Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch
An overpriced companion device that fails to excel at any particular function
- Solid design & build
- Effective, responsive display
- Camera works well
- Extremely limited functionality
- Notifications are rubbish
The Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch is well built and has a good screen that's readable in all conditions. Unfortunately, it fails to excel at any particular function, and is extremely poor at handling notifications, one of the key features of a smartwatch. At this price, the Galaxy Gear is best avoided.
Wearable technology is nothing new, but the concept of a true smartwatch has never hit the mainstream market with any success. Samsung certainly hasn't been shy in attempting to create new product categories, and the Korean giant is trying again with the Galaxy Gear. Unfortunately, while the Gear is a nifty gadget with some cool and interesting features, it's overpriced and fails to excel at any one particular function.
A chunky, mish mash design
The face is large and won't suit users with small wrists.
The Samsung Galaxy Gear is made from a mish mash of materials. The watch itself is a hard, plastic shell, but a flexible rubber band, a brushed metal front frame, and a glass coated screen make up the rest of the device. Four exposed phillips head screws on each corner attempt to give the watch an industrial look. The Gear could easily pass off as a regular watch if you ignore the screen, though its face is relatively large and won't suit users with small wrists.
Appealing to a wide range of potential users seems like a must for a watch, yet the Galaxy Gear fails to do so. It is likely to be too large and too masculine looking for many females, but at the same time, the rubber band lends itself more to a female audience than a male one. We found the long, rectangular watch face and chunky clasp made it tough to sit comfortably on our wrist. Further, the 1.8-megapixel camera lens built into the rubber band means it isn't interchangeable: damage the band and you effectively need to replace the whole watch.
The Gear isn't water, dust or shock resistant.
Despite its unappealing design, the Galaxy Gear does feel like a premium product. While it may not invoke the same feel as a luxury, high precision Swiss watch, it feels relatively sturdy and well constructed. The brushed metal front doesn't easily scratch, and the rubber band effectively hides dirt and marks. The chunky clasp, while a little awkward to secure, adds to the solid feel. The Gear isn't water, dust or shock resistant though, so you'll need to take good care of it.
The Galaxy Gear has a 1.63in touchscreen with a resolution of 320x320. It displays relatively crisp text, is bright and clear, and has good sunlight legibility provided you pump up the brightness to "outdoor mode", the highest setting available. In this mode, we had no issues reading the Galaxy Gear outdoors, even on a hot, summers day in Sydney. Despite its small size, the Gear's screen is responsive to touch and use.
A handy camera and calling ability
The Galaxy Gear is described by Samsung as a "companion device", so it connects to a compatible phone via Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). The Gear launched with compatibility for the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition), but a recent software update means the watch now works with the Galaxy S4, the Galaxy S III and the Galaxy Note II. More phones are likely to be added in the coming months, but the device is obviously only going to work with Samsung Android phones, a significant limitation. By comparison, Sony's competing Smartwatch 2 works with a wide range of Android phones from various manufacturers.
Connecting the Galaxy Gear to a compatible device is achieved by touching the device to the back of the Gear's charging dock, which has a built-in NFC chip. This automatically launches the Gear Manager app (or directs you to the Play Store if you don't have it installed on your phone). The watch is then paired to your phone via Bluetooth.
Once paired, the Galaxy Gear is relatively easy to use. A single button on the right side of the watch turns on the screen to display the time. Samsung has also built in a wake up gesture, which turns on the display every time you raise your arm to look at the watch. Like most of the Gear's features, it's good in theory but we found it works about one in every three times. There's also a notable delay for the screen to turn on when it does decide to work.
Two of the Galaxy Gear's most useful features are the most readily accessible.
It's no surprise that two of the Galaxy Gear's most useful features are the most readily accessible. Swiping up from the bottom of the screen brings up an on-screen dial pad where you can make phone calls without touching your phone. The microphone and speaker work surprisingly well and mimic the functionality of using a speakerphone on your handset. While the lack of discreetness holding a phone call Dick Tracy style will limit where you can make use of it, using the Galaxy Gear to make or receive a voice call is surprisingly effective.
Swiping down from the top of the screen opens the Galaxy Gear's camera. While the images it captures can't compare to the camera on most smartphones, the ability to jump immediately into the camera app and snap a photo in a matter of two or three seconds is a great feature. The images are captured at a square resolution of 1392x1392, and are therefore perfect for uploading to apps like Instagram. You can choose to bump the resolution down to 1280x920 in a more traditional 4:3 aspect ratio if you wish, and there's also the option to switch to a macro focus mode. However, the camera is best utilised at the default settings, precisely because it's simple, fast and immediate.
The position of the lens makes it hard to see what you're framing.
There are a couple of annoyances with the camera, however. There's no setting to automatically transfer captured Galaxy Gear photos to your smartphone, though images can easily be transferred through the options menu in the gallery one by one. The position of the lens also makes it hard to see what you're framing while taking a photo. It requires you to uncomfortably lean forward to get a good view of the screen.
If you don't transfer files to your phone, images are stored on the Galaxy Gear's 4GB of internal memory. There's also the option to record 15-second video clips at a 720p resolution of 1280x720, though the default video size is set to 640x640 and the quality is poor.
Frighteningly limited notifications, apps
Functionality on the whole remains ridiculously limited.
The most disappointing aspect of the Galaxy Gear is probably the most important for a smartwatch: notifications. While the Gear will alert you of incoming text messages, calls, emails, alarms, Facebook, Twitter and more, the process feels half finished. You can answer an incoming call and read an incoming text message on the Gear, but all other alerts simply display a notification.
Tapping on a Gmail notification, for instance, simply tells you that you need to view the actual email on your phone. The on-screen prompt will unlock your phone and open the Gmail message, but the functionality on the whole remains ridiculously limited.
The Gear doesn't get much better once you start swiping through its main menu. Most of the apps are horribly limited. The pedometer uses the GPS on your phone, so you can't go running or walking without it, and we found the step counter inaccurate when paired with a Galaxy Note 3. The media controller only offers basic track and volume functionality and only works with Samsung's default music player.
One of the more useful features, seeing your daily calendar appointments, can't be assigned to launch by double pressing the power key. The stopwatch and timer work well, but this is basic functionality that been available on even the cheapest digital watches for years.
Third-party apps for the Galaxy Gear are laughably limited.
The lack of functionality is ultimately made worse by a confusing disconnect between the Galaxy Gear Manager app on your phone and the settings available on the watch itself. As an example, you can change the watch face on the Gear but any settings of that particular face, such as font colour, or the ability to show the date, can only be changed through the app.
Third-party apps for the Galaxy Gear are also laughably limited. At the time of writing there are apps for the likes of Evernote, Pocket, eBay, Zite, Snapchat, Runtastic, and Path, but none of them add much to the overall package. Evernote lets you quickly capture an image or recording, but you can only view recent notes you created since you connected the app with the Gear: pre-existing notes don't show up on the watch. This lack of real functionality plagues most of the apps we tried. You also need to install all third-party apps through the Samsung Apps store.
S Voice misses the mark
There's no way to activate S Voice by voice.
The Galaxy Gear also includes S Voice, Samsung's voice control functionality. Like most voice technology, it is very hit and miss. It responds to most commands but its functionality is limited and it only works effectively in very quiet environments.
You can use S Voice to set an alarm, send a text message, open apps, schedule a calendar appointment and check global time in various locations, but the delay for the Gear to process your command quickly becomes annoying. There's also no way to activate S Voice by voice: you can double tap the home button or simply select the app through the menu, which we feel actually defeats the purpose of using it in the first place.
Surprisingly, battery life is one of the Gear's better features. Samsung says the device will give you a full 24 hours of use, but we often pushed well beyond that. In our experience, the Gear lasted between a day and a half and two days, depending on your usage pattern. You should probably get into a habit of charging it every night, but if you forget, you'll still be able to use it the next day. Annoyingly, the Galaxy Gear requires the included charging cradle to charge, so you can't just plug a micro-USB port into the watch.
The Samsung Galaxy Gear sells for AU$369/NZ$449.
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