Samsung’s Gear 2 is the anticipated successor to the original Galaxy Gear concept launched by Samsung last year. Where the original Galaxy Gear had a few issues — which you can discover in detail in our review — the Gear 2 makes some leaps and bounds forward to become quite an acceptable smartwatch.
Having recently savaged the Pebble Steel as being a fairly mediocre and problematic upgrade to the original Pebble, I was keen to see what else was happening in the realm of the smartwatch. I’m very much looking forward to the arrival of Android Wear later this year, and I think that, in a small way, it may have spoiled me to what else is available now.
It seems the market is pretty quiet at the moment. Current options include the Pebble (and its Steel variant), the Sony Smartwatch 2, and Samsung’s offerings. The Sony Smartwatch 2 isn’t too bad, and it’s a vast improvement over the original Smartwatch from a few years ago (which wasn’t very smart, or useful), and so it seems that the market is — in this author’s view — a little confused.
I wasn’t initially slated to review the Gear 2 (or the Galaxy S5), but as luck (or lack of luck) would have it, they wound up here instead of with Joel. I’ve had the opportunity to have a bit of a play with both, and while the Galaxy S5 will (necessarily) involve a bit more time and effort to review, the Gear 2 has made an impression. Let’s review.
The Gear 2 is a fairly simple-looking watch out of the box. From its bezelled face surrounded by stainless steel, to its gaudy fluorescent orange wristband, it looks like a watch designed to be worn by the sporty adventurous type, and not so much the office dweller. However, to write it off as a sportsman’s watch would be too easy.
The front face of the watch gives away little of the user interface; there’s a single hardware button below the display (something of a home button), and on the top of the screen, and yet facing slightly forward, there’s a 2MP camera and IR emitter (more on that later).
Inside the Gear 2, beneath the 1.63-inch, Super AMOLED display, there’s a dual-core 1GHz chip in here, along with a 300mAh battery. You might think that such a battery might not last too long — and you’d be right.
The band itself is a standard 22mm size, and so is readily replaced. Removing the included band is actually extremely easy (unlike, say, with the Pebble) — all that’s involved is a fingernail to pull back on the locking pin, and the band comes straight off.
I commented above about sensitive skin. Some unfortunate souls, like yours truly, can’t really wear rubber watch bands. They irritate the skin, and after even a few minutes of wear, they become extremely uncomfortable. This is only compounded in the case of the Gear 2 by the fact that the wristband is seemingly designed for those with smaller wrists; it doesn’t fit comfortably around my wrist regardless of the band’s construction, and that it’s a bit too small and of rubber really hasn’t helped.
I tried to stick with it, but after 24 hours of wear, I gave up. I injured myself for you, dear readers, to give you this review of the Gear 2.
Adjusting the size of the wristband isn’t too tricky; like most wristband-style bands, the band is continuous and thus adjusting it is a simple case of moving the attachment mechanism to the appropriate spot, fastening it, and there you go. This probably makes absolutely no sense, so a picture will help.
Once you’ve got the Gear 2 in your hands, its very easy to understand. Take it from me, it’s easy.
On the back of the Gear 2 (i.e. the rear face of the watch which rests against your wrist), there’s the charging interface, and an optical heart-rate sensor, and a small aperture to the side which allows the Gear 2 to function as a remote headset (Dick Tracey style!) for the paired phone.
Charging the Gear 2 isn’t quite as simple as charging, say, a Pebble. Instead of having a direct interface between the charging cable (a standard microUSB) and the watch, an interface ‘cradle’ of sorts is required. However, it’s not as bad as it sounds. The adaptor is quite small, and clips onto the rear of the Gear 2 without too much hassle. The only hassle, as it were, is that it’s needed at all. That, and it doesn’t clip on all that securely, meaning it’s kind of easy to dislodge if you’re not careful.
However, these quirks aside, the Gear 2 is — physically, at least — simple, straight forward, and works fairly well. If you’re like me though, and despise rubber wristbands, you’ll be wanting to find a replacement leather or metallic band quick smart. Otherwise the watch will be too uncomfortable to actually wear.
The software side of the Gear 2 is where it really shines. In fact, I find myself thinking that in a nicer enclosure, the Gear 2 software would make a brilliant smartwatch. It has a number of functions, beyond the basic watch and showing notifications, and unlike the Pebble, managing these is actually rather straight forward, and the partner app isn’t even rubbish.
In fact, the Gear Manager app is so easy to use, and actually in keeping with (well, mostly) the Android design guidelines that you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a half decent app. It makes setting up notifications easy, changing watch-faces simple, and customising other features (like wallpapers and the like) pretty straight forward.
Setup is a breeze. Install Gear Manager from the Samsung App Store, open it, select your Gear 2, and set it up. It takes a minute or two, and really couldn’t be easier.
It’s at this point that it’s prudent to go through just what exactly the Gear 2 can do. Included are these features, out of the box:
- TV Remote Control
- Music Player
- Voice recorder
- Exercise tracker
- Heart Rate monitor
- Sleep tracker
- Notifications reviewer
- Wrist dialer
- Contacts viewer
- Apps manager
- Wrist-top camera
- Quick-Access controls
As you can see, this list is quite impressive. The Gear 2 does a heck of a lot. From a functional (if not a little underwhelming) camera, hands-free dial and audio for your phone, through to fitness functions and controlling your TELEVISION, the Gear 2 could be the only smartwatch you really need. In fact, for many things, it could completely negate the need to remove your phone from your pocket AT ALL.
You can read your notifications, and reply to text messages. You can answer phone calls, MAKE phone calls, and browse your contact list for people to call. You can turn the TV on, and control your Foxtel STB, and when you feel like lifting your arse off the couch, you can track how far you’ve walked, and how you’ve managed to raise your heart rate.
About the only thing the Gear 2 can’t do is wash your dishes, but you can wear it while you do them; it’s IP67 rated, meaning submerging in water for up to half an hour won’t harm it.
There are some really neat features too that took me by surprise (because I don’t read instructions, I just try). For example, being a colour, backlit display, you’d expect the Gear 2 battery mightn’t last long (and it doesn’t, but this isn’t why). To mitigate this, the Gear 2 display is usually off.
How would you see the time then? Easy. Bring the watch up as if you were to look at an ordinary wrist watch. The Gear 2 detects this movement with its built-in accelerometers and illuminates the display. Once you lower your wrist and get back to whatever you were doing, the display quickly goes back to sleep, saving the juice for when you actually want it.
It’s not often that I’d be using the word “camera” in a smartwatch review, but lo, the Gear 2 actually has a camera in it. It’s not the best camera, but for something that’s virtually always accessible, it’s pretty good. A few taps of the display will activate the camera, and you can either take a quick snapshot, or a 15 second video. Once captured, the photo/video will shoot across the Bluetooth connection to your phone, available in the Gallery ready to do whatever you like with it — share it to your friends, post it to Facebook, whatever.
We’ve taken a few sample photos and this quick sample video just so you can get the idea; you’ll notice fairly quickly the quality isn’t superb, but considering the size and functionality a camera on your wrist offers, you won’t hear us decrying the 2MP sensor.
If you thought a camera on your wrist was weird, then you’ll find talking to your wrist positively strange.
However, it works as advertised, and it actually is kind of cool.
Say for example you’re in the kitchen fixing dinner, and your phone rings. It’s someone important, so you don’t want to ignore it, but equally, your hands are a bit grubby so you don’t really want to touch your phone.
Wearing a Gear 2? Easy. Tap the answer button and off you go — the Gear 2 will function as a little speakerphone on your wrist, and you can take your call without washing up. Yes, you might get some food or sauce on your watch, depending on what you’re cooking, but just run it under the tap and it’s clean again. Dinner is on the way, your call was taken, and your phone doesn’t have greasy meat fingerprints on it.
The Gear 2 sports (no pun intended…) an impressive array of fitness features which you sports nuts will probably enjoy. Measure your footsteps, check your heart rate easily, and track your calories burned across a range of common activities.
I don’t propose to go into these features in much detail. Why? Because if you’ve ever used a fitness tracking device, you know how they work. They’re all the same, and on the Gear 2, these functions are all easy to use, and they all work they way they should. I’ve read reports that the pedometer isn’t too accurate, but in my experience, none of them really are. I think the most accurate pedometer I used was the Fitbit One, but the Gear 2 really isn’t too far different.
If you’re purely interested in fitness apps on the Gear 2, and less concerned about other features, you may want to consider the Gear Fit; it has the same fitness offerings, but leaves out the things you mightn’t want like the phone handsfree, camera and TV remote (to name a couple).
Something that has been an issue for smart devices since they became smart has been battery life. Gone are the days of our old feature phones that’d last for a week without much of a charge, or watches that could last a year or two before needing a new battery for a few dollars.
The Gear 2 is something of an enigma when it comes to battery life. On one hand, it has a teeny tiny 300mAh battery (something like 10-15% of the size of most smartphones), and it is feature-rich. All these features, and certainly using the Gear 2 are going to impact on that battery life, and they do so quite heavily.
Take a day of fairly typical use:
- Take the Gear 2 off the charger at 6am.
- By 8.30am, Gear 2 has dropped to 76% after looking at the time a couple of times and taking a few photos. Nothing exciting.
- At noon, the Gear 2 has dropped down to 51%. We’ve hardly used it, except to receive a phone call and use the phone as a speakerphone for a few minutes.
- Around 3.30pm, having barely used the Gear 2 since lunch, though notifications have been coming through, and we’re down to 37%. We’ll be lucky to see out the day.
Other reviewers around the web have commented variously, with some claiming to have seen up to three day’s battery life with fairly vigorous use. Frankly, I don’t see how that can be possible. The battery is just too small, and the hardware just too thirsty.
To be fair, as with all things, battery life really is quite subjective. It depends significantly on how long the screen is active, what functions you’re using, how hard the Bluetooth radio has to work to remain connected to your phone, and more. It could last up to three days, and then the next charge cycle, just one.
Our recommendation? Treat it more like a smartphone and less like a watch, and charge it every night to be sure. If the charging mechanism made this a little easier to do, it’d be so much less of an inconvenience to do… but that’s the early days of smartwatches for you; not everything is perfected, yet.
Having never before used a Galaxy Gear, and having little idea what to expect about the new range of Gear devices, I really didn’t know how I’d find the Gear 2 in actual use. Truth be told, I didn’t really want to review it, because the Pebble left a pretty sour taste in my mouth. They did warn me not to eat it, I guess.
My initial impression of the Gear 2 was “wow!” — it just does so many things. I suppose I should have expected that, because Samsung has never been accused of leaving out the kitchen sink with its smartphones; truly they include features that everyone can use, and even some that no one in their right mind would ever have a use for. Why should the Gear 2 be different?
A few of the Gear 2’s features just drove me nuts, though. The wristband was horribly uncomfortable. Fortunately, I had the Pebble Steel lying around, and so quickly borrowed its leather band to make the experience a little more enjoyable.
Once that was out of the way, I quite enjoyed the Gear 2. I enjoyed the notification interface, I enjoyed having a camera on my wrist (I took some pretty neat photos with it), and being able to bark at my wrist to make phone calls, while completely unnecessary, was kind of amusing in a geeky sort of way.
I’ve found myself really enjoying the TV remote. It’s cool! We’re constantly wanting to adjust the channel or volume on the TV, and with a one year old in the house, the remotes are forever disappearing. This solves that problem.
Sometimes you want to take a photo RIGHT NOW, and even getting your phone out and lining it up for a shot takes too long. The Gear 2 has a built in camera that takes a reasonable shot, most of the time.
I find myself drawn to this conclusion: the Gear 2 is a great product, but it’s flawed in two key ways. Firstly, there’s too much lock-in with Samsung products. What if you buy a new phone that’s not a Samsung? Your Gear 2 instantly becomes less useful.
The other point is that one wonders about the future of proprietary smartwatches. With Android Wear not far away, and the promise of a more consistent user experience across a range of watches in different shapes from different manufacturers, I personally question the future and longevity of the Gear 2.
Would I recommend you go and splash a few hundred getting a Gear 2, when there’s potentially something very exciting in the form of Android Wear right around the corner? In good conscience, I would be really hesitant suggesting you should.
The Gear 2 is a great device, and one I’ll be sad to send back to Samsung when the review period is up, and if I were to keep it, I’d definitely continue using it… but my heart, and my hope, lie elsewhere. I have a sneaking suspicion that Google and the Android team have been putting a lot of time and effort into making Android Wear a kickass platform, and I have a feeling that it will leave other Smartwatches — Pebble, Sony Smartwatch 2, and Samsung’s offerings — for dead.
But it’s not here yet.
If you want a smartwatch now, get the Gear 2. It’s the best of what there is on the market today.