Wrist watches, smart or otherwise, are simply not for everyone -- there are more smartphone users in the world, many times over, than there will ever be smartwatch owners. Despite the limited market for such a device, however, Samsung's decided it's time to join in on the fun. The Galaxy Gear, as we've known it to be called for a few weeks now, was hardly guarded with a level of secrecy that's become standard for a flagship smartphone, but as the device is finally official -- and expected to launch in more than 100 countries within weeks -- just how does it perform? Find our take after the break.
Follow all of our IFA 2013 coverage by heading to our event hub!
The centerpiece of the Galaxy Gear, as you may have read by now, is a 320 x 320-pixel, 1.63-inch AMOLED touchscreen. There's a speaker and a pair of mics for recording and playing back video content and communicating with a caller via the built-in dialer, which works with the native phone app in your connected Galaxy device. The Gear includes an 800MHz processor, a 315mAh battery, and -- in a somewhat surprising twist -- a BSI sensor and autofocus lens mounted in the wrist strap that's tasked with capturing 1.9-megapixel stills and 10-second video clips at 720p, 640 x 640 or VGA resolution with sound. That camera, designed for on-the-go captures where convenience, not image quality, is a priority, is paired with a pre-installed app called Memographer. That application, and dozens of others that will be available at launch, are key to boosting the Gear's appeal, and setting it apart from the competition.
Like other smartwatches we've seen and reviewed, such as the monochrome Pebble, the Gear organizes apps, watch faces and other pages in swappable cards. With such a limited display resolution, it's only possible to display one at a time, and that's where touch comes in. To navigate through the wearable's many cards, you can swipe with a finger. There's a single button, located on the right side. Press it once to go to the home screen. A double press launches S Voice, and a triple tap activates the "safety assistance" feature, which sends your location info to a saved contact, along with a message notifying them that there's an emergency.
We haven't been blown away by any smartwatch's performance, and that's much the case here. The Gear feels awfully sluggish, whether you're launching an app such as Evernote or Path, or swiping down from the home screen to activate the camera. Watch faces, which you can upload from the Gear's Android companion app, performed well, as did the Music card, which simply serves as a remote for any music app (native or third-party) currently active on a connected device.
The Gear is very much a first-generation device when it comes to usability, too; you can only load a total of 10 third-party apps, for example, due in no small part to the limited 4GB of built-in storage. The interface also feels a bit clunky and unpolished at times, and the S Voice feature, which responds to commands just like its smartphone and tablet counterparts, can only be activated by tapping the home button twice -- hardly convenient when you're running or riding a bike.
As for the device's physical appearance, it's a bit svelter than leaked reports would suggest, but it's still a substantial product. Some colors, such as Rose Gold and Mocha Gray, were designed with female users in mind, but with a design that's significantly larger than many traditional watches, it may be a bit too cumbersome for petite wrists. That said, we didn't find it too large for male users, who might prefer the JetBlack or Oatmeal color schemes. According to Samsung reps, sporty types might opt for Wild Orange or Lime Green, and considering third-party apps like RunKeeper and MyFitnessPal, along with the bundled pedometer, athletes are clearly a target demographic here.
Samsung opted for an industrial design instead of a more elegant finish. There are four visible screws above and below the face, for example, and the metal buckle, which houses the speaker, doesn't feel terribly well made. Many of the colors are a bit too "sporty" to be an appropriate fit for formal occasions or business attire, so unless you opt for an all-black Gear, you may end up leaving the watch at home more often than not. That wouldn't be a terrible call, however -- the embedded battery is rated for a day of "regular" use, which means more active users will be spending a lot of time attaching the watch to the bundled micro-USB-equipped plastic charging dock, which connects to the device through five metal leads on the rear.
As we've come to expect with many first-generation devices, the Gear has quite a few shortcomings, some of which likely have yet to come to light. The prototype devices we used were noticeably sluggish and occasionally unresponsive, S Voice is not entirely hands-free, and battery life has been pegged at a full day, at best. Perhaps the biggest setback, however, is that the Galaxy Gear is only compatible with the Note 3 and the new Note 10.1, and while it will likely work with the GS4 once that device gets an Android 4.3 update, we don't expect that it'll ever function with non-Samsung smartphones and tablets. Pricing is another unknown, but we imagine more info will come forward there before the Gear begins shipping on September 25th. Update: The gear will cost $299 when it starts shipping, though, customers in the US and Japan will have to wait 'til October to get their hands on one.