Samsung Galaxy Gear — Review

The Galaxy Gear is Samsung’s first entry into the smart watch, or “wearables”, market. It joins the Pebble and Sony‘s Sony’s Smartwatch 2 in what seems to be a developing market.

It’s arguable whether there is a need for this new generation of wearable technology – there is in fact no real ‘need’ for a watch at all these days, so a “smart” watch which tells the time and performs a few other functions really is a product that’s trying to find a market.

The Galaxy Gear isn’t an independent device – it can’t connect to a network on its own, and needs to be connected to its host device (probably your phone) via a Bluetooth connection. Samsung’s limiting the scope of their potential market to customers that already have one of their devices – at launch, only the Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy S4 could function as host devices, although that’s changing now. Without a compatible host device, the Gear is pretty useless.

For the first few days the Gear was a huge novelty. The Gear seems to have decent public awareness – most people knew what it was but, had didn’t really gave any idea what it actually did, so I was constantly showing it off to my friends and colleagues, which I found caused a significant dent in the battery of both my phone and the Gear itself.

My demos usually consisted of a quick overview of the features, after which more than a few Dick Tracey jokes were made, and in the end my audience was generally not all that impressed. It seems that the concept of a smart watch is far more exciting than the reality.

Pros

  • Battery life is good and doesn’t impact the phone battery life too badly
  • Looks good and is lighter than a standard watch
  • Convenient to control music

Cons

  • Very limited functionality when not connected to phone via Bluetooth
  • Cost
  • Notifications don’t provide enough detail
  • Screen is off by default to conserve battery
  • Limited device compatibility
  • Hardware and Build

    The Galaxy Gear looks a lot better than I expected. Samsung isn’t exactly known for their design flair, producing sleek, practical, and functional devices, but rarely anything that would attract the term ‘sexy’. Thankfully, there’s no Samsung branding on the face at all.

    The Gear might be considered an exception – it is a “sexy enough” device with its attractive brushed metal face housing its 1.63-inch Super AMOLED 300×300 screen, with screws positioned at each corner. From a design perspective, it looks like a watch, which is important – I find that the Sony Smartwatch 2 looks more like a screen attached to a wristband.

    That sexiness drops off a little as you move away from the face of the device, though. The wristband of the device is part of it – it houses the camera, and can’t be removed so you’re stuck with the plasticky materials Samsung’s used to build it, in the colour you buy. It’s not a dealbreaker, but a poorly-chosen colour can render your sexy smart watch a toy in the eye of the beholder.

    On the right hand side of the watch is a single button and embedded in the watch band is a 1.9 MP camera. There is no microUSB port on the Gear itself, instead the Gear is placed in a dock for charging and connectivity back to a desktop. On the clasp of the Gear is the microphone and speaker with a small Samsung branding. The Gear is surprisingly light, at 73.8g it is significantly lighter than the watch I usually wear.

    Camera

    The Gear has a 1.9 MP camera embedded in the band above the face, which points away from you as you look at the watch face (no good for selfies!). I can’t think of any legitimate, non-creepy use for this camera. The quality is terrible, and because of where it’s mounted the angle always ends up being awkward. When taking a photo the Gear makes a loud shutter noise, which is a good thing considering the photo suggestions I received from some of my friends. It’s also capable of recording video in 720p. The Gear can be set up to send the photo straight to your phone as soon as it’s taken which saves having to manually sync or transfer your grainy low quality creepy photos.

    Screen

    I was concerned about scratching the screen since it is so large and not recessed, but thankfully the Gear survived without a mark on it. The default state for the screen is off to conserve battery, but it will wake by pressing the button or it will detect when it is lifted to your face and then activate automatically. I had mixed success with the automatic wake, I found that I had to overstate the gesture and lift my arm sharply then tilt the Gear towards my face in a very pronounced movement to activate the screen. This looks really weird to anyone watching and appears as though I’m making a big deal of the watch, accordingly I did not do it very often and instead activated it with the button.

    When on the screen is clear and bright, and visibility in bright sun is quite good. Outdoor visibility is assisted by very large white icons on a black screen. Navigation is achieved via gestures, left and right to navigate through menus, press to select, and swipe from the top to go back. This is a good use of screen real estate as no onscreen navigation buttons are required and it also doesn’t require a thick bezel like the Sony.

    Software

    When the Gear is connected to a compatible device there is a persistent notification on the phone granting access to the Gear Manager, which is installed on the phone from Samsung Apps. From the Gear Manager you can change Gear settings, reorganise menus, assign favourites, change clocks and install apps to the Gear via the dedicated Gear section on the Samsung App Store. The range of Gear apps available is quite impressive considering this is Samsung’s first device – there are Health/Fitness, Lifestyle, Entertainment, Social Networking, Utilities, and of course a variety of clock faces. The app is installed to the Gear via the phone and appears under the Apps menu.

    There are 10 screens which can be customised to feature your favourite apps, plus the settings and apps screens which can’t be changed. That makes 12 screens to scroll through which makes it hard to find your way around. There are a few shortcuts to make life easier – swiping up from the watch face will bring up the dialer, and swiping down will take you to the camera. The button can be configured so that a double press will take you straight to any of the apps or functions.

    The Gear is able to display notifications received on your phone, but I found this slightly more useful than a notification LED. If a Gmail arrives the Gear will notify you, but it won’t say who it is from or display any of the content. Same with a Hangouts notification, Facebook etc. It also only has support for Samsung’s default Messages app, so if you use Handcent or Chomp you won’t be notified at all. ‘ATN Manager’ from XDA provides a lot more functionality but it is still being developed and improved.

    Taking a phone call is very cool, although I didn’t use it often. If a call comes through it will display the caller ID and you can answer it right on the Gear and take the call. The built in speaker and microphone allows you to hear the other person and they can hear you clearly, I found it very cool to be able to speak straight into my watch. The person on the other end had no problems hearing me but I was in an office environment, it wouldn’t be practical on a busy street or in a crowd.

    As mentioned previously the app selection for the Gear is impressive. Some of the notable apps available are: Runkeeper: Great to be able to glance at your distance and pace on your wrist, but you still have to take the phone on your run. This would have been more useful if the Gear had its own GPS, removing the need to take the phone. eBay: Receive buyer and seller notifications, limited use unless you are a very active eBayer. Still good to see them getting on board. Evernote: Take photos, record audio and view checklists right there on your wrist. If you’re a big Evernote user this would be very handy S-Voice: This is preinstalled on the phone, and if it was anywhere near as good as Google’s voice recognition it would be useful. Unfortunately it’s not and it rarely understands my commands, s-voice stinks.

    Samsung Galaxy Gear

    • CPU: 800 MHz
    • RAM: 512MB
    • Battery: 315mAh
    • Storage: 4GB Internal
    • Connectivity:
    • Bluetooth 4.0
    • Bluetooth LE
    • Other: Gyroscope and accelerometer

    Conclusion

    The Galaxy Gear is a good idea and a well-executed first attempt by Samsung but its usefulness and appeal is limited. Currently only Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy S4 owners can use it with more Samsung phones to come in future, but if you don’t use a newer Samsung then the Gear is of no use to you whatsoever.

    Cost is also an issue, and I think it’ll end up being a significant barrier to uptake of the device. You’ll part with a fair bit of cash to own a Galaxy Gear – the device will set you back around $350, which kills my interest in purchasing it. Perhaps if the device was bundled with the purchase of a compatible phone as we saw at at launch, it might attract interest.

    I can’t really recommend the Gear to others just yet. It’s been lots of fun to use and has gained the attention of everyone who has seen it, but I found that in the end all I used it for was to tell the time. Yes, it has a camera, a pedometer and numerous apps but I didn’t find them to be useful at all – mainly because the watch can’t do anything without an active Bluetooth connection back to the phone, which wasn’t something I was willing to give it.

    Despite my misgivings, I do think this is a good first attempt by Samsung, and a product line that definitely has a future. I can’t wait to see version 2.

    UPDATE: A few weeks ago the Galaxy Gear received a software update which to improved some of its more frustrating shortcomings: the responsiveness of the ‘raise to activate’ gesture has been improved and notifications now provide more information rather than having to go back to the phone. At the same time, software updates to the Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note II have added compatibility with the Gear which increases the potential buyer’s market. It’s good to see some improvements, but it doesn’t change my overall impression of the Gear that it is an overpriced novelty although ‘smart watches’ definitely have a future.

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    • Ben Liu

      Once you put in the Custom Firmware (Null ROM) or unlock it, the watch is literally 1000% better with the capability to sideload just about anything on it (and even with Google Play). With BT Tethering on, it is basically having a Galaxy S2 on your wrist from that point on.

      • Paul Welch

        The Null Rom Really Unlocks this Device

        • Ben Liu

          Yep.. sure does. I am so happy with my watch. The only thing I wished it had was direct WIFI and GPS. That would have been ultimate.

        • Paul Welch

          can the pebble keep up with the null GG ?

        • Ben Liu

          Chalk and cheese. the Pebble is limited to what you can do with it. the unlocked Null GG is truly another Android device that you can install at least 80% of the same software on it. Not to mention the GG doubles as a BT headset to talk into (only Smartwatch currently that allows this function).

        • Paul Welch

          was a rhetorical question … iam with u brother

    • monkey_bones

      Pebble, that is all.

    • Brian

      If this was priced at $150, it might have sold a tiny bit more. If the battery doesn’t last that long, at least make it wireless chargeable.
      I guess we have to wait for the next generation of wearable techs in 2014. (Google/Apple)

      • Ben Liu

        Battery lasts up to 2-3 days depending on how you set / use it. The USB cradle/converter is the pain but I’m use to it now.

      • Matt Booth

        At $150 I may have been interested too, but not at $300 or more. The other limitation is the need to own a Samsung Galaxy phone, they are really limiting their market by not making it compatible with other manufacturer handsets. Obviously the product tie-in and bundling potential is good for sales for Samsung, but there are a lot of people who would like a Gear that don’t own a Galaxy phone. I now have a Nexus 5 and I can’t use the Gear anymore even if i wanted to

        • Brian

          Samsung is trying to be like Apple. They want everything to work only within Samsung products and that can be shown through the Galaxy Gear and the other exclusivity “apps”. To be fare, there are only 4-5 handsets that are actually compatible with the Gear atm so…

    • Ben Liu

      BTW.. to the author (Matt): ” I can’t think of any legitimate, non-creepy use for this camera. The quality is terrible..” – the camera is one of the fastest you can pull out to take a “moment” snapshot at things. Seriously a flick of the wrist with a swipe down (<2 sec) will allow you to snap a photo as opposed to fumbling for your phone and missing the moment. The quality is not terrible at all and works well even under low lighting conditions. Granted, its only 1.9Mpix, but for those situations its pretty good. The pics are not grainier than any other camera unless its in very low light. In fact, it is better than some of arguable 5Mpix sensors out there.

      Again, the Null rom fixes a lot of limitations with this along with the camera snap noise and the 15 sec 720p video limit is now 60 sec.

      • kjmci

        I personally don’t feel “Install a custom ROM” is a valid response to a legitimate criticism of a consumer-facing product.

        • Ben Liu

          True. My point with the “Install a custom ROM” really applies to certain shortfalls such as “lack of software available” on the phone or some of the “why did they put this limitation in here?”. Even without a custom ROM or sideloading apps, the watch is still very capable and my point about the Camera still stands with the quality of the output and not “Terrible and grainy” as described in the review (ie. Still very good shots under low light conditions such as dusk).

        • kjmci

          Yes, but he’s not reviewing “The GALAXY Gear with some random firmware we found off the internet”, it’s reviewing the GALAXY Gear.

        • Matt Booth

          Exactly. I am a big fan of custom roms and it is usually the first thing I do with any new phone, but that’s not how we review products at Ausdroid. We review products as they are shipped and as the majority of consumers will use them.

        • Ben Liu

          Matt – If you actually refer to my original comment – it is to say that I disagreed with your opinion of the camera. You asked for a legitimate use of the camera – I gave you one that people can take “the moment” pictures within a flick and a click. Even without the Custom ROM, this capability is STILL available out of the box.

      • JeniSkunk

        In order to flog a third-party ROM, you’re deliberately missing a secondary point about the camera in the Galaxy Gear smartwatch, Ben.
        There are already places in the US which prohibit entry of patrons wearing Google Glass.
        That sound was specifically to prevent silent spycam photography.
        Once it becomes common knowledge that the sound can be circumvented for silent spycam stills, and the watch can now be used for usable length spycam video, how long before this ban is extended to wearers of the Galaxy Gear smartwatch?

        • Ben Liu

          That is an ongoing debate about the click of camera to be honest. In fact, there are currently NO LEGISLATIONS that govern the actual requirement of an audible shutter sound. A bill was tried in 2009 within the US but got shot down pretty quickly. I believe Japan has some restrictions (maybe too may “hentai” people there?) but more voluntary than anything else.
          Not that it matters to me too much since as I said everything is for legitimate use so I really dont care. In fact, a LOT of custom ROMS out there for all devices (not just the Gear) allows this capability of silent photography.

        • JeniSkunk

          2 things, Ben.

          You got a real hard-on for that ROM. That ROM is not what was being reviewed. The STOCK Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch was being reviewed.

          You’re being deliberately obtuse in not seeing what I was getting at. The Google Glass got it’s per-store ban due to concerns over invasion of privacy due to its inbuilt cam. The Galaxy Gear smartwatch has a cam in its band. How long before the Galaxy Gear smartwatch also gets slapped with such bans, once it’s commonly known how to circumvent the manufacturers limitations?

        • Ben Liu

          Jeni (if thats even your real name) – for one, I dont have a real “hard-on” for that ROM. It did make the watch a lot more usable and I am only pointing out that the ROM does do a lot more than out of the box for those who appreciate using hardware to its potential. Furthermore, you’re failing to see that just because YOU see that camera clicks is important – does not mean everyone else does. As I have stated – it is NOT a legal requirement for the click. The Google Glass ban is not even a real ban – just a bunch of over-reacting business people trying to get onto the bandwagon of negative advertising.
          IF what you assert is really that important in regards to the privacy issues, then you should advocate your local member of parliament to MAKE IT LAW to ban this type of technology.
          If you are going to insult people btw – then do it properly. I doubt anyone would use the watch illegally on you regardless on how desperate they are. :)

    • aaahs1

      This one is cool, don’t know how iwatch is gonna be cooler than this.