Android Wear 5.1 launches
Android Wear 5.1 will roll out to all seven smartwatches in the next few weeks and bring always on apps, emoji recognition and Wi-Fi support Google

Google has updated its Android Wear software ahead of the launch of Apple's much anticipated Watch launch on 24 April.

Google got there first with its smartwatch platform, yet despite this, early indications suggest that Apple has sold more of its Watch in the 10 days it has been on sale, than all the Android Wear manufacturers (Motorola, LG and Samsung etc) have combined in the 10 months they have been on sale.

Google however has promised new features for its wearable platform and in the first major update to Android Wear 5.0, the company has added a significant number of new features, including gestures and the ability to use your smartwatch without being connected to your phone.

Here are the most significant updates included in Android Wear 5.1:

  • Hands free: Flick your wrist outward to advance to the "next card" in the stream. Flick your wrist inward to go to the "previous card" in the stream. Glances when you turn your wrist to look at the phone make getting info really fast and easy, no hands required.
  • Phone free with Wi-Fi: Android Wear has already had features like offline music and GPS but it has now added support for Wi-Fi making it possible to leave your phone behind yet remain connected. As long as your phone is online (cellular data or Wi-Fi) and your watch is connected to an available Wi-Fi network, they will be able to work together (doesn't have to be the same network). Most smartwatches already have a Wi-Fi chip which has been waiting for Google to switch on the feature.
  • Always-on apps: You can already set most watches to always show you the time without having to move it around. Now Google has extended this feature to apps, meaning that you can have a particular app on show on your wrist for as long as you need it, which could be handy for apps like maps or shopping lists. Be warned that it will kill the already poor battery life of most watches even faster.
  • Draw Emoji to reply to messages: Typing on smartwatches is a pretty frustrating experience and dictating using your voice is not always possible so in a bid to circumvent these restrictions, Android Wear 5.1 will let you quickly reply to a message (using SMS, Hangouts or any messaging app) by just drawing an emoji on your watch face. Android Wear will recognise the closest emoji and send it over.

The new features will come to all seven Android Wear watches currently on the market, with the LG Watch Urbane the first to get the update followed by a wider rollout "over the next few weeks".

But there's more...

However the new update will also bring some additional features Google forgot to tell us about. According to Sony, which details what the new software will mean for Smartwatch 3 owners, the new software will allow for pop-up notifications and adjustable font sizes. Here is the relevant piece from Sony's blog:

  • Much like your Android smartphone, the new Android Wear update will bring pop up notifications (even when you're looking at something else), meaning you'll never miss anything important
  • New adjustable font sizes... will let you can see more or less of the text on-screen

While these new features are unlikely to convince many people to buy a smartwatch, they will at least offer some added value.

The updates are unlikely to impact significantly the launch of the Apple Watch which goes on sale in nine countries around the world with pre-orders reaching such levels that those ordering now face a wait until June to get their hands on the new device.

Apple has not given any indication of how many Watch units have been ordered, but reports suggest that over three million people have ordered one of Apple's wearables and the company is likely to give more details on Friday 24 April when the Watch finally goes on sale – or during its quarterly results on Monday 27 April.