Android Wear with an iPhone still can’t compete with the Apple Watch

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I am the guy who wears smartwatches because I like having a few things easily accessible on my wrist: the time, my notifications, my steps, and the weather. But more than anything, a watch is a habit, one I’ve kept since I got an E.T. watch when I was six years old. It’s part of the “Wallet Keys Phone Watch” ritual which signals that I’m ready to face the day, but it’s also a fashion accessory.

It’s not high fashion, mind you, given the look of most smartwatches today, but fashion nonetheless. And so I want some choice in the look of the watch. I prefer round over square, not too big, with a brown leather band.

Enabling that choice for people who want it is the motivating theory behind Android Wear. And now there’s a new version of Android Wear, 2.0, that, among many other things, is designed to make using an Android Wear smartwatch with an iPhone less of a compromise. Get the watch you actually want without losing out on too much of what the Apple Watch can do.

It’s a nice theory — but in practice Google hasn’t lived up to that promise.

Android smartwatches have worked with the iPhone for a year and half now, but with extremely limited functionality. Those limitations come mainly from Apple policies: no access to iMessage replies and difficulties getting third-party apps and faces on the watch. So with Wear 2.0, Google has just gone ahead and stuck the Google Play Store right on the watch.

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What that means is that after some initial setup with your phone, smartwatches running the newest software can be more independent — they can track your fitness, stream music from Google Play, download apps, and all the rest directly over Wi-Fi or LTE. Basically, where the iPhone put up roadblocks to features, Android Wear 2.0 just runs around them and does them on its own.

After spending a week using an LG Watch Style (the little one, not the giant LG Watch Sport) with an iPhone, I came away from the experience unimpressed. Yes, there are a few things that are possible now that weren’t before. You can directly install third-party watchfaces now, a big benefit over the Apple Watch. You can install little weather widgets and fitness apps. And thankfully, you can do so by visiting the Google Play Store from your laptop’s web browser rather than trying to scroll the tiny little watch screen. There aren’t a ton of apps available yet, but that’s hopefully something that will improve over time. You can query the Google Assistant, which is often more accurate and helpful than Siri.

But for everything that works, there are several things that really don’t. Some of it is because of those Apple policies: there’s simply no conceivable world in which Apple is going to allow third-party smartwatches to access iMessages beyond seeing incoming notifications arrive, for example. You can reply to messages from some other apps — but only those that have reply options properly built into their notification on the phone. Even then, you won’t get the sort of rich message history you can get elsewhere.

I could be comfortable with those limitations — but there are dozens of others, most of them self-inflicted. Connecting to a Wi-Fi network to download apps is too difficult because you have to manually enter it in on an iPhone (and it only works with older, 2.4GHz networks). The watch itself sometimes just kind of bugs out, so things will slow down and random things fail, like scrolling with the digital crown.

For me, the clearest example of Google not doing the necessary work is Calendars. You are able to get your calendar information synced to Android Wear; you have your choice of either using Google Calendar or Apple Calendar. But that’s where the hassle comes in. If you opt for Google Calendar, you’ll only see events from your Google accounts. If you opt for Apple Calendar, you will get all of them, birthdays and holidays and whatever else is included with no way to filter which ones sync to your watch.

This is a solvable problem: Pebble smartwatches (pour one out) let you select which calendars you want to sync. What it shows is that getting a third-party smartwatch to play nice with an iPhone is hard — but there are ways to do it that minimize those limitations. Android Wear 2.0’s whole purpose is to enact those workarounds, but it doesn’t go as far as it could.

But the biggest issue with Android Wear 2.0 on the iPhone is that the only two watches it’s available on are bad. The LG Watch Sport is way too big, the Style is small and underpowered. The battery life on the latter is downright atrocious if you enable the always-on ambient display. Using it, I got as little at 10 hours, slightly worse than what I get when the same watch is paired to an Android device. Turn it off and you will get a full day, but you’ll miss out on one of Android Wear’s best features.

If you’re interested in a smartwatch paired to an iPhone, there’s only one question: why should you get something besides the Apple Watch? For Android Wear, the answer is the same today as it was 18 months ago: if you want a round watch instead of a square one.

That’s kind of it. The new features, independent apps, and new watches don’t add up to anything particularly compelling. I will happily grant that Google is facing an uphill battle trying to get Android Wear working with what is essentially a hostile platform — iOS — one that’s not at all interested in making life easy for third-party smartwatches.

But those challenges are all the more reason for Google to show that it can make something that overcomes them. I prefer round watches, but not as much as I prefer having a smartwatch that doesn’t remind me of its profound limitations every time I get a notification.

Photography by James Bareham / The Verge

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