Is the Galaxy Gear leading a wearable device revolution, or does it need more time to develop?
The concept of wearable technology is nothing new. High-tech GPS watches, clip-on health monitors and connected glasses have been around for niche uses for years, but a recently-renewed discussion of these devices as general consumer products has manufacturers rethinking their mobile strategies. It can be argued whether or not the connected smartwatch is something that consumers truly want, but Samsung is getting into the game anyway with its first entry, the Galaxy Gear.
Launched alongside the Galaxy Note 3, the much-rumored Galaxy Gear made its first public appearance at IFA 2013 as a headline product for the Korean electronics behemoth. With a surprisingly nice design and build quality, initial impressions of the Gear were positive across the board. Anyone who put their hands on the Gear had good things to say about it, but the reality of what the device was going to cost and be capable of quickly tempered those feelings.
A $299 accessory that only does a few things, handles just a subset of those functions well, and requires a constant connection to your phone for any of it to work seems like a tough sell. Is Samsung just jumping the gun in order to be part of the recently-renewed conversation about wearable devices, or is the Galaxy Gear something that a general consumer will actually want? Read along and find out in our all-encompassing review of the Samsung Galaxy Gear.
This is one device that is truly more important as a whole than the individual specs under the hood, and along with a nice general walkthrough of the device above, we'll hit you with the full list of specs before we get into the meat of this review:
- 800MHz Exynos CPU
- Android 4.2.2
- 1.63-inch Super AMOLED display at 320 x 320 resolution
- 1.9MP camera with BSI sensor
- 720p video recording and playback
- Featured apps from Atooma, Banjo, Evernote, Glympse, eBay, Line, MyFitnessPal, Path, Pocket, RunKeeper, TripIt and Vivino
- Samsung Apps and ChatON messaging service
- 2 microphones, 1 speaker
- Bluetooth 4.0 and LE
- Accelerometer, Gyroscope
- 4GB on-board storage
- 512MB RAM
- 315mAh battery
- Additional features - Smart Relay, S Voice, Auto Lock, Find My Device, Media Controller, Pedometer, Stopwatch, Timer, Safety assistance
Considering that you'll be expected to plunk down a full $299 for a Galaxy Gear (in addition to a Galaxy Note 3), you would hope that the watch feels high quality. And while the Galaxy Gear doesn't give off a premium feel in terms of jewelry or high-end watches, it gives off the same feeling you'd get with a mid-tier sports watch from a big name like Nike, Puma or Adidas. The difference being that you can get a watch that looks and feels the same from the previously mentioned makers for about one third of the price, but there's a whole lot going on under that rubber, plastic and metal exterior that warrants a price bump.
The Gear looks comically large on those with smaller wrists.
The main components of the Gear are contained in a hard plastic shell with a brushed metal front, accented by four industrial-looking screws at the corners and a glass touchscreen. The band, while not removable, is made of a much more flexible rubber material but doesn't actually pivot at the watch face like a normal watch band does. This is of course to accommodate the camera and speaker components in the band, but makes the watch less flexible (literally and figuratively) to a wide range of wrist sizes. While the Gear fit comfortably on our own wrist on the second-largest band setting, the design is such that it looks comically large on those with smaller wrists even though the band technically gets small enough.
The Gear straddles the line between having a minimalist and outrageous design. On one hand you have a nice brushed metal bezel around the watch face and clasp that would fit in on any traditional watch, and on the other you have things like microphone holes, power buttons and a protruding camera pod on one side of the band. We're going to leave out the fact that our review unit is an amazingly bright orange color because there are much more subtle black and "oatmeal" colors to choose from, but no matter your color choice you're never going to wear this watch inconspicuously.
When it comes down to how the watch is actually put together and feels on your wrist, you won't be disappointed. Keeping in mind that you're dealing with a mainly plastic and rubber construction, the Gear is made extremely well. You won't find any weird creaks or miscues in the design, and when it sits on your wrist it doesn't feel cheap or uncomfortable – it feels substantial. We wish that Samsung could take some of the design cues from the Gear and put them into their smart phone designs.
The design isn't trying to hide what it is, and is quite attractive.
And while we realize that looks are subjective, we actually found the Gear to be quite attractive. The design is such that it isn't trying to hide what it is — you can tell this isn't an analog or "dumb" digital sports watch, there's something to it. Samsung didn't try to put "smart" functionality into a traditional design, it did things its own way, and we can applaud them for it. The design is well-executed from a style perspective, even if the functionality is lacking in some areas.
A bright, pixel-dense and outdoor-visible display.
The Galaxy Gear is packing a 1.63-inch 320 x 320 resolution (that's 277 ppi) Super AMOLED display, which is of course also touch-sensitive and covered in glass that is mounted in metal. In terms of brightness and viewing angles, the Gear actually performs quite well in all situations provided you're willing to keep the brightness cranked up to level 4 or higher. If you plan to stay outside for a long period of time you'll probably want to enable the "outdoor" mode, which is one setting higher than the normal highest brightness and really blows out the colors on the display.
Images and text look extremely clear on the Gear, and we never had an issue even in direct sunlight making out what was on the screen. If you look very closely you'll notice some softness in sharp lines, but at 277 ppi the display is plenty dense for the viewing distance of your wrist and the low information density of what is regularly being shown on the screen.
On the software front the Gear is actually running Android. But in terms of what it can accomplish on its own it doesn't really make much of a difference what's under the hood. This is Android like you've never seen it before. Actually, you barely even see a traditional Android interface — and that's a good thing, because Samsung has designed an interface that is generally intuitive and easy to use on this form factor.
This is Android like you've never seen it before, but the interface is intuitive for the form factor.
The interface paradigm is not unlike Google Glass, interestingly enough. Your main "home screen" is always the watch face, flanked on the left and right with a series of other screens that each serve one function. Swipe to the right and you'll always have your contacts list then call log available, and with a swipe to the left you'll find a customizable list of your other apps. Swiping down is the effective "back" gesture, and enough swipes in any app will always bring you back to your clock face. A swipe up at the clock face will always bring you to the phone dialer, and a swipe down, the camera.
It really doesn't take long to get used to the interface, and we found ourselves zipping around with ease in no time. Because you have so little screen real estate to work with, apps and interfaces are generally very simple. You get used to diving through multiple hierarchical menus within apps, using the top-down swipe to move back when necessary. We could easily see things getting out of hand if third-party developers aren't careful with their designs, but it hasn't happened to us.
Apps and services
All but the most basic functions stop working if the Gear isn't connected to your phone.
Out of the box you have a very basic but useful set of functions ready to go on the Gear. You'll be able to easily check the weather, upcoming appointments and notifications, although there isn't any deep control or editing over any of them. The functionality continues with a media controller for your phone, a pedometer, S Voice and Voice Memo. Being a watch, you can of course tell time, set a timer and use a stopwatch if you need.
The rightmost home screen on the Gear is an "Apps" button, which holds every available app regardless of whether or not it occupies a current home screen. If you have a single app that you want to have access to at all times, the Gear can be configured to launch it with a double press of the power button – we found it worked well for the stopwatch.
All but the most basic of functions of the Gear stop working, however, if you aren't connected to your smart phone over Bluetooth with the Gear Manager app.
Very few of the Galaxy Gear's functions actually work without a constant connection to a Galaxy Note 3, and the app that makes it all happen is Gear Manager. Available on the Note 3 (and presumably future Samsung devices soon) with a tap to the NFC-enabled Gear charging cradle, Gear Manager handles all of the administration — from its internet connection to loading apps and changing settings — for your Gear.
Gear Manager is the only way for you to install, rearrange and hide apps on the watch, and offers the option to change more advanced settings of the apps and watch faces you're using. Beyond just controlling your Gear's functions remotely, the app provides a few interesting functions like finding the watch when it's not on your wrist, and acting as a trusted factor of keeping your phone unlocked when connected.
The app is great to have, because if you had to swipe and tap your way through every bit of setup and control on the Gear itself, you'd probably go crazy. There is curious disconnect, however, between what is done on the Gear and what is done in the Gear Manager app when it comes to settings and customizability.
The Galaxy Gear Manager app for the Galaxy Note 3
Watch faces, for example, can be changed on either the Gear or your phone, but advanced settings for the watch faces can only be configured in the app. Some Gear app settings can only be controlled from Gear Manager, and others only from the Gear. Device-only settings like volume and brightness can only be changed on the Gear itself. (Confused yet?)
You simply don't know whether settings will be on the Gear, in the app, or both.
The disconnect is puzzling and often confusing, because when you think to change a setting you simply don't know whether it will be available on the Gear, in the app, or both. The best way to handle this would probably be to duplicate all settings control from the Gear into the Gear Manager app, with changes on one always taking place on the other — after all, the app is basically required to be connected to the watch at all times.
Adding more apps to the Gear
When it comes to expanding the number of apps on your Gear, the one and only place you can turn is the "Samsung Apps" button inside Gear Manager. Just as you would expect at this point, the selection of apps available is a little sparse. The apps are divided up into several categories, but the number of apps you find is a bit misleading — many are duplicated across the different categories. You can search, but since there aren't any more than 15 apps in any given category it won't be hard to see every app available at a glance.
Presumably more apps are on the way, but the ones you want probably aren't available right now.
There are a few big names such as Snapchat, eBay, Path, Evernote and RunKeeper available, but you won't see a Gmail or Skype app here. There are third-party choices for big-name services like Facebook and Twitter, but we have yet to find any that are of much use. The two biggest categories in the store are "Social Networking" and "Clock" — the latter of which offers downloadable watch faces with interesting designs that differ from the stock offerings.
It's hard to fault Samsung for not coming out of the gate with all of the best apps and services, and presumably as the Gear gains traction it will have more and more apps available. Just in our time with the Gear we've seen new apps pop into the store, but because it's a proprietary app store uptake will undoubtedly be slow.
In the end we're not even sure how big of a selling point having apps installed on your watch really is — outside of a few cool and niche use cases, how much heavy app usage do you really want to do on your watch? Again considering that the Gear is nearly required to be connected to your phone, we're not sure if this is the best approach to adding functionality to your connected device.
Yes, this watch has a camera — and Samsung is billing it as a real selling point of the device. By the raw numbers we're looking at a 1.9MP sensor that can either shoot 4:3 (1280 x 960) or 1:1 (1392 x 1392) photos — and 720p video — from the point-of-view of your wrist. Quality is on par with the best front-facing cameras on phones today, and while that's not great it's far better than you'll likely want from a small camera on your watch.
Actually taking pictures on the Gear is a somewhat frustrating experience. Because the angle of the camera is just about parallel to the screen, you end up lowering your wrist and craning your neck over the screen to properly see the viewfinder and activate the shutter (which is just a tap anywhere on the screen). If you're not super picky about composition you can take pretty acceptable pictures, and you'll often get a shot that you may have missed because your phone was in your pocket.
You can take acceptable pictures with the Gear, but there are few benefits over just using your phone.
The time savings are quickly taken away when you realize that you can't easily share photos directly from the Gear itself. Unless you have a capable app installed (there are none by default), your only options with photos are to delete or transfer to your phone. That means tapping "transfer," taking your phone out, waiting for it to load and then sharing from the phone's gallery – why not just take out the phone for the picture?
In the end we find the camera quality is low enough that we aren't ever going to use it for taking pictures that mean something to us. If we want acceptable quality photos we'll pull out our phone, and in the grand scheme of things taking the phone out takes only a couple seconds more than pulling up your watch and swiping into the camera. We still like the idea of a camera on the Gear for things like adding notes to Evernote and scanning labels or barcodes, but as an imaging device we just aren't impressed.
So what is it like to use the Galaxy Gear as not only a watch but as a smart phone accessory on a daily basis? Well it turns out this watch has a lot going for it, with just a few flaws in the worst possible places.
Samsung may have put a few people off at its unveiling of the Gear when it said that the watch would be able to make it 24 hours on a charge. After our time with the device we think it may have been a case of under-promise and over-deliver, as we easily made it two or even three days on a single charge.
The battery lasted a full two days without a worry, and could go three days in many cases.
Even with the pedometer function enabled, a high screen brightness and one minute screen timeout (the default is 15 seconds) the battery would never dip under 50 percent even after a long day of using the Gear. We still found ourselves plugging it in at the end of the day because we never found it comfortable enough to wear while sleeping, but you won't have to worry about your watch dying on you in the middle of the day.
When you do go to plug it in, the Gear requires a special docking station to get juice out of the wall. The color-matched and appropriately plastic faux leather case clips around the Gear, matching up with the charging pins on the bottom and then uses a standard Micro USB charge port.
Because the Galaxy Gear is connected to your phone over Bluetooth, it can take advantage of the standard Bluetooth headset protocols to work as a calling device. When calls come in to your Note 3, your Gear will ring and vibrate with an answer/reject screen, and if you choose to pick up the call you can then talk on speakerphone. The Gear has a pair of microphones on either side of the watch face, and the speaker is integrated into the clasp on the underside of your wrist.
It should be said that you don't have to actually hold the Gear up to your ear like a secret agent, you can easily hear and be heard from the couple feet away your watch usually is. Audio quality seems clear on both ends, and sounds just like you're talking on an average speakerphone from the same distance. We surely wouldn't take any long calls on our Gear if we had the choice, but in a pinch for a quick chat it works just fine.
The Galaxy Gear has actually been the first device that we've kept up with using as a pedometer, and it makes the experience extremely smooth and enjoyable. The built-in pedometer app is simple, tracks steps accurately from what we can tell and links up to S Health on your Galaxy Note 3 perfectly. Having the functionality built into a watch rather than a stand-alone fitness device will make a lot more sense for many people, and it just effortlessly works in the background without much user intervention.
As a true companion device to your phone, the connected smartwatch is a great portal to your phone's notifications — letting you know what's happening on your phone even when it's in your pocket. Unlike other options out there today, the Gear generally falls on its face when trying to handle notifications from your phone and leads to likely the biggest issue we have with the device.
Unless you use Samsung's apps, the Gear doesn't really show you any notifications that are useful.
The Gear has a large, readable and pixel-dense display, but its software can only handle rich notifications from Samsung's first-party apps. If you live in the stock email, messaging and ChatON apps then you'll receive informational notifications on your Gear showing the sender name and preview of a message. But if you're like us you use Gmail, Google Voice, Hangouts, Google+, Twitter, Facebook and a whole host of other apps, not the stock Samsung ones.
And when you use non-Samsung apps, you don't get a rich notification, you simply get notified that there is some kind of notification. Your wrist vibrates, and the screen simply shows a time, an app icon and a number indicating how many unread messages. Tap the icon, and you get a garish window that says you must take out your phone to read the message — tap "OK" and the app will launch on your phone.
Now call us crazy, but that seems to somewhat defeat the purpose of having a smartwatch on your wrist that should help you determine whether notifications are worth taking your phone out. We receive a lot of notifications throughout the day, and they are not created equal. Getting a "dumb" notification saying that something just arrived is no more useful than feeling the phone vibrate in your pocket, or watching an LED flash while your phone's on a table. Even further, the Gear doesn't actually notify you for every kind of notification – or example Facebook Messenger simply doesn't get picked up.
Prompting you to pull out your phone to view notifications is far from an ideal user experience.
Being able to read a preview of the message, the sender, the topic, or just about anything more than what it offers now would be immensely helpful. We realize that maybe Samsung saw it as too big of an undertaking to have support for more apps, but the work doesn't seem to have stopped the folks at Pebble and associated third-party apps from enabling notifications for any app on that platform.
Having a connected device on your wrist is supposed to reduce the friction of knowing what's going on, and we quickly found the Gear's notification system to be more a burden than a help.
Taking all of its features into consideration, the unfortunate end result for the Galaxy Gear is a device that looks much nicer than it performs, yet still demands a premium price as if it had no flaws. Looking beyond simple issues like the number of apps and the necessity of being connected to a phone, the Gear still doesn't do much of anything that you expect it to.
A large but limited install base, extremely limited notifications and high price point are black marks on this otherwise striking smartwatch.
The screen might look great, but the information displayed on it is next to useless. Sure you can take acceptable quality photos, but sharing them is an exercise in jumping through hoops. The process of configuring and managing what apps that are available is far from intuitive, even once you get a handle on where settings for each function live.
Even if you were to somehow look beyond the Galaxy Gear's dramatic shortcomings and wanted to purchase one, the $299 price point would still be asking too much. Furthermore, the potential market for this device, while growing, is extremely small when it is just limited to those with the recently-released Galaxy Note 3. Even opening up compatibility to the Galaxy S4 and Note 2 would still leave 98 percent (or more) of the Android user base out in the cold.
If you want a wearable device that can be tinkered with, has real functionality (now, not just in the future) and can provide you with the contextual information and rich notifications that you expect, a Pebble can be purchased for half the price of the Galaxy Gear and work with just about any Android phone. It may not have the style or quality of the Gear, but it won't be frustrating to use – and in the end that holds a lot of weight with users.
Samsung took a chance releasing the Galaxy Gear to get in on the wearable device market as it comes back into style, and it seems as though it should have left this particular dish in the oven a bit longer. The fundamental parts of a great device and exceptional experience are here, they just need more time to be realized to their full potential.
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