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Review: Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch

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October 4, 2013

Gizmag reviews the Galaxy Gear, Samsung's bold new take on the smartwatch

Gizmag reviews the Galaxy Gear, Samsung's bold new take on the smartwatch

Image Gallery (41 images)

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.

Full throttle

You can change the watch's background color, and choose from several default watchfaces

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.

Rotten tomatoes

The Gear's screen turns on (usually) when you lift your wrist

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).

You can use Gear Manager to reorder the app icons in the watch's UI

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

Though it's a little thick, we didn't find the watch to be too bulky, uncomfortable, or un...

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 Gear is 11.1 mm thick

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

We opted for the standard 'Weather Clock' watch face, but there are several others to choo...

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.

S Voice is an important key to the Gear's software

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.

Notifications

The Gear has a notifications app, where you can browse your recent alerts

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.

Emails do sync on the Gear, as long as you use Samsung's stock email app on your Galaxy No...

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.

Antisocial

If you do most of your online communicating through social media channels, then the Gear p...

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

Most of the watch's settings can be tweaked through your phone's companion Gear Manager ap...

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.

The Gear's media controls, which don't let you manually choose tracks

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.

Most of the watch's settings can be tweaked through your phone's companion Gear Manager ap...

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.

This is what your new 'phone' looks like, Mr. Tracy

Camera

The 1.9 MP camera takes surprisingly good shots

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:

Another in direct sunlight
Another outdoor, direct sunlight shot
Nighttime bonfire shot taken with the Gear
Indoor shot, under medium 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.

Battery life

You'll need to charge the Gear every night, and we aren't sure why that's such a big deal

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.

The Gear in its NFC-enabled charging cradle

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 charging cradle is an odd choice, but at least it prevents the watch itself from havin...

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.

Wrap-up

We aren't quite sure what to make of the press' blowback against the Galaxy Gear

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.

The orange background should look stunning with the orange-colored Gear (we reviewed the j...

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 launch, the Gear is only compatible with the Galaxy Note 3, but that list will soon be ...

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.

About the Author
Will Shanklin Will Shanklin covers consumer technology for Gizmag. He's previously written for Android Central, Geek, GottaBeMobile, Android Police, and The Huffington Post.
He lives in New Mexico, U.S., with his lovely wife, Jessica.
  All articles by Will Shanklin
11 Comments

"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."

This is an issue worthy of deeper discussion. It's difficult to find technically advanced watches that come in two sizes. I'm tired of confining my womanly wrist to the world of luxury/fashion timewear, but why spend $300+ to wear something that looks like I stole it off a boyfriend's nightstand?

"Hey bro, you getting this on your Gear?" Ha ha...

MutantTomParis
4th October, 2013 @ 12:42 pm PDT

The camera is a nice touch but since it interferes with replacing the wristband I'm not going to get it. Since it is a piece of high tech it might be replaced in a year or two anyway. The watch I wear right now is around 10 years old and has gone through a few wristbands.

I just feel the watch is the last thing on our persons that can really last for years and years, everything else wears out or needs to be updated. If you buy a really nice expensive watch it could last for generations, now that is gone, the smart watch is taking that away from us.

exodous
4th October, 2013 @ 02:34 pm PDT

I bought this today. ..I love it. Not any bulkier than any other man's watch... and way cool. Worth every penny already.

Mike Taylor
4th October, 2013 @ 06:40 pm PDT

Great point Exodous! This is a poor attempt at getting the jump on the competition. Even when Apple release the iWatch, the lovers of fine watches and those who have a certain sartorial elegance won't want to be seen with a lump of electronics on our wrists. Samsung have typically fallen over because the Asian mindset is to copy and attempt to improve. They've had nothing to copy so there will be no innovation. Being first to market isn't always best, especially when you've not got a product worth buying. The moment Apple ties up with a real watch brand, then it'll be game over. We can only hope and pray!

The Master
4th October, 2013 @ 10:37 pm PDT

I would have to agree. with normal use, after a day my battery is at 80 percent. I think it is a life saver because i no longer miss a text or email and i don't have to take my phone out all the time any more.

Tom Huynh
4th October, 2013 @ 10:39 pm PDT

So it's a portal to your Galaxy phone/tablet. This is a new dimension between the smart phone...well described here.

To make it women-friendly, add a bigger bezel and call it Flair instead of Gear. Women can and do wear the biggest things on their fingers and wrists as long as it's orientated correctly. 'Gear' is masculine by design, and many women are masculine.

Longevity is now dependent on the upgrades and backwards compatibility.

Threesixty
5th October, 2013 @ 02:30 am PDT

I think these articles are most useful when the reviewer says "I wore it for a month and this is my experience."

Russell Willmoth
7th October, 2013 @ 02:23 am PDT

I'm unclear on if I can still use my blue tooth ear piece to have a semi private conversation while the watch is connected.

Paul Anthony
7th October, 2013 @ 09:39 am PDT

Not sure people want to go back to the geeky LED/LCD watch era of the 70's. No style. People eagerly gave up their fad digital watches for a classy analog watch. Plus having a cell phone allowed you stop wearing a watch. Watch sales started to plummet when cell phones starting becoming popular. And do we really want to look like Dick Tracy talking to our wrists?

rommey
7th October, 2013 @ 09:41 am PDT

"The Note sold in bunches"

Am I just some kind of freak or something? People keep on about how well the Note has sold but I have yet to see one in the wild or at my workplace. I can say the same about phablets in general. I see loads of iPhones and a few Android phones but never a single Note. Are we so sure it really sold in bunches or are we just taking Samsung's word for it? I tend to doubt it. I know it's anecdotal, but anything that has sold in bunches should have hit my radar by now and the Note never has.

AndreRichards
7th October, 2013 @ 02:42 pm PDT

I took delivery of my Gear on launch day but I'm extremely disappointed with it. I can get it to start a call, it will even transfer the call to my Bluetooth headset but it won't end calls placed to landlines. If when calling a mobile the other party hangs up the call is dropped. If however I call a landline through my Galaxy Gear and the other end hangs up the call doesn't get dropped. You are then not able to cancel the call from your Gear. You have to go fishing for your phone to cancel the call. I'm extremely disappointed by this and for me this is a real flaw in its design. Not much point in making a call from your watch if you need the phone to cancel it.

Ken P McLaughlin
8th October, 2013 @ 07:04 am PDT
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