How effective is the version of Google's Android operating system designed for smartwatches and other wearables? We find out.
In the 16th century, the clock took its first step into becoming what we now know as a wristwatch. The pocket watch was born from a practical desire for a more portable way of telling time, but it quickly became a status symbol, only to be worn by the influential or royal. Indeed, the first true wristwatch, an oblong 1812 invention by the Swiss watchmaker Breguet, was created for Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples. (Napoleon’s youngest sister was somewhat of a collector: she purchased 34 timekeeping devices from Breguet in a six-year span.)
In today’s world, where digital devices are ubiquitous and clocks are on everything from phones to coffeemakers, the watch is almost entirely a status symbol. An expensive watch can equally project elegance, arrogance, or convention, depending on one’s company; an inexpensive one can project humility or frugality. (Consider the narrative created when it was revealed in 2005 that Russian president Vladimir Putin wore $60,000 Patek Philippe and U.S. president George W. Bush wore a $50 Timex.) All of which prompts the questions: With the act of time-keeping commoditized, what kind of status symbol could a smart watch become? Or does it create another use case altogether?
The “smart watch” is no longer a new product category. Today, Qualcomm QCOM , Pebble, and Samsung all manufacture pioneering smart devices for the wrist. For Google, however, smart watches are an altogether new direction for its Android mobile operating system. The announcement of Android Wear earlier this year signaled that Google GOOG was getting serious about wearable devices—serious in a way that the novel Glass project did not. At its developer conference in June, Google revealed that first two Android Wear watches would begin shipping—well, today.
Those watches are the Samsung Gear Live, listed at $199, and LG’s G Watch, listed at $229. After testing, it is possible to get a sense of what Google is trying to accomplish with Android Wear. (It should be noted that Google severely limits what manufacturers can do to customize the operating system; as a result, both devices offer essentially the same software experience. For the purposes of this review, I consider my experience with the G Watch reflective of Android Wear in general.)
To set up Android Wear, you must first pair the watch in question to an Android device (such as a phone or tablet) running version 4.3 or above of the operating system. (Check if your Android phone is compatible by visiting this page.) Once paired, the watch will begin displaying notifications from your phone or tablet—every single one. Jarring is the only word to describe the sudden sensation of an object on your wrist vibrating for every email, Twitter mention, or text message you receive, but once you remember that you’re in control, you can limit the onslaught of alerts within a minute or two. (As a rule, the watch will vibrate with every alert displayed on your phone, but the Android Wear companion app allows you to blacklist a specific app’s notifications from also showing up on your watch.)
The first wave of smart watches were one-way streets of communication: a connected watch would receive and display an alert to which you could only respond using your phone. Pebble did a tremendous job laying the ground work for further interaction; Google has wisely decided to pick up where it left off. With a series of touch gestures, the Android Wear wearer can scroll through alerts and interact. I’m not ashamed to say that I found immense satisfaction in my newfound ability to discretely manage my inbox by archiving emails directly from my watch.
It’s not all hunky dory. Notification management falls short in some areas, particularly for Hangouts, Google’s communication tool. The quibbles are small but frequent: for example, it makes sense for a notification to disappear after you reply to a message, yet it persists until you manually clear it. And third-party apps that allow you to reply display a green check mark upon the selection of that option, rather than the usual input dialogue.
In addition to touch input, Android Wear supports Google’s speech recognition software. I’m happy to report that it takes very little time to fire off instructions like “OK Google, remind me to flip the steaks in 7 minutes.” The same can be done to search, compose an email or text message, set a timer, or even call a Lyft car with a Batman-eqsue, “OK Google, call a car.”
In testing, Android Wear’s voice commands mostly worked without issue. (An exception: when I was in a room full of screaming kids, I couldn’t get the initial “OK Google” command to work. I may be a modern-day Maxwell Smart, but I lack a cone of silence.) I regularly found myself setting or sending an item just by lifting my wrist and uttering some words. The best part: all of it was done in 10 seconds or less. (Try doing that on a smartphone.)
True, I was overcome with embarrassment the first time I caught someone looking at me as I dictated a text message to my watch. I got over it in a way that I wasn’t able to with, say, Google Glass.
There are a number of new capabilities opening up as Android developers bundle Android Wear functionality into existing Android apps in Google’s Play Store, setting the platform apart from other smart watch offerings on the market. For example, the Fly Delta app also includes an Android Wear app: Once you pair a watch to your smartphone, the Wear app is installed and you’re able to use the screen on your wrist as your boarding pass. (Finding a TSA agent that allows you to use it, on the other hand, is another story.) I hope for a Starbucks Android Wear app with which I can display my Starbucks Card barcode for quick payment.
And what about that status symbol, you ask? Though it’s far from Google’s fault, the first models of Android Wear watches lack a compelling look to serve as a replacement for more analog alternatives. LG’s G Watch looks like nothing more than a block of black plastic, while Samsung’s Gear Live offers a plastic face with a silver bezel. The watches’ hardware design clearly took a backseat to software and services. For once, that’s not OK. (The better looking, if large, Moto 360 arrives later this summer. Apple’s rumored iWatch? September, supposedly.)
But they’re headed in the right direction. There’s a lot of work yet to be done on the smart watch, and though the companies that make them aren’t quite facing the same stakes as their analog counterparts in the 16th century, there is no question that they will change the way we live our lives.
“Logged In” is Fortune’s personal technology column, written by Jason Cipriani. Read it on Fortune.com each Tuesday.