Is the Gear a Perfect Companion? (November 13th, 2013)
Product Manufacturer: Samsung
- Passably stylish look
- Solid smartphone pairing and syncing
- Nice interface and navigation
- Feature overload
- Uncomfortable to wear
- Just not good as a watch
The Galaxy Gear debuted with about as much fanfare as one would expect for a new Samsung product, with the South Korean tech conglomerate at the time calling the Gear a "perfect complement" to the Galaxy Note 3. The whole tech world has been abuzz with the thought of an imminent boom in smartwatches in particular and wearable technology in general, and the Gear is Samsung's most publicized offering for the segment. So just how well does the new superwatch perform?
The answer to that is a bit complex. In one sense, it performs quite well. In another, possibly more important sense, Samsung definitely needs to go back to the drawing board. We'll start with the design of the device.
As you may have heard, the Gear is a little beast of a device -- packing an 800MHz single-core processor, 1.6-inch AMOLED touchscreen, 1.9MP auto-focus camera, and, well, a whole lot more. While that may seem like a spec run-through, it does of course affect the design. In short, all that tech seems to have gotten in the way of what should have been the main purpose of the Gear: being something you can wear on your wrist.
In practice, the Gear is puzzling as a watch. It is, first and most importantly, very uncomfortable to wear. As we mentioned in our look at the Galaxy Note 3, your reviewer has big hands. Those hands are attached to big wrists, and the Gear sat awkwardly on those wrists. We were at all times aware of the device's presence on both the top and bottom of the wrist, thanks to its heavy watch face and the bulky clasp that contains the device's speaker-microphone combination. It really is something of a burden to wear, as evidenced by the fact that we constantly took it off and stowed it away when wearing it out.
Lest the reader think this was only a result of your reviewer's own oversized mitts, we handed off the Gear for others to try on. Their response: "This is really uncomfortable to wear."
The issue -- which, indeed, will be something of a theme throughout this review -- is that the inclusion of all of that tech takes the Gear away from its ostensible purpose of serving as a watch. Yes, it has relatively high build quality -- featuring a sturdy, rubbery-plasticky band and metal components in the screen and clasp -- but Samsung's functionality decisions have resulted in a device that one is constantly aware one is wearing. Loosen the strap to the point where the clasp and face are not heavy and restrictive on the wrist, and the device slips and slides up and down the arm. Tighten it to the point that it does not slide, and the weight and stiffness of the clasp and face are all the more apparent. For something one presumably would be wearing every day, that is unforgivable.
As to the look of the device, we are torn. We were expecting that plasticky-rubbery band to look decidedly tacky in person, but it actually has an understated air to it. Assuming one does not choose any of the brighter color options, it should actually go well with many outfits. Excepting the wart-like lump where the Gear's camera lies, that is. The stainless steel watch face gives off an air of quality, despite the four screws that Samsung included for some reason.
As to that screen, it actually interrupts the face in a way that lessens the air of quality. The effect is one that makes the Gear seem more gadget-like and unfashionable. Again, a regrettable mistake for what should on some level function as a fashion accessory.
Another design quibble centers on the reality of charging the Gear. The watch itself must be inserted into a charging cradle, which wraps around the main portion of the device and must itself be connected to a micro USB cord. That cradle also contains the NFC chip necessary for initial syncing of the device with a smartphone. Even with the Rube-Goldbergian setup process complete, the cradle remains necessary if one wants to charge the Gear. Leave that cradle at home, break it, or misplace it, and the Gear goes from smartwatch to stiff, metal friendship bracelet as soon as it runs out of power.
Considering the tech Samsung has packed into the Gear -- a point that, again, we will return to later -- sacrifices in form factor were virtually inevitable. The charging and NFC pairing processes in particular, though, seem unfortunate -- especially when compared with other devices. Sony's SmartWatch 2, for instance, has NFC built into the main device, while the Pebble smartwatch has a MagSafe-like connector for charging.
For all its design flaws, the Galaxy Gear actually gets much of its functionality quite right. Our unit arrived shortly after we received a Galaxy Note 3, which was initially the only phone with which the Gear was compatible. Samsung has since expanded the range of compatible devices, but all will require the Gear Manager app for pairing and interoperation. Thankfully, Samsung has built an app that pairs quickly with its smartwatch. The setup process, while clunky in terms of hardware, is quite easily executed.
After the device is set up -- a process that takes minutes at the most -- the paired smartphone handles most of the actual management of the device. Considering the size of the Gear's touchscreen, this is a pleasant aspect of the experience. A user downloads Gear apps on the smartphone through a specialized and well-organized store. Therein, one finds watch face designs, a largely frivolous collection of "entertainment" apps, several accelerometer-based fitness apps, and a few apps tied to social networking functions.
How useful are any of these apps? We don't want to say they have no utility, but we did not find ourselves using them much beyond the initial "what does this do?" period. There is an Evernote app, one that syncs pictures and audio captured from the device, but does little more. The Gear also has a media controller that can control playback on a paired phone, and its "Find My Device" feature can activate the ringer for when one's smartphone is nowhere to be seen. These things are helpful inclusions, if somewhat pedestrian.
Notifications would seem to be the one area Samsung would have honed to perfection, considering the company's focus on apps for the Gear. The reality, though, is as underdeveloped as many of the smartwatch's other facets. To fully interact with notifications, one needs to route one's communications through Samsung's apps, which are invariably less polished than third-party apps. That means using Samsung's mail client instead of Gmail, as well as any number of other substitutions. Relying on non-Samsung apps will result in the Gear displaying notifications that the user can only fully view upon pulling out one's smartphone.
That is to say: the Gear gives notifications that one has received a notification. It directs one to activate the paired smartphone in order to view the new content. Considering the technology packed into the device, as well as its $300 price tag, it is difficult to express our disappointment with those facts.
S Voice and Phone Calls
In terms of voice interaction, the Gear is largely a success. One can indeed make and receive calls on the smartwatch, and one can do so with reasonably good call quality. Conceivably, this would be useful for calls received while driving or some distance from one's smartphone. This is also one of the more "futuristic" aspects of the Gear, a fact Samsung has definitely played up in its advertisements for the device.
Another largely successful implementation is the Gear's ability to interface with Samsung's S Voice control feature. S Voice can (mostly) recognize dictated texts, initiate calls, take down memos, and answer simple questions like "what's today's weather?" or "what time is it in New York?" It can also set alarms, schedule events, and read received texts aloud.
The Galaxy Gear's version of S Voice, though, is hobbled compared to the version present on Samsung's smartphones. The Gear version cannot tell you, for instance, what the capital of Peru is, even though the smartphone it is paired with can do so. Also, Samsung's reliance on S Voice is perplexing when one considers the superiority of Google Now. In our own tests, Google Now has proven much more capable not only at understanding speech, but also in the types of questions it can answer. Samsung's insistence on using S Voice when there is already a superior solution on the Android platform is often frustrating, and such is repeatedly the case with the Gear. Users would likely see considerable benefits if Samsung had made the watch more compatible with Google's impressive predictive search feature.
Worse still, the Galaxy Gear is sometimes fickle in how quickly it wants to activate S Voice. It will sometimes connect almost immediately, but other times require up to ten seconds for the device to indicate its readiness to accept your voice input. Even when it does so, it will many times take even longer to process that input and respond. Don't get us wrong: this is an interesting and quite cool feature, and we believe it an be quite useful. As with other aspects of the Gear experience, though, it could definitely stand some polish.
We'll say one thing right off the bat: virtually no one has a need for a camera on one's watch. Even for those who -- not having used the Gear -- are fascinated with the idea of having a camera (no pun) at hand, actually use of the device will likely prove underwhelming.
The concept of the readily-accessible camera gives way to the reality of an awkward photo snapping process: one must hold one's wrist up toward the subject and look down at the screen in order to frame a subject. It is not a difficult process, it's just ... weird. We showed the device to multiple friends, and a number of them were interested in the camera, noting that they often wished they could snap pictures without pulling out their smartphones. Pressed to say whether that was an issue that occurred frequently enough that the awkward photo process for the Gear was worth it, though, most agreed that the feature wasn't as much of a game-changer as they had initially thought.
The inclusion of a camera in the Gear's wristband, in fact, epitomizes our criticism of the device. It performs its job competently, but its necessity is questionable. Let's say one owns the Gear for a year and a half before upgrading. Over those 18 months, how many situations will one encounter where one must take a picture in less time than it takes to pull out a smartphone and open the camera app? We actually compared times, with one friend quick-drawing a Galaxy Note 3 and another pulling up the Gear and starting up the camera app. The Gear is fast -- quite fast -- but it only beats the smartphone by a second or so.
It is a nice feature, but nowhere near indispensable. Its inclusion spoils the Gear's form factor, and likely aspects of its overall operation.
Those things said, the camera-smartphone integration is top notch. One can set the Gear to automatically copy photos and videos to its paired smartphone, and they show up on that device much faster than one might expect. The realization of the technology is solid, but one wonders if Samsung would not have been better served cutting features and polishing what it kept, as opposed to the kitchen sink approach it took.
At this point, one might notice that we haven't talked much about the quality of the Gear's photos and videos; that is not by mistake. With a 1.9-megapixel sensor and 720p recording capability, the photos and images are of a certain quality. They do, however, look like what they are: photos and images captured on a watch. As with some other features, the Gear does a serviceable job in accomplishing them. As with those other features, though, one wonders why the Gear has to do them at all.
Other reviews of the Gear have leveled a good deal of criticism at the device for its supposedly low battery life. This was one of the areas where our experience diverged from the apparent norm. When one is not constantly using all of Gear's features -- that is: when one is using it as we believe it will likely be used -- the device can have days of standby time. With very limited use, we found that the battery didn't die until about the four-day mark.
We'd imagine that the average user will see about a day and a half of battery life per charge for the first week, as the novelty of the Gear will likely engender regular use of its more power-intensive features. As the glory departs, though, one will likely see one's battery life lengthening as the smartwatch becomes more of, well, a watch. Less like a toy; more like a tool.
Time to Sum Up
It may seem at this point that our review of the Gear has been entirely negative, and we wouldn't want to leave that as our only estimation of the device. The Galaxy Gear is ambitious. That ambition lacks direction and focus, but it is ambition, nonetheless. It also succeeds in giving an overall feel of quality in its construction, and the swipe-based interface is very well realized.
Other aspects of the Gear work quite well. Its camera interface, while pointless, is quite snappy. It is also quite reliable in waking and displaying the time when the device detects a user looking at it. This and the swipe interface give us hope for the quality of future iterations of the device.
That last point, we feel, speaks to the heart of the Galaxy Gear experience: this is clearly a starting point for Samsung. It may be cold comfort for those that have already spent $300 on Samsung's "Next Big Thing," but the Galaxy Gear 2 will almost certainly be a better product than the current version, likely by an order of magnitude.
Samsung representatives have promised as much recently, saying that "more investment for user interface and user experience" will lead to more customer satisfaction. The current version is undeniably a test run, and the tech giant will hopefully work out what exactly the Gear is supposed to be and do as future versions release.
In the mean time, though, it is difficult to recommend what is essentially a polished tech demo. The Gear's comparatively short battery life and wonky charging mechanism preclude any dependence on it as a regular watch. Its limited app selection, functionality, and smartphone compatibility make it a niche choice among smartwatches. Even aside from those concerns, its bulky, uncomfortable form factor undercuts its suitability as a piece of wearable technology.
So what is Samsung's Galaxy Gear, then? It is a beginning, a tech demo, a device perfectly (and only) suited for the serial early adopter. Though initially entertaining, its novelty will wear off, and all but the truly gadget-obsessed will likely find themselves using fewer and fewer of its multitudinous features as time goes on. By the time the Next(er) Big(ger) Thing debuts, Gear owners will likely find that they have to activate that "Find My Device" feature to locate their smartwatches, as they will likely have switched back to using their smartphones to find out the time.