Two months with the Moto 360 and Android Wear on my wrist

Stylish smart watch from Motorola plagued by buggy software and a platform not having much of a reason to exist. My review of the Moto 360 smart watch hardware and the Android Wear operating system; as it makes no sense to talk about one without the other.

Updates and new features

I bought the Motorola Moto 360 in early April, and wanted to write a review about it after using it for two weeks. In the meantime, Google had announced the Android Wear 5.1 update and the Motorola Blog enthusiastically teased “new features like Wi-Fi connectivity, new gestures and easy-to-draw emojis” on the same day as the announcement from Google.

“These new features and more will be available for Moto 360 in the next few weeks”, the blog promised. I thought I’d better wait for the update before writing my review as the update would unlock Wi-Fi and other hardware related functionality.

Exactly one month later, Google released Android Wear 5.1.1. By which time, every Android Wear watch except the Moto 360 had already received the 5.1 update. Now, six weeks after Motorola’s enthusiastic day-one announcement about 5.1, every other device has also received the 5.1.1 update. Motorola maintains their radio silence about the updates on its blog, social media profiles, and in their official community forums on Google+. In the meantime, Moto 360 users are stuck with Android Wear 5.0.2 from February, and can only read about the new features and improvements unlocking on the wrists of owners of the other Android Wear devices.

The slow update roll-out is surprising, given Google’s engineering director David Burke’s statements to Ars Technica last summer saying that Google would maintain control over the user interface and update roll-outs on Android Wear, TV, and Auto.

The hardware

I’ve got a thin wrist and most watches for men — and smart watches are no exception — assumes your wrists are at least 20 % thicker than mine. The Moto 360 is a smallish watch. In the Android Wear arena, however, the Moto 360 is the smallest and I think most stylish option. For comparison, the LG G Watch R watch — with it’s unsexy name, large case and big external lug/strap attachments — sticks about half a centimeter out on either sides of my wrist.

One of the things that worried me the most about investing in the watch was the durability of the leather strap. I opted for a black finish watch with a black leather strap. I thought wrapping and unwrapping it from my wrist two times a day would give it a worn look and that the finish would flake off quickly. Any kind of leather belt or wrist strap I’ve owned before starts looking worn pretty much immediately. Two months in the leather strap looks more or less like new.

The watch case and strap have been banged around pretty badly against doors, desks, and cupboards. Yet, there are no visible scratches or marks on either the leather strap, glass, nor the stainless steel casing of the watch. The black finish looks like new. I’ve only owned a handful of watches before, but this is the first that didn’t look scratched after just a week’s use.

The screen isn’t perfectly round as it features an ambient light sensor at the bottom. Most watch faces are designed for perfectly rounded screens, and even Motorola’s own watch faces are cut off at the bottom in an unattractive way.

The back of the watch features an optical heart-rate sensor surrounded by some green LEDs. The sensor works by lighting up your skin and counting the heart beats it can see by observing contractions in the cardiovascular system. This is a highly inaccurate method for measuring heart-rate and it’s stressed that the data isn’t to be used for any medical purpose.

After wearing the Moto 360 tight around your wrist for some weeks, sweat and grease will start collecting on the back. The watch will then start complaining that it’s not fitted tightly enough around your wrist. Regularly cleaning off the back will keep it from complaining.

There’s a physical on/off button (“crown”) on the right side of the watch case. Pressing it takes a full second to cycle the screen on or off. It’s so slow in reacting that I often end up pressing it again believing it didn’t register the press only to reverse the desired effect instead. The button is only useful when putting the watch in Theater mode which will require you to press the button to turn on the screen.

The microphone is located on the left side of the case opposite the on/off button. For anyone wearing the watch on their left arm, their sleeve will rub up against the microphone and disrupt the audio quality. Recordings from the microphone when it’s unobstructed and held up five centimeters from the speaker’s mouth is pretty good.

Strangely, there’s no internal speaker on any Android Wear device for giving alarms and notifications. The watch would probably be more annoying if it kept beeping all the time, but it wold be useful for alarms or high-priority notifications.

“OK Google”

The main way to interact with Android Wear is by giving it voice commands. These are processed through Google’s servers and the watch can’t do any local speech-to-text or command recognition on its own beyond the hotword “OK Google”. The hotword tells the watch to start paying attention to what you’re saying and send it to Google instead of just passively listening.

Simple commands like those for setting alarms and countdowns are also processed through Google. Notes and reminders aren’t private even when using apps other than Google’s own apps when using voice for input. Google doesn’t appear to have much trouble understanding my non-native English. Which is a big contrast to iOS’ Siri service that hardly understand anything I say.

The watch will often reply to a completed voice command by showing an “Offline” and then a “Disconnected” notification before dumping you back to the beginning and pretending like nothing happened. You can then try again and it will work fine. This happens with the phone sitting on the desk centimeters away from the watch so it’s not an issue with Bluetooth range. The screen sometimes also flashes white in between the two notifications which to me suggest that a process on the watch itself crashes. Potentially something like the Bluetooth stack?

In any case, it creates an unreliable experience and a lot of repetition. Unlike the world portrayed in the movie Her — about a man falling in love with his artificial voice-controlled assistant — most people aren’t comfortable with walking around in public talking to themselves or their watches. You feel very self-conscious about doing so and having to repeat the same thing again just makes you obnoxious. For me, I’ve only used the voice commands on the watch while in private.

Anything that isn’t understood by Google as a voice command will display a tiny Google search result on the watch instead. You can swipe through the top three results on the watch itself. The only thing you can do with the result is to choose the action “Open on phone”. More about opening things on the phone later on.

Alarms and countdowns set on the watch stay on the watch. They don’t sync to the phone. As the watch doesn’t have a speaker and need to stay in its charging cradle during the night, the vibrating and flashing alarms are mostly useless as part of a morning routine. From what I’ve been able to gather, it’s a design decision so that some watch functions operate independently from the phone.

As the watch can’t process voice commands without the assistance of the phone and thus not set alarms on its own this seems like a weird decision. I think many excited new Android Wear users are confused the morning after their purchase as to why their voice-set-on-their-new-watch-alarm did not wake them up.

It’s hard to determine exactly how much data is consumed by the watch as Android doesn’t break it out from the phone’s own bandwidth consumption. Based on observations and traffic monitoring, I’d make the unscientific guess that the watch adds a daily 18 MiB of usage with two dozen voice commands or 2 MiB with no voice commands. Turn your watch off when roaming as it will be passively eating away at your expensive megabytes.

Google Fit and Moto Body – the step counters

The watch comes with two separate fitness tracking systems, Google Fit and Motorola’s own Moto Body. They track the exact same data in the exact same manner. The only difference is how the recorded data is presented.

The watch’s step counter under-counts pretty consistently 10 % of my daily steps when compared to the recorded data from a FitBit One — a dedicated step counter fitted in my jeans pocket — or just the Google Fit app running on my phone while it rests in my pocket. Whilst Google Fit app on the phone and FitBit agrees pretty much to the step how much I walk each day, the Moto 360 shaves off 10 % of the steps as counted by the other devices.

The Moto 360 app on the watch freezes up and stops displaying new steps if the watch isn’t rebooted every few days. When this happens, the Moto Body step counter app will show 0 steps for the day. Even if you walk around while looking at it, it will continue to show 0 steps.

After rebooting the watch, it will count every step taken since it stopped displaying them as happen in the exact minute when the watch started. According to Moto Body, I walked an impressive 34 000 steps between 9:13 and 9:14 this morning. (That would be the sum of the two previous days’ walking.) The total number of steps overall will be in sync with Google Fit, but the two services will disagree on when I were active. Google Fit doesn’t have this problem on the watch, but the Google Fit app on my phone can be slow to fetch data from the watch at times.

If I don’t notice that the watch have stopped tracking steps, I’ll get a helpful email notification from Moto Body on my watch saying “Don’t forget your watch, Daniel”. Then I know it has stopped working and it’s time to restart it.

I rarely let the watch run out of battery. From the odd behavior of Moto Body, it would seem the watch is designed to run out of battery and be restarted every few day or so to preserve functionality.

The heart-rate monitor aspects of the watch haven’t interested me in the least, so I haven’t paid much attention to it. When opened, it seem to show me that I’m alive and have a beating heart. I kind of knew that already, and don’t see the appeal of the feature in everyday life.

Moto 360 will optionally send an email summary with graphs detailing the previous week’s activity levels. It’s not something you can act upon other than noting whether you were lazy or not in the previous week. There’s no encouragements or suggestions for being more active in the emails.

Timely and actionable notifications

One thing I did notice and that I believe is the cause of most users’ battery sorrows is notification abuse. There are quite a few phone apps that send constant or even persistent and useless notifications. Disabling and blocking as many mostly useless notifications as possible made the night and day difference for battery life on the Moto 360. “Files uploaded to OneDrive”, “Downloading podcast”, “Bluetooth speaker connected”, games, chat clients, and a host of other notifications from apps that you don’t need notifications from will appear on the watch as well as on the phone.

Android will by default push most of the notifications on your phone to the watch. On the phone, these notifications are mostly just a nuisance; but they get actively stressful when your wrist starts vibrating every time you receive one.

You can hear the phone vibrating from a notification on a table behind you, and look expectantly down at your watch and wait for it to pop up. Sometimes you’ll see the notification, and other times you’re met with “Android Wear isn’t responding. Do you want to close it?” This seem to happen about once every ten days or so (and on a separate cycle to the step counter issues mentioned above.)

Many notifications only have one action available, the ambiguous “Open on phone”. It sounds very promising but it usually does either nothing or makes the screen on your phone entirely white. When it works, the action does the same as clicking on a notification in the notification drawer on your phone.

For many notifications, however, this also does nothing which is probably partially where the problem originates. I can battle it out first with the watch and tap Open on phone and wait to see if anything happens on my phone. I then have to tap the watch again and then wait again to see if something happens on the phone. It’s much faster to just ignore the watch notification, pull out the phone, and respond to the notification there because you know that it will always work.

I recently went to my doctor for a routine checkup. I looked up the public transport options and the travel times on my laptop the night before and on my phone the morning of the appointment. Both times I were logged in to Google and it would have picked up the place I needed to go and when I needed to be there. On a previous occasion with the same usage pattern, Google Now on my phone had given me helpful notifications with public transport departure times and directions.

This time both the phone and watch stayed silent. After the doctor appointment when I was waiting on the bus outside his office, Google Now on the phone showed me the transit time for that bus stop and for the route I needed to take home. When I got home afterward, however, the watch sprang in to action and gave me three notifications with three different public transport routes for getting to my doctor’s office. Not very useful as I’m not going back there for another year. In an similar episode, Google would send me traffic updates about travel time to my former-workplace for three weeks after leaving the company.

Android Wear watch says it’s time to go to work.

The action I use the most on the watch have definitely been audio playback controls. Mostly just pausing and restarting podcasts and audiobooks throughout the day (which I listen to constantly.) Annoyingly, the watch and phone often unsync the current audio playback state. Resulting in the pause button never showing up on the watch, or the resume button disappearing before I can resume the playback.

Then I’ve got to pick up my phone, unlock, and click pause and then play from the notification drawer. It’s worth noticing that the audio is definitely paused on the phone playback and isn’t playing any audio, yet the notification drawer playback widget will show the audio app as being in the play state and not paused state. Something is clearly wrong with the playback communication from the watch or how the phone tracks the state on these things. This problem occur in the Audible app, Pocket Casts app, and the Google Play Music app.

There have been occasions where the SMS notifications have been very helpful. It’s the five-minute early notice SMSes that I usually ignore until they’ve become irrelevant that I find useful to see at a glance. Things like pizza and package delivery notices, or friends coming over half an hour earlier than expected.

I normally value my email more than SMS and my email inbox is kept clean of anything non-important by excessive filtering that delegates less important items to other folders. Email notifications on my wrist are less actionable and will just frustrate me as I think “I’ve to deal with this later.” Blissful unawareness in these cases is preferable to stressful reminders that you aren’t managing to keep up with everything at once.

A unexpected advantage to having SMS appear on my wrist is that two-factor authentication logins became less of a pain. I don’t need to remember an eight digit one-time code sent by SMS to login to an app on the phone as I can keep the code open on my watch and use the app needing the code at the same time. Likewise, I don’t need to search around my desk for my phone when entering a one-time code on my computer. It’s a small thing, but it has meant that I’ve turned on two-factor authentication in more places as its less inconvenient to use when I’ve the watch.

When waving your hands about doing your everyday activities, like carrying around a cup of coffee or picking something up off the table, the watch occasionally turn on the display. In a perfect demonstration of a Pavlovian response, I look at it, touch the display, swipe around the notifications, and generally trying to figure out why the display turned on.

Usually when this happens there’s no new notification or anything. The display is supposed to turn on when you twist your wrist and hold it up to your face, so you can see the time without touching the watch. The effect is that the watch is distracting when just going about your day. Raising your hand to move the mouse around at your desk can be enough for the watch to turn on the screen.

You stop it from turning on the screen, showing notifications, and being distracting by enabling Theater mode. At that point the watch is just a thing on your wrist and you could just as well have left it in its charging cradle. (While typing this paragraph, the Moto 360’s screen turned itself on twice.)

Battery life and charging cradle

I haven’t found battery life to be a big problem with the watch after I made sure to remove as many notifications from it as possible. I’ve let it run out of power maybe two times in as many months. Battery life is reduced when walking a lot compared to lazy days at home. The difference between the two is usually as much as 50 % of the full charge.

The optional Ambient display setting leaves the display on all the time but disables its backlight and any animations (like the seconds hand.) This is convenient as you can always glance at the screen to see the time. However, enabling the setting will run down the battery in as little as twelve hours.

Most of the cool-looking third-party watch faces from the Google Play Store will also quickly drain the battery. I’m not sure what causes it, but these watch faces usually have more animations and information displayed on screen at a time. Suggesting heavier processing and more frequent screen updates which would run down the battery faster.

Moto 360 at 58 % battery resting in its wireless Qi charging cradle at 22:25

The included charging cradle is nice and it fits the watch perfectly. the charging cradle and watch use standard Qi wireless inductive charging (the same standard supported by most smartphones and some IKEA furniture.) I’ve previously had Qi capable phones and I’m happy that Motorola choose a standard wireless charging solution instead of their own proprietary solution. I’ve got some power mats lying around, and all of them can charge the Moto 360 without difficulty. The watch’s small 320 mAh battery charges fully in forty minutes.

Privacy concerns

Everything you input to the device is transmitted to and stored by Google. There’s nothing performed on the local watch except display the current time. Even the time is set by and synchronizes with Google’s servers. The whole Android Wear platform is essentially a way for you to talk to Google and Google to display texts and notifications back at you to help maintain and shape your day.

Any voice command and dictation is difficult to pull off without involving the server for voice to text processing. Google should offer more granular controls over what voice commands are recorded in the user’s Google History. For example, there should be an option to not store dictated emails, SMS, and other messaging functions in the History.

Users are constantly wearing a microphone that’s listening for the hotword “OK Google”. The system is designed to only turn on the microphone when the watch screen is turned on to preserve battery life. Seeing how the screen randomly turns itself on all the time, the user is never in control or even sure when Google is listening in on their conversations. The audio quality and speech-to-text precision of the microphone is easily defeated for passive listening scenarios by a wearing sleeve that rub it against the microphone. The microphone can also be disabled temporarily by either turning the watch off or putting it in Airplane mode.

Who is it for? and conclusion

Update (): See the one-year with Android Wear review.

TL;DR: There’s no reason to get any Android Wear watch at this time. Unless you’re an app developer.

The most common reason why I look at the watch is when its screen randomly turns itself on. The watch can potentially be more useful once more apps integrate with it and developers learn how to use it to benefit their users. More smarter geofencing apps like loyalty cards for coffee shops and the like would benefit the platform greatly.

The “bad” battery life is what most reviews focus on and hold up as a discouragement for getting any Android Wear watch. However, plugging the watch in at night at the same time your plug in your phone for charging is a minor adjustment of your daily routine. Given that you take the time to cut away all the useless notifications you get every day — and get less distracted in general as an added bonus! — the battery life should not be any grounds for concerns.

The only ones who should buy an Android Wear watch at this time are app developers who think their app could benefit users by vibrating their wrists from time to time. Regular users or even Android and Google enthusiasts will see little benefit from wearing an Android Wear watch.

I haven’t gotten the Android Wear 5.1 update yet. Some or all of the issues mentioned above could have already been fixed and I just don’t know about it. The slow update release compared to every other Android Wear manufacturer should be a cause for concern for any prospecting Moto 360 buyer even though we’re only talking weeks. Regardless of the new features available to Android Wear 5.1.1, there isn’t much of a value proposition for using a smart watch at this time.