Review: Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch
October 4, 2013
When a new tech product launches, reviewers usually come to some sort of consensus. Often something just clicks, and you see raves across the board. Other times, the product has obvious flaws, and critics are all equally quick to point those out. The early consensus for the Samsung Galaxy Gear, however, isn't quite jiving with us. Though it's been almost universally panned, we had a very different take on it. Why? Read on, as Gizmag gives you a different perspective on the new Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch.
Samsung really swung for the fence with the Galaxy Gear. Just about every major tech company is rumored to have been working on a smartwatch (including Apple), but Samsung moved quickly. Instead of gingerly feeling things out, eyeing its competitors' moves, and proceeding as conservatively as possible, the Korean company pushed ahead full throttle and made the most advanced smartwatch to date. It's chock full of features that, just a few months ago, were only the stuff of science fiction (and old Dick Tracy comics).
Like other smartwatches, the Gear alerts you to notifications, logs fitness data, and lets you control your music. But it also makes and receives phone calls, snaps photos and videos, runs apps, and even gives you a Siri-like voice control experience. And though it's a bit on the bulky side, it does all of that while, at least in our estimation, looking pretty stylish.
So why the backlash? Well, for starters, the Gear is only compatible with one phone at launch. And, oh yes, without a Bluetooth connection to that phone, the watch is basically a lifeless hunk of stainless steel sitting on your wrist. Others have complained about its battery life, skimpy launch app selection, lack of third-party notifications, and limited waterproofing. If you took these initial reactions at face value, you'd think the Gear was a certified dud, dead on arrival.
Before we get into our more welcoming reaction, though, it's worth noting that we agree that the Gear isn't for everyone. In fact, at the moment, it's quite literally only for owners of the Galaxy Note 3 phablet and the 2014 Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet (though we aren't quite sure why you'd want to pair it with a tablet).
We knew going into this, however, that compatibility was limited, so that shouldn't be a surprise. And very soon, the Gear will be compatible with two of the most popular smartphones ever made: the Galaxy S4 and Galaxy S III. Add the hot-selling Galaxy Note II to that list, and compatibility soon won't be nearly as big of an issue.
If Apple released its rumored iWatch, and it was only compatible with the latest iPhone and iPad – soon to be followed by the previous two iPhones – do you think the blowback here would be as hard? We doubt that very much, despite the millions of users who own recent Galaxy smartphones.
The Gear does have a lot of room for improvement. We agree that third-party notifications are a gaping hole, and its third-party app selection is nearly non-existent at launch (Evernote, RunKeeper, and an official eBay app are the highlights, among a pretty small crowd). But you know what? The things the Galaxy Gear does, it does very well.
Look and feel
First, the watch itself. We're looking at a 1.63-in square display set on a stainless steel face. The AMOLED screen is pretty sharp (278 pixels per inch) and is a good size for the things it does. We didn't have any problems with it in direct sunlight, an essential for a wearable device that includes fitness tracking.
Unlike the Pebble watch, with its low-powered "e-Paper" display, the Gear's display stays off most of the time. To turn it on, lift your wrist towards your face (you know, a typical "looking at your watch" gesture). Most of the time, this will turn it on. But if it doesn't, a quick little flick of your wrist will do the trick. There's also a lone button on the watch face's right side that will toggle the screen on and off.
The watch face is pretty thick at 11.1 mm, but it doesn't feel too big and bulky ... or at least it doesn't for a men's watch. Women's wrists and watches tend to be smaller, so we imagine the percentage of 1st-generation Gear buyers will lean very heavily towards men.
The Gear's band is a permanent part of the watch, and isn't swappable. That's because the device has a 1.9-megapixel camera, microphone, and speaker set into the wristband. The watch does come in several different colors, ranging from neutral blacks and grays to bolder oranges and greens.
Samsung threw in some basic waterproofing (IP55), which means it's protected from jets of water. We probably wouldn't take it in the shower, and you definitely don't want to immerse it in a swimming pool or bathtub. But it should be able to handle a little rain and the occasional splash. We don't think the lack of full submersion water resistance is that big of a deal, but your mileage may vary.
Swipe, tap, and talk
The Gear's software is basic, but we think it makes perfect sense. In the UI, each app icon fills the watch's entire 1.63-in display. Swipe sideways to move to the next app, tap to select, and swipe down to go back. Double tap anywhere with two fingers to see system info (Bluetooth status, remaining battery, and toggles for sound and brightness). Hold two fingers to see (and switch to) your recent apps.
The most important part of the Gear's software may be S Voice. We've never paid much heed to Samsung's Siri knock-off on Galaxy smartphones (Google Now is a much better choice on that front), but on the Gear it fills a key role. S Voice lets you dictate and send text messages, make calls, open apps, check the weather, and more. Just double-tap the watch's side button to activate, and speak your request.
In our experience, S Voice on the Gear worked well. We had no problems with its voice comprehension, and it sent messages, showed us the weather, and set timers flawlessly.
The biggest problem came when we tried to set reminders. It understood that we were setting a reminder, and it got the content of the reminder correct. But it refused to set it for a specific time. You can use S Voice to set a calendar event for a specific time, which achieves the same end, but setting a reminder for X time is a pretty basic flaw that Samsung would be wise to patch quickly.
As a whole, though, S Voice on the Gear takes a fairly intelligent voice assistant, and puts it on your wrist. This is some pretty groundbreaking stuff here, and, despite its imperfections, we don't think it's anywhere near as clunky as others have made it out to be.
Though the Gear won't (yet) display third-party app notifications from your phone, you do get the three core essentials: SMS, phone calls, and emails. You can set your watch to notify you with a sound, or you can stick with the default vibrating of your wrist (which can be adjusted between two levels of intensity). You can also silence it, while, say, in an important meeting.
Several other reviewers have reported that the Gear doesn't support email notifications. That's incorrect, as the Galaxy Gear does show you new emails. Where they don't work is from Google's Gmail app: it merely alerts you that you've received an email, but you have to check your phone to read it (not very useful, eh?).
But if you switch to the stock Samsung email app on your phone, you can read short emails on your watch. Of course Gmail is the better app, so this isn't a perfect solution. But Samsung's email app is decent enough, and it does display around the first 15 lines of each incoming email on your Galaxy Gear.
One thing the Gear won't let you do yet is send emails. That's a limitation of S Voice, and one that we hope Samsung remedies quickly. Emails tend to be longer than texts, so it's a somewhat understandable omission. But we would still love for the Gear to let us dictate emails from our wrists, as we can already do with text messages.
Before buying the Galaxy Gear, one of the biggest questions you'll want to ask yourself is how much of your online communication happens through social media. If you get a lot of notifications directly from services like Facebook and Twitter, then the Gear probably isn't the smartwatch for you ... at least not yet. The watch doesn't yet give you notifications from (or let you post to) those services, either natively or through third-party apps.
This might be a deal-breaker for you. We imagine there will be third-party solutions to help out there, and who knows, maybe Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. will eventually release their own apps. Hell, Snapchat is already on board, so some pretty popular social networks are already paying attention.
If you practically live on Facebook, we'd say hold off for the next batch of smartwatches. But if you don't do much social media, and communicate primarily through email, SMS, and phone calls, then you have nothing to worry about here.
Apps and calls
The Gear's other native apps include a pedometer, which works well without killing your battery. Like the Pebble, the Gear also has basic music controls that let you play/pause a song, advance to the next track, and adjust volume. You can't search for music on your device or in an app like Spotify, but that's another base that could be covered if developers get on board.
There's a photo gallery, for viewing and sharing the images and videos you snap on the Gear (as well as transferring them to your phone). There's a stock weather app, a phone dialer, a timer, and customizable watch faces. You have a notifications app, for scanning any alerts you might have missed. And you can customize the order in which all of these app tiles appear on the watch's UI, via the accompanying Gear Manager app for your phone.
Placing and receiving phone calls works well. The sound is clear (emanating from the clasp of the Gear's band), and we were told that we sounded very clear on the other end. Like anything else you do with the Gear, you can't stray too far from your phone, or the Bluetooth connection will break up (the call is still technically taking place on your phone). But calling is another mostly smooth, works-as-advertised experience ... as long as you don't mind having conversations with your wrist.
The Gear's camera was its most pleasant surprise. Megapixel counts aren't nearly as important as many think, but it's still hard to expect much from a 1.9 MP sensor. Samsung, however, far exceeded our expectations here. It's actually a very solid camera, all things considered.
Don't believe us? Here are a few sample shots, in various settings with different lighting:
Not too shabby for a 1.9 MP shooter, eh? You can also check out a few more samples in this review's image gallery.
Despite its surprisingly good photo quality, the best part of the Gear's camera is how quickly it lets you snap pics. Swipe down on the screen from the Gear's main watchface, and the camera app will launch. Then just touch the screen to snap the shutter. Apart from the unreleased Google Glass, the Gear probably gives you the most direct path from wherever you are to snapping a photo. It's fast, smooth, and seamless.
Like Google Glass, it could also be a little creepy how subtly you can take pictures. Most people wouldn't associate a couple swipes and taps on your watch as setting them up for a Kodak moment. But Samsung did give the Gear's camera a mandatory shutter sound, to help offset the creepshot factor.
Much ado has also been made of the Gear's supposedly subpar battery life, but we didn't find much to worry about there. Samsung says the Gear will last over 24 hours. Under our fairly heavy use, it averaged around 20 hours. That's going to be more than a full day for almost anybody, and that also included a lot of out-of-the-ordinary product testing usage. With more typical use, you're probably looking at around 25-30 hours on a single charge.
Our advice? Just charge it every night. If it lasts a full day, what's the problem? It isn't a black-and-white "e-Paper" watch, like the Pebble, and it has a much more robust feature set. For what the Gear does, we think its battery life is more than acceptable.
Speaking of charging, Samsung took a somewhat unique approach here. There's no charging port on the watch itself, which, aesthetically speaking, was probably a smart move. Instead you hook the Gear into an unusual NFC-equipped charging cradle, which has its own micro USB cable. Tapping your phone onto this accessory is also how you initially set up your Gear to pair with your phone.
The cradle is slightly awkward to plant the Gear into every night. Future smartwatches with wireless charging pads may be the way to go here. But we didn't have a big problem with the Gear's charging solution.
Amongst a chorus of boos, hisses, and splattered fruit, we think the Galaxy Gear is a breakthrough product. It's imperfect, but it's a very strong debut, and by far the most exciting wearable computing device that you can buy today.
When thinking about the press' generally negative response to the Gear, we can't help but remember Samsung's original Galaxy Note. At launch, it too drew a largely unenthusiastic, lackluster response from critics. Samsung was mocked mercilessly, especially by the Apple faithful, for centering a lavish marketing campaign around a giant-sized phone that uses a stylus.
But guess what? Customers ultimately voted quite differently with their wallets. The Note sold in bunches, made the phablet a legitimate product category, and became a surprise hit. Sure, it had a lot of help from Samsung's clever and well-funded marketing machine, but so will the Galaxy Gear.
Is the Gear perfect? No way. Will future smartwatches – including future iterations from Samsung – improve on everything about it? Of course. But, as we said in our Pebble review, that will always be the case. There's nothing wrong with enjoying today's fruit, even when you know tomorrow's will be sweeter.
If you own a Galaxy Note 3 (or, pretty soon, a Galaxy S4, Galaxy S3, or Galaxy Note 2), and don't rely too much on social media notifications, then the Galaxy Gear is a terrific companion device. We recommend taking the initial negative blowback with many grains of salt, heading to a store with display models, and trying one out for yourself.
At US$300, the Galaxy Gear isn't cheap. And if you don't yet own a Galaxy phone, then the price of admission is much higher. But if you have half as much fun with the new smartwatch as we did – and find it half as convenient as we did – well, there are much worse ways to spend your money.
If you're considering the Gear, but don't yet own the other part of the equation, then you can hop on over to our Galaxy Note 3 review, to see whether the two devices can fit your lifestyle.