By Rohan Naravane
Do you like Iron Man? The 2008 blockbuster starring Robert Downey Jr. put the metal-clad comic book character at the top of my favourite superhero list. It wasn’t just because of his ability to fly or the incredible amount of strength, but because the technology shown in the movie felt believable to me. An auto-assembling exoskeleton aside, there were elements in that film that have partly turned to reality. The Google Glass could be perceived as the first step to the heads-up display behind Iron Man’s mask. Or how he interacted with his voice-controlled J.A.R.V.I.S computer feels similar to the “Ok Google” command we use to get things done on Android.
Ever since the announcement of Android Wear in March 2014, I knew one day I would be the proud owner of a Moto 360 smartwatch. Being an early adopter of smartwatches, my Pebble served me well as a secondary glanceable screen. But the interaction was limited by its hardware – a non-touch e-ink display with no input mechanisms other than the four buttons on the watch. Not to say I was looking to put a full-fledged smartphone on my wrist, but the concept of Android Wear made smartwatches more usable; further reducing the effort of pulling the smartphone out of your pocket.
Then the bad news hit – despite the extra months of waiting for the Moto 360 (over the LG G Watch or the Samsung Gear Live), the battery life was reportedly miserable, the chipset used inside the watch dates back to 2010, along with a few other minor niggles. My dreams of being part of this beautiful future were instantly shattered. And then, a bunch of Moto 360 users abroad started reporting of a software update that claimed to improve the battery life. Cut to the last week, when the Moto 360 smartwatch was put on sale at Flipkart, with a lot of excitement and a bit of nervousness, I finally pulled the trigger.
Talking about the design, yes, it is every bit as beautiful as the pictures make out to be. Although Motorola is only selling the silver bezel model in India (I would have preferred the black one), it is quite attractive. I’ll mostly replace the leather belt with a metal one to make it look like this. It is comfortably light at just 49 grams and because it is round, it feels more comfortable to wear than a square-shaped watch. And yes, there’s a tiny black bar at the bottom that cuts away the display, but it does not bother me one bit. Maybe, I’m comforted in knowing that an ambient light sensor is housed there (a few Android Wear devices don’t include one), which automatically adjusts the screen-brightness depending on the lighting around you. This is an elementary feature in a smartwatch; it bumps the brightness outdoors so the display is adequately visible under direct sunlight, and drops it down in low lighting thereby saving some battery juice. There are times when I feel the brightness levels are conservative, making the display look a little dimmer than what I would like.
My only trouble with the display, if I was to nitpick, is its comparatively low 205PPI pixel density. Now that we have gotten used to high-resolution displays, seeing pixels again after so long is a bit displeasing. Having said that, text is fairly legible. The touch sensitivity is like any modern capacitive display. There is a button at the side that lets you turn the display on and off, but I rarely use it because there are two simpler ways to do this — the best is to simply raise your hand like how we usually do when we’re seeing the time on a watch or you can tap on the display to turn it on and cover the watch with your hand to turn it off. I hope that the button on the side could be put to some better use in the future.
Let’s talk about the software, Moto 360 is currently running on basically version 1.0 of Android Wear, which seems to be a subset of Android 4.4 KitKat (assumed from the version number ‘4.4W.1’). Thankfully, common sense prevailed while designing this new wearable operating system and it is simple and unobtrusive to use. The entire OS is based on a concept of cards that you can browse by scrolling either up or down. To take action, you can swipe from left to right. For example, you get a Twitter notification, swiping like that will give you options to reply (by voice), retweet, favourite or open it on your phone. By default, every app notification that lands up in your paired Android device’s notification drawer will show up on your wrist, but app developers can add a few lines of code to add trigger actions relative to their app. So right now Gmail lets you archive emails and Facebook Messenger lets you send a thumbs up as a reply to an instant message. What you could potentially do right on your wrist is only limited by the creativity of the app developers. Also, you don’t have to install watch apps separately; if Android Wear-ready applications are present on your paired Android phone, they will automatically appear on your smartwatch and because Google Play Store is one of the biggest app stores out there, there is a good chance we’ll see a lot more Android Wear apps once significant number of people start buying these watches.
Another beautiful removal of redundancy that I love in Moto 360 — swiping a card away clears it not only from your watch but also from your smartphone. Except for those few times when I don’t have any notifications, these cards occupy half of the screen, overlapping the watchface. Thus, even though there are some really beautiful watchfaces Motorola has put in the Moto 360 to make it look like a classy analog timepiece, most of them get covered by these notification cards. So, I have stuck to a watchface that only uses half the screen to show the time, leaving the bottom half for the notifications. Google is soon going to bring official support for 3rd party watchfaces and I’m hoping there will be creative solutions to this. Because this is a smartwatch in the truest sense — I love some of the smart things it can do. For example, it will listen to your query the moment you say “Ok Google” when the screen is lit. From there, it’s almost the same functionality of Google Now. You can send text messages, find out bite-sized information like “how tall is the Eiffel Tower”, or “What’s 3 times 42” and much more, thanks to the power of Google Knowledge Graph. Another epic win is navigation; using the “Navigate to …” command will not only open Google Maps on your phone, but also show live direction symbols and distances till the next turn, with an intuitive graphics above. This is going to be especially great for bikers.
But like version 1.0 of any software, Android Wear has some rough edges. There is a bit of a lag when swiping through cards, however I am not sure if that is a Motorola problem or a Google issue. I did notice that the lag was reduced after installing the most recent software update. The UI is usable, but it isn’t as butter-smooth as a flagship Android smartphone. And while there is no doubt Google provides the best vocal recognition of my Indian accent to date, there were times when the watch couldn’t catch my voice commands accurately. For example, it would just leave my queries mid-way if I spoke too slowly. On the bright side though, I was blown away by how accurately it could decipher when I spoke fast. Then there are some tiny bugs that can easily be fixed, like after replying to a WhatsApp message via voice, it sometimes get stuck at the reply action menu for a few seconds. Sometimes the play/ pause controls fail to control the media on my phone. Again, these are minor software niggles that I am confident are just a software update away from being fixed. On the other hand, there are some other things that I don’t know if a software update can fix — the step counter is horribly inaccurate for example, but this has been reported for every Android Wear device. The heart-rate sensor is a hit-or-miss and although I am not a doctor, there were times I felt the reported heart rate was way lower than what I thought it would be (like, after a run). Honestly, I don’t see the practical benefit of seeing what my heart rate, until and unless the watch can tell me if I am having a heart attack.
You would think this crazy functionality must certainly take a hit on battery life, and it does. Here is the bad news – if you want to use the smartwatch features like how Google advertises Android Wear, then you’ll have to carry that small wireless charging cradle with you at all times. I usually got a working day’s battery life (9AM to 5PM) with active use for the past few days. This is with ambient mode turned off (meaning the display turns off entirely after a few seconds) and brightness set to auto. But that is with me constantly admiring it every few minutes, so once the buzz dies down, it could last a little longer. There is no doubt you’ll have to charge this thing every night, at least. Being an ex-Pebble user where I could charge the watch once and forget it for the next five days, it sucks that now I have one more device (other than my smartphone and laptop) that I have to worry about running dry. But on the bright side you can put 80% of juice in an hour.
Which brings us to the conclusion – “You knew all these problems and yet you bought one”, they said. Yes, I did. Although there are certain alterations I have to make to accommodate this device in my life, the returns are worth the hassle. The Moto 360 mostly works and that is good because this is an early adopter product and I am an accommodating early adopter. You’ll either love this or hate this. There is no middle ground here because at INR 17,999, it certainly isn’t a bet many people will be willing to make. The Moto 360’s hardware story is coincidentally synonymous to the original Moto X’s — both were criticised for using an older SoC and a mediocre display. There is a good chance the next Moto 360 would rock modern-day chipset and maybe a higher resolution display, just like how the Moto X (2nd-gen) does. Who knows, maybe they will even manage to knock off that black bar at the bottom. But it doesn’t look like that day is any time soon. I made a bet, and I have walked away mostly happy. If you are as accommodating, maybe you will too.
About author: Rohan Naravane is the Content guy for PriceBaba. It is pretty evident from this post that he’s a smartwatch-er. He sees a future where people will be talking to their wrists for trivial tasks without having to take the phone out of their pocket, till it is absolutely necessary.