Android Wear Gets Its First Big Update

Most smartwatches aren't very smart unless there's a paired smartphone nearby, but Google is starting to change that with an update to its Android Wear platform. Users will be able to store songs directly on their watch and listen to them through a Bluetooth headset. Also, phones with GPS sensors, like the upcoming Sony SmartWatch 3, will be able to track a user's workout on their own.

Google’s Android Wear on Thursday got its first major update, bringing GPS support and offline music capabilities to the wearables platform.

“Android Wear is great for tracking things like route, distance and speed,” wrote Kenny Stoltz, Android Wear product manager. “Before today, you had to keep your phone close at hand. Starting today, Wear supports watches with GPS sensors, so you can enjoy these features regardless of where your phone’s at.”

The platform’s new offline music capabilities enable users to store music on their smartwatch and listen to it via Bluetooth headphones — no phone required.

android-wear

The latest version of Google Play Music incorporates the new offline feature.

“Tens of thousands of apps are now enhanced for Wear using things like voice controls — with more added to Google Play every week,” Stoltz said.

Eight new app collections in Google Play highlight the new additions.

An Optimized Contender

Google announced Android Wear in March and released a developer preview soon thereafter.

Though Sony gave Android Wear the cold shoulder early on, its SmartWatch 3 — now available for preorder at Verizon Wireless — makes heavy use of the platform.

Due for delivery at the end of this month, the watch is the first designed for the latest Android Wear updates and the first Android Wear watch to include a GPS sensor.

What that means, essentially, is that SmartWatch 3 is optimized for Android Wear’s functionality. Out of the box, users will be able to load songs and playlists to SmartWatch 3’s on-board memory without needing to have their Android smartphone with them. They’ll also be able to track workouts with the smartwatch alone.

Equipped with a dedicated GPS sensor as well as storage for up to 4 GB of music, the waterproof Sony SmartWatch 3 works with smartphones and tablets running Android 4.3 or later and is available for preorder for US$249.99, with Google Play access coming soon. It features a transflective display designed to improve battery life and make it easy to read in sunlight.

The LG G Watch, the Samsung Gear Live and the Moto 360 all will be updated to include the new music functionality over the next few days, Google’s Stoltz said.

MIA: Sensor Support

The new features included in the Android Wear update could be important for some applications, “but I wouldn’t necessarily call them critical features,” said Jim McGregor, founder and principal analyst with Tirias Research.

“The potential is huge and the applications almost endless,” McGregor told LinuxInsider. “The only thing I see missing is possible support for other sensors and related applications, such as image and audio sensors for the ability to take quick pictures or record video or audio.”

Such sensors can be very small and easily integrated into wearables, he added.

Engaging Developers

“With each update to Android Wear, wearable devices running the operating system are taken one step closer to being able to operate as standalone devices, meaning that they’re able to function without the crutch of a smartphone,” said Ryan Martin, an analyst for the Internet of Things and wearable technologies at 451 Research.

That trend is “evidenced by the latest update in particular,” Martin told LinuxInsider.

“More broadly, however, such improvements to the wearable tech software ecosystem are indicative of a larger shift from feature-focused to platform-centric ideation,” he added.

“Improvements to wearable tech hardware and software not only add to the perceived value of a given product or solution,” Martin suggested, “but also provide an effective channel to further engage the developer community.”

Katherine Noyes is always on duty in her role as Linux Girl, whose cape she has worn since 2007. A mild-mannered journalist by day, she spends her evenings haunting the seedy bars and watering holes of the Linux blogosphere in search of the latest gossip. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.

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