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Samsung Galaxy Gear Review: Welcome to the new Samsung

It’s hard to nail down exactly what a smartwatch should do ever since the iPhone came and turned the world upside down. We’ve finally arrived at a point where components are small and inexpensive enough to make a mass market smartwatch viable, but no one has quite figured out the right approach just yet.

Enter Samsung. Whereas the Pebble smartwatch restricted its feature list, Samsung has seemingly thrown in the kitchen sink, as Samsung is wont to do. There’s a camera, an AMOLED display, the ability to make phone calls, not to mention custom apps. It sounds like a mess, but as it turns out, even a broken watch is right twice a day.

Build it, and they will come

Samsung’s Galaxy line of smartphones do not feel like premium products. They’ve been specifically constructed to be as cheap as possible to manufacturer on a mass scale. That’s totally fine. That’s good business sense. But consumers don’t care about the economics of business, they care about having a kickass product that also looks and feels good. The Galaxy S4 isn’t that product. The Galaxy S series is the beige desktop computer of our time.

But the Galaxy Gear? The Galaxy Gear is very much what I would call a premium product. Just holding it up next to the Note 3 is almost enough to convince you that the pair were made by two different companies. The Note 3 is a continuation of the “good enough” design language, the bare minimum needed to make something look not ugly. But the Galaxy Gear is a device that you actually want to *admire*. The curved glass on the front of the display, the metal (yes, real metal!) frame, the rubberised strap, the adjustable metal clap and buckle. The size and weight feel just right too.

It’s tasteful, thoughtful design. And ignoring the above, the proof lies in one simple fact: there’s no logo on the front of the watch. The old Samsung wouldn’t even think of doing that, but New Samsung deliberately restrained itself. And really, the Gear looks so much better for it.

Even the charging dock – which is used to pair the Gear with your phone – has a clever twist. Putting the watch into a dock every night doesn’t sound like too much fun, but the Gear’s interface automatically rotates once the charger is plugged in, giving you a nice timepiece that rests naturally on a nightstand for easy accessibility.

A small new world

You can definitely see the new Samsung when you start using the watch too. The icons are simple without being cartoonish, with little folds around the corners that make them look like paper. They’re all great… except for the Pedometer icon. It’s literally a stick figure. Really, guys? Please fix that.

Navigating the Gear’s interface is fun and intuitive. There are no capacitive buttons, and no on screen buttons – just pure swiping. Want to find your apps? Swipe left or right. Want to go back? Swipe down. Want to take a photo? Swipe down again. Ready to make a phone call? Swipe up. It’s extremely easy to grasp.

There is a power button, but you really won’t need to press it that much. The accelerometer in the watch will automatically detect when you raise your wrist towards your face, subsequently turning on the display. It seems to work well in practise, but sometimes it works a little *too* well. Simple gestures and movements would accidentally trigger the screen on certain occasions, and if you move your arm too slowly, it won’t turn on at all. The timeout duration for the display is much shorter than a smartphone too – the Gear defaults to 10 seconds – so you won’t have to constantly reach for the power button to try and save battery life.

The watch faces that come preloaded on the Gear are pretty good. You can choose between traditional analogue faces, digital faces, clocks with added information such as the weather or calendar appointments… the list goes on. There are some extra faces on the Samsung App store too, but it’s slim pickings right now.

There’s also a small amount of customisation you can apply to the interface in general. Samsung lets you change the background colour of the watch to a wide variety of different colours. By default, you’ll be staring at white clocks on a black background – no doubt to save on power – but you can switch to green, teal, orange, red, purple, and brown.

You wouldn’t think a simple colour change would have much of an effect, but it makes a huge difference thanks to the 1.63-inch 320×320 AMOLED display. It’s extremely sharp and vibrant – those background colours really pop. I’ve derided Samsung’s AMOLED panels in the past, but the use of AMOLED makes perfect sense here on a watch. It helps slim down the device and keep the battery in check if you retain the default black background.

What about outdoors legibility, though? There are several different brightness settings that you can adjust by double tapping the display with two fingers, plus a special “Outdoor Mode” that really cranks things up. I had no problems at all with display legibility under bright lighting conditions or while I was outside. Samsung really nailed it here.

The longest day

It’s safe to say that everyone freaked out when Samsung announced potential battery life for the Gear. “Only 24 hours?!” the internet cried. “This isn’t a real smartwatch!” And I silently agreed. A single day doesn’t cut it. Thankfully, the Gear lasts much longer than 24 hours.

I managed to get two and a half days out of Samsung’s smartwatch before it eventually hit 5%. That’s with notifications for two Gmail accounts being consistently pushed to the watch, as well as regular photos, one or two videos, and the pedometer tracking my walking in the background. I could imagine most people getting around three days out of the Gear with light usage, but even heavier usage will exceed Samsung’s stated battery time.

Camera conundrums

I get why Samsung felt the need to include a camera on the watch, even if it sounds silly. Aside from the obvious potential for evil, a camera on your wrist can take potentially take photos quicker than if you were to try and pull our your smartphone. And I definitely found that to be true, purely because you can take a photo incredibly quickly. Swipe down from the main screen, and you’re in the camera UI. Tap anywhere on the screen to focus and take a picture. That’s it. It really doesn’t get any easier than that.

And the pictures are pretty decent considering the resolution. True, they’re not particularly sharp, and you won’t want to hang on to them for archival purposes, but they’re more than good enough to share out to social networks.

Having said that, the 1.9-megapixel camera module makes for an ugly hump in the wrist band. The sensor may need to be that big to get halfway decent photos, or it may be noticeable simply for privacy reasons. Whatever the case, it looks out of place and ruins an otherwise good watch and strap design. There must be a better way to do this.

There’s another pretty big downside too: photos aren’t automatically transferred to your phone after they’re taken by default. You have to go into the gallery app and manually transfer them, then go turn on automatic sharing in the camera settings. Sending across anything more than a few photos also takes an extremely long time over Bluetooth.

Video isn’t worth shooting on the Gear either. The 720p videos are shaky and unsteady, and the overall quality doesn’t come close to even a cheap smartphone. The audio picked up by the Gear’s microphone makes it sound like the watch has been run through a washing machine too.

 

Samsung getting in the way of Samsung

The Gear is far from perfect. Old Samsung still has a firm grip, after all. You can’t shake a giant like that loose straight away.

The app situation, for instance, is bad. Notable apps include Snapchat and Line, but Samsung’s app store is otherwise looking very barren. Snapchat makes sense given the camera on the Gear, but Line is a questionable choice. It’s popular in Asia, yes, but almost no one uses the messaging application here in the West. I don’t care about the Gear’s ChatOn app either, and I doubt that many people will. There’s also Evernote, but that has limited functionality.

Even the notification support added for Google’s apps – including Gmail, Hangouts, and Google+ – is half-baked. You get alerted to new Gmail messages, for example, but you don’t get any useful information. A Gmail icon pops up on the display, along with the current time. There’s no subject, no indication of who sent the email, and no short preview. That’s a lot of wasted screen real estate.

Samsung also geeked out a little bit too much. Look, I get it: making a phone call on your watch *sounds* cool. We’ve all seen Dick Tracy, we’ve all had the fantasy. But it’s really not practical in the real world. The speaker built into the clasp is a stroke of brilliance, but it’s far too quiet. Even on maximum volume, you’d need to be in a totally quiet room to hear a caller on the other end of the line. Callers also said I sounded a little distant, and I ultimately got fed up of holding my arm awkwardly in place after five minutes.

S Voice is still terrible, in case you were wondering.

Last, but certainly not least, is the lag. I really don’t know why this thing isn’t stutter free considering the 800Mhz processor and low-resolution display, but it is what it is. Animations simply aren’t smooth, and it’s clear that Samsung’s smartwatch is running just a step behind when jumping into applications.

The fatal flaw

All of that is small potatoes compared to the real issue. If you buy the Gear at this moment in time, you can only use it with a single phone on the planet: the Galaxy Note 3. Samsung has promised that an update is coming for the Galaxy S4, the Galaxy S3, and the Galaxy Note 2, but that’s at least a month away, if not longer. There’s also no guarantee that the Gear will ever work with other Android products.

You’re then faced with a huge problem. Do you forsake every other device on the market to be locked into Samsung’s underwhelming smartphone experience purely for the Gear?

The answer is no. That’s too big of an ask. Sony, HTC, and LG have all stepped up their game this year and put out interesting products that are worthy of your money. Despite Samsung’s rampant marketing machine, the company isn’t the obvious choice anymore.

So, should I buy this thing?

Do you own a Galaxy S4 or Note 3? Are you interested in the future of wearables? Are you willing to be an early adopter and pay the steep £299 asking price? If you answered yes to those questions, then you should buy the Gear.

For everyone else, the answer is no.

Go on…

The Galaxy Gear is the best mobile product that Samsung has made to date. It’s better than any phone or tablet the company has ever released, and I’m legitimately excited to see what New Samsung will do next. Hopefully the excellent design, premium materials, and new UI elements will make the jump to next year’s lineup of phones and tablets.

But New Samsung has been shackled by Old Samsung. The smartwatch won’t work without the Gear Manager, and that’s only available on Samsung devices. That’s fine: the company is trying to lock you into its ecosystem, just like Apple. The problem is that Samsung’s phones aren’t anywhere near as nice to use as the Gear itself, nor does an robust ecosystem even exist. I’d happily use the Gear in my everyday life, even with all its flaws – I just don’t want to use any of Samsung’s other devices along with it. New Samsung needs to radically overhaul the company’s phones and tablets before I – and probably many others – would be willing to bite.

Samsung’s smartwatch is also begging for proper third-party app support. Imagine Skype on the Gear, or WhatsApp, Twitter, IFTTT, or Google Maps notifications. The possibilities are seemingly endless. Those critical apps may come in time as more people become interested in the Gear, but right now, there’s nothing taking advantage of that huge potential.

Samsung could solve most of the issues with software updates, but the more likely scenario involves the company releasing an improved second-generation model. By then, more apps will have been released for the device, and a wider array of developers will hopefully be tinkering and experimenting. There may even be support for other Android devices. Those factors, combined with improved Galaxy phones, may eventually transform the Gear from a good smartwatch into a great smartwatch. But right now, you should hold off.

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