The Samsung Galaxy Gear is not the first smartwatch to hit the market. In fact, it’s not even the first smartwatch in 2013 from a major smartphone manufacturer; that honour goes to Sony and its SmartWatch 2.
What the Galaxy Gear is, though, is the most high-profile accessory Samsung has ever created for a Galaxy smartphone. Most people recognise and have asked about the Gear than any other device we’ve tested this year. So when it arrived at the htxt.africa offices it was immediately powered up and paired, to see what all the fuss was about.
In design, the Gear tries to be all things to all people. But its efforts fall short of achieving something memorable. It aims for stylish and funky with its colourful plastic wrist bands, but also premium product, with stainless steel and Gorilla Glass clad housing. Sadly, it awkwardly lands somewhere between the two. The four screws in the top of the casing interrupt what is otherwise a very elegant design – we’re only left wondering why Samsung used them. It’s also a unisex design, which leads to it being too small for some men and too bulky for some ladies.
From an electronics design point it does away with the standard microUSB charging port in favour of a bespoke charging cradle. It charges via five metal contacts on the back of the watch, which means that you won’t be able to recharge it during the day, should you run low on juice.
A camera has been integrated into the strap of the Galaxy Gear, so any hopes you may have had for replacing it with a strap of your choosing will be dashed.
It’s also possible to adjust the size of the strap, but the clasp, which also houses the speaker, clips into place with a very unsatisfying flimsy piece of metal and often does not clip on the first try. This leaves it prone to popping open during some over-enthusiastic gesticulation or an accidental knock against a table – something watch manufacturers solved ages ago.
The Gear’s main hardware feature is the 320 X 320 resolution 1.6-inch Super AMOLED display. As with most AMOLED displays it’s more than bright enough for use indoors and manages to be adequate for outdoor use, especially with the ‘Outdoor mode’. This cranks up the brightness to its maximum and increases contrast for better readability in direct sunlight. The sole protrusion on the Gear’s casing is its power button, located on the right-hand edge of the device.
The battery seems paltry at 315mAh but its small size helps keep weight down. Any heavier, and 12 hours with the Gear on your wrist might be more than uncomfortable.
The Gear’s other internals read like a budget Android smartphone: a single-core 800MHz processor, 512MB of RAM, and 4GB of on board storage. The aforementioned camera is a 1.9Mp unit, similar to the front-facing cameras found in most high-end smartphones. That said, it is capable of 720p video recording. Bluetooth 4.0 helps it communicate with a smartphone, while the audio for calls from the Gear is handled by a typical smartphone-style speakerphone and a two-microphone setup for noise cancellation.
The Galaxy Gear runs Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean), with a Samsung-crafted home and lock screen customisation. The user interface takes some getting used to, with a carousel that has only one icon per screen – it sometimes takes a while to find what you’re looking for. Aside from swiping through and tapping to select an action, the other navigation elements are controlled by swipes from the edge of the screen and long presses on the display. These are all obscure, and there’s no tutorial or help menu on the watch. However, all that information can be accessed from the ‘Help’ option in the Gear Manager app, which handles all of the customisation of the Gear via the connected smartphone.
Setup is simple – but with a catch: the Galaxy Gear currently only works with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. An NFC tag in the Gear’s charging cradle takes the paired phone straight to the app in the Samsung App Store. Or, if the app is installed, it gets launched. Once the two devices are paired over Bluetooth apps can be installed from the dedicated section of the Samsung App Store. Managing applications on the Gear is done through the ‘My Apps’ section of the Gear Manager. More apps can be assigned to the carousel, and it’s also possible to reorder them, enabling quicker access to ones you use most often.
The Gear can also be used to view notifications, through three apps. Those are SMS, Calendar, and Samsung’s native email client. Every other notification will require you to pick up the paired phone in order to view the content in the notification. Tapping on a notification will immediately launch the app associated with it – handy for saving time in getting to the contents of the notification, but we found that this led to us using the phone more. Not very smart at all. Instead of being able to discern whether the notification needed to be dealt with immediately or whether it could wait for later, we found ourselves using the phone to see what was causing the Gear to buzz away. It became a vibrating annoyance, than a useful window into the details of incoming notifications.
Additionally, the fact that the only chat application supported right now is Samsung’s ChatOn means that Whatsapp, BBM, WeChat and other messaging platforms won’t even send a notification to the Gear.
There is good news, though. One of the Gear’s best features is the ability to set it up to lock the Galaxy Note with a passcode when the Gear is no longer connected to it. This allows for the inverse: you can unlock your phone without a passcode – something that’s done a surprising number of times during the day. Plus, if you then leave your phone on a table and walk away – or worse, it gets stolen – it automatically locks and offers up a passcode screen.
Right now if you buy a Galaxy Gear without owning a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 you’re essentially buying a small, stainless steel brick. Only devices running the official Samsung TouchWiz-skinned version of Android 4.3 will be able to use the Gear, and at at the moment that list is all of one device long. Samsung’s rollout of the update has begun in the US, with Galaxy S4 owners gaining the ability to use the Gear, but there’s still no word on when we can expect to see it in South Africa. Devices that are slated to get Gear support include the Galaxy Note II, Galaxy S3, Galaxy S4, Galaxy S4 Mini and Galaxy Mega.
Performance (Battery life)
The Galaxy Gear is responsive and incredibly quick in action. Every swipe and tap feels almost immediate. The hardware is more than capable of power the Gear’s few features and functions.
Battery life is also excellent – especially when compared to a smartphone. It often manages to last two days of regular usage. That being said, charging a watch every other day is something you’d have to get used to, because it’s far from the norm. Conversely, the battery on the Note 3 suffered while connected to the Gear. It plummeted by around 10% per hour, on a device that has excellent battery life in normal use. The reason for this is that the our Gear was set up to activate every time it was raised, which forced updates for the weather app. It’s a dangerous combination, considering the data consumption and the battery life drain on the host device. Thankfully, it can be easily remedied by turning off either feature.
The 1.9MP surprisingly good. It might not come close to the 8MP and 13MP shooters Samsung fits to its range-topping smartphones, but it manages some decent shots in a wide variety of lighting conditions. The camera is automatically set up to take photos and videos in a 1:1 ratio (square photos) and records videos that are a maximum of 15 seconds long. Coincidentally, this is the same aspect ratio and video length that Instagram supports – make of that what you will. Photos can be instantly transferred to the paired smartphone, so as soon as you get the chance you can filter photos to your heart’s delight before sharing them with your social circle.
The Gear’s main problem at the moment is the lack of third-party applications. There are fewer than 100 apps available for it, and since app developers are required to rewrite their entire apps for the Gear – rather than porting existing code – there’s little incentive to cater to such a small audience. This means that Samsung will likely be responsible for creating apps for plugging into popular services, to avoid poorly-designed apps from third-party developers ruining the user experience. And that will take some time.
There’s also the small matter of it only working with one device in the local market, right now – and that one device isn’t Samsung’s best-selling Galaxy S4. Yes, support will come, but are you willing to wait when there’s not that much on offer?
We cannot. in good conscience, justify spending R4 799 on the Galaxy Gear. The limited usefulness of the device is offset by the quality design and build. It’s by far the best use of materials in a Samsung Android product, to date, and has a premium fit and polish we wish the company would use for other products in the Galaxy range. Just give us a metal phone, already.
The Gear is a device of compromise. It has so much promise, but its potential isn’t realised. Things that it does well are often buried behind things we would change like having a camera, and then putting it in the watch strap.
Our advice? Wait for the second or third iterations.
[UPDATE: Since our review Samsung has updated the Galaxy Gear to be able to view and read almost all of the notifications on your Galaxy Note 3. The update is live in the Samsung App Store now]