Samsung Galaxy Gear initial review

Samsung's first smartwatch is expensive and lacking in some areas, but it also has plenty of potential

I'm trying real hard to like the Samsung Galaxy Gear. Having worn the Pebble smartwatch for a couple months now, I'm all for the idea of a smart device on my wrist. And the Galaxy Gear is undeniably better looking, more powerful and more feature-rich than the plastic darling of Kickstarter.

This thing even takes pictures, for Pete's sake.

Then why do I find myself already slipping it back off my wrist and reaching for the Pebble?

We've had the Samsung Galaxy Gear in hand for a few days now. A full review is forthcoming — we want to give the Gear the proper review it deserves — and there's quite a bit to get into, even with it being a pretty simple accessory to operate. For now, though, some initial thoughts on the Samsung Galaxy Gear.

Galaxy Gear design

I'm mostly in love with the look of the Gear. The brushed metal with exposed screws looks as sophisticated as ever. It makes the Pebble — which costs half as much as the Gear — well, look like a cheaper plastic watch. The band's a bit stiff still — Samsung says it'll loosen up a little, but I wouldn't count on too much — and I'd prefer traditional hinges near the body to keep things that much more flexible. But the rigidity is understandable given the electronics tucked inside the band.

The clasp/strap hybrid mechanism is easy enough to get used to, and it makes the watch easy to slip on and off, but it also is rubbing on the inside of my wrist a little.

Not so good is the protruding camera stack. Would I be willing to have a cameraless Gear in exchange for a sleeker look? Possibly. 

Using the Galaxy Gear

Samsung Galaxy Gear menu

Actually operating the Galaxy Gear is simple enough, but it necessitates that you own the new Galaxy Note 3. Right now, it's the only smartphone that'll pair with the Gear. That'll expand to other current and new Samsung smartphones in future days, but for now, it's Note 3 or nothing. 

The Galaxy Gear runs Android 4.2.2, but not so you'd notice.

Setting up the Gear was simple enough. Tap the Note 3 against the Gear's charging dock (which, by the way, allows you to connect to the watch via ADB), and the embedded NFC tag prompts you to download the Gear Manager app. It's worth noting that you're downloading it directly from Samsung and not Google Play.

Once you're all paired up — and the watch is worthless out of the box until you pair it with a phone — it's simple enough to use. Swiping down acts as back button. You've got a basic hierarchy going on — but it's a little confusing in that some of the top-level apps are also in the "Apps" section. OK, maybe not confusing, per se, but that means you're swiping through some of the same stuff twice.

Taking pictures with the gear is fun. Samsung's made it one swipe away from the home screen watch face — you swipe down to launch it. The end result is a 1,392-by-1,392 image (the default resolution at 1:1 aspect ratio; or you can opt for 4:3 at 1,280-by-960) that looks like a small, square, flat image. But it's still a fun little novelty. I'm not buying the "Never miss a shot" tag line (or whatever variation of that Samsung is using). If you're not ready to take a picture, you'll miss it. And the end result with the Gear is still nowhere near what you get with a smartphone, to say nothing of a proper camera. You can check out our example shots here.

A 1.9MP camera on a watch? Sure thing — just don't expect too much.

But, hey. It's fun. And you can have pictures upload automatically from the watch to the phone, saving you a little trouble. That's a nice touch.

Oh, and for those of you worried about creepshots — taking pictures of someone without their knowing — Samsung's made the shutter sound mandatory. Of course, you can just put your finger over the speaker, squelching any and all sound.

There's plenty more functionality to be had as well. Placing phone calls with the Gear (it's a Bluetooth device, after all) makes you feel a little like a Secret Service agent, minus the bad-assery. The mics are omnidirectional, so you don't have to put it up to your ear to speak. But the speaker on the end of the clasp — and the underside if your wrist — is very much a directional affair, so you need to contort your arm to hear the other person. Quality is OK, and it's definitely a fun thing to try in a car

Other built-in app options include a pedometer, weather, calendar, voice memos, media controller, and a stopwatch — and there are a number of other apps you can download directly from Samsung. Those include Banjo and Path and Runkeeper and Samsung's own ChatOn, to name but a few. There's also a "find my phone" feature — and it works in reverse from the Note 3 so that you can "find my Gear" if it's fallen in a couch cushion or something. (Both require the watch and phone to still be connected via Bluetooth.)

What's disappointing ...

Samsung Galaxy Gear notification error

My main use for a smartwatch thus far has been for quickly glancing at notifications. Is that e-mail important? Who's pinging me on Google Hangouts? But notifications on the Galaxy Gear are pretty limited — unless you're using the stock e-mail or messaging app, and even then there's a second step to take before you get a preview — you have to tap the notification itself. 

But if something comes in to a third-party app — Gmail, Facebook and Twitter, to name but three — all you get is a pretty icon of the app, and a message that you'll need to pull out your Note 3 if you want to actually see the meat of the notification. "For details, view this notification on your mobile device," it says.

Notifications, battery life and waterproofing prove to be troublesome.

You can set it up so the phone will automatically open the app for the notification you can't view on the watch — but that pretty much negates wearing the watch in the first place, so far as I'm concerned. For me, that's a deal-breaker. Fortunately, all this could be fixable with improved software. And Samsung should, in fact, add that functionality.

It's also disappointing that the Gear's locked into Samsung's hardware ecosystem. I get it, and it's a sound strategic decision, but it's still disappointing. I'd love to use the Gear with whatever phone I happen to be using. (And I'm fully aware that I'm a weird usage case.) And wouldn't Samsung love to see its products on the wrist of iPhone owners? Maybe it'll happen one day. 

Battery life is also a big question, and it really comes down to how long the display is on. I've been getting more than the day of use we were told to expect — but not nearly as long as the four or five days I'm used to with the Pebble. Different tech is involved, though, so it's definitely an apples-to-oranges comparison.

And, finally, there's the issue of waterproofing. The Gear basically is rated to handle your sweaty arm, and that's about it. Washing your hands, getting caught in a rain shower or hosing off a dirty kid and you'll need to take the $299 gear off your wrist. That's the price you pay for having that much electronics on your arm, I suppose.

More to come ...

Samsung Galaxy Gear weather

Those are my initial impressions after a long weekend of use. I still really like the idea of the Gear, and it's still a pretty impressive first-generation product from Samsung. Solid design — remember that it's available in a half-dozen colors, too — and some fairly simple, impressive software. It's even running Android 4.2.2 out of the box

The lack of sophistication in the notification is troubling, but fixable. The lack of waterproofing worries me more. And being locked into Samsung phones perhaps is troubling above all. 

But I still have hope for the Galaxy Gear. It's expensive, but it's interesting.

We'll be giving the Gear and its software — and the companion app on the Note 3 — a more thorough look in the coming weeks.