Review: Samsung Gear Live

It’s 3 in the morning and my daughter is crying in her crib. I pick her up, and rock her back to sleep. But when I lean over to place her back in the crib, the screen on my watch lights up, waking her once more. This is an unintended consequence of my watch’s ability to sense my movements, and it has come alive in anticipation that I may want something from it. But what I really want is to go back to bed.

The watch on my wrist, Samsung Gear Live, is one of two Android Wear watches already on sale. The other, the LG G Watch, is reviewed here. A third, the Motorola 360, is coming soon.

For years now, smart watches like these have been “coming soon.” Well, here they are. And it’s worth thinking about what they do, and how well they do it.

The main thing I’ve found that Android Wear smart watches do well—much like Android itself—is eliminate clutter. Thanks to recent updates to Google’s mobile OS, the barrage of emails and tweets that flood onto your phone during the day can be more easily dismissed and trashed and shunted aside by tapping or swiping on the notifications as they appear on the phone’s screen. And now, you can tap or swipe on those notifications from the watch face too. It is a wonderfully efficient way of managing digital clutter.

But overall, it feels like an evolution—as opposed to the revolution of the first iPhone and Android devices. It is not something entirely new, at least not yet. It is simply a way of shifting certain actions from one screen to another. It promises to do some things uniquely, but ultimately it is a triage system for your notifications. An alert system.

Driving in my car, my watch vibrates on my wrist. A new text message from my father has arrived. This is the Ur use case for wearables—acting on items without diving deep into a smartphone application. But there’s a problem. While my watch will listen to me, it doesn’t ever speak. There is no speaker, nor can I even command it to “read me my text” to have the message play on my phone’s speaker. So I still have to fiddle with a screen to read the message. Given the screen’s small size, it occurs to me that this is even more dangerous than looking at it on my phone. Replying, however, is effortless. I talk, and it sends him a perfectly transcribed response. A miracle, if a minor one.

The clasp on this thing is really nice. You can replace the band, but there’s no real reason to do so. And generally speaking, the hardware is nice-not-wonderful. It is noticeably big, but not ridiculous by any stretch. It is too dim, and yet still can’t get great battery life. It doesn’t have a front side camera or a speaker, which would make it a Dick Tracy device suitable for Hangouts and Skype calls. It seems such a waste for this to only be about text, and to only be able to input audio, rather than play it as well.

Overall this is a success. Do you love gadgets? Get it. You’ll enjoy playing with it and as more apps come along it’s just going to get more useful. But it isn’t for everyone. It lacks the gee-whiz factor of Google Glass, while offering no more utility (although you probably won’t get laughed at for wearing it). It needs a better reason to exist, which it doesn’t have yet.

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