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Wear Weekly: A Closer Look at the Marshmallow Update

March 4, 2016 - Written By Tom Dawson

Some time ago, Google themselves took wraps off of the Marshmallow update for Android Wear, and this week it finally started rolling it out to more watches. The Moto 360 was predictably first in line for the latest Android Wear update, but recently the Fossil Q Founder and popular Huawei Watch have joined the Marshmallow club as well. This now means the majority of Android Wear smartwatches out there have Marshmallow installed. As such, this means that we’ve managed to get our hands on what’s new in this update. On the surface, it doesn’t appear that much has changed, but as the update snuck onto our Fossil, we’ve noticed a few differences and of course, a few new features as well. So, let’s see just what’s changed in this bump from Android 5.1.1 to Android 6.0.1.

Calls

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Right now, an exclusive club of just two members with the ability to make and take phone calls from their wrist has opened its doors. Those two watches would be the Huawei Watch and the ASUS ZenWatch 2 (only the larger 48mm versions, bizarrely). Unfortunately, we don’t have one of these on hand to test, but the handling of calls has at least changed in terms of look and feel on Marshmallow no matter which watch you’ve got. An incoming call now looks a little cleaner, and when you swipe up to get access to your canned SMS responses, they appear transparently over the top of the person calling. Which is actually more useful than you’d think, you wouldn’t send that message you send your significant other to your boss now, would you?

Permissions

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Since this version of Android was first announced simply as “Android M”, permissions have been a big focus of what Google wanted to improve with the OS, and it’s now trickled down to our watches. There’s now a new “Permissions” menu in the Settings menu, and within there, all the apps that have some sort of permission on your watch are listed one after the other. Opening them up will reveal what permissions they have “enabled” and from there, users can disable them.

As an example, let’s take a look at Google Fit, which I don’t use as I wear a Microsoft Band. I can see that Fit has access to my location and sensors. For me, there’s no point in letting Fit have this access, so tapping them will “Disable” these permissions for Fit. The icons all fit in with the Material Design of Android Wear, and they’re easily-understood as well. It’s not perfect, but this is a good example of bringing more granularity to such a platform without overloading users.

Messaging Improvements

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When LG’s Watch Urbane 2nd Edition launched last Fall – and was subsequently yanked from shelves – it launched with the curious ability to stand on its two feet, without the need for a smartphone nearby. Something clearly went wrong with the launch, but the Marshmallow update – sometimes referred to as Android Wear 1.4 – brings the calls feature to some watches, and presumably all future Android Wear watches. Google’s own SMS app, dubbed Messenger, has also been updated for better support for Android Wear. Now, users can create a conversation from their wrist or take a look through all of their previous conversations as well. Presumably, being able to look through previous conversations will help settle arguments at the bar, who knows? Regardless, it’s a nice little feature to have, but for those living more in the 21st Century, Google has added better support for other messaging apps, such as WhatsApp.

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Sending a WhatsApp message works just as you think it does, all you need to do is ask your watch to “send a WhatsApp message to Joe” and it gets right down to work. This now also works for Hangouts, Nextplus, Telegram, Viber, WeChat and presumably a lot more services, too. Personally, WhatsApp integration was one thing that I felt was missing from Android Wear, and it’s really nice to see this finally make its way to watches all over the place.

Better Battery Life

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With the introduction of Doze, Marshmallow got much better battery life on smartphones, and now this has carried over to Android Wear as well. In our testing, it’s difficult to see how big a difference this has made for Android Wear, but we’re assuming that people with a lot of different apps in use a lot of the time, or those that open and use lots of them throughout the day will benefit more than others. This is because Doze puts apps running in the background into a deeper state of sleep before Android 6.0.1, where apps would use almost as many resources when the device was asleep. For reference, the Fossil Q Founder we have here, at the time of finishing this piece up has 61% remaining battery at 16:45 in the afternoon (this Editor lives in the UK, not necessarily, the Future). Don’t take that little bit of info too seriously though, as the Fossil Q Founder has fairly mediocre battery life, and its display is set to always-on.

Miscellaneous Tweaks

Google wouldn’t let an opportunity like this to pass them by without adding some extra polish to Android Wear, and so there are a few tweaks that might take some by surprise. The first of those is the lack of a Restart option in the settings. Much like the Lollipop update did a couple of years ago, the Restart option has now been removed from our wrists. A new addition has appeared in the settings in the form of the “Unpair watch from phone” option, and the Google app gets a little lick of paint, too. It now resembles the new icon the Internet giant introduced towards the end of last year, and there’s a new microphone icon when speaking a voice search, too.

Gestures get a little tweak here and there as well, and people can now open notifications with a gesture as well, rather than just scrolling through them all, but the main thing here is that the tutorials on both the watch and phone side of things are much better this time around.

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It does also appear as if Google have made Android Wear just a hair quicker this time around, as animations appear to be much smoother and a little quicker, too. Other than that however, it appears that a few features, some changes in behavior and more were the order of the day for this update. A bigger, more feature rich update to Android Wear will presumably be showcased during Google I/O, itself scheduled for this May. For now though, let us know how you’re enjoying the update to Android Wear in the comments and what you want to see hit Android Wear later this year.