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Apple Watch vs. Android Wear: A reality check

Apple Watch vs. Android Wear: A reality check

The first Apple smartwatch doesn't bury Google's efforts, but it shows the way forward

Before Apple announced its first smartwatch on Tuesday, some tech pundits were convinced that Apple would reimagine wearable technology in a way that no other smartwatches have. Some wondered whether the final product would resemble a watch at all, or even have a screen.

In reality, the newly announced Apple Watch isn't a major departure from today's smartwatches--especially those running Google's Android Wear platform. It's more of a refinement, with some clever ideas that will help Apple stand out. Instead of blindsiding the competition, Apple has shown them the way forward.

With that in mind, let's break down exactly what the Apple Watch does, and what Android Wear will need to compete.

Design

Give Apple credit for this much: Its watches look sharp--at least given the limitations of current technology--with lots of watch face stylings and band materials. Apple also did the smart thing and announced large and small watch sizes, acknowledging that not all wrists are the same.

Can Android Wear respond? In theory, Google should have no problem matching Apple on the customization front. Android Wear is available to a broad range of device makers as well as fashion firms. (Fossil, for instance, is expected to release an Android Wear device later this year.) But so far, the options are slim, and no one's managed to make an Android Wear watch that looks great on smaller wrists.

Mobile Payments and Passes

With an Apple Watch, users can pay at certain stores without taking anything out of their pockets, instead tapping their wrists against supported payment terminals. The Watch will also provide fast access to Passbook for tickets, boarding passes and loyalty cards. If it works as advertised, it could be one of Apple Watch's best features.

Can Android Wear respond? Google has a fundamental problem here, in that wireless carriers have conspired against the competing Google Wallet payment service in favor of their own solution. Perhaps Apple's presence will boost the adoption of tap-to-pay terminals at retail, but there's no guarantee Google Wallet will get the broad support it needs. Besides, it's a moot point unless Android Wear watches start shipping with NFC support.

Fitness

Apple Watch's accelerometer and heart rate monitor isn't much different from what's available on Android Wear devices, but Apple plans to blend that data together in a more cohesive way. Instead of just counting steps and checking your pulse, the Watch will distinguish between movement and brisk exercise by factoring in heart rate data, and will let you know when you've been sitting for too long.

Can Android Wear respond? In theory, there's nothing stopping Google or third-party developers from creating similar apps for Android Wear, and upcoming GPS support will at least let users track their run distance without taking a phone with them. But so far, there aren't any Wear apps that constantly monitor your overall fitness on the same level that Apple Watch promises.

Communications

The Apple Watch will have a speaker and a microphone, so users can answer calls from a nearby phone and use the watch like a wrist-bound walkie-talkie. Apple Watch users can also draw little pictures for each other, and answer text messages with voice, emoji, or preset responses that change based on what you've written in the past.

Can Android Wear respond? Currently, Android Wear doesn't support speakers, so phone calls are out of the question. And compared to Apple's approach, Android Wear's rigid text responses seem impersonal. While Android Wear is useful for firing off quick text messages and emails by voice, it has some work to do on the communication front.

Notifications

Much like Android Wear, the Apple Watch will provide actionable notifications, letting you quickly respond to messages, calendar appointments and social media mentions from your wrist. App developers will be able customize the look and feel of these notifications as well.

Can Android Wear respond? Actionable notifications are a key feature of Android Wear, and some popular apps such as Twitter and WhatsApp are already taking full advantage of the software. Google has a solid foundation to build from, though it could give users more control over the frequency and priority of notifications.

Battery

Apple isn't talking specifics on battery life, but says the Apple Watch should last through the day and is easy to charge with an included wireless dock. To conserve battery life, the display stays off until you raise your wrist.

Can Android Wear respond? It already has. While all current Android Wear watches require a nightly charge, the Moto 360 makes it easier with wireless docking.

Where Android Wear excels

Clearly, the Apple Watch's capabilities and design go beyond what Google has done with Android Wear. But in a way, that's an advantage that Google can exploit. While the Apple Watch has lots of ideas and several interface layers to dig through, Android Wear is meant to require very little interaction, providing useful information at just the right time.

If Google can refine the product to match its vision, Android Wear will still be a credible response to the Apple Watch. With Apple's first wearable not due to launch until early next year, there's plenty of time for Google and its hardware partners to get it right.

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