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Better With Time: A Second Look at Android Wear

Google's Android Wear update brings more freedom to smartwatches, but not enough.

Tyler Pina for Re/code

Apple Watch, Apple Watch, Apple Waaaatch!

Perhaps Google was feeling a touch of Jan Brady Syndrome when Apple made its recent debut into the smartwatch stakes with an attention-hogging launch that seemed to suck all the competition out of the category.

Whatever its motivation, Google recently announced an update to Android Wear that takes aim at its new competitor and adds a handful (wristful?) of improvements to its own smartwatch platform. It’s the biggest update since the first Android Wear watch launched in June of last year.

The software update is called Android Wear 5.1, and it includes such new features as Wi-Fi support, a simplified interface and always-on apps. It’s currently only available on the $350 LG Watch Urbane, but Google says it will roll out the update to all Android Wear watches, including the Moto 360 and Samsung Gear Live, in the coming weeks.

I’ve been using the Urbane watch for more than a week, and overall I found the Android Wear smartwatch experience to be better than before. In some cases, the implementation of software features is smarter than Apple’s, while others still need some work.

The first thing I noticed is that it’s now a lot easier to find and launch apps. Previously, when I used the LG G Watch, I had to dig through multiple menus or use voice commands to call up apps, which isn’t ideal if you’re in a meeting. My colleague Katie Boehret also shared some of the same frustrations when she reviewed the Moto 360.

With Android Wear 5.1, you can just tap on the screen (or press and hold the side button on the Urbane) to bring up a list of your watch apps. Your most-recently-used app is always on top, and you can scroll down to view the rest of the list.

A swipe to the left will bring up favorite contacts that you’ve designated on your phone. Another swipe to the left shows examples of voice commands you can use with the watch. As before, you can say, “OK Google,” from any screen and dictate a command.

All these improvements make Android Wear easier to use, but compared to the Apple Watch, I felt like I was doing a lot more swiping.

Google has added more hands-free options, including wrist gestures. Now, if you want to view notifications or other cards of information, you can flick your wrist outward or inward to cycle through the watch’s various screens.

It works, but I found that you have to snap your wrist quite hard to bring up the first card. Plus, it feels (and looks) awkward to twist your arm like that.

Other than for testing purposes, I didn’t use this feature at all. I could maybe see myself using wrist gestures if my other hand was full because I was carrying a grocery bag or something. But in general, it’s easier to just swipe up and down on the watch’s touchscreen.

More useful is the always-on apps. This means that apps will remain visible -– in a battery-saving black-and-white mode — even when your watch’s color display has dimmed or turned off. Text and images are displayed in black-and-white until you activate the screen again, at which point they’ll return to full color.

Tyler Pina

It was handy being able to see my grocery list at a glance while shopping, without having to activate the watch, navigate to the right app and open it.

For now, the always-on feature is limited to Google’s note-taking app, Keep. But it will be coming to Google Maps soon, and third-party developers will also be able to write apps that support the feature.

One of the real values of smartwatches is going to come when they can work independently of your smartphone, and Google has taken a step in that direction with Wi-Fi support.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Wait, the Apple Watch has Wi-Fi support, too,” and you’re right. But Google’s implementation is a little different.

The advantage of Google’s Wi-Fi feature over Apple’s is that your watch and smartphone don’t have to be on the same Wi-Fi network in order to communicate with each other. All that is required is that your watch be connected to a Wi-Fi network, and that your smartphone has a Wi-Fi or cellular connection.

I left my Nexus 5 at the office a couple of times over the past week, and I was still able to get email, Facebook and other notifications on the Urbane at my house. I was even able to respond to text messages.

Tyler Pina

But this feature didn’t work in other scenarios.

In theory, your watch is supposed to remember all of the networks that you’ve saved on your phone, including password-protected networks. But that wasn’t always the case.

During one lunch break, I left my phone at my desk and just took my watch and Verizon Mi-Fi hotspot with me. I’ve logged on to the Mi-Fi from my phone before, and had it saved, but the watch wasn’t able to connect to it. When I went into the Urbane’s Wi-Fi settings menu, it asked me to open my phone and enter the password.

You’d also run into this problem anytime you were trying to access a new secure network from just your watch. So, while Wi-Fi support affords you a little more freedom, you’re still largely tethered to your phone.

Last but not least, you can now draw emojis on Android Wear to reply to texts and other messages. The feature is powered by a handwriting-recognition technology Google developed for Android, and it converts your drawings into actual emojis.

Tyler Pina

So for example, if you get a text saying, “Where are you?” you can draw a house, and it should bring up a house emoji, which you can tap and send. Or, if you get a message about dinner plans, you can draw a pizza, and it should bring up a pizza emoji.

This is different from the Apple Watch, which has a drawing feature that allows you to send freehand doodles to other Apple Watch users, in addition to the professionally drawn emojis available from the Messages app.

Initially, I was skeptical of Android Wear’s drawing feature. But I was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked, and how useful I found it to be. I drew different items like animals, flowers and smiley faces, and Google mostly got it right — and it was often faster then selecting from a list of emojis. (You can draw emojis in any messaging app that supports voice replies.)

Of course, it’s not perfect. I tried to draw a thumbs-up, and I got everything from the devil to shrimp tempura to poop. Weirdly, it got thumbs-down right.

Google’s latest update to Android Wear makes some nice steps in the right direction, but there is still a long road ahead in making smartwatches more than niche devices.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.