23 Jul 19
Considering that Wear OS — formally Android Wear — is now five years old, the platform still hasn’t realized it’s undoubted potential. The hardware is certainly not lacking but the cohesion and overall integration are where we see the Apple Watch simply devour every Wear OS option out there.
Samsung and Huawei are two of the biggest players in Android smartwatches, and even they don’t appear to have faith in Wear OS. It’s why they have opted for their own smartwatch OSes — Tizen and LiteOS respectively. And in all honesty, it most definitely makes a difference too.
In my experience, the Samsung Galaxy Watch platform is arguably the best option for Android owners that want a true extension of their phone — which is just really disappointing. That doesn’t mean that Wear OS is bad, because in many regards that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s just that Wear OS at this point in time feels a little neglected, a little forgotten, and a little bit behind the curve. But Google can help change all of that.
Five years on since the launch of Android Wear, let’s look at Wear OS in 2019 and where we think it needs to be.
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The strong suit of Wear OS
I am not a fan of the boxy design of the Apple Watch. I will admit that objectively it is a pretty good looking smartwatch though. For me, I feel the design is a core area that Wear OS (even in 2019) has the upper hand over competing platforms. The actual hardware and design options and alternatives are so varied that you can choose a watch that truly suits you and your own style and comfort preferences.
You can see this variation with each smartwatch made by Fossil. They offer an array of options for watch-lovers to choose from, all with essentially the same core experience. And if you didn’t already know, Fossil makes Wear OS smartwatches for Emporio Armani, Michael Kors, Skagen, Marc Jacobs, Diesel, and a few others to boot.
This gives you a ton of various, fashion-focused Wear OS-powered smartwatches to choose from. This is most definitely one of the strong suits of Wear OS. It also extends to the pricing. There are a number of cheaper designed smartwatches that give you further opportunities to get integrated into Wear OS.
You simply don’t get that anywhere else. While the Apple Watch is still arguably the pinnacle of smartwatches, it doesn’t play nicely with Android and the latest model costs almost as much as the OnePlus 6T. With Wear OS you can spend $100 and get a working smartwatch that has all the same internals as a $300 smartwatch — most of the difference will be in the craftsmanship rather than the performance.
No real direction, no real leader
Ok, so before I start essentially laying in to Wear OS, I need to preface this by saying that I do actually like the platform. I have several Wear OS watches — my favorite being the Mobvoi TicWatch C2 — which I wear very regularly.
And at the risk of being labeled a hypocrite, I’ll say that while I do really like stock Android, my watch doesn’t necessarily need to be so ‘stock’ per se. It’s partially the reason I enjoyed what little time I was able to get with the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active and even the stripped back LiteOS-powered Huawei Watch GT. Variation based upon form factor is simply great for a watch.
Minor software tweaks that benefit the aesthetic are more than welcome in my opinion. To me, the lack of variation is definitely most apparent when you switch from one Wear OS watch to another. You change form factor but end up with more or less the same software experience. There is just no incentive for smartwatch OEMs to really change it up from device to device at the moment — mainly as we only have two real players in Mobvoi and Fossil.
I’m sure that most people love that, my issue is that there is nothing that differentiates the Wear OS watches (bar the design) and you end up with all of them feeling stale as a result. We could see a little more experimentation without massively forking the OS, something akin to OxygenOS but for smartwatches — that is the dream.
The new Tiles for Wear OS feature has helped improve the overall experience and speed of the software but it still isn’t available across the board just yet. It’s the only major risk by giving OEMs more control over the OS. Already slow software updates seem to slow ever further once that control and onus is handed over to OEMs — as we’ve seen with Android in general. I wish I had a solution for this but alas, I don’t.
It’s partially the reason that I think we should really see a Google Pixel watch come to fruition. A Pixel watch would offer the so-called ‘vanilla’ experience. This would give the OEMs a little more freedom to tinker and truly differentiate themselves from each other more than they are able to do at present.
At the moment it feels like the only real differentiation with Wear OS is in the watch faces and often a solitary custom watch face creator app based upon the watch brand. I get that for some people, that is probably enough. To me though, it just feels as though the entire space is stagnant.
Always wanting a little more
The internals are often pointed toward when people suggest that ‘X’ Wear OS smartwatch will finally be the one “we’ve been waiting for.” Honestly, it’s time we let go of that sentiment.
The Snapdragon Wear 3100 was supposed to be the chipset to finally bring Wear OS up to speed. It just hasn’t quite panned out that way. We just do not have a reliable SoC that is properly long-lasting and gives adequate, reliable performance. We’re still seeing the same ancient CPUs churned out and end up with no real performance gains. It affects battery life and therefore makes the platform feel almost doomed from the moment any new hardware gets announced.
RAM too happens to be the crux of Wear OS smartwatches, as proven with the recent release Mobvoi TicWatch Pro 4G. The increase in RAM from 512MB to 1GB makes a massive difference in just how smooth overall performance is on the watch. The Snapdragon Wear 2100 chipset is still present, but the boost to 1GB of RAM makes all the difference in general performance and snappiness. This highlights the importance of an improved Wear OS, so that it can take advantage of the current and future hardware limitations.
It’s not just the SoC that is an issue. I will admit that while most of the touchscreen displays on Wear OS smartwatches have improved drastically, they still aren’t where they could be. One look at the Galaxy Watch Active display versus the TicWatch Pro and you’d be surprised that both watches actually cost almost the same brand new.
The bottom line
Wear OS needs a big player
Research has shown that Wear OS’ market share is shrinking, even falling below 10% total market share at the start of 2019. Samsung alone has a total market share of over 11%. That to me indicates that Wear OS at present and in its current incarnation just isn’t working for most people out there.
If Google does decide it is time for Pixel Watch, you would think that now is the perfect time to release its vision of the perfect smartwatch. We need a big player to enter the arena and potentially shake up the rest of the industry and lead from the front — and who better to do that, than the company behind Wear OS.
With new chipsets on the horizon, the hope is that we could finally get the SoC that the Wear OS so desperately needs — although with that said, we don’t expect that to happen in 2019. The major problem with everything I’ve said so far though is that as we all know too well, with Wear OS it’s the hope that kills you.
Let’s hear your own thoughts on the successes and failures of Wear OS at this stage in 2019. Will we ever have a platform that rivals the Apple Watch or are we doomed to repeat ourselves over and over with each iteration until Google ultimately pulls the plug? Let us know in the comments section below.
More on Wear OS:
Wear OS app adds handy ‘Tiles’ manager w/ server-side update
Comment: Wear OS updates are a painfully fragmented mess
Mobvoi Ticwatch E2 Review: Wear OS gets a new best low-cost option with a few compromises [Video]