Wear OS: The essential guide

All you need to know about Google's smartwatch OS
What is Wear OS?
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Sure, you know what Wear OS is. You're a regular reader of Wareable – the web's biggest authority on wearable devices.


But do you really know everything about the Google's smartwatch OS? Do you know exactly what Wear does and how it works, and what the best Wear smartwatches are? And do you know the must-have Wear apps and all of the platform's hidden secrets?

Do you know why Google changed the platform's name from Android Wear to Wear OS? And that there's some big changes happening to the platform right now.

Well, fear not, we've got your back if you're unsure of anything related to Wear, so read on and get up to speed.

What is Wear OS?

Announced at its I/O conference way back in March 2014, Android Wear became Google's first dedicated smartwatch OS, based, of course, on the hugely successful Android smartphone platform. Four years later, and Google has now decided to rebrand the platform, dropping 'Android' from the name and adding 'OS' in order to make things more appealing to iOS users. It's a bit of a mouthful, but Android Wear is now officially 'Wear OS by Google'.

But despite the refreshed logo and name, this is still pretty much the same experience. Wear is still based on the same Linux kernel as its smartphone brethren, and developers will need the latest version of Android Studio and the SDKs in order to cook up new apps, or amend their current ones for Wear OS compatibility.

Android Wear: The essential guide

Unless you're developing apps, all you really need to know is that it's a version of Android designed for the smaller screen of a smartwatch. You'll also need a phone with Bluetooth connectivity on board, but nowadays we'd say that's a given.

Wear is still a better experience through Android smartphones, despite the rebrand, but things have improved since Wear 2.0 landed in February 2017. Read our guide to using Wear with iOS for more details.

Windows Phone users – sorry, there's no room for you in the Wear party. But you didn't really expect to get in, did you? Even with your new brogues on. Not a chance.

Looks aren't skin deep

Wear is as pure as the driven snow. There are no skinned user interfaces here and not a manufacturer tweak in sight. For vanilla-OS enthusiasts, this is welcome news, and we're sure developers will be delighted, too.

It also should have meant that updates were rolled out for all manufacturers at the same time, but the rollout of Wear 2.0 showed us that this isn't always the case.

The ability to connect to Wi-Fi networks when you're out and about only extends to smartwatches with the right hardware – more on this later. And not every Wear watch is able to update to the latest versions of Wear.

It also means that your Wear experience will be more or less the same no matter what smartwatch you decide to slap on your wrist and, great news, it means your chosen tech timepiece will work with any Android handset.

Wear OS: The essential guide

So, the Michael Kors Access Runway plays just as nicely with the Sony Xperia phone as it does with the Pixel 2. 'Manufacturer agnostic' would be the technical way of putting it – 'a welcome relief' is how we'd describe it.

Actually, we did tell a slight lie. Your Wear OS experience may not be quite the same across all devices. And that's because it's an OS designed to work on both rectangular and circular displays – but we'll deal with that later.

That doesn't mean that Wear OS watches aren't unique. The platform allows for a lot more personalisation from brands; watch faces, specific apps, custom controls etc.


David Singleton, the man who was running the Wear show for Google until late 2017, told us that "Comparing the first-generation of Wear fashion watches, to what we're seeing now, you can really see that we've incorporated a lot of the feedback from these partners so that the watch can feel like a lot more like a watch designed by that company.

"Sure, the apps are going to be the same, but every single pixel on the watch face is something the partner has intimate control over. The functions and the watch faces and any apps they want promoted on the device – that's completely up to them."

How does Wear OS work?

Wear OS, being dedicated to smartwatches, is understandably focused on a couple of key areas – the first being time-telling and the second being notifications.

You might scoff at a time-telling feature, but it's probably the thing that you'll use the most. You'll have a number of pre-selected watch faces to choose from – some swanky, some not so swanky (Tag Heuer has the swankiest) – and it's as easy as pressing and holding the display to scroll through them.

If you can't find one you like, take a look on Google Play and you'll find hundreds, if not thousands, to choose from.

All existing Wear devices are catered for, with round and square designs, and while the initial range back in 2014 was a little limited, Wear 2.0 really upped the watch face game.

In Wear 2.0, you're able to view data from different third-party apps on the watch face, just like complications on the Apple Watch.

Wear OS: The essential guide

As with the propriety platforms we've seen so far, notifications play a big part of the Wear OS experience. You'll get notified about incoming texts, WhatsApp messages, tweets you're mentioned in, Facebook updates, emails and more. The whole shebang.

Worried that this will all get a bit annoying? Worry not – you can manage the notifications on your smartphone's companion app and you can even blacklist app notifications on your smartwatch itself.

Get used to talking to your watch

Like Google Glass before it, a great deal of the Wear experience is driven by you saying, “Ok Google," followed by an instruction. “Remind me… take a note… send a text… navigate to…" that sort of thing. Especially given that Wear 2.0 brought Google Assistant into the mix.

One killer feature is the ability to set defaults in the companion app. So, for example, you can select to use the Lyft app when you say, “Ok Google call a taxi," or have Evernote record your thoughts when you say, “Ok Google, take a note".

Wear OS: The essential guide

Your Wear watch is active as soon as you lift your arm and is ready and waiting for your “Ok Google" instructions.

If you want to dictate messages to send, be aware that you'll need to enable contact recognition through your smartphone's security settings.

Wear smartwatches, like the Huawei Watch 2 let you make and take calls through Bluetooth, and LTE-enabled watches let you do so without the need to be tethered to your smartwatch.

Make sure you also read our guide to using voice commands on your Wear smartwatch.

Wear OS app action

We've mentioned apps a few times now, so it's only fair we explain just how they work on Wear.

On Wear OS devices running original software (i.e. not Wear 2.0), apps were installed through your phone and the regular Google Play store. Apps that have Wear compatibility either linked up with your smartwatch and offered you control options (such as navigating your Spotify tracks or getting turn-by-turn directions from Google Maps) or presented to you a mini app within the watch itself. Runkeeper was a good example of this; it provides a nice tracking UI for when you're out on a jog.

Wear OS: The essential guide


Wear 2.0 changed the game with standalone apps and a Play Store directly on the smartwatch itself. You don't need to install Wear apps on your phone with 2.0 – just the watch itself – as the newer OS doesn't require the two to be paired.

There are more than 5,000 Wear apps, with hundreds of these being of the standalone variety.

Be sure to check out our best Wear apps round-up for our pick of the ever-growing bunch and take a butcher's at our step-by-step guide to installing Wear apps.

What about the Wear OS updates?

Google's 17 new Android Wear watch faces

You may have heard about Wear 2.0, Wear 5.1 or even Wear Oreo; but none of these were official monikers… until recently, at least.

The first ever Wear update added GPS support for the platform, meaning that you could go running and track your stats without the need for smartphone tethering with a compatible app – if your watch has GPS connectivity that is.

A second update also arrived in December 2014, adding support for downloadable watch faces, making it much easier for devs to offer up designs and, more importantly, it's now a doddle for users to grab new designs.

Another update, announced in April 2015, added the always-on app feature and the gesture controls we've already mentioned, along with Wi-Fi connectivity and emojis.

A tweak in August 2015 added the interactive watch faces and watch-to-watch communications using Google's Together app.

The "most significant Wear update" so far – Google's words, not ours – was Wear 2.0, which arrived in February 2017 and which we've talked about throughout this guide.

It brought with it standalone apps, improved fitness tracking, expanded watch faces, new input methods, extra functionality for iPhone users, Android Pay (now Google Pay), Google Assistant and a whole new design. Check out the image below – pretty swanky right?

android wear guide

Another update, landing in December 2017, was the Wear Oreo update. Instead of the overhaul we saw with 2.0, Oreo for Wear is more incremental update. Things like adjusting the vibration strength of notifications, a new touch lock feature and support for different languages and regions are now on board.

Then, as we mentioned up top, the Android Wear brand was dropped in March 2018 in favour of 'Wear OS by Google'.

Since then, Google has issued two pretty major updates for its platform. The first being a dramatic overhaul of its Google Fit platform. Google is also redesigning the Wear OS UI and bringing a new smart assistant that should be better designed for the wrist.

Which Wear OS smartwatch is for you?

More than 50 Wear OS models have hit the shops in the last few years, with big name fashion brands such as Tag Heuer, the Fossil Group and Casio all now involved. Check out our Wear OS hub page for all the latest reviews.

Wear OS hidden features

There's also a plethora of hidden Wear secrets and hidden features we haven't told you about yet. From running a full web browser on your wrist to having a mini-launcher installed on your smartwatch, hop on over to our guide to the best Wear hidden features and find out all about them.

Then, and only then, can you really be considered an authority on Wear OS.