A Look at What's New in Android Wear 2.0

A Keyboard, Revamped Notifications and More Equal a Better Smartwatch Platform

A Look at What's New in Android Wear 2.0

Google recently hosted its annual developer convention (Google I/O), and one of the biggest pieces of news to come out of the event was a major overhaul of its wearable platform, Android Wear. Keep on reading for a look at what new features to expect, along with information on when the updated platform will become available.

The Timeline

Most users won't be able to get their hands on the new features mentioned below until this fall. That said, Google has already released a Developer Preview, so developers can get an early glimpse of the API and preview the new features with a compatible Android Wear device. However, for most users — either current Android Wear device owners or those on the market for one — reading up on the new features will likely be a more practical option.

The Biggest Changes

We'll run through the updates one by one below, but first, let's talk a more general look at what Android 2.0 has in store. On the most superficial level, things will look different, with a new style for the interface and a darker color palette. The change in color palette isn't simply aesthetic, either; the wearable platform will now feature loosely color-coded notifications that help you quickly see which app any given pop-up notification is tied to. Plus, notifications will now slide up and out of view, so they don't obscure the watch face as much as previously. Finally, Android Wear will add a keyboard along with smart replies to messages and handwriting recognition — all to help you communicate quickly and relatively easily.

So, the biggest news is that Android Wear has been redesigned to present notifications with more context and to make communicating and responding to messages easier. Now that we have the big picture, let's dive into the specifics.

A Rundown of the Updates

1. A New Interface — As mentioned above, one of the biggest changes to Android Wear will be the look and feel. And while user interface overhauls are often done solely for the sake of aesthetics, in this case, the new design will affect how you interact with your smartwatch. For example, rather than taking up most of the screen as they currently do, in the upcoming version of Android Wear notifications will be smaller but will sport a color code that lets you know which app they're related to. So a new email received through the Gmail app will sport a red color, along with a tiny Gmail icon. ​

The new interface will also feature expanded notifications, so you can view more text in an email, for example.

2. A New Watch Face Picker — Arguably, this update is part of the new interface mentioned above, but because watch faces are one of the top ways to customize your smartwatch (and since there are so many great options for Android Wear users), it gets its own list item here. It's unclear exactly how this new feature will work, but the hope is that it will involve fewer steps than it currently does. 

3. Apps Can Now Function More Independently — Without getting too far into the tech-y, developer-y weeds, it's safe to say that this update to Android Wear will allow for more app functionality without requiring that your smartwatch is paired to your smartphone. So even if your phone is far away or simply not connected to your Android Wear watch, your Android Wear apps should be able to deliver push messages and other important information. This is likely one of the features that you won't actively notice, but will still make an important (and positive) difference in how you interact with your wearable.

4. Complications Come to Android Wear — You may recognize the concept of complications if you've ever used an Apple Watch and tried playing around with its watch face options. As the name implies, these are additional bits of information, and the way they relate to Android Wear is that watch faces for any apps can now display a variety of extra info. Think weather, stock stats and more, depending on the third-party app in question. On the developer side, this means an app maker can choose to share certain aspects of his or her app with watch faces.

5. Keyboard and Handwriting Input — Android Wear currently lets you reply to incoming messages by voice or with emojis that you can draw on-screen, the updates at Google I/O will result in more options for communicating. The wearable platform will now include a full keyboard and handwriting recognition — the latter of which lets you draw out letters on your smartwatch screen. Thankfully, given the tight size constraints of the on-screen keyboard, it looks like you'll be able to swipe out a message rather than needing to hunt and peck for each individual letter. Plus, it looks like Android Wear will offer suggestions for the next words once you start typing, so the process hopefully won't be too painful. And of course third-party apps will be able to use the keyboard and handwriting recognition features, so communicating across the board on Android Wear will likely be much easier.

6. Google Fit Gets Updated — Last on the list of major feature updates is Google Fit, which is responsible for tracking your movement data across apps. With Android 2.0, apps will be able to automatically detect activity such as running, walking and biking. This may not be the biggest announcement when it comes to the latest batch of Android Wear improvements, but it's an important one, especially considering that smartwatch maker Pebble recently raised the bar with its fitness tracking capabilities.

Bottom Line

It's crazy to think it's been two years since Android Wear was first released, and in that time period we've seen plenty of changes and meaningful updates. The platform has long offered an appealing alternative to the Apple Watch with a variety of products that sport round displays (including the Motorola Moto 360), and it certainly offers more variety than Apple's device, if only because there are more hardware options.

The latest updates look to improve upon Android Wear's software strengths, and in doing so they also seem to simplify and streamline activities like responding to messages and checking notifications for users. You'll still be interacting with your Android Wear smartwatch in much the same way, but it's definitely a positive thing that notifications will be less intrusive but even more informative, and watch faces will be able to display even more info thanks to the upcoming addition of complications.

It's interesting to note that no new Android Wear watches were introduced at the Google I/O event; the focus was completely on the software platform. While that may be disappointing to hardware lovers looking to get their hands on some new gadgets, in some ways it's a positive thing. It speaks to the fact that the overall experience across all Android Wear devices is quite similar, thanks to well-developed software that dictates how you interact with all compatible products. Unfortunately we still have several months to go before we can test out the latest wearable platform on our own smartwatches, but for now it sounds like we have a substantially improved experience to look forward to.