Samsung Gear Fit review: a messy merger of fitness band and smartwatch

Fitness trackers and smartwatches come a dime a dozen, but devices that combine the best of both? Still exceedingly rare. Now, however, Samsung thinks it has the perfect solution in the Gear Fit, a fitness band with a beautiful, curved screen, as well as a heart rate monitor, pedometer and a few smartwatch features thrown in for good measure. It's an ambitious product, no doubt, but unfortunately, this $200 fitness-tracking smartwatch hybrid didn't quite meet my expectations. Here's why.

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Samsung Gear Fit review

Hardware and display

Beautiful. That's the thought that ran through my mind when I handled the Samsung Gear Fit for the very first time back in February. Mostly it was the screen that got me, a 1.84-inch curved Super AMOLED display that wraps around your wrist. It helps this smartwatch/fitness band hybrid look and feel more natural, and it's much more aesthetically pleasing than most of its rivals, too. The screen itself has vibrant colors, making it fun to stare at even when you're not using it. It's barely readable in sunlight, though; you'll need to bump it up to "outdoor brightness" mode, and even then it only stays in that mode for five minutes before reverting back down to your previous setting. And since there's no ambient light sensor, there's no auto-brightness setting to make it easier for your display to adjust when you go outdoors.

Moving beyond the screen, the Fit is a narrow plastic module that comes with an interchangeable wristband. It's easy enough to swap colors, though you won't have many options at the beginning -- just six for now. It's comfortable enough that it's not a burden to wear for long periods of time, which is something I can't say about many rival watches. Still, it's a sporty-looking device, if you know what I mean, which means anyone looking for something elegant should probably look elsewhere.

The Fit has one physical home button, which you can also double-press as a shortcut to certain apps (that part's customizable -- just choose the feature you use most often). On the underside of the device, you'll find the heart rate monitor, which uses an LED to measure your pulse, along with a proprietary docking/charging port. Inside, the watch comes with Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy, an accelerometer and gyroscope. What's missing? GPS, which could've made it possible to add more fitness-tracking options (especially useful when it's not within range of your phone).

The charging dock used here is quite small, which also makes it a huge liability. Not only is it one more accessory to take around whenever you go on a long trip, but it's also incredibly easy to lose. There's not much to the cradle itself: It features a micro-USB port and a couple wing-like tabs that help secure it onto the sides of your Fit. It does a good job of attaching to the watch whenever I need to plug the device in. The problem is, if one of those tabs were to break off later, it'd be virtually impossible to charge the device.

Just like Samsung's new Galaxy S5, the Fit is IP67-certified, which means it can be immersed in up to a meter of water for up to 30 minutes. So, taking a shower and washing dishes are perfectly acceptable, and it'd probably even be OK if you jumped into the pool with it.

Software and functionality

I won't bother mincing words here: The hardware is good, but the software isn't. It's not running Android or Tizen OS, like Samsung's other Gears. Instead, it uses a specialized operating system that's limited in functionality and doesn't allow third-party apps to work on the device itself (this may change eventually, but probably only if the watch sells well enough to justify it).

Once the watch is set up, you'll be greeted by a home screen. You can change this panel to one of several different preset options: You can display the pedometer, the local weather, your next calendar appointment or even a second clock for a different time zone. If you want to jazz up your clock beyond that, you can choose from 10 different themes; you can also make your own wallpaper by cropping a narrow strip out of any pic in your gallery.

Aside from the clock, the user interface is comprised of 10 menu options (11 if you count App Connect, which pops up if a Fit-compatible app like Strava is installed on your Galaxy device). If you're fine with small text, you can fit up to three icons on the screen at the same time; if you prefer everything to be larger, however, you'll have to make do with one. Gear Fit Manager, a Samsung phone app you need in order to manage your watch, lets you rearrange the menu as you see fit.

Finally, the menu can be split up into two sections: apps that function as fitness-tracking features, and apps that utilize the smartwatch part of the device. I'll discuss them separately.

As a fitness band

If you have a Gear Fit-compatible phone or tablet, chances are you've seen the S Health app. It's meant to be a one-stop destination for almost all of your fitness data, such as your heart rate, exercise, calorie intake and so on. It links with your Samsung Account, so you should be able to back up your data and transfer it to other Samsung-made devices down the road if you feel so inclined. As you might have guessed, almost any fitness tracking you do on the Fit can be downloaded and synced with S Health. By default, the phone and Fit are supposed to talk to each other once every three hours for data transfers, but you can have it less frequently (e.g., once or twice a day).

The idea behind the heart rate monitor is wonderful, but in practice, it isn't as useful as I was expecting. First off, it's not accurate enough; just like the Galaxy S5 and Gear 2, the sensor's numbers range anywhere from a solid "in the neighborhood" to outright "outlandish." The measurements varied wildly when I adjusted the Fit to a different position on my wrist, and the variation was even bigger when I measured my pulse on both wrists. All told, the sensor is too sensitive to sweat, movements and noise, often requiring you to make multiple attempts. Lastly, the only way to have the Fit continually measure your heart rate is to go in and tell the watch that you're starting your workout. Even then, that option is switched off by default.

When you're ready to begin your workout, tap on the exercise menu option. Doing this gives you a small number of workout types to choose from: walking, hiking, running and cycling. These are capable of tracking your distance, the amount of time it takes to complete the activity and the number of calories you've presumably burned in the process. Unfortunately, regardless of which activity you choose, there's no way to pause once you've started, so your workout time won't be accurate if you stop to take a break.

Some of the options, such as running mode, come with a built-in coaching feature. As you run, the heart rate monitor keeps an eye on your pulse and the coach will give you simple instructions like speed up or slow down. Like I said, walking is one of the workout options in the exercise menu, but the pedometer is treated as a completely separate app on the main menu. This is incredibly unintuitive; it means that if I want to go on a walk and track all of my data, I have to go into two different parts of the Fit to activate everything before I can even leave my house. (The pedometer is turned off by default.) If the pedometer had already counted your steps for the day up until that point, you'd have to reset it so you can begin your workout at zero. I want to count both daily and workout-specific steps, so it would make more sense to include a "steps counted" feature as part of the workout screen instead of treating it as a separate data point.

All of this is frustrating, but it could almost be forgivable if the pedometer were at least accurate. Not only is it imprecise, but it doesn't sync properly with S Health. Regarding the first concern, I took a walk and counted my steps the old-fashioned way (with my brain); when I compared it with my Fit, the two figures weren't close enough to each other to blame margin of error. I also took my GS5 and Fit along with me for a mile-long exercise -- half of it walking and the other half running -- and the Fit calculated 200 more steps than my phone. These are just a couple examples, of course, but I've noticed many more discrepancies over the past week and a half.

The syncing problem only manifested itself when I used both the Fit and Galaxy device to monitor my exercise; because the S Health app knows you might have both your phone and smartwatch on you at the same time, it only syncs the workout with the earliest start time. On paper, it's a smart idea; both devices should measure the exact same results. Since they clearly don't, though, this means you'll end up with a discrepancy in your exercise unless you turn off the activity tracker on one device (or leave your phone at home when you're going for a run). The Fit also didn't do a good job of calculating distances traveled. I used a local track to run a mile, but the Fit told me I'd only travelled one-fifth of that distance. Again, GPS would have come in mighty handy here.

Sadly, the Fit's woes go beyond fitness tracking -- its sleep tracker is also fairly pointless. The Fit uses its built-in accelerometer to detect motion as a way of determining if you're fully asleep, and... that's about it. It also has a timer that tracks when you want to begin sleeping and when you wake up, but even that's a hassle. Unlike the Basis B1 band, which automatically detects when you fall asleep, the Fit requires you to do it manually. So, if it takes you a full half-hour to conk out, the Fit will be none the wiser.

Not only is the amount of sleep data limited but also, the only way to store any of it is to download a standalone app in the Samsung Store called "S Health Sleep." That's right, one of the Fit's marquee features has no place in the main S Health app. Why the company did it this way, I can't be sure. What I do know, however, is that you currently need three different apps to properly manage the Gear Fit and all of the data you collect on it. At this point, you probably can see exactly how confusing the user experience is here. I imagine many of these problems will be solved over time, but by then it might be too late.

As a smartwatch

The fitness tracker obviously needs some work, but how does the Fit do as a smartwatch? Let's start with a recap of what it does: like the Pebble, It's an extension of your phone, with notifications for incoming calls, text messages and emails, and also select apps. Most of that works fine, but notifications -- especially long ones -- are a bit of a mess simply because of the awkward screen. If I look at it in horizontal mode, I have to view it from an awkward angle that hurts my neck (more on this in the next section). Most apps don't even show the actual notification; they display a teaser and give you the option to look at it from your phone. In the case of Gmail, you can see the sender's name and subject line, but nothing else. Worse, if you have more than one email, your most recent message details blend into one single notification like a run-on sentence.

There's also a timer, media controller and stopwatch on board if you need them, but this is essentially where the functionality stops -- remember that there are no third-party apps here. For a lot of people, this will be more than plenty -- as I mentioned before, this isn't meant to replace your smartphone, but I'd still like to see what else developers could do to the Fit to make it more effective when it comes to completing basic tasks.

In case you're wondering, the Fit comes with a Do Not Disturb mode (which Samsung calls Blocking Mode), but there's a catch: It's combined with the sleep tracker, so that's the only time you can use it. While I definitely like to use this mode when I'm sleeping, there are plenty of times when I'm trying to focus on other tasks and don't want my wrist vibrating every few seconds. This seems like a huge oversight on Samsung's part.

Performance and battery life

There's one other problem with using the Fit as a smartwatch: The display itself may be fun to look at, but the actual contents on the screen aren't. That's because the panel is so narrow that I had to strain my neck every time I wanted to read the Fit display in horizontal (landscape) mode. Vertical (portrait) mode solves this problem, but introduces another issue: You can only read a few characters of text on each line, forcing you to scroll even further down the screen just to get to the end of the message.

On the plus side, scrolling isn't terribly difficult since the screen is reasonably responsive. But unless your phone is in another room and you're not able to get up and grab it, using two hands to scroll through a notification on your watch pretty much defeats the purpose -- it'd be faster to just pick up the phone.

Meanwhile, I never had any problems pairing the Fit to my Galaxy S5, nor did I have any issues maintaining my Bluetooth connection. Also, the built-in accelerometer makes it possible to wake the display up when I raise my arm, but the performance here is hit-or-miss. On multiple occasions, I found myself grossly exaggerating my movements because simply raising my arm didn't actually turn it on.

As for runtime, Samsung claims the Fit's battery will last three to four days. After spending a little over a week with it, I have to agree. I only had to fully charge the unit twice during my time reviewing it, and each time it lasted for four days. Admittedly, though, it probably would have drained faster if I were a more avid runner, which means the usual caveat applies here: Your mileage may vary.

The competition

The $200 Gear Fit is unique in that it faces competition from not one, but two types of wearables: fitness trackers and smartwatches. That means you have a lot to choose from, even though the Fit is one of a few devices that attempt to bridge the gap between the two genres. But it's not the only one. When it comes to being a jack-of-all-trades, the $400 Adidas miCoach Smart Run does a good job combining several elements, doing quadruple-duty as a media device, training coach, GPS tracker and heart rate monitor. The problem is, it's pricey. In fact, given the feature set, the Gear Fit feels like a steal at half the cost.

Aside from the performance issues, the Fit also has limited compatibility. It can only connect to specific Samsung smartphones and tablets, so anyone using other Android or iOS devices won't be able to do anything with it. It's also on the expensive end of the fitness-band spectrum, going up against the $199 Basis band. Although the Fit has a few more smartwatch-type qualities, the Basis B1 does a better job tracking most fitness activities. And, as mentioned earlier, it even monitors your sleep automatically, a killer feature that puts the Fit's capabilities to shame.

On the cheaper side, you can choose from the $150 Jawbone Up24, $100 Fitbit Flex, $100 Polar Loop and $130 Garmin Vivofit. The Garmin and Polar devices have optional heart rate monitors, and the former has a simple display for stats; all of them can connect with most smartphones to sync your data. While most fitness trackers don't have many smartwatch qualities (if any), most smartwatches have at least a few fitness tracking features. The Pebble (which ranges from $150 to $249 depending on the model) is backed by an enthusiastic developer community, and it's got a bunch of clever apps related to health and fitness, such as sleep trackers, swim counters and pedometers (to name a few); you'll find Strava, RunKeeper, Runtastic Pro and other well-known apps in the Pebble store as well. Unfortunately, though, the Pebble, doesn't have a heart rate monitor.

Wrap-up

I'll give Samsung credit where it's due: It's one of the first companies to blend a fitness tracker with a smartwatch, and there is indeed a market for such a device. In terms of hardware, the company did a fantastic job crafting a curved device that feels comfortable and looks good, to boot. Samsung also included a heart rate monitor, a beautiful display and interchangeable bands -- all good things.

Where Samsung failed is in the software. The user interface is confusing; the display is awkward to read; the heart rate monitor and pedometer aren't accurate; and the sleep tracker only logs a couple important stats. Ultimately, the company tried so hard to integrate a fitness tracker with a smartwatch that it ended up half-baking both aspects. As is, it's not worth the $200 asking price.

History, too, would suggest it's not a good idea to buy this right now. As I mentioned in my original Galaxy Gear review, the device felt more like a proof of concept. Samsung clearly agreed, since it pushed out an improved sequel less than six months later. Now, the Gear Fit appears to be in the same position: great on paper, but poorly executed. It's best to wait this one out, but hopefully Samsung will push forward, listens to feedback and comes out with a much better version before too long.

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Samsung

Gear Fit

Pros

  • Comfortable to wear
  • Gorgeous curved AMOLED display
  • Long battery life 

Cons

  • No app ecosystem, limited functionality
  • Heart rate monitor and pedometer aren't accurate
  • Narrow display makes it tough to read
  • Small, proprietary charging cradle
     
Summary

We wanted to like the Gear Fit, which features beautiful hardware and promises to combine the best of a fitness tracker and smartwatch. However, its software and performance were poorly executed, making it impossible to recommend.