Android Wear and the Moto 360 Browser
In this article, I'm going to talk a bit about the browser on the Moto 360. Smartwatches are a very new device, and we don't know how popular they will be in the next few years or how people are going to use them. Like with game console browsers, it's very tempting to say "well nobody is going to use that", but quite often we are proved wrong.
We could easily ignore these devices all together, but I think there is a lot of value in learning how unusual devices serve up websites. It's my hope that in considering devices like these, we make our websites easier to use overall. They might be outliers, but they still form a part of the vast device landscape.
I've worn the Pebble every day for almost 2 years and I love it. It's been especially useful while doing stuff with my hands like eating, cooking, washing up, and painting. I can quickly dismiss calls or check texts without getting my phone grubby.
I've used my phone a lot less since wearing a smartwatch, which I think is a good thing. Often when I'd get out my phone to read a text, I'd find myself drifting to another app to read other, less important notifications, and go down a rabbit hole. The watch has broken me out of this habit.
I also like having one because it makes me feel a little safer when I'm in busy environments – I can check notifications, get travel directions, and change music tracks without having to take the phone out of my bag, and it's easier to keep my eyes on where I'm going.
A smartwatch feels more necessary with a bigger phone. I have a Nexus 6, and it doesn't fit in my pockets (women's pockets are frustratingly tiny compared to men's, and sometimes sewn shut or non-existent), so it stays in my bag while I'm travelling. In effect, my phone has become a tablet.
They're not watches
One of the problems smartwatches face is that people have a lot of preconceptions about how they should work. Other than the fact they can tell the time and are worn on the wrist, their funtionality is very different to regular watches. When the Apple Watch was announced, I was gutted that they'd decided to stick with that word because consumers will apply the same mental models to a smartwatch as to an analogue one. It's like calling a smartphone a pocket watch, or a computer an electronic abacus.
The Moto 360
I'm excited by the potential of wearable devices, and as my Pebble was starting to die (it has taken a beating), I decided to try out one of the newer models.
I opted for the Moto 360 because it had the best reviews, a lot of interesting features, is waterproof, and it runs Android Wear which I wanted to test.
I also wanted to try out a round screen and see how that affects interface designs. I'm actually not a fan of the round screens – digital watches don't have clock hands, so there's no need for it to be round other than aesthetics. Given that pretty much everything designed for screens is intended to be viewed in a square or rectangle, not everything is going to work well on a circular screen, and I'll talk more about that later.
Battery life needs to improve significantly for these devices to truly take off. E-paper devices like the Pebble can last around a week, which feels just about right, but the LCD watches often don't last more than a day or two on a single charge. I got pretty used to wearing my Pebble at night, and sometimes used it as a silent alarm (there's no speaker, it can only vibrate).
Size is also a big issue. I have small wrists and most smartwatches are massive. I read a review by a tech journalist whose husband commented that "it looked like I had a hockey puck strapped to my wrist". I had a very similar feeling when I first put it on, but I'm used to the size now. That said, I think Apple have done well to decide to release two sizes of watch, as the attention-drawing size will be off-putting for a lot of people, let alone the fact that it emits light every time it displays a notification.
Compared to the Pebble, the vibrate on the Moto 360 is a lot more subtle. I often don't notice it. I felt that the Pebble one was too strong (people around me could hear it) but I'm missing a lot of notifications on the 360 because I don't notice them.
A lot of work has gone into making Android's smartwatch experience incredibly usable. They have excellent design documentation and I was really excited about giving it a go.
There are 3 main input methods: swiping, tapping and speech. It really wants you to use speech.
I feel funny about using voice commands in public. It's weird enough watching someone use a bluetooth headset or the mic on their earphones (are they talking to me?) and that makes me reluctant to use it. It's like with all new technology: it makes you look weird until enough people use it that social norms develop. Otherwise it struggles to take off (like Google's Smart Glass).
The voice commands aren't up to Siri's standard. It doesn't feel as intelligent, and I have to learn a new vocabulary specifically for controlling it. For example, I asked "What am I doing today?", expecting it to bring up my calendar, but it did a Google search for the phrase instead. The correct phrase is "What's my agenda?" (although often when I ask this, it performs a Google search for "what's my gender?").
I also have a habit of accidently activating the speech input because it only requires a couple of taps to the center of the screen, and the next time I glance at my watch, it's done a search for whatever it thinks I've been saying (the last time it did this was at work and it did a search for knickers, and I most definitely was not talking about knickers).
Swiping and tapping
To dismiss a screen, you slide the content away to the right. Swiping the content to the left shows more options, so for an email you can choose to archive, delete or open the email on the phone.
I'm not sure if it's because there's a lag, or because I'm not swiping exactly at right angles, but I regularly have to paw at the screen for a few seconds (am I swiping in the right direction?) before it works. Maybe I've just not found the sweet spot yet. It seems to work best when a soft, fast swipe gesture is used as opposed to a slow, heavy one because a slide can often be misinterpreted as a tap.
The Moto 360 doesn't come with a pre-installed browser, but there is one by appfour in the Play store (with over 100,000 downloads). It's also not the only smartwatch to have a browser. Orde Saunders has done a fantastic write-up of the one on the Sony Smartwatch 2
Compared to a lot of the game console browsers I've tested, this browser fares quite well. It's a Chrome browser, and bookmarks you already have saved are added to a list on the homescreen of the app. This is a lot quicker than typing in the URL. You can also perform a search using the speech input.
A full keyboard would have unfeasably small hit targets, so half of it is shown, and to access the other letters you slide the keyboard left and right. It's fiddly, but it's still pretty usable compared to what I was worried it would be like.
Rendering times aren't blazing fast, which is what I expected. It's slower than loading websites on a smartphone, but faster than a device like the Nintendo DS. I'm not sure if it's using the watch's processesor, or piggybacking off the smartphone's to do the rendering.
Sites that use media queries or have a mobile site display linerised and look pretty respectable. The screen dimensions are 241×218. You've probably noticed it's not a perfectly round circle – there's a black strip at the bottom of the screen that hides a sensor and some circuitry for the display. That doesn't bother me at all, but a lot of reviews complain about it.
Depending on the page design, the circular screen can cut off text unless it's at the watch's equator. The only workaround would be for the browser to add padding to the left and right, reducing the actual screen size by a good few precious pixels.
Overall, I think it's a really cool browser. The design of the keyboard is clever, and it has a few other nifty features that I haven't mentioned, like you can swipe right to get the page you're looking at to open on your phone. It also supports pinch to zoom (although this is a bit fiddly), and the best thing is that it supports gifs.
If you're keen to learn more about smartwatches, Orde Saunder's comparison of the Pebble and Sony Smartwatch 2 is fantastic.