lot of kinks to work out, especially in the voice command area, but the foundation continues to be incredibly solid, and when it does work flawlessly, it feels like I’m in the future.

Moto 360 Review

“I think smartwatches are dumb.”

Well, I understand why you might feel that way, but I disagree.  I think smartwatches are the kind of thing you only understand after you’ve used one because, unlike with smartphones, there’s no single phrase you can say that sells people on a smartwatch.

Smartphone: “You have the internet in your pocket.”  Boom, done. Here’s all my money. Society is changed forever.

Smartwatches?

  • “You can have notifications on your wrist.”  Okay, great. I don’t care.
  • “It’s also a fitness tracker.” I own a fitness tracker already/my phone does that/I’m lazy and don’t care to be less lazy.
  • “I can issue voice commands and respond to text messages and IMs with my voice.” Okay, that’s kind-of cool, but not life-changing, internet-in-your-pocket cool.

Smartwatches are difficult to sell people on because they are more than the sum of their parts.  It’s not just that you can see and respond to notifications on your wrist, or navigate without taking your phone out, or set a quick reminder, or take a quick note, or monitor your current run or bike ride.  It’s all of those things and how moment by moment, they make your life a bit better in small ways – ways you don’t notice until you stop wearing a smartwatch and suddenly feel a bit crippled.

I think even Apple, with all of their marketing prowess, is going to have their hands full convincing people they need one at first.  This might be why we’ve seen them take the uncharacteristic “put every feature in here and see what sticks” approach to the Apple Watch – it’s quite possible they’re just hoping something will click with the average consumer and become a reason to spend $350+, whether it’s tapping messages to neighbors or staring at tiny family photos on your wrist, or something we haven’t actually seen yet.  Apple’s secret weapon may end-up being peer pressure; if enough people buy into the concept of the Apple Watch, then suddenly a large chunk of your social circle could be communicating in a unique way that doesn’t include you.  It’s like the iMessage effect, except with even more hardware buy-in required to participate.  Of course, that depends on enough people buying into the Apple Watch concept out of the gate, which I think is still a big question mark.

 

Well, that was a lot of rambling…but I still think smartwatches are dumb.

That’s fine.  I don’t think smartwatches are for everyone, but I think the people who love them will really love them.  If smartphones are our surrogate brains, then I’ll gladly use a device that helps make that surrogate brain a bit more useful and efficient.

 

Okay, let’s say I want a smartwatch – should I buy a Moto 360?

No, probably not.

 

Wait, what?  Why not?

I don’t think most people should buy any smartwatch at this point, because as much as I love the concept, the implementation still isn’t particularly mass-market friendly.  The 360 also has its own unique quirks that make it even less mass-market friendly.

 

So are you going to return yours?

Oh, no no no.  Dear God, no. I really like this thing.

 

That makes no sense.

I’m completely sold on smartwatches, and I can’t imagine going back to my Pebble now.  Also, the 360 has a couple of features that no other existing-or-announced Android Wear device has that I think are so vital to the experience that I won’t buy any other smartwatch without them.

 

What features?  You mean the round display?

No, not exactly.  The LG G Watch R also has a round display, and looks pretty nice.  I still think the 360 looks better, but obviously that will vary greatly from person to person.  I’m talking about the ambient light sensor, and wireless charging.

The ambient light sensor seems like the sort of feature that every smart-device should have by default, but somehow, the only other Android Wear watch announced that has one is the Sony Smartwatch 3.  Call me high-maintenance, but the instant I have to dig into the brightness settings of my watch just because I had the gall to step outdoors, I am out.  The Arizona sun is way too bright to even consider owning a watch that can’t adapt to it. The best thing I can say about the 360’s brightness is that I’ve never had to think about it.

As with phones, I’ve found it hard to break away from wireless charging now that I’ve grown accustomed to it.  I have Qi chargers at work, at home, and in the car, and now I have a phone, tablet, and watch that can charge on any of them.  It’s the sort of convenience that’s pretty hard to give up, especially with a wearable that has to be charged every night.  As a bonus, the 360 looks pretty damn good, even when it’s charging:

2014-09-17 18.00.53

Wait, I have to charge this thing every night?

Yup.  Sorry about that.  Battery life isn’t quite as bad as initially reported (pro-tip: don’t trust what a reviewer tells you about a device’s battery life unless they’ve used it for at least a week), but it’s…still kind-of bad.  I thought, at first, that it was unacceptably bad, but after a couple of days of settling in, it’s reached levels that I consider acceptable to me.  Barely.  I worry for how its battery capacity will fare going forward, given that batteries tend to lose a chunk of their capacity over time, but then, such are the risks of being an early adopter.

My rule going into this was simple: if I only had to charge the 360’s battery at times when the watch would naturally be off my wrist anyway, then I could live with the battery life.  Those times are:

  1. When I’m sleeping.
  2. When I get home from work.

Fortunately, #2 has proven to be unnecessary, though I still generally take my watch off when I’m at home, especially if I’m going to be using the computer.  The good news is that this thing charges crazy fast compared to something like a phone – expect close to 2% every minute or so – so if you’re expecting a late night, you can toss in on the charger for 20-30 minutes and be good to go.

There are, of course, going to be times when it will probably die on my wrist – if I go out for a late night without stopping by my house, for example.  I consider those edge cases, though, and honestly, my phone will probably die before my watch either way –  using a Nexus 5 means learning to tolerate kind-of crappy battery life.  At first, I was annoyed at having another device whose battery life I was constantly aware of, but after a few days, I started treating it like my Pebble – ignoring battery life and just letting it be – and it’s been fine.

Inevitably, there will be many who consider this unacceptable, especially considering this is in the default mode, meaning the watch face only lights up when you manually activate it with a wrist motion or a tap, or when a notification comes in.  If you want to have an “always on” watch face similar to the Pebble, or even the Gear Live or the LG G Watch…you won’t make it through the day.  Period.

For me, it works – I accept the sub-par battery life, because it gives me three things no other smartwatch currently does: an ambient light sensor, wireless charging, and a fantastic design I’m not embarrassed to be seen in public with.

 

Is the design really that good?

Obviously, that’s up to you. Personally, I think it’s gorgeous – to me, it’s the first proof that a smartwatch can look great, and a reminder that wearables are going to be as much about form as they are function.  The Pebble may offer 5-6 times the battery life of the 360, and most of the features, but seriously, look at these two and tell me which one you would rather wear:

2014-09-17 17.59.21

Of course, like all other smartwatches, it’s also big.  If you don’t want a big watch, this isn’t the watch for you.

 

How’s that display? What about that ugly black bar at the bottom?

The IPS display doesn’t quite reach the insane pixel density of modern smartphones, or even modern laptops and tablets, so you will definitely notice pixels if you look for them.  Of course it’s a huge upgrade from my Pebble, and it’s great in other ways – most notable its viewing angles and outdoor visibility.  Also, some notifications – especially full-screen album art – are gorgeous on it.  Pictures don’t really do them justice, but I tried anyway.

2014-09-17 20.08.44 2014-09-17 20.09.16 2014-09-17 20.09.42

As for the black bar, I barely notice it, and even when I notice it, I don’t care. If the choice is between a tiny bezel and a black bar, or a big bezel and no black bar, I’ll take the tiny bezel every time.

 

How about that ancient processor?

If you haven’t heard, the Moto 360 runs a processor from 2010 – the TI OMAP3630, which was used in the Droid X and the MotoACTV.  Why?  I don’t know, but if I had to guess, it was to cut costs – Motorola probably still has plenty of those lying around, and Android Wear runs good enough on them that they figured they may as well use them.  If that was what it took to get the cost down to $250…I think they made the right choice, as I don’t think I’d spend much more on a smartwatch at this point.

That said, the difference between it and the Snapdragon 400 that other Android Wear watches have is noticeable, if only just.  If having the latest and the greatest processor is important to you, then it’s quite possible the 360 isn’t for you.  Personally, when it comes to wearables, I’m not interested in staring at the spec sheet, and I’ll choose the lifestyle benefits of a light sensor and wireless charging over a more modern processor any day of the week – even if it means the occasional hitch and stutter, and overall poorer battery life.

That isn’t to say I don’t dream of a Moto 360 running a better processor – I just don’t get too hung up over it.

 

Anything else about the hardware?

The vibration motor is pretty weak if you’re used to a Pebble; I think I prefer it to the over-enthusiastic Pebble, but if you’re used to the Pebble, it’s worth noting, and you may miss the occasional buzz here and there.  Every now and then, the device will ignore my first attempt to wake it, whether it’s through motion or a direct tap on the screen.  Not sure if that’s a hardware or software thing, though.  I’ve occasionally had it disconnect from my Nexus 5, but not any more frequently than my Pebble seemed to.  Like any touchscreen, the Moto 360’s screen will inevitably end up covered in fingerprints – which is an unfortunate state for something you’re always looking at – but I’ll take temporary fingerprints to my Pebble’s infinitely-scratched screen any day of the week.  The leather strap it comes with is fine, but I look forward to replacing it with a metal strap at some point.

 

That’s a lot about hardware.  What about software?

It’s running Android Wear, which I haven’t talked about before because I haven’t had all that much experience with.  Think of it as Google Now on your wrist, plus notifications, and you have a large idea of what it can (and can’t) do.  I’ve often heard it called a 1.0 product, and it’s hard to disagree.  When it works, especially on a device like the Moto 360, it feels like the future.  When it doesn’t, it can be an exercise in frustration and failure.

Dictation from my watch is as great as I was hoping for, with one major exception – unlike Google Now in Android, it doesn’t display the dictation as you’re speaking.   Often I find myself talking to the watch and hoping it hears me right.  It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s a noticeable step back if you’re used to Android’s dictation.  The good news is that the microphone on the 360 is pretty sensitive, so I can whisper commands to it and it registers them perfectly, which is great for setting a quick reminder or saving a quick note.  This is a lot quicker, and more subtle, than taking my phone out for the same action.

Other frustrating quirks: you can start a text message directly with your voice, but not a Hangout message.  Dumb.  Media controls could use some rethinking, as right now you can only play/pause music if the media is already playing on your phone and active in the notification shade.  Considering how easy it is to dismiss notifications on accident, a notification history area would be nice.  Finding and launching an app without using voice commands is a pain, as it’s hidden away behind a couple of menus.  Android Wear inherits some of Google Now’s more annoying quirks, too.  Accidentally swipe away that weather card? Well, it’ll come back.  Eventually.  Probably.

While Android Wear still suffers from a frustrating lack of officially-supported custom watch faces, Motorola has a pretty solid selection.  My personal favorite is Classic, which displays the current day of the month, and subtly shades areas of the watch to indicate when I have calendar appointments.  There’s also a red “countdown” ticker in the upper left that counts down from ten to one when I have an upcoming appointment.  In the following photo, the day of the month is the 17th, I have an event starting in eight minutes, as well as calendar entries from 8:20-10 and 11-12.

2014-09-17 20.14.11

This is a remarkable amount of useful information provided in a subtle package, and shows how even smartwatch without notifications can be useful.  I can’t wait to see what people do with full-fledged custom watch faces – I already have some ideas of my own.

 

How does it compare to Pebble’s software?

Let’s make one thing clear: even in this early stage, I think Android Wear is leaps and bounds over what the Pebble offers.  The Pebble isn’t bad, it’s just basic, and I think there are some aspects of Android Wear you won’t appreciate until you’ve used a Pebble.  For example, clearing a notification on my wrist clears it on my phone, which is awesome, as having to manage notifications in two places degrades a lot of what makes notification triage useful.

More importantly, Android Wear treats Android notifications more intelligently than Pebble.  With Pebble, you have two options – you either get the small subset of notifications that Pebble supports natively, like e-mails and text messages, or you install a third-party apps that sends everything to your wrist until you tell it otherwise.  This is especially annoying the first time you upload a photo to Facebook and your wrist decides to buzz every time the notification is updated with a new percentage.  Sure, you can manually ignore certain types of notifications, depending on the functionality of the third-party app, but that only solves some problems.  For example, Pebble will send you every Google Now weather update as a new “notification”, even if it’s just the weather card being updated.  You can disable Google Now, but then you’ll get miss other notifications from the app, like reminders. Android Wear is just naturally more intelligent in that regard – I rarely find myself wondering “Why is it sending me this?”

It’s also a small thing, but muting the watch to prevent notifications is much simpler on Android Wear – just swipe down from the top.  I find myself using this frequently for meetings or lunches.  This stands in stark contrast to the Pebble, where you have to dig through a couple of menus to find the right toggle.  It was enough of a hassle that I never bothered to do it unless I was really sick of notifications.

In general, I find myself more tolerant of notifications on the Moto 360 than the Pebble.  Maybe it’s just that “new device afterglow”, but I think it’s also the fact the vibration isn’t nearly as strong, combined with the fact I can delete and archive e-mails, reply to messages, and dismiss notifications directly from the watch.  This make me feel like I’m being productive, rather than just being informed of things that I’ll have to be productive about later.

 

What about that Apple Watch?

Comparing it in any meaningful way to the software on the Apple Watch would be silly, as I haven’t tried it and neither have many others.  I will say that, when comparing Google and Apple’s approach to watch software, I prefer Google’s.  We now live in a bizarro-world where Apple’s approach and UI appears unfocused and busy, while Google’s approach and UI is focused and minimalistic. I honestly think there’s way too much going on in the Apple Watch UI – I’d rather swipe and tap giant buttons then try to aim for tiny touch buttons and constantly miss.  In my mind, a smartwatch is for things that either take 10-15 seconds at most, or for constant information I don’t want to drag my phone out for (pace/distance while running, directions while navigating). If I’m digging around a smartwatch interface for longer than a minute, something’s gone wrong.

 

How is it for fitness?

I’ve already written a great deal about the Moto 360 as a fitness device, but the tl;dr is that the 360 is surprisingly great at collecting step and heart rate data, it just needs to send it somewhere. Hopefully that “somewhere” is Google Fit, coming in the Android L release.

 

So…where does that leave things?

My general rule for recommending something without hesitation is that it needs to blend in seamlessly with your life; technology should enhance your life with as little conscious thought as possible.  The Moto 360, and Android Wear, aren’t quite there yet.

That’s not to say there isn’t an audience for this device – if you own an Android phone, really want a smartwatch, and can tolerate the less-than-ideal battery life, this is the one to get.  Period.  Just understand that you are essentially helping Google beta test Android Wear, albeit in a pretty fantastic chassis. I’m never one to count on a software update to fix problems – hardware is purchased as-is and any updates are just a bonus – but I think we can be pretty certain that Android Wear is going to get a whole lot better in the next 6-12 months.  If these updates come with better battery life and performance, all the better – but don’t buy the watch expecting that to be the case.

In the tech world there’s never any harm in waiting, and that goes double for smartwatches.  This market is just getting started, and I think what we see in the next couple of years will blow away what we’re seeing today, the same way innovation in the smartphone market exploded after the original iPhone.

I said in my Pebble review that my ideal smartwatch would be a Pebble, plus a microphone, plus a FitBit – and the Moto 360 is basically that, with a few unfortunate hardware and software quirks thrown in the mix.  If you can’t wait, go for it – I don’t think you’ll regret it, and this is absolutely the smartwatch to buy if you have an Android phone and dig the design as much as I do. Just go in knowing its limitations, and with the knowledge that the second or third generation of these devices is going to be killer.

 

The Moto 360 and Fitness – Finale

I’ve already covered the Moto 360’s fitness tracking and RunKeeper integration in two previous posts, so I thought I’d finish up with  my notes on how the 360 performed over the weekend and some final thoughts:

  • Day 3: Outdoor run with RunKeeper running on my phone, but not actively using the Android Wear app, so the screen would turn off unless I explicitly turned it on.  Harder to get to my current stats that way, but better battery life, in-theory.  My findings:
    • I was able to start the run without even looking at my phone, just by saying “OK Google, start a run”.  Pretty great.
    • I had somewhat better battery life – down to 75% when I got home.  Lower than I expected, but not terrible.  Probably would’ve been closer to 80% if I hadn’t fiddled with it so much during the first half of the run.  So, I’d guess 4-5 hours on a run/ride if the screen is off and you only bring up the RunKeeper stats on-demand.
    • Discovered I can bring up the RunKeeper stats without any hand controls.  Lift watch to wake, say “OK Google, start RunKeeper”, see stats.  Still need a hand control to manually shut screen off, though.
  • Day 4: No RunKeeper, stationary bike indoors
    • No step tracking (expected) or heart rate info (strange and disappointing).  Hopefully the lack of heart rate info was just a fluke.
  • Day 5: No RunKeeper, treadmill indoors
    • Step tracking and heart rate info functioned as-expected
    • Battery dropped 6-7% during a one-hour run.  I’m beginning to suspect any accelerometer use, like walking/running/cycling, drains the 360’s battery a bit faster than being completely idle.  Still far better drain than seen during outdoor runs with RunKeeper, likely due to the lowered brightness of the screen indoors.

Overall, I’d say I’m more impressed with the Moto 360 as a fitness tracker than I expected to be.  I thought the pedometer and heart rate sensor would be nothing but gimmicks, but they seem to function quite well.  I’m especially impressed that the pedometer on the watch tracked my outdoor bike ride.  RunKeeper integration is about what I expected, especially coming from a Pebble, but I think the battery trade-off is worth it for the manual run controls available in Android Wear. I might still dig out my Pebble for, say, a half-marathon, but for my morning workouts, it’s more-than adequate. If RunKeeper can eventually tie into the data from the heart rate sensor, that’d be even better.

Is it enough to leave my FitBit at home?  Well…almost.  It’s so damn close it’s actually a little painful.  If the data from my watch could be made available to other services, like MyFitnessPal, then I’d say yes, definitely.  In fact, when my FitBit dies (or, more likely, I lose it), I may not bother to replace it, at least as long as I have the 360.  For now, though, there’s simply too much value in FitBit’s data ecosystem to give it up. A fitness device where the data can’t be shared is pretty useless to me, unfortunately.

As with the 360 itself, I have a ton of hope for the near future.  Android L should bring Google Fit, which should tie into Android Wear and give me a lot more to do with the data my 360 is already gathering.

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