Samsung's third smartwatch — its first for Android Wear — looks a lot like its others

Behold, The Samsung Gear Live! It's been about a year since we first heard rumors of Google jumping into the smartwatch race, and two of the devices are already trickling into the hands of consumers — the Samsung Gear Live and the LG G Watch. We've had plenty to say about both, as well as the platform as a whole, and there will be even more to come. Android Wear will bring Google and Android to an entirely new class of devices, and it will be a big deal — with plenty to talk about.

Right now, we want to talk about the Samsung Gear Live and give a comprehensive look at the hardware, and what you can expect from it should you be purchasing one. While Samsung is no stranger to smart watches, this is a new breed and an introduction to a new platform.

About this review

Google Now card on Gear Live

We've been sporting the Samsung Gear Live on our wrists for about two weeks now — since Google handed them out to attendees at Google I/O 2014. They're the same as the retails models that are now shipping, so there are no surprises there. We've also received a software update in that time, which fixed a few bugs in the display when showing certain watch faces. Basically, what we're looking at is exactly the same as what you can buy.

We've had plenty of time to get to know the Gear Live and Android Wear.

Check out our LG G Watch review!

Of course the Gear Live is just one of the first watches that make up Android Wear. When you're done with this opus, be sure to read our complete LG G Watch review!

Samsung Gear Live video review

Samsung's newest wearable takes the design language from their previous offerings and brings much of what you liked from the original Galaxy Gear and Gear 2 family to the Gear Live. You've got the same style — the Gear Live is almost a dead ringer for the Gear 2 in every way except the button placement. We're not complaining. The build quality is fantastic, with a brushed stainless body and high-resolution (relatively speaking) 320x320 screen.

It's main purpose is a delivery mechanism for Android Wear. But we're OK with the fact that Samsung built it with a bit of their own style.

Samsung Gear Live

the Gear Live is almost a dead ringer for the Gear 2.

On the side of the Gear Live you'll find a single button. This serves to change the screen mode from on to either "dim mode" or off, depending on your setting. You've got three screen modes on Android Wear — off, on and dim. You can set the screen to turn off when not in use or to go dim, where less information is displayed and everything is monochrome. In either setting, raising your wrist or tapping the screen brings the full on mode.

Dimming mode

A long press of the button while the screen is on will bring up the settings menu. Of course, it's also a power button if you've turned the Gear Live off. A on/off button isn't the best experience for a watch, but you don't have to use it if you'd rather not — the accelerometer and touch screen can work in tandem to do the same things the button can while the Gear Live is powered on.

Samsung Gear Live

On the Gear Live's backside, you'll find the heart-rate sensor and a set of five gold pogo pins. The heart-rate sensor looks and works like the one you'll find on the Gear 2 family, and operates much the same way — by detecting slight variations of your skin tone while your heart beats. It works, though I can't attest to any degree of accuracy. Your heart-rate as read from the Gear Live will increase when you're active, and slow down when you're not. Using the thumb-on-the-wrist method, it seems to be fairly accurate most of the time, but every once in a while it will throw out a number that can't be right. I wouldn't depend on it if I were a cardiac patient, but it may be adequate for a workout.

The pogo pins are for charging the Gear Live, which you'll be doing a lot.

The pogo pins are for charging the Gear Live, which you'll be doing a lot. They contact a matching set of points on the charger base, which clicks on to the rear of the Gear Live just like we saw with the Gear 2 family. They're coated in gold so they shouldn't turn green too easily, and with no moving parts we shouldn't have any issues here — other than keeping track of a proprietary charger body.

In addition, on the right side of the Gear Live you'll find a small microphone. You need a mic if you want to talk to your watch, right? It's positioned in a good spot if you wear your watch on your left wrist, and it seems to be sensitive enough — at least as sensitive as the microphone in your smartphone. There is no speaker, so you won't be hearing any noise from the Gear Live.

The Gear Live display

Gear Live screen

The 1.63-inch Super AMOLED screen on the Gear Live is a pleasant little surprise. Because it's AMOLED, blacks are black, colors are bright, and everything is a little blue. But overall, it looks good. After doing the math, you have about 279 pixels per inch, and the resolution works — you won't notice pixels unless you're looking very closely.

Fear Live pixels

For all the pixel-peepers out there

The display on the Gear Live is a pleasant little surprise

Visibility outside in the sun is pretty poor, and there is no auto-brightness feature in the settings. Running the Gear Live at full brightness destroys the battery life, and running at anything less than full brightness means it's unusable outdoors in the day time. Even at full brightness this thing is tough to see in the sun. You can adjust the brightness of course, but that's done via the settings menu and buried several layers deep. There also seems to be a hydrophobic coating on the glass to bead water off, which is both a blessing and a curse. Water droplets will activate the touch sensor, so beading water off quickly keeps the Gear Live from running through the menu. The coating likely makes the SAMOLED screen even harder to see in direct sunlight. I can see what needs done to "fix" this — make the screen brighter. Of course, the 300mAh battery means an enterprising engineer can't just jump in and make everything brighter. It's a catch-22 situation that we have to deal with until that enterprising engineer stumbles across a magic fix.

Gear Live battery life

Samsung Gear Live

The screen visibility outdoors is an issue, but not my biggest issue. That honor goes to the fact that it needs charging nightly, and the charging dock makes this a tedious mess. If you set the screen brightness down all the way and throttle down the amount of notifications being sent to the watch, you can stretch the battery life out to almost two days. This means you can either charge the Gear Live every night and use it for everything it's capable of doing, or tone things back and charge during dinner every other day. It charges fairly fast, going from about 20-percent charge to full in under 90-minutes, but that is 90 minutes when you're not wearing your watch. Folks who take their watch off every night won't have any issues, but those of us that don't will have to figure out a charging schedule.

The Gear Live requires nightly charging

This is amplified by the fact that you just can't plug the Gear Live in without the charging dock. Hopefully, Samsung will sell spares so we can leave one at home and carry another with us in case we need to charge up. Don't get me wrong — making this sort of thing is hard, and Samsung surely has a good reason to use a dock versus a standard USB connector. It's just not very convenient.

Other notables

Samsung Gear Live

As mentioned, you can get the Gear Live wet. The watch is IP67 certified for dustproofing and water resistance exactly as the Galaxy S5 is. This means that under normal use dust won't be able to enter the case, and you can submerge the Gear Live in a meter of water for 30 minutes before anything bad will happen. I've worn the Gear Live in the shower, the hot tub and the trout stream with no ill effects so far.

If you wear your Gear Live in the shower or anywhere it's going to get wet, you'll notice the back gets pretty grungy. You can clean things up with a damp cloth and get it looking good as new.

Gear Live replacement band

You either think strap looks good or you don't

The strap on the Gear Live is a point of contention for many of the folks who already have one. You can change it out if you like, but the body of the watch was designed to have a strap of a certain shape at the point of attachment. If your replacement strap does not have this shape, you see parts of the body that you weren't meant to see. This is an issue because nobody makes straps that are the right shape at the ends, and you'll end up with a look that feels unfinished.

Samsung uses quick-release pins on their strap, but chances are any aftermarket one you buy won't have these. That means you'll be in there with a tool of some sort trying to push the spring bars back to put a new strap on, or take it off. That's not too big of a deal (it's exactly how most watches work) but it is a little tricky because you're doing it from the back and inside the lugs on the body of the watch.

Samsung Gear Live strap

I don't particularly mind the OEM strap on the Gear Live, but I seem to be in the minority. It's made of reinforced polyurethane of some sort, and has a fixed buckle that inserts into pre-drilled holes on the other piece of the strap. It's rugged, and I've tried — and failed — to force it to come loose from being pretty violent with my motion. The biggest issue seems to be a matter of taste. You either think it looks good or you don't.

In any case, here's hoping Samsung makes replacements in different styles and colors.

The Gear Live's specs

Samsung Gear Live

Category Features
Display 1.63-inch Super AMOLED (320 x 320)
OS Android Wear
Processor 1.2 GHz Processor
Google Services Google Now, Google Voice, Google Maps & Navigation, Gmail, Hangouts
Additional Features Notification (SMS, E-mail, etc.)
Heart Rate Monitor
IP67 Dust and Water Resistant
Changeable Strap
Color Options Black and Wine Red
Connectivity Bluetooth® v4.0 LE
Sensor Accelerometer, Gyroscope, Compass, Heart Rate
RAM 512MB
Storage 4GB Internal Memory
Dimension /Weight 37.9 x 56.4x 8.9 mm, 59g
Battery Standard Battery, Li-ion 300mAh

Some interesting observations about how all this works together with Android Wear:

  • Free storage after all is said and done is about 2.9GB
  • Screen dimming is much like the Daydream mode on your phone and has an intent trigger
  • Garbage Collection is pretty aggressive. These specs don't matter as much as you think, because the system keeps the background "junk" to a minimum.
  • No ambient light or proximity sensor is listed in any data sheets, but placing your hand over the screen sends ambient lighting information to the system (all zeros — full dark). Either there is a hidden sensor, or something really cool is going on with touchscreen sensitivity. I'm trying to figure this one out, because nerd.
  • The "colorful" watch faces change color based on time of day. Purple in the late afternoon looks especially beautiful on this little screen.
  • We don't yet have a documented and final API for watch faces. Any watch face apps you use right now are a clever hack, but may go away in the future.
  • People in airports have lots of questions when they see you talking to your watch — especially people wearing a uniform and a gun.

The bottom line

Navigation

The Gear Live takes everything Samsung knows about building a smartwatch, and adds an exciting new operating system into the mix. Make no mistake — this is definitely a generation-one product, but one that's a step ahead because Samsung is no stranger to wearables. You may not like Samsung's styling or design choices, but there is no denying that the Gear Live is built well and plenty of time and money were spent in engineering.

Make no mistake, this is definitely a Gen. 1 product

There are issues. Most people aren't going to want to worry about keeping the Gear Live charged up every day, and the software itself has a lot of growing up to do. There is too much swiping and burying things deep into menus, and while a fan will take the time to get familiar with it all, the average consumer is going to feel very lost when they strap this to their wrist. And anyone who spends most of the day outdoors is not going to like the display. We can't deny any of these issues, nor should we want to.

While the software feels clunky to operate, we do have to say it's beautiful. The card interface lends itself very well to a wearable device, and the tie-in to Google Now on top of application notifications really makes for a powerful second-screen experience. Hopefully, Google will find that balance between information overload and what really matters for most users in future versions.

All my frustrations with the Gear Live aside, I'm excited about how it will change the future of smartwatches. To me, these first-generation Android Wear devices are the CR-48 of the wearable world and I'm certain things will only get better.

Should you buy one? That's a tough question with a fairly easy answer. If you're not ready to use a platform with plenty of growing pains in store, pass on the Gear Live. Like every new product, things will only get better as it matures. If you do want to jump in at the beginning, other than the look of the hardware itself, there is not a lot of difference between the G Watch and the Gear Live. I enjoy using the Gear Live, and consider it a great addition to both my watch collection and a promising extension of my "smart" electronics experience.