If you’ve ever seen a cycling race, you’ll know that leading from the front isn’t always a great idea. The front runner has to cut a path through the wind and expend much more energy than the savvy followers behind him. The same is true for tech companies looking to establish new product categories — being first at something often means being first to make the big mistakes.
Samsung has reaped the benefits of the wily follower strategy by sitting in Apple’s slipstream and emulating the California giant’s designs, but it has taken a few calculated risks along the way as well. Two years ago, the Galaxy Note single-handedly carved out a new market for stylus-centric tablets, last year Samsung debuted the unprecedented Galaxy Camera, and this year the company is keeping momentum going with the highly anticipated Galaxy Gear.
Efforts at building a truly compelling smartwatch have been going on for years, including one attempt from Samsung itself, but no one has yet managed to turn that appealing idea into a commercial success. Now Samsung is ready to answer the call for a true trailblazer — and it’s doing so with a nonchalant flick of the wrist.
Before you even start thinking about owning the $299 Galaxy Gear, you should know that at launch time it’s only compatible with two devices — the Galaxy Note 3 and Note 10.1 2014 Edition — which it is being released alongside. For reasons that quickly become clear as you use it, the Gear is heavily dependent on a connected device for its functionality.
Design me an icon
The Galaxy Gear and this year’s iteration of the Galaxy Note mark a conspicuous change in strategy for Samsung: the new Note tries to emulate a classy Moleskine notebook while the Gear is intended as equal parts fashion accessory and companion device. That puts the onus on Samsung’s industrial designers to not merely wrap a shell around the company’s technology, but to produce devices with aesthetic and tactile allure of their own.
Samsung’s track record on this front has never been very good and the Gear keeps regrettably in line with that trend. Its design tries to have something for everyone — a chunky steel clasp and exposed screws for fans of oversized men’s watches, yet also Rose Gold and Oatmeal Beige colors for a feminine audience — and ends up pleasing no one in particular. It’s too bulky to ever be considered elegant, but too polished to be a proper macho watch. The glass covering the front melts seamlessly into the metal frame around it, which in turn gives way to a plastic back and an adjustable strap whose flexibility is limited somewhat by the integrated camera.
THINK OF THIS AS A TANK FOR YOUR WRIST
THE CAMERA IS BUILT INTO THE STRAP, SO CHOOSE YOUR COLOR CAREFULLY
While it’s certainly well-built, the Galaxy Gear isn’t without its issues. The power button mounted on its right side sat loosely on my review unit, resulting in a clinking noise every time I moved the watch around. The straps are also not interchangeable, so if you damage the one you have, the whole watch goes out of action — look to Sony’s SmartWatch for the nearest alternative that will give you the option to swap wristbands.
Overall, the Gear feels sturdy and reliable. It’s water resistant, as you’d expect of a wrist-worn device, and seems particularly impervious to scratches or other cosmetic damage. You might think of it as a tank for your wrist — it’s bulky, durable, and awkward enough to merit that title.
There’s a lot of bezel surrounding the Gear’s 1.6-inch display and the steel construction around it extends the size of the watch body to over 2 inches (nearly 6cm) in length. That big stiff slab, together with the strap-mounted camera, makes it difficult if not impossible to find a truly ergonomic fit. I was never fully comfortable while wearing the Gear, whose weight is tolerable but also more noticeable than the Pebble or the aforementioned Sony alternative.
Two great features…
There are two things about the Galaxy Gear that I loved: taking photos with its built-in camera and carrying out phone calls in the true style of Dick Tracy.
Looking at the Gear’s frugal 1.9-megapixel resolution, you might make the same mistake I did: assume it’s of the same caliber as any old front-facing camera in Samsung’s smartphones. In fact, the Gear’s camera produces images of surprising fidelity and does it swiftly and reliably. The whole point — if there is any point — to a camera in your watch is to make picture-taking effortless, and Samsung has succeeded at that task brilliantly. I never had to retake photos because of poor focus or exposure, and the ones I did shoot were supremely satisfying because of how little time and effort it took to capture them.
IMAGES HAVE ENOUGH RESOLUTION AND QUALITY TO SATISFY YOUR INSTAGRAM HABIT
The Gear takes square pictures by default, with the 1392 x 1392 resolution being roughly five times greater than what you need to be able to post to Instagram, and the image quality being quite sufficient to provide the basis for an extended filter play session. There’s also the option to record sound with a photo as well as 15-second 720p video clips — all of which can be stored on the 4GB of built-in storage or automatically sent over to your Galaxy device via Bluetooth.
That same Bluetooth connection will let you do what young men all over the world have aspired to for decades — send and receive phone calls with your watch. This is another feature where Samsung completely nailed the execution. You can answer calls directly with the Gear — either by swiping the onscreen prompt or via an S Voice command — and thanks to two microphones and one loudspeaker tucked into the watch buckle, those conversations sound crisp and clear on both sides of the line.
Call quality while using the Gear is indistinguishable from what you’d get from a smartphone speakerphone. During one call, I alternated between using the Gear and the Galaxy Note 3, and the other party couldn’t tell when I was speaking into the watch and when I was talking through the tablet. You also don’t have to hold the watch up next to your face (unless you really want to, of course) as it does a good job of picking up your speech even with your hands on a desk or at a keyboard. The only limitation on calls via the Galaxy Gear is the same that applies to any speakerphone call: the lack of privacy and abundance of noise in public situations dictate that you’ll mostly be using this function in more secluded areas.
…in a sea of blandness
You won’t be surprised to find that the Gear’s two best features are also its most readily accessible: a swipe down from the home screen gets you into the camera, a swipe up from the same spot brings up the phone dialer. A side swipe in either direction will get you into your apps carousel, where — unfortunately — things start to fall apart. The interface is based on a series of outline icons and textual sub-menus, which are relatively quick to navigate once you know what you’re doing, but terribly unintuitive — the same downward swipe that gets you into the camera from home acts as a back button everywhere else. Figuring these things out is a frustrating process of trial and error.
Then there’s the utterly infantile dependency the Gear has on its connected Galaxy device. Want to install a new app to the watch? You’ll need to sign in to your Samsung account and get it done via the Gear Manager app. Rearrange the order of apps? Same spot. Even changing the color of the default clock’s digits forces you to pick up your smartphone. Samsung promises a quick software update to make the Galaxy S4 work with the Gear, but for now you’re still only looking at the Note 3 and Note 10.1 as your compatible host devices.
And if you’re hoping for informative notifications, look elsewhere. The Gear will alert you to new Gmail and Twitter messages, but there’s no preview or even an accurate count of the unread missives. You’re just told there’s something requiring your attention and provided with an on-screen prompt that unlocks your phone and launches the Gmail app. That’s a nice trick, but it hardly absolves Samsung of responsibility for such a basic omission. Text messages can be read in full, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.
THERE’S A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ‘QUICK ONCE YOU FIGURE IT OUT’ AND INTUITIVE
Having a robust selection of apps could still salvage the Gear’s fortunes, but alas, the software you can use on this device only extends the list of its deficiencies. The Pocket and Tweet QuickView apps I installed on the Gear failed to load most of the time, and when they did, they offered frightfully limited functionality.
APPS ARE LIMITED IN BOTH QUANTITY AND QUALITY
At about the 12th time of asking, Pocket did launch, starting up a text-to-speech audio readout of the article I’d wanted to read. That wasn’t exactly what I was looking for while sitting in a library foyer, so I shut the app down. Unfortunately, the playback of that sound seemed to introduce some sort of conflict in the Gear’s communication with the Galaxy Note, so I was no longer able to use the Gear as a remote control for music playback on the Note. Even when the remote media controls do work, you won’t be doing much with them: you can only adjust volume, play, pause, or toggle back and forth between tracks — and only with the default music app. There’s no playlist overview, no shuffle or repeat buttons, it’s about as much control as a 1992 Walkman would give you.
Line, Japan’s favorite mobile chat service, is among a number of big names that Samsung has assembled to provide extra apps for the Galaxy Gear. Its so-called app, however, only lets you receive messages and reply to them with stickers. That sort of liliputian utility is characteristic of the entire library of available software for the Gear, which is still mostly produced by Samsung itself. As with industrial design, software engineering isn’t among Samsung’s strengths, and the results on the Gear are a painful mix of unreliability and inadequacy.
Specs of a Galaxy life
Samsung is rightly known for stuffing its devices full of technology and the Gear doesn’t disappoint. In that respect, it’s pretty much the best-outfitted smartwatch candidate yet. The 1.6-inch Super AMOLED display spans a square 320 x 320 resolution, and is satisfyingly sharp and clear. It also has an outdoor mode that boosts the brightness and makes it easily readable under direct sunlight. It’s this display’s ability to illuminate only parts of the screen that allows Samsung’s rather tiny 315mAh battery to keep the Galaxy Gear going for a full day. That won’t compete with the long-lasting, E Ink-equipped Pebble, but then that watch doesn’t have an 800MHz Exynos processor, 720p camera, or a color display.
Like the Pebble, the Galaxy Gear lights up automatically in response to a physical gesture, though Samsung tries to be more natural by reacting to you raising the arm the watch is on. That works fine if you’re standing or sitting upright, but is utterly useless when trying to check the time in bed. There’s also a slight delay before the screen turns on, which grows tiresome after a while.
Other than the built-in pedometer app, Samsung hasn’t made much further use of the integrated accelerometer and gyroscope combo in the Galaxy Gear. Similarly, the 512MB of RAM feels like overkill for the thoroughly basic tasks the Gear is asked to perform most of the time. You have to wonder whether Samsung might not have been able to shave this watch’s price down with a more frugal choice of components.
The best way to characterize the Galaxy Gear’s spec sheet is that it feels like it was composed by chopping down a Samsung smartphone to a wristwatch’s size. An Exynos processor with fewer cores, a Super AMOLED screen with lower resolution, and a heaping of RAM and storage. There’s even NFC, for a simpler pairing process, though Samsung’s built that into the Gear’s charging cradle to keep the device proportions relatively reasonable.
IS A DAY ENOUGH BATTERY LIFE? SAMSUNG THINKS SO
A smartwatch the Galaxy Gear is not. Frankly, I’m not sure exactly what it’s supposed to be. Samsung describes it as a companion device, and the Gear is indeed chronically dependent on an umbilical link to another Samsung device, but it never left me feeling like it was a helpful companion. The notifications are Orwellian, the media controls are exiguous, and the app selection has no substance to underpin the hype. Samsung’s attempt to turn the Gear into a style icon is also unlikely to succeed, owing to the company’s indecision about its target demographic. Trying to please all tastes has resulted in a predictably charmless and soulless product.
The Gear’s camera and phone calls are both surprising and delightful, but they’re unfortunately isolated highlights. When all is said and done, I expect the Galaxy Gear will be looked back upon as a rough first draft that helped the Korean chaebol steer a better course en route to the goal of producing a real smartwatch. As it stands today, though — unintuitive, oversized, overpriced, and in constant need of a Galaxy guardian — the Galaxy Gear might have been better off staying on the drawing board.