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.
- 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
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.
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.
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.
At first I was only getting 2 days out of the Gear’s 315mAh battery before I had to put it on charge. After the novelty had worn off a bit and I used it less I was able to get 4 days out of the Gear quite easily. I used the Gear with the Note 3 and the impact on the Note’s battery life was around 20% for the first few days, then 10% or less thereafter. The Note 3 has great battery life anyway so the hit wasn’t as noticeable, but on a device such as the Galaxy S4 with a smaller battery the impact may be more noticeable.
There was one day where I tested ‘ATN Manager’ from XDA and enabled all notifications with full detail, my phone battery was down to 26% by mid afternoon with medium use! ATN Manager is AllTheNotifications and is installed on the phone and Gear to provide more detailed notifications than the standard, root is not required but do be aware of the battery impact it can have.
The Gear does not have wifi or internet connectivity, instead it maintains a Bluetooth connection with a compatible phone and relies on that. For the initial setup the Gear is placed in the dock and touched to the rear of the phone to be paired via NFC. I found it really hard to get the bulky Gear in the dock against the rear of the phone, but it only has to be done once. Bluetooth is v4.0 with Bluetooth Low Energy, helping to conserve battery of both devices. The range is about 10 metres, even less if there are some thick walls between the two devices.
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
- Bluetooth 4.0
- Bluetooth LE
- Other: Gyroscope and accelerometer
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.
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.