When we speak of smartwatches, what do you think of first? If you're the nostalgic type, your mind might drift back to Dick Tracy, or to those times when Michael Knight yelled at KITT to help get him out of impossibly tight spots (which, let's face it, was nearly every single episode). But those types of products, once associated with sci-fi movies and TV shows, are now a dime a dozen -- they're so numerous in 2013, in fact, that an entire industry has been built around them, and big-name companies like Google and Apple are starting to show an intense interest in them.
It was only a matter of time (har) before a large manufacturer like Samsung tossed its hat into the wearables arena. Its first attempt, known as the Galaxy Gear, was announced alongside the Galaxy Note 3 and the new Note 10.1 about a month ago. With a 1.6-inch AMOLED screen, upcoming third-party support and even a camera, this promises to be unlike any smartwatch we've played with before. Still, the suggested MSRP of $300 is a pretty high price to pay for the convenience of looking at texts on your wrist, and you may not even see Warren Beatty rocking the thing on the red carpet. But is this first-generation Samsung device executed well enough that you might consider purchasing it along with your new Galaxy Note 3? Let's see.
If you purchase a Galaxy Gear and don't have a compatible device, congratulations -- you just bought yourself a brick. It's not going to do a single bit of good for you until you find a friend who happens to use a Note 3, and even then, it would only work as an actual watch with very limited capabilities (which we suppose is better than nothing, but we doubt you'll want to fork out $300 for it). One of the Gear's most frustrating and limiting traits is that it supports only two devices at launch: the Note 3 and the new Note 10.1 (i.e., the so-called 2014 edition). More TouchWiz phones, such as the Galaxy S III, GS4 and Note 2, will get updated with compatibility in the near future. Still, Samsung hasn't confirmed a date, so until that happens, the Gear will be aimed at a painfully limited demographic; the company's betting big that a significant number of Note 3 buyers will also spring for the accompanying watch.
In terms of design strategy, Samsung was stuck in a challenging position here. The Gear is not going to be confused for a fashion accessory, nor can we see it catching on with millionaires (not unless they're huge geeks, anyway). At the same time, the watch has to be comfortable, bring a touch of class and be attractive enough for someone to wear while maintaining a modicum of self-respect -- a tall order when you also have to throw in a camera, speakers and a 1.63-inch touchscreen.
Samsung did a decent job of meeting these criteria, with one glaring exception: the camera. Instead of being placed within the watch itself, the camera is positioned facing forward on the rubberized wristband, creating an unsightly wart on one of the most visible parts of the watch. Such placement interrupts the design flow and keeps the device from looking as sleek as it could have.
The rest of the device feels classy enough, though admittedly this may depend on which color you choose, as there are several hues available. The watch face is constructed with stainless steel, whose contoured shape helps it wrap around the wrist. The AMOLED touchscreen, meanwhile, is covered in Gorilla Glass. Unfortunately, there are four screws occupying the corners; this, too, feels like an interruption to what's otherwise a fairly elegant design.
Along the sides of the 36.8 x 56.6 x 11.1mm watch, you'll find the only physical button (the home key), with one mic on each side. Underneath, you'll see the charging connectors, a Samsung logo and the obligatory identifying information, but none of these things are actually visible when you're wearing the Gear. Continuing down the ridged wristband, you'll see the frame and metal clasp, the latter of which contains a tiny speaker.
How comfortable the 2.6-ounce (73.8g) watch is will depend largely on your preferences (and how your wrist is shaped), so I can only speak to my own experience wearing the device for a few days. I went through a brief adjustment period over the first day or two, but afterward, I barely noticed that it was on my wrist. The one problem I ran into was the angle of the watch's face; the only way my unit could rest comfortably was if I tilted it away slightly from my direct field of view, so I often found myself having to tilt my wrist toward me to get a proper look. In this case, it typically worked out better for me to sit the watch on the bottom of my wrist, rather than the top. Again, it all comes down to personal preference.
The Gear also comes with a micro-USB cord and a special charging cradle, which is the only way to power up your device. The top cover is secured by a latch, so just open it up, rest the watch inside and reattach the cover to start charging it up. Spec-wise, the Gear features an 800MHz processor with 512MB of RAM, a 315mAh battery, 4GB of internal storage, Bluetooth 4.0 + LE and an accelerometer and gyroscope.
As for the display, we're not going to spend much time on the resolution -- it's a 1.63-inch panel with 320 x 320 resolution, so don't expect HD quality here. Of course, it's a first-generation smartwatch, and screens crammed full of pixels just aren't a necessity on this type of product (not yet, at least). That said, you're technically looking at a 277-ppi display, so it's actually better than what we would have expected. What matters most, however, is how well you can see it in the sunlight, and fortunately the screen excels here: the Gear has an "outdoor" brightness mode just for this purpose. Indeed, we could easily seen the screen regardless of where we were or how bright it was outside.
After you power up the Gear for the first time, you'll be prompted to take advantage of the watch's built-in NFC tag and tap it to your Note 3. Once the two devices recognize each other, the phone gets to work downloading the Gear Manager, activating Bluetooth and pairing itself to your phone -- just follow the prompts on the watch and you'll be set within a couple minutes, at most.
Once everything is paired, the Gear Manager will become your new best friend for the immediate future. It acts as the primary interface for your watch and allows you to tweak settings, adjust the order of apps and even download third-party apps that have been specially made for the smaller screen.
The Gear Manager can be a little confusing at first. If you want to tweak settings, there are two different places to do so: there's the general settings menu, which manages all of the high-level options, but if you want to change settings for individual apps, you'll need to find them in the My Apps section (although some apps don't even let you change settings). There's also a separate section for disconnecting and resetting the Gear if you need it. Additionally, an App Store for Gear-specific titles is found in the main menu, but My Apps also has a tab that offers suggested apps for you to download.
The confusion subsides after you poke around a bit, so let's go over what else you can do with your new bestie. With the Gear Manager, you can use My Apps to change how the apps are ordered and decide which ones show up in your main menu. In the settings, there's a way to enable push notifications on a wide variety of apps. You'll also be able to change the clock that shows up on your home panel; there are plenty of analog and digital versions, some of which offer app shortcuts, calendar events or the current weather. We're hoping this will be expanded in the future, since we'd like to see more notification options on the home screen. Finally, there's a Find my Gear feature, which -- surprise -- tells your lost Gear to shout out so you can hunt it down. (Conversely, the Gear has a Find my Phone feature, which we're guessing will get used more often than vice versa.)
Those high-level settings we mentioned earlier? Auto lock is one of them. As soon as you start walking away from your phone, the screen automatically locks with a PIN or pattern (or other security method of your choosing) until you and the Gear come back within range. There's also smart relay, which lets you look at notifications on the Gear and push that content back over to your phone. This particular feature has its pros and cons, which we'll cover shortly.
For the moment, the number of apps for the Gear is extremely limited; Samsung told us that roughly 70 would be available upon launch, but as of this writing, we found around 45 (the store features 57, but a dozen or so are duplicates). An SDK is on its way, but company reps weren't able to give us a timeframe. Since only select partners currently have access to the Gear Store, we expect minimal growth until Samsung's ready to open up the ecosystem to more developers.
Gear apps actually use separate APKs, so developers can't simply tweak a few lines of code to ensure compatibility. We're told that they're essentially just modified or simplified versions of smartphone apps. This makes sense, given the limited storage space on the Gear, but it still means that third parties will have to go through the effort of building something new if they want to take advantage of the opportunity -- once the opportunity is availed to them, of course. As an aside, many of the apps already in the store, such as Path and Twitter Quickview, cannot be installed on the watch until a companion app gets installed on your phone first.
The Gear puts an especially big focus on fitness apps. A pedometer is included as one of the native apps (we've walked a super-healthy 105 steps today, in case you're curious), which tracks not only the total number of steps you've walked today, but also calculates your total mileage and kcal burned. You can sync this info with the S Health app on your phone at regular intervals. There are also some third-party apps centered on fitness, including MyFitnessPal and Runtastic.
Social media apps do exist for the Gear already: there are basic Twitter and Facebook Quickview apps, but they're limited to read-only and don't allow you to create status updates. (It would need to use S Voice for this, since there's no way to add text input, so we're not entirely sure third parties can even enable this ability yet.) You can also control your phone's media player through a specific app on the Gear; just make sure you don't try using S Voice in the middle of a song, as the music will abruptly pause on the phone so the mic doesn't pick it up.
Setup and technical stuff aside, what's it like actually using the Gear? It's certainly a different experience from what you normally get on an Android smartphone or tablet, that's for sure; there are a few gestures you'll need to know, but these can be mastered quickly. To start, you can either lift your arm up or push the home button to activate the screen (the former option can be disabled, if you raise your arms up for reasons other than using the watch and are worried about battery life).
The clock is the first thing you see when the screen lights up, unless you were in an app that timed out (in which case, you'll just go back into the screen you saw last). From this main screen, you can swipe up to get the dialer and make a call, swipe down to access the camera or swipe left or right to flip through your apps and services, such as notifications, S Voice, settings, pedometer and the third-party app folder (to name a few). You can also tap the screen with two fingers and either hold to bring up a stock Android recent apps menu, or double-tap to bring up battery percentage and settings for brightness and sound. Lastly, a double-tap on the home button will bring up S Voice by default, though you can change this to whatever app you want; if you hold the button down instead, you'll be prompted to turn off the device.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of the Gear's UX depends on your feelings toward swipe gestures -- this is your primary means of navigating the watch. It's easy enough to flip through the various apps at your disposal, but it can also be rather tiresome doing it on a screen that's attached to your wrist. You can open most of the apps using S Voice, however, which is a much more tempting option -- especially if you're looking for a third-party app buried deep in the app folder.
With such limited screen space to work with, the text can feel crammed in. There are three different font sizes, and we prefer the smallest for reading emails and text messages, just so we can actually read a full sentence at a time before having to scroll down. Interestingly enough, the font size doesn't affect the number of options that fit on the screen -- in settings, for example, you still see three lines on a screen, but the font fills up those lines in different ways. We also had problems seeing the full text whenever the virtual S Voice activation button was on screen (always found in the lower-right corner), because some of the words were hidden underneath the button, instead of properly wrapping around the icon. Lastly, the dialer feels similarly cramped, with small virtual keys that may be hard to hit accurately if you're walking around; so just use S Voice if you find yourself in that situation.
Together, notifications and voice control features give the smartwatch a sense of purpose. They make it possible to keep the phone in your pocket, which, frankly, is Samsung's whole mantra behind the Gear -- it's an accessory intended to save you from having to pull the smartphone out for basic tasks. Without these two aspects, the Gear would just be a nifty digital watch that happens to make calls (and take pictures).
Unfortunately, we quickly grew frustrated by Samsung's half-baked attempt at notifications on the Gear. First, here's what we like: you can customize the types of notifications you can have sounding off (or vibrating, if you prefer) in the Gear Manager, and the list of possible apps includes both native and third-party options. For instance, we could receive notifications for Gmail, Google Now, Google+, Hangouts, Evernote, Calendar events, Twitter, missed calls and text messages, among others. The native apps were actually rather useful; we could read through the entirety of our texts and emails, for instance, and even use S Voice to respond to the former. The variety of options was better than we had anticipated.
But the vast majority of notifications, especially those associated with non-Samsung apps, are completely pointless unless you treat them as general alerts. When a Gmail notification comes in, there's no way to read the email on the watch (unless you use the native email client for your Gmail). Instead, it gives us the option to open up the app on the phone so we can read it. In fact, this was the standard notification for most of the apps and services on the Gear.
Granted, we're willing to give Samsung some flexibility, because some apps may not yet be compatible with the Gear, so we can blame a lot of this frustration on the lack of an established ecosystem. We're happy to change our mind as more third-party support starts streaming in. Still, we get the most satisfaction out of being able to interact with our notifications solely on our wrist; if we have to tell it to open the app on our phone instead, it defeats the purpose of even looking at notifications on the watch in the first place. We'd also like to see S Voice-powered text input offered for more services, such as email (which, by the way, can only be accessed in the form of recent email notifications, and isn't offered as a standalone app).
With that said, if you prefer notifications to act more like general alerts -- "Hey, you'd better check your phone because you just got a Hangout" -- instead of a fully interactive experience, you won't be as irritated as we were. Heck, you'll probably find it even more convenient since it even opens the phone app for you, giving you one less task to worry about. It simply comes down to how much you want the Gear to do without having to reach for the phone.
Lastly, there's no easy way to dismiss notifications. Texts and emails, as we mentioned before, are easy enough to enter and read, but the non-Samsung notifications -- the ones that prompt us to use our phone -- won't go away until we actually tell it to open the phone app. This is something we've loved doing in the notification bar on our Android devices, and there needs to be an equivalent of that action on the Gear.
S Voice, Samsung's branded method of voice control, is hit or miss. You can tell S Voice to open apps, make calls, send texts, schedule appointments, set alarms and timers and ask what time it is in other cities. Compared to its counterpart on the phone (or, dare we say, Siri and Google voice services), this is an incredibly basic list of options. In my tests, S Voice successfully picked up my voice and granted my requests -- as long as they were as close to the script as possible. For example, when telling the Gear to "open Archives," it couldn't understand the request because the app's official name is in the singular form. "Set alarm for 9AM," works flawlessly, but you can't do the same to turn off that alarm. S Voice understands "send text to Bob," but not questions like, "Do I have any texts?" You could also ask the Gear to open up the music player, but it won't understand "play." Further, S Voice often took longer to hear and process our commands, but we have a feeling that this delay was a result of the extra step to go back and forth between the Gear and the phone.
When it comes to S Voice's basic nature, Samsung likely wanted to keep things simple -- it is just a watch, after all, and its very first one at that. But as the lineup progresses, we want to see the feature expand out to more developers and services (we'd love to see the ability to post status updates to social media, for instance) and even throw in more of a conversational element.
One of our biggest gripes with S Voice, however, is the fact that it can only be triggered by tapping on the app or double-pressing the home button -- actions that require the use of your other hand, which we discourage you from doing when driving a car or riding a bike. In order for the Gear to be truly hands-free, it must feature an always-listening mode. This is an area in which smartwatches could prove to be incredibly useful; we want to be able to say "Hi Galaxy," and ask it to make a call, draft a text message or anything else. Samsung didn't offer an explanation for why this was left out -- perhaps to preserve battery life, or the processor isn't powerful enough to handle the demands -- but we're concerned that too many Gear users will find themselves in an unsafe situation when trying to handle their new pride and joy with two hands.
Arguably the biggest surprise about the oft-rumored Galaxy Gear was its inclusion of a 1.9-megapixel BSI auto-focus camera. The module, which was built, oddly, directly into the wristband, is about the same as what you'd expect from any standard front-facing cam on your-run-of-the-mill Galaxy phone or tablet. When you enter the app, you'll find a settings icon on the top right and a camcorder toggle switch on the top left. In the settings, you can change to macro focus, enable Sound & Shot mode (yes, the same exact feature you can find in the GS4 or Note 3), and change the photo size from 1,392 x 1,392 (1:1) to 1,280 x 960 (4:3). When you take a picture, you can choose to have it simply remain stored on the device itself or you can transfer the image via Bluetooth over to the phone, where it gets added into a special folder in the gallery so it doesn't get mixed up with your phone's pictures. To take a picture, either tap on the screen or say "cheese," which worked for us about 90 percent of the time, even if it made us feel silly in public.
As you might expect, these aren't going to be the best or most detailed images -- most highlighted areas get overblown; the colors are a little off; and low-light shots are incredibly dim and noisy -- but we recognize that this isn't really the point. As far as we're concerned, the camera's there to serve two primary purposes: first, to capture those quick moments (parents, you know what we're talking about) that will be over by the time you reach for your phone; and second, as a clever use case for third-party apps. Think about scanning QR codes (yes, they still exist), using the camera to translate road signs in a foreign country or even taking a picture of a wine bottle to see if it fits your finicky tastes. It's all about the convenience and time-saving aspect of having a smartwatch.
Lastly, you can take videos in 15-second segments -- presumably due to the limited storage space on the Gear -- and you can choose between 720p (16:9) and 640 x 640 (1:1).
Performance and battery life
We already discussed the user experience and S Voice's performance, as well as the camera's capabilities, but how responsive is it, and how well does it function overall? First, the 800MHz processor is more than sufficient enough to handle all of the various tasks we put it through. The touchscreen is much more responsive than when we originally played with it at IFA, and there's very little lag or stutter when navigating or opening apps. Sure, it's slightly slower compared to a typical phone, but the difference is hardly noticeable.
As for battery life, don't expect Pebble-like endurance on the Gear. On average, you should get anywhere between a day and a half to two days of solid use. The lowest we saw our battery get after any given day was 30 percent, and that was after heavy use; on lighter days, we only got down to 65 percent. Out of habit, we generally charged the Gear every night, but it's comforting to know that it will still work most (if not all) of the next day in case we forget to plug it in. Of course, despite Samsung's watch having a 315mAh battery, which is pretty large for a device in this category, much of the reason it doesn't hold up to other smartwatches is because the Gear has a lot going on. Its screen is colorful and has a much higher resolution, and when you throw in other features like S Voice and third-party options, it's not terribly surprising to see the Gear's battery drain a lot faster than the competition.
When it comes to call quality, we'll liken the Gear's performance to your run-of-the-mill speakerphone, because that's essentially what it is. Calls are loud enough to hear the voice on the other line easily in a quiet room, but we can't recommend that you use it in noisy environments -- not that everyone around you actually wants to listen to your conversation anyway. The speakers themselves tend to be a little on the tinny side, so using the Gear for phone calls is good when you're in a pinch or when you want to use both hands for other activities.
The Galaxy Gear is a solid effort from Samsung, but it needs time to grow and develop. The things it does, it does well, and it's certainly more feature-rich and involved than any other smartwatch we've used so far. But it's the shortcomings that cause us to look at the big picture: it's only compatible with two devices at launch (soon to expand to five); the ecosystem is still brand-new and isn't open to all developers yet; notifications could use a bit of work; and S Voice isn't truly hands-free yet. These are all problems that should hopefully be resolved by the time the next Gear comes out (that is, assuming the series will continue next year). Still, they were frustrations that hurt our user experience so far.
The Gear isn't bad for a first-generation Samsung product, and it'll get better as the ecosystem grows. Of course, that's if the watch catches on and developers decide it's worth their time to produce a special app for it. Of any Android manufacturer, Samsung stands the best chance of gaining support. If it doesn't succeed, however, the $300 retail price will be even harder to swallow than it currently is, and no assortment of hot colors will change the fact that it's little more than a glorified time-telling device.