These smartwatches are getting an upgrade from Google. Source:

Android Wear is getting a major update coinciding with the release of Apple's (AAPL -1.04%) smartwatch entry, the Apple Watch. Google (GOOG 1.44%) (GOOGL 1.89%) is adding several new features that make watches using its operating system more appealing in light of the new competition.

Meanwhile, Google has kept the ability to customize Android Wear low compared to Android for smartphones and tablets, which has caused several manufacturers to experiment with homegrown solutions. These updates keep Android Wear's feature set compelling enough to keep most OEMs from venturing out on their own.

W-iFi support untethers you from your phone
The most notable feature from the new update is Wi-Fi support, which lets users move beyond their phone's bluetooth range and still get notifications and take phone calls.

The most impressive feature is that you don't even need to be on the same Wi-Fi network in order to connect to your smartphone. Google accomplishes this trick by utilizing its cloud services. You can even ask your Android Wear watch to find your smartphone if you lost it somewhere.

That feature sets Android Wear apart from home-grown OSes from manufacturers, since they don't have the same cloud infrastructure as Google. Of course, the feature requires manufacturers to include Wi-Fi capabilities in their devices, but many already have the necessary hardware laying dormant.

The Apple Watch, comparatively, can connect to an iPhone via Wi-Fi, but it's required to be on the same Wi-Fi network. Unlike most OEMs, however, Apple is building its own cloud infrastructure and could provide similar capabilities to Android Wear with a software update. Still, this is a pretty big advantage for Android Wear over Apple Watch -- for the time being.

The flip side of new Wi-Fi support is that it could have a negative impact on battery life if a smartwatch is constantly looking for a Wi-Fi signal. Battery life is the main reason OEMs are trying to take more control over their devices' OSes.

Always-On apps will help attract developers
Another feature Google added is the ability for apps to remain on even when a user isn't looking at them. Google will save battery by converting the display to black and white, but it will keep the app running. The company gives the example of a grocery list or map as apps that could use the feature. It's also useful for music and fitness apps.

Google isn't just appealing to manufacturers' cries for better battery life, it's also appealing to app developers. Being able to keep an app open on a smartwatch could open the doors for better app engagement or utility. Attracting developers is key, especially as more Apple Watches get out into the wild and developers are able to physically tinker with the device. Third-party apps are just as key to an operating system as its main feature set.

Communicate with a drawing
Straight out of Apple's playbook, Google added the ability to draw emojis on Android Wear devices. While it won't send the actual drawing to your friends like the Apple Watch, it will try to find the emoji you're trying to draw, like a smiley face or a thumbs-up.

The feature comes on the heels of Google's new handwriting app for Android. That app could ultimately make its way into Android Wear, particularly in Asia -- where handwriting is the primary input on smartphones and tablets. The Apple Watch has already seen a lot of success in China -- where Google doesn't participate -- and Apple controls a large share of the Japanese market.

The Apple Watch's digital touch input appears designed for China and other countries, where symbols equate to words. The new feature from Google could enable Android Wear users in those countries to communicate with smartphones and tablets more easily, as opposed to Apple's strict watch-to-watch communication method.

An exciting update
There's a lot to like about the new Android Wear update, but Google is still relying on other companies to create compelling hardware and software to take full advantage of its operating system. With the pushback it's received in the past, Google will need to continue innovating and leveraging its unique advantages (like its cloud services for Wi-Fi connectivity) to maintain its position in wearables.

Meanwhile, the launch of the Apple Watch appears to be Apple's most successful product launch yet. Adoption at this point is less about features, and more about the company behind it.

Don't forget, one of Apple's biggest strengths is that the Apple Watch works seamlessly with the iPhone. Until Google figures out how to implement iPhone compatibility in Android Wear, that's a huge section of the market it simply can't reach.