The Apple Watch recently celebrated its first birthday, and although a second version is widely rumored to debut later this year, the original is still hanging tough. Apple’s smartwatch reportedly commands just over half of the global market at this point, and this spring’s price drop potentially makes it even more attractive to new buyers.
Still, $300 for the entry-level Sport model isn’t cheap, and that’s for the 38mm model—anyone with larger wrists will probably drop $350 for the 42mm size, and potentially much more for the stainless steel model or fancier bands. It’s a device that millions have come to rely on for helping them stay more connected, more fit, and more aware of the world around us, but the Apple Watch remains a pricey supplement to an iPhone.
Looking for an alternative? Pebble’s watches are one, with the current Pebble Time recently sinking in price, but there’s another option you might not know about: Android Wear watches.
True story! The various Google-backed, Android-powered smartwatches became compatible with the iPhone in late 2015, and while there are pricier models that land squarely in Apple Watch territory, the wider range also means cheaper options are out there. And the refurbished/used market makes it much easier to find a device on the cheap.
Granted, you get a lot less functionality with Android Wear watches via an iPhone, but the price difference compared to an Apple Watch could add a lot of upside to the downgrade. Here’s what you need to know if you want an Android on your wrist with an Apple in your pocket.
What is Android Wear?
Android Wear is Google’s smartwatch platform, but while Google makes the core software that all of the watches run, the company doesn’t manufacture any of its own watches. That’ll be a familiar approach to anyone who has used or browsed Android phones, but Google doesn’t even have a branded smartwatch like its line of Nexus phones and tablets.
Since the first models came out in June 2014, more than 15 watches have been released from various manufacturers, including Motorola, Samsung, Sony, LG, Huawei, and Asus. The array of different makers means every Android Wear watch is unique in look and materials, unlike the Apple Watch, and some offer larger batteries or include GPS—so there’s more flexibility, too.
However, since they all run the same Android Wear platform, all the watches essentially act identically in software usage when running the latest version. Nearly all Android Wear watches are dependent on your phone for connectivity, although apps can run natively on the watch and you can, say, listen to music via Bluetooth headphones without needing your phone.
What are my options?
According to Google, the following watches are compatible with an iPhone 5 or newer running iOS 8.2 or later: The Asus ZenWatch 2, Fossil Q Founder, Huawei Watch, LG Watch Urbane, Motorola Moto 360 (2nd Gen), Moto 360 Sport, and Moto 360 for Women, and the TAG Heuer Connected. The new Casio Smart Outdoor Watch also lists compatibility on the Google Store.
However, that’s not a complete accounting of available watches. Earlier Android Wear devices like the first-gen Moto 360 and the LG G Watch and G Watch R also work, although users have noted needing to perform a factory reset on the watch to perform the pairing. It’s likely that any newer Android Wear watch will work fine with an iPhone, and it doesn’t hurt to search around to see whether an older device will, as well.
On the low end, the Asus ZenWatch 2 offers a surprisingly capable device for just $150 in 45mm and 49mm sizes. Meanwhile, the glossy and pristine Huawei Watch starts at $400—but that’s with stainless steel and a sapphire crystal watch face included, which will set you back a cool $550 on the standard Apple Watch.
The Moto 360 is probably the best-known of the Android Wear pack, and as mentioned above, Motorola has expanded the line a bit for the second round, adding in a Sport model with a silicone band and GPS tracker, as well as a sleek and smaller Moto 360 for Women model. The base 2nd Gen model starts at $300 for a 42mm model, with the 46mm option sold for $350.
The ZenWatch 2 sells for half the price of the smaller Apple Watch Sport, but if you look at the older Android Wear devices—that is, the ones not still sold in the Google Store, but potentially found elsewhere—you might discover bargains.
That’s especially true if you consider refurbished or used models: I picked up a refurbished LG G Watch for $50 on eBay a year ago, less than one year after it hit stores, and it’s pristine and highly functional. It’s not the nicest smartwatch I’ve ever had on my wrist, what with its large case, loads of bezel, and generic rubber strap. You typically get what you pay for when you buy a cheaper alternative—then again, I paid $50, and it works perfectly with my iPhone.
How do I pair it?
It’s a pretty easy process, actually. Google has an Android Wear app available from the iOS App Store, and once that’s installed on your phone, you can pair the device through there. You’ll match the code shown on your watch to the one seen in the app, and then it’ll complete setup from there.
The Android Wear app is used to manage your watch, including applying software updates in the future, plus it’s your pathway to new watch faces: Unlike the Apple Watch, Android Wear has downloadable faces available. However, while third-party developers can offer them up for free or premium download on an Android phone, here you’ll just have to choose from a collection of 20-plus free faces that Google picked from the pack.
There’s one key difference with the way Android Wear and the Apple Watch work with your iPhone, however: You’ll have to keep the Android Wear app running at all times on the phone to keep data flowing to the watch. If you’re an avid app-closer, you’ll need to remember to keep it running in the background, otherwise your smartwatch won’t be very smart at all.
What can it do?
Well, Android Wear devices tell time impeccably when linked to an iPhone, so they are definitely watches. Besides that, the biggest benefit you’ll get in day-to-day usage is likely wrist-based notifications. As on the Apple Watch, your various app and communication alerts are forwarded to the watch, letting you stay on top of things without pulling out your phone.
Notifications are handled as cards: Scrolling up or down lets you see the alerts from various apps on a separate screen, whether it’s email, Twitter, or an app notification, plus they’ll stack within the same app listing. For example, if you have a dozen new Gmail notifications, you can expand that stack to see a preview of each new email on your wrist, rather than have each appear as a totally separate full-screen card.
Google Now is essentially Android Wear’s solution to Siri, letting you say “OK Google” from the watch’s face screen and ask out a command. You can request a web search, for example, if you need a quick fact, an image, local movie times, a sports score, or nearly anything else. Should you pull up a listing with a little phone-like icon and an arrow next to it, you can open up the full page in a browser via the Android Wear app on your phone.
Beyond voice search, Google Now is also used to provide contextual cards based on your Google usage, location, and more—a weather and traffic card to start your day, for example, or a heads-up on an incoming package delivery based on an email via your Gmail account.
You’ll also find a handful of core functions in the form of apps, which are located by swiping left from the face screen. Many are time-centric—setting alarms, a stopwatch, or a timer, plus a world clock—but there’s also a compass, your agenda, and the super handy Translate feature that’ll help you carry international conversations on your wrist. There’s also Google Fit, which I’ll talk about in the next section.
What do I miss?
Quite a lot, although some features may sting more than other based on your needs and daily routine. Notably, the Android Wear watch doesn’t integrate with the iPhone’s communication functionality—so if you read a text message on your wrist, you can’t speak out a quick reply, nor can you dictate a new message with your voice. Google Now just doesn’t know what to do when you ask, unlike Siri.
If you get a call, you can accept or reject it on your wrist… but if you accept the call, it’ll just open on your phone anyway. Many of the older Android Wear watches, including my LG G Watch, don’t have a speaker for two-way communication—just the microphone for spoken searches and commands. Whatever the case, the watch opts to hand off that task to the iPhone once you’ve made your decision.
Crucially, Android Wear watches also don’t have third-party apps on iPhone. As of now, you only have access to the functions provided by Google or the watch maker—there aren’t app experiences or games that you can play when paired with an iPhone.
Granted, watch-based gaming isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but what about the helpful at-a-glance apps that we love on Apple Watch? There’s none of that on Android Wear via iPhone, and currently no way for developers to extend their iPhone apps onto the Android watches. Hopefully that’s something we see down the line, but I’d guess it doubtful that Google and app makers alike will find it worth much hassle to satisfy what’s surely a small niche of users.
Between what’s on your watch and what the Android Wear app offers, you’ll find at least 35 different watch faces to choose from—significantly more than the Apple Watch, at present. But you can’t customize them: There’s no photo face, whether with one image or a rotating selection, nor the ability to tweak the look, style, or complications shown.
As for fitness, your functionality is determined by the watch. My two-year-old LG G Watch tracks my steps via Google Fit, but it doesn’t have a heart rate monitor, so that’s not available. Whatever your watch’s functionality, the Fit data doesn’t play nice with Apple’s Health as of this writing, so your data won’t funnel into the native iPhone tracking app.
Is it worth it?
If you already have an Android Wear watch for some reason, the addition of iPhone compatibility is a great perk. Did you switch from an Android phone to an iPhone but still had a watch? Get one as a gift? Win one in a contest? Whatever the case, if you have a Wear watch, it’s usable with your iPhone.
Furthermore, if you absolutely hate the uniform look of the Apple Watch, or conversely are in love with one of the Android Wear options, then you’ve got options. Apple decided to make one core Watch style that everyone can wear and tweak in small ways, while Google’s platform allows for many different kinds of approaches. Personal style is important, perhaps even more so than functionality for some people.
In my eyes, the best argument for using an Android Wear watch is for someone who doesn’t want to spend a lot of money and only needs basic functionality. If you don’t plan on using apps or games on your phone and just want a heads-up when you have a new message, email, or app alert, then Android Wear might suit your needs.
Back in 2014, I argued that the original Pebble could be a “gateway smartwatch” for anyone eager to start using a connected wearable before the Apple Watch released. Now, I suppose, my argument isn’t completely different with Android Wear on iPhone: If you’re not willing to spend at least $300 for an Apple Watch as your first smartwatch, you might be able to get a Wear device for much less and ease yourself into smartwatch usage.
There’s a significant difference in functionality between the Apple Watch and an iPhone-paired Android Wear watch, and to the avid Apple user who wants the complete watch experience, Android Wear might seem like a pale imitation. Given the choice, I personally opt to wear the Apple Watch daily, and get the broader functionality provided by Apple’s device.
But on the cheap, and Android Wear watch just might do enough to warrant saving upwards of a couple hundred bucks for some iPhone users. At least the choice is yours to make—unlike Android phone users who will probably never wield an Apple Watch.