A smartwatch is a curious piece of technology. As a time-telling device you wear on your wrist, it feels classic and familiar. But of course, it’s much more than a watch. It’s also a portal to your smartphone, a dedicated (smaller) screen for receiving messages and making calls without having to remove that ever-present glowing rectangle from your purse or pocket. Ideally, a smartwatch is supposed to free you from the shackles of smartphone over-reliance, all without leaving you disconnected from the digital world. For now, that promise remains unfulfilled.
Samsung’s Galaxy Gear is really the first big-name smartwatch — well, at least if you don’t count Sony’s half-hearted attempts. It also follows in the footsteps of underdog and uber successful Kickstarter example Pebble, which debuted last year. Pebble is primarily a hub for notifications, letting you read tweets, text messages, and alerts from Wi-Fi connected devices in your home.
Gear wants to be much more. Running a version of Android on an 800 MHz processor, it’s packed with tech, including a 1.9-megapixel camera, a gyroscope, and an accelerometer. It also uses Bluetooth LE to interface with the Galaxy Note 3, currently its only compatible smartphone counterpart. All that hardware means Gear can do far more than relay messages and Twitter notifications: You can dictate notes and commands, check the weather, track your daily activity, and set calendar appointments, for starters.
But Gear, a first-generation device, doesn’t quite hit the mark. It’s an admirable push in mobile technology for sure, but the execution — both on the hardware and software side — isn’t enough to justify the $300 price tag. And in many ways, the smartwatch ends up being more of a nuisance than a convenience.
But first, an overview of the hardware. The Galaxy Gear’s face is a 1.63-inch, 320 x 320 pixel Super AMOLED display. While 1.63 inches sounds pretty small, when it’s strapped against your wrist, it’s anything but. The display is super bright, and you can adjust text to one of three sizes for ease of readability. You can also adjust things like display brightness and background color. Given it’s an AMOLED screen, if you want to save on battery life, you’ll want to go with a black background.
A single power button graces one side of the face, and a 1.9-megapixel camera comes tucked inside the band. There’s also a mic embedded underneath the face of the watch, along with a speaker located in the band’s metal clasp.
Samsung clearly designed the Gear a give off the waft of high-end design, with appointments like longitudinal ribbing along the band and metallic hardware accents. One of the first things I noticed looking at the watch, however, was how out of place the four screws along the perimeter of the face seemed — particularly for a smartwatch so clearly devoted to sleek minimalism. The band is also styled after many pricey timepieces and comes with an oyster-shell clasp. Having never really been a watch wearer, figuring out how to operate it turned out to be more difficult than learning the device’s UI.
That UI is straightforward enough. Power on or raise your wrist towards your face to bring up the homescreen. Swipe right or left to access your favorite “apps,” along with an apps menu for more offerings. Swipe downwards from the top of the device to go back, and a downward swipe from the homescreen opens the camera. An upward swipe from the homescreen pulls up the dialer. Double tapping the homescreen gives you quick access to adjusting the device’s volume and brightness, and double tapping the home button is customizable, but can bring up Samsung’s voice dictation feature, S Voice.
This is Samsung’s way of letting you speak to your Gear. You can dictate replies to text messages, tell it to dial certain contacts, add events and tasks to your calendar, set an alarm, or get the day’s weather, among other things. The feature should be one of the crowning achievements of Galaxy Gear — giving you an legitimate alternative to whipping out your 5.7-inch Note. But it’s all just too darn slow.
S Voice does a respectable job of accurately interpreting your messages and commands, but by the time I’ve dictated, confirmed, and sent a message, I could have tapped it out on my phone faster. I used the feature to pull up the weather, and again, it was faster to simply remove the Note from my pocket, unlock it, and glance at the widget on the homescreen. The female voice that tells you what commands you can use is robotic and slow paced, which also takes some getting used to. But, if your hands are tied, or your smartphone is buried deep in the bowels of your backpack, yeah, S Voice can be an acceptable option for getting things done.
You can also download a handful of third-party apps for your Gear. Evernote integration is super convenient for referencing notes and checklists on your wrist. And while you can’t type out anything on the Gear’s display, you can save photos and up to 120 seconds of audio to the Evernote app. (Alternatively, you can save up to 5 minutes of audio using Gear’s Voice Memo app). MyFitnessPal users can also glance at their current calorie stats or scan barcodes to upload a serving of a product to the app. Path, Runtastic, and a wine label-scanning app called Vivino are other featured apps currently available for the Gear.
And of course, we’d be remiss not to talk about Galaxy Gear’s camera. If you’ve got to snap a photo right this second, it’s certainly quicker than taking out the Note. Keep in mind though that you’re only getting a low-quality, 1.9-megapixel shot. The device makes an audible shutter sound (which you can’t disable) when you tap the screen to take a photo. Samsung says it’s supposed to alert those around you to the fact that you’re taking a picture. But if you’re anywhere with a decent amount of ambient noise — a busy bar or a concert, or instance — you can totally be a creeper with the camera, taking shots without anybody noticing. You can also simply hold a finger over the bottom strap speaker for completely soundless shots.
The call quality is decent when making or receiving calls with Gear — I could make out the person on the other end just fine, and they could hear me. It still feels unnatural speaking into my wrist though.
With what I’d call medium to heavy usage, I got between 4 and 6 hours out of Gear’s 315 mAh battery. For lighter, more typical, daily use, Gear lasted 12 hours. The watch reminds you to charge when you drop to 15 percent, and took less than an hour and a half to fully juice back up. To charge Gear, you place it inside a plastic dock (I guess you would call it) that locks shut over the face kind of like a charging prison. The dock is made of lightweight plastic and feels cheap.
As mentioned above, for now Galaxy Gear only works with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. Like the Note and Note II, it’s a mixed bag. The 5.7-inch HD Super AMOLED display is bright, with oversaturated colors. The S Pen, Samsung’s signature stylus, gets a whole lot more useful in this rendition thanks to the addition of Air Command, a menu that pops up whenever you pull out the stylus or hover it over the screen. It lets you quickly and easily create pen-written memos and gives you access to the Scrapbooker, which allows you circle and save links, images, and other items with the pen and save them for later reference.
The workflow of pen, on-device buttons, and touch input can be awkward, but the stylus definitely comes in handy if you enjoy sketching or like writing notes by hand. The device is certainly speedy, running Android 4.3 on a Snapdragon 800 quad-core processor. But the performance of the rear-facing camera is surprisingly subpar compared to other leading smartphones, particularly in low-light situations. Battery life is stellar though, often lasting more than a day before requiring a recharge.
Managing Gear from the Note — including what notifications you want to receive, the apps and their settings, and what you use S Voice for — is fairly straightforward. It’s done through menus in the Gear Manager app.
Still, Galaxy Gear just isn’t something most folks need. It’s not even something I wanted to keep on my wrist all day. While the feature set is more advanced than any other smartwatch, the technology and its uses are clearly in their infancy. I imagine that later generations of Galaxy Gears, with a trimmer design, lighter weight, speedier processor, and maybe even a better camera, might be a slightly easier sell. Yes, it’s a noble attempt at innovation. But for the most part, the end result is too clunky and awkward for true appeal beyond being a brief conversation piece on your wrist. For now, the Gear remains a $300 smartphone accessory.
All photos: Josh Valcarcel/get-gadget