Early this year when Google first announced Android Wear, it teased us with the Moto 360. It was by far the best-looking smartwatch we'd ever seen. Many months later it's here at last. It's the best Android Wear device yet, but with the Apple Watch looming on the horizon, it's no longer clear if that's good enough.
It's a smartwatch that works with Android phones (version 4.3 and higher), essentially acting as a second screen for your device. It displays your incoming calls, texts, emails and allows you to reply to them by voice. It displays your Google Now cards to keep you up to date on the things that theoretically matter to you, it gives you turn-by-turn directions, it allows you to translate words and phrases, and it has a suite of sensors that help keep you in shape. And it looks good doing it.
Android phone users. Bleeding-edge technology must-havers. Productivity obsessers. Runners and bikers. Watch wearers.
Like Derek Zoolander, it's really, really, ridiculously good-looking. Is that subjective? Obviously, but it's also general consensus among design nerds, tech enthusiasts, and the random people I've showed it to. It's discreet enough that it doesn't jump out at you, but it looks cool enough that friends of friends have been quick to ask me about it. The design recalls high-end analog watches of yore. It's extremely simple and clean. The Moto 360's relatively thin stainless steel bezel belies the technology under the hood, and its perfect circle is interrupted only by a single button on the right. Combine that with the standard leather strap, and it really is quite lovely.
Front and center is a bright, beautiful, flat, perfectly round 320 x 290 pixel backlit LCD screen with a 1.56-inch diameter. While it isn't quite as thick as other Android Wear wristwatches, it actually feels larger due to the round screen. It's significantly brighter, too, which is clutch when walking around outdoors. The screen is protected by a very thick layer of Corning Gorilla Glass 3, which really does feel like a solid piece of glass. It's a great staging ground for the lovely watch faces Motorola has designed and includes with the 360.
At the bottom of the screen is a blank space, which many, many people hate oh so very much. That's where the display drivers live (which allow the bezel to be thinner), alongside Android Wear's first ambient light sensor. Sure, your display may resemble a flat tire, but at least it can automatically brighten or dim so you can always comfortably read it. Also, while you notice it a lot during the first half-hour, you'll start to forget about it after that. Every now and then you'll notice it again, and while you'll wish it weren't there, it's not going to ruin the experience.
The watch's back is smooth, glossy rounded plastic. Because the watch is charged via a wireless inductive charger (a very nice looking cradle, by the way) there are no ugly breaks in the smooth surface for electrical contact points. In the middle is a heart rate sensor that uses the same pulse oximeter-type technology we've seen from other heart-rate monitoring watches in the last few years, such as the Mio Alpha and the Basis Band.
At launch there will be two colors: black and stainless steel (though they're both made of stainless steel). The black will come with a black band, and the stainless steel will come with a "limited edition" dark gray band while supplies last. (A lighter grey band will replace it.) Black and stainless steel metal bands will also be available in the months to come, too (for $50 more), but if none of Motorola's preferred bands tickle your fancy you can always swap in a standard 22mm band of your choosing. A Motorola rep told me that not all bands would fit cleanly, though, so they do recommend using one of theirs and having a jeweler do any band-swapping for you.
Functionally speaking, the Moto 360 is almost identical to the other Android Wear watches already out there. You raise your arm to wake up the screen. You say, "Okay Google…" to enter voice commands. You swipe up and down to toggle between cards which hold small amounts of glanceable information which Google thinks you might like, and left and right to dismiss or go deeper into them. I don't think there is anyone who would argue that a smartwatch is a necessity at this point, but is it a convenience? Absolutely.
Having an Android Wear watch on means that I pull my phone out of my pocket a lot less than I otherwise normally do. Viewing a text and sending a quick response is almost always done from my watch now. Checking quickly if I have any new email, too, doesn't require a reach into the pants pocket. If I'm getting turn-by-turn walking directions, I just glance at my watch when it vibrates and tells me to turn, rather than walking around with my face in my phone. If I'm going for a run and I want to see my current stats and/or change music tracks, it's all right there. If I want to look something up real quick ("Is Benny Hill still alive?"), or see which gate I'm supposed to be walking to at the airport, it is simply much much convenient.
In addition to that, the Moto 360 has some unique functionality. It's the first Android Wear watch with an ambient light sensor, so it fluidly becomes more visible when it's bright outside and doesn't blast your eyeballs with light in a dark movie theatre. Really, all smartwatches should have that. It's also the first smartwatch that charges wirelessly. The watch comes with a cool little curved dock you simply drop it into, without having to futz with lining anything up. It just falls into place and starts charging. The watch face turns into a cool little clock that looks pretty damn good on a bedside table and doesn't put out too much light.
Perhaps the best unique feature, though, is that this is the first smartwatch that has a sensor that is constantly monitoring your heart rate, not just when you do it on demand. Motorola added its own special app which tells you how many minutes you've spent in different heart rate zones, in addition to the step counter that Android Wear includes by default. There's Inactive (40-92 bpm), Active (92 - 129 bpm), and Vigorous (129-185 bpm), and the app recommends you spend at least 30 minutes a day in the Active zone. It tries to motivate you to do that five days in a row via the occasional notification. I think the metric is a great idea, generally presenting a much better look at your activity levels than a simple pedometer. After all, counting steps doesn't help much if you're biking, lifting weights, doing yoga, having adventurous sex, and so on.
Generally the heart-rate monitor works very well. The catch is that it needs to maintain good contact with your skin, which means that if you prefer to wear you watch loosely it may not be able to keep tabs on your ticker. The other annoying thing is that you have to actually launch Motorola's heart rate apps if you want to track your progress. That requires a voice command, or digging through a menu. It would be much more convenient if this could be integrated into the standard stack of cards like Google Fit does with your steps. You will get a very occasional notification when you're half-way to your activity goal, and a second one once you've completed it, but that's it. It's a great feature, but it needs to be more fully integrated.
Let's talk about Android Wear in general for a moment. Having now spent a couple of months using it every day, I feel that I can conclusively say that it's a good operating system with a lot of potential, but it definitely feels like a beta. There's a general lack of consistency that plagues Android Wear at this stage of its development. Sometimes useful cards pop up at the right time, sometimes they don't. For example, the first time I flew with Android Wear, my boarding pass popped up on my watch, I was able to scan its QR code, and the whole airport thought I was a magical time-traveler. I've been on at least five flights since then and that card hasn't once shown up again and I don't know why and I don't have a Sonic Screwdriver to fix it.
It's the not knowing why part that's really irksome. Yeah, it's great that everything happens more or less automatically, but when it doesn't, you should be able to bring up the stuff you want. There is almost no way to control the flow of information you get, and the flow of information is less useful as a result.
There are larger problems, too. Sometimes the watch will spontaneously unpair from the phone and then refuse to reconnect for an hour. Sometimes when you enter a voice command it will say the phone is disconnected, even when it isn't. Sometimes it looks like the Moto 360 is ready to receive a voice command, but it ignores you, leaving you to shout, "Okay Google. Okay Google! OKAY GOOGLE!" into your wrist like an idiot.
[Shown on a small woman's even smaller wrist]
The voice commands that it responds to are often very specific, which means you have to memorize a list of commands rather than use natural language (Cortana would laugh, hard). It's harder to launch apps than it should be, and if you accidentally close out of an app (or let the screen go to sleep) you'll automagically be transported back to the main screen, like it or not, and have to navigate your way back there. There's no multitasking, and there's no undo button.
Most of this was stuff we could let fly... until we saw the Apple Watch two days ago. Now, granted, that watch isn't a real or purchasable thing until the spring of 2015, but it looks freaking fantastic. The suite of features the Apple Watch promises at launch, and the seemingly dead-simple navigation could take a lot of the shine away from Android Wear, assuming it all works as advertised. Google had created the best smartwatch OS we'd seen yet, but Apple's software demos make it look very beta indeed. Again, Apple's watch isn't real yet, and Google now has roughly six months to get its shit together. We're rooting for both teams.
Here's where things get dodgy. The Samsung Gear Live and the LG G Watch are both driven by the Qualcomm APQ8026 System on Chip, and both generally feel pretty snappy and responsive. Motorola, for some unknown reason, decided to go with a Texas Instruments OMAP 3 for the Moto 360. That chip is roughly four years old, which, in silicon terms, makes it practically paleolithic. Honestly, it doesn't make that big of a difference in speed, but there is a noticeable difference. Things seem to load up just a bit slower, voice commands take just a moment longer, and there's just a blink more hesitation when swiping through the OS. It's not bad, but when the whole point is to be more convenient than looking at your phone (which is probably a speed demon), every millisecond counts. Generally, it still succeeds at this, but there's obvious room for improvement.
The way bigger problem with the TI OMAP 3 is that it's not as efficient. When you've only got a 320mAh battery in there you need a chip that absolutely sips power, and the OMAP 3 ain't it. Having a backlit LCD instead of a AMOLED screen probably doesn't help either. The result is that the Moto 360 does indeed have the worst battery life of any Android Wear watch yet on the market.
That said, I wouldn't call the battery life "bad," as it certainly doesn't render the watch unusable. As we noted Monday, we haven't yet found battery life nearly as bad as some other outlets initially reported. The Moto 360 has two screen modes: ambient mode, and ambient mode off. In ambient mode, the screen dims when you're not using it, but is not supposed to turn all the way off. What odd is that it does, in fact, turn all the way off sometimes, but then it comes back on with the slightest twitch of your wrist. With ambient mode off, the screen goes completely black when you're not using it, and to turn it on again you either make the "looking at my watch" gesture, tap the screen, or press the button on the side. I would say, on the whole, that ambient mode is slightly more convenient, but it's not night and day.
With ambient mode on, you will probably make it a good 14 or 15 hours on a charge, depending how aggressively you use it. That's generally enough to last you from the moment you wake up until you get home from work. With ambient mode off, however, I consistently got more than 24 hours of use. In fact, as I write this now, it's been off the charger for 26.5 hours and still has 25 percent battery life in the tank. So, while we prefer ambient mode, it's definitely better to leave it off so you can use your watch with impunity.
But here's the thing. The Samsung and LG watches both have ambient mode set on by default, and even with it on they get more than 24 hours. With it off, they get around two days. Not only that, their ambient mode actually keeps the screen fully on so it's always easier to steal a glance at the time (though they lack Moto's slick ambient light detector). So is the Moto's battery life a deal-breaker? No, but it's behind the curve. If you forget to charge the Moto 360 one evening, you might be okay. If you forget twice, you're probably out of luck.
Update: Since its initial release, the Moto 360 has gotten an update that's significantly improved its battery life. We're still testing it out, but we can say anecdotally that the Moto 360 now lasts, on average, at least 25 percent longer than it did previously. That doesn't change the weirdness of the way its ambient mode works, or slingshot it to the head of the Android Wear pack as far as battery life is concerned. But the Moto 360 isn't quite as far behind the curve as it was before.
It's just so pretty. It's the first smartwatch that doesn't make you feel like a dork. It has the brightest screen of any smartwatch yet, and it's way more visible outside. It's easily the most comfortable smartwatch out there, too. It's light, it has a smooth back, and the leather straps feel good on the skin. The constant heart rate monitoring is a great feature.
It also really is just very convenient. If you're an Android user it actually does make life just a little bit easier. It has the best charging dock of any smartwatch yet, and because it supports the Qi protocol, you can just toss it on any wireless charger may already have on your desk (it worked fine on the Nokia DT-900 charger, for instance). It's also dust and water resistant, and the screen feels rock solid. It's easy to like.
Battery life, while not as dreadful as some have said, is worse than the other two Android Wear watches, and it's also a tad slower. I wish it had a faster, more efficient processor. You shouldn't have to disable ambient mode to get 24 hours on a charge. It's a bit thicker than the other two Wear watches (but because it's rounded it doesn't catch on things very easily). The mic seems to be a bit less sensitive than the other watches, too, and it occasionally struggled to hear me or respond to an "Okay Google…"
There are definitely some software gremlins, too. In addition to Android Wear still feeling like an advanced beta, there would be occasional snags, like a third-party app being rotated 90 degrees for some reason, which is something I've only seen happen on the 360 (but, to be fair, it only happened with one app, so it could be an isolated problem). The heart rate stuff would be much more useful if you could always see it at a glance, or if it integrated with an app on your phone or in the cloud. On its own, most people wouldn't know what to do with that data.
Despite its flaws, we are still calling this our favorite Android Wear watch yet. It looks great, it feels great, and it generally works very well. So, if you're sure you want an Android Wear watch, then yes, go ahead and get this one. We think you'll probably like it. At $250 it's $50 more than the Samsung and $20 more than the LG, but we think it's worth it to have a smartwatch that's this attractive.
That said, there is work to be done, and much of it is on Google. If Apple really can deliver everything it's promising the Apple Watch can do by next spring, then it will simply blow Android Wear out of the water. Full stop. And I say that as a longtime Android user. The Moto 360 still has a chance to be the best smartwatch out there—and it probably is right now—but if it wants to remain on top, it's going to need to improve in meaningful ways, and quickly.