The Galaxy Gear wants desperately to be the vanguard of a new era of wearable computers. But while it promises more than the rest of the pack, if anything it makes absolutely clear that the future's still a long ways off.
What Is It?
The Galaxy Gear is a watch with above-average brains. It runs a pared-down (read: unrecognizable) version of Android. It essentially acts as an easier-to-assess relay point between you and your phone. Well, assuming your phone is the Galaxy Note 3, that is, since the Gear only works with Samsung's own Galaxy devices running Android 4.3 or higher, and the Note 3 is the only one that currently qualifies. It pairs with your phone via Bluetooth 4.0 Smart (a low-power protocol), so data and calls can be seamlessly transferred back and forth.
The focal point of the watch is the 1.63-inch Super AMOLED touch screen. It's got those deep, inky blacks that we expect from an AMOLED screen, and 320x320 pixels crammed into that little space gives it a satisfyingly sharp 278 PPI. Framing the screen is a brushed stainless steel bezel that feels rock solid. There is only one physical button on the watch, toward the upper right, which doubles as on/off and a shortcut to the app of your choice. Under the hood is an 800 MHz processor, 4GB of storage, 512MB of RAM, an accelerometer, gyroscope, and a 315 mAh battery. Not bad for such a relatively tiny computer, but a whole lot less than what you're used to in a phone, in ways that matter.
Samsung stuffed all of those bits in by using the band as well as the main watch body; wires run along the inside of the band, connecting the watch's brains to the 1.9MP camera, which juts out from the outside of the band like a small volcano, and the speaker, which lies in the stainless-steel clasp on the inside of your wrist. Not surprisingly, the result is a watch band that's rather stiff.
Subjectively, the watch is actually really handsome, and comes in a healthy range of six colour options. The screen is lovely, and the watch body has a nice shape to it. The band looks a bit cheap next to the watch itself, but it's not awful, despite the camera looking a bit like a wrist-wart. It's thick, but not as much as most sport watches; if you're used to it's thinner than a lot of sports watches out there, and we don't find it overly prominent. Unlike Google Glass, it doesn't draw stares.
Indoors, the screen is terrific. Seeing something that sharp attached to your wrist is almost jarring at first, but in a good way. Once you get outdoors, though, things get a little dicier. AMOLED screens often struggle in bright sunlight, and this one is no exception. That's problematic when the entire point of your device is convenience; a Galaxy Gear doesn't save you much time when you have to squint and shade to read it. That said, it was fine in all but direct sunlight, which is still better than a lot of phones out there.
The watch is charged via an included, clip-on charger unit. It is horrendously ugly, a thick, plastic mass with a fake "leather" texture branded into the front. It's unwieldy, and doesn't even really act as a stand for your fancy new watch. It's also where the NFC chip lives, so when you're first pairing your watch with your phone, you have to tap them together while the watch is in its chubby charger-costume.
Even absent the charger, the Gear is unfortunately uncomfortable to wear. The thick plastic band feels a bit like shackles at first, but you get used to it. What you won't get used to is the clasp mechanism. For some reason Samsung went with an awkward metal hinge design that makes it extremely easy to pinch some skin and/or wrist hair (should you have some). The Gear can be adjusted for seven different wrist sizes, but the gaps between each size are too large; the first setting I tried had it dangling off my wrist, while the next size down restricted bloodflow to my hand. Not fun. It's also very tough to get the locking mechanism to snap in. Frankly, some people probably won't have the hand-strength for it. Also, that clasp, which sits on your inner wrist, is so thick that it makes typing on a laptop extremely uncomfortable. This is not an every day wear.
The 1.9MP camera is nothing to write home about, which even Samsung basically acknowledges. It's fine for what it is, which is basically a visual notetaker. It can also shoot square video (506x506 pixels), but only for a maximum of 15 seconds, and the results are pretty awful. You can see some samples here. The watch also has a couple microphones so you can talk into your wrist to make phone calls, look up information, or take memos. While the Gear does a pretty decent job of isolating your voice from the background (even on a fairly busy street) your call recipients will hear a fair amount of static in your voice. You're audible, just noisy. You will also look silly, because you are talking into your wrist.
The speaker on the watch, unfortunately, is worse than the mics. While the watch could hear me while walking down the street, I definitely couldn't hear it. This would send me into the phone, trying to poke around for the information I missed in whatever notification I couldn't hear. Also, when I went for a run with it on and got just a little sweaty (really, it was a light sweat at most), it sounded like the speaker was underwater, which doesn't even make sense, since the speaker grill is facing away from your hand. Here's where we should also mention that the Gear isn't waterproof. In fact, in anything more than a light rain Samsung's product rep recommended you "bring an umbrella." Pretty dodgy for a watch you're spending $369 on.
When you first tap your phone on the NFC enabled charger, your phone downloads Samsung's Gear Manager software. Basically, any customisation you want to do for your device is done through this app, and that's a good thing, since selecting small options on the small watch screen is pretty frustrating. If you want to change settings, which notifications you'll receive, or even the look of the clock, that's all done through Gear Manager. As for navigating the Gear's OS, you just swipe and tap (and occasionally button-press), but accuracy tends to be spotty. I don't know if the glass isn't as touch responsive as it should be, or if it's just the super slow processor, but it makes navigating pretty frustrating.
Like most phones these days, the Gear comes with some pre-installed apps, and then there are a handful others you can download from Samsung's mini app store. It comes pre-installed with apps for Notifications, Weather, Voice Memo, Camera, Photo Gallery, Media Controller, Pedometer, Calculator (yes, it's a calculator-watch), and S Voice, which is Samsung's Google Now-ish / Siri-ish analogue. There are also a couple of bells and whistles that are genuinely convenient. For example, you can set your phone to unlock automatically when it's within 10 feet or so of your watch instead of having to enter a PIN. Or, if you can't find your phone, you can use your watch to make it ring. These are smart additions, and the best hints of how useful a smartwatch can actually be.
Notifications are the most important component here, since there's nothing this watch can do that your phone can't do better. It can be more convenient, though, as when you receive a text on your wrist and are able to read it, dismiss it, or reply to it (via S Voice) without pulling out your phone. Ditto with receiving/dismissing phone calls. You get the first few sentences of emails, which are actually very easy to read on the watch's sharp screen.
However, this only works for emails sent/received through Samsung's generic email app. We suspect that the vast majority of Android users have Gmail accounts, and thus find the Gmail app better and more convenient. Tough luck for now.
You can receive notifications from the Gmail app on your phone. Sort of. It shows up on your watch as, 1 Gmail Message. Great! But you tap it and you get, "For details, view this notification on your mobile device." No information about who sent it, what the subject is, or anything that would make this in any way a good thing. In fact, when you click it to open it up on your phone, for some reason the lock screen is re-enabled (even if you have it set to the Gear's proximity unlock), which is even more of a pain in the arse. If I wanted to be notified every time I got a Gmail message and receive no info about it until I unlocked my phone and looked at it, I'd just turn on vibration notifications in the Gmail app. Additionally, if you use Google Voice for texting, you're out of luck, as the Gear can't see those alerts.
The real problem is that the Gear just doesn't do much yet, and what it does, it doesn't do very well. Take S Voice, for example. In theory, it's capable of doing almost everything that Android's voice assistant can. Except that it's excruciatingly slow and far less accurate. It also has a grating robot voice that makes Siri sound like Scarlett Johansson, and it does things like add appointments to an unused Samsung calendar rather than the Google Calendar you rely on because it's synced across all of your devices.
That's not to say that the software is all bad. Some of it is great. Being able to skip tracks and adjust volume while I'm on a run and not have to pull my phone out is fantastic. The Evernote app is pretty much what you'd hope it would be. You can take a voice (or photo) note very easily and know it gets synced back to your phone and then the cloud. The Runtastic app was fairly good as well, and I liked being able to see my heart-rate and distance without having to wait for some mile-marker where it would be shouted over my music. It did frequently have trouble showing my pace, though, so it still needs some time in the oven. The Vivino Wine Scanner app (which allows you to take a picture of a bottle and get info on it) worked well, but it's a lot slower than its smartphone cousin, and it's not really any much more convenient.
Ultimately, though, this feels like a beta product. Apps feel unfinished, gestures are finicky, and very little about the whole experience is fluid or easy. It often takes a lot of scrolling around to finally find the app you want, and even then it's easy to accidentally back out of it because it mistook your tap for a swipe. It seems like Samsung just wanted to put some feelers out there and try to get some feedback from consumers, while charging them $369 for the honour.
Seeing text messages at a glance is often handier than pulling out your phone. For apps like Evernote and Media Controls, it's pretty wonderful to have easy access. The Super AMOLED screen and stainless steel bezel make for a very attractive combination.
It is so sluggishly slooooow. That in itself really taints the user experience, and makes what could be convenient into something that is aggravating. There are only a handful of things it does well, and they aren't numerous enough to justify the cost. It only works with Samsung devices running Android 4.3 or higher (the like the Note 3 and the Note 10.1). There are very few apps available (that could grow if the device becomes popular, but don't hold your breath). There's no multi-tasking, and apps constantly close on their own accord. Audio quality is sub-par (both talking and listening), and the watch spontaneously disconnects from the phone several times a day, despite being within three feet of each other. Yelling into your wrist while walking down the street makes you feel like a jerk. Like the anti-Dick Tracy.
- Samsung touts the battery life at a little over a day. Actually, we found that we got closer to two days on a single charge. But again, that's probably because it really doesn't do much.
- There's so much lag (likely due to the lowly 800MHz processor and half a gig of RAM), that you often don't know if it didn't read your touch or if it's just hesitating. So you take a guess and either tap again or just keep staring. You will always guess wrong, somehow, so you'll either end up somewhere you didn't want to be, or you'll stare at it until your eyeballs dry up.
- It can't multi-task. While I was on a run, all I wanted was access to Runtastic and the Media Controller. First, it would nice to have some sort of task switcher so I could just toggle back and forth between the two apps I actually wanted. But worse, I'd leave Runtastic up until the screen fades out. Then I'd run another couple minutes, then check it again. It always defaults back to the home clock after a couple minutes. That means you have to scroll back through your apps until you get to Runtastic, and then it may need to launch all over again. Also, trying to swipe between screens would frequently pause the run by mistake. It drove me nuts.
- The buckle of the watch really digs into your wrist. I had to remove it while working.
Should You Buy It?
Only if $369 means nothing to you. If you can drop that kind of money to satisfy a vague curiosity, then sure. Actually, make that $900, since you'll need to buy a so Galaxy Note 3 as well (or shell out more for the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition tablet) to get any use out of it. Let us save you some money, though: It doesn't do enough, well enough, to be worth it.
There's a debate amongst the Gizmodo writers about whether or not a smartwatch could ever be a good thing. After using the Galaxy Gear I think I can see the potential. But that potential lies far off in the distance, barely visible, on a theoretical horizon. Google Glass exists somewhere on that plane, too, but even in its current form Glass is pretty fast, is more intuitive, better integrated into products you actually want to use, and generally more useful. (To be fair, though, Glass is $US1,600 and not even available to consumers.)
So, while the potential of the smartwatch exists, the Galaxy Gear is far, far from the realisation of that potential. Ultimately, it's just a nice-looking $369 beta. [Samsung]
Samsung Galaxy Gear Specs
• Network: Bluetooth • OS: Android (modified) • CPU: 800MHz single-core processor • Screen: 1.63-inch 320x320 pixel Super AMOLED (278 PPI) • RAM: 512MB • Storage: 4GB • Camera: 1.9MP • Battery: 315 mAh • Weight: 2.6 ounces • Price: Starts at $369 from most U.S. carriers and retail stores