Hands-on: Android Wear 5.1.1 update greatly improves usability and adds WiFi support

Google started rolling out Android 5.1.1 for Android Wear devices. The update provides significant upgrades and enhancements, including support for WiFi and a new app launcher.

One of the main reasons I bought a Sony SmartWatch 3, check out my full review, was because of the integrated GPS and WiFi radios that made the device future-proof. It turns out, part of that future is here now with the Android 5.1.1 update.

My Sony SmartWatch 3 has mostly sat idle while I've been using my Apple Watch, primarily because it was frustrating to do things unless you focused on voice commands. ZDNet's Kevin Tofel mentioned that a new software updatewas coming with significant user interface improvements and more.

My update arrived yesterday and the user experience has been greatly improved. The following features are listed on the Google website:

  • Always-on screen, always-on apps: Most Android Wear watches include an always-on screen-no tapping, twisting or shaking required to see what time it is. Now we're expanding this option to apps, so they can stay visible as long as you need them, instead of disappearing when you drop your arm. Perfect for running, navigating, or grocery shopping.
  • New launcher & Wrist gestures: Now you can access your apps and contacts by simply swiping left from the watch face. Android Wear also now responds to specific navigation gestures so you can scroll between cards with a simple flick of the wrist. Learn more with our YouTube video.
  • Draw emojis: In response to texts, instant messages, or emails, you can now send emojis to your contacts by drawing them on your watch screen. The watch will recognize the emoji you drew and send it via whichever messaging app you're using. Give it a try by selecting "Draw emoji" whenever you're replying to a message.
  • Heads-up notifications: Incoming notifications like text messages will now appear on-screen even when you're looking at something else on your watch, like directions or fitness stats, so you won't miss anything important.
  • Switching watches made easier: The Android Wear companion app now lets you pair your phone with more than one watch at a time - ideal for swapping watches to match your style.
  • Change your font size: Want to see more text on your watch screen? Or less? You can now adjust the font size from your watch's settings.
  • Lock your watch's screen: Want to lock your watch's screen when you're not wearing it? Turn on the new "Screen lock" feature from your watch's settings. When enabled, if your watch detects you're not wearing it (or it loses the connection to your phone) for a period of time, then your specified swipe pattern will be required to unlock it.
  • WiFi support: One of the most exciting features of this Android Wear update is Wi-Fi support. If your watch has Wi-Fi, your watch can automatically connect to saved Wi-Fi networks when it loses the Bluetooth connection with your phone. This lets your watch and phone to automatically stay synced at any distance over the Internet. That way you can get notifications and use voice search on your watch throughout your home and work when you leave your phone in a different room.

I've been disappointed with Android Wear after using my Apple Watch and after a day of use I am very satisfied with these improvements. The ability to just swipe once to access my key apps and then once more to interact with friends is awesome.

Sketching out emojis sounds difficult on such a small display, but you just have to get close and then choose from options that Google presents. Unlike the Apple Watch, your handwritten sketch is not was is sent, but is just used to filter and try to match your sketch. I've been amazed at the results Google is providing with my terrible sketching and am having lots of fun sending these to my girls.

I'm still struggling to get the wrist gestures working right and highly recommend you check out the video embedded in this post to see what to expect.

The display, really the fonts, disappointed me on the Sony SmartWatch 3 before, but the new text sizing makes the device very readable and enjoyable.

You may not know that the Apple Watch also supports local WiFi connections and the Android Wear update provides very similar functionality. The WiFi support will be available on the LG Watch Urbane, Moto 360, Sony Smartwatch 3, and Samsung Gear Live.

This Android Wear release is rolling out gradually in the coming days and weeks. My Sony SmartWatch 3 received the update yesterday, which was the first time I checked on its availability.