Is the age of the smartwatch dawning? Not quite yet, at least if the Samsung Galaxy Gear is any indication. Like other smartwatches currently on the market, it isn't a standalone product – it's a companion device for your Samsung Galaxy smartphone or tablet. The Galaxy Gear is a nice accessory and certainly has potential, eliminating the need to go digging in your bag for your phone all the time. But some serious operational snafus make it more of a compelling science project than something you need to buy now – and the price, at £299, is quite eye watering to say the least.
At launch, the Galaxy Gear will only work with the brand new Galaxy Note 3 and the Galaxy Note 10.1. The company says additional products will become compatible as they're upgraded to Android 4.3 – the wildly popular Galaxy S4 is high on the priority list – but they'll still all be Samsung-only. That's great for Samsung, but not so great for us, as it's a £300 accessory that virtually guarantees your next phone will also have to be from Samsung if you want it to keep working. For this review, we tested the Galaxy Gear with a Galaxy Note 3.
The bulky Galaxy Gear measures 57 x 11 x 37mm (WxDxH), and weighs 74 grams, not counting the flexible plastic band. Our test unit came in Wild Orange, which was suitably bright and attention-grabbing; it's also available in Jet Black, Mocha Grey, Oatmeal Beige, Rose Gold, and Lime Green. The metal clasp is stiff, but precise – I had to press fairly firmly to close it, but it stayed put, felt comfortable, and opened without much trouble either.
The single best thing about the Galaxy Gear is its screen. The 1.63in square Super AMOLED display features a 320 x 320-pixel resolution, vibrant colours, and deep blacks, and is surrounded by a sharp looking metal frame. Four prominent screw heads bracket the display in all four corners; it's either stylishly industrial or just flimsy-looking, depending on your viewpoint. The top side of the band holds a 1.9-megapixel camera sensor, while the right side of the frame hosts a Power/Home button; there are no other hardware controls.
One of the reasons Pebble went with an e-paper display is for preserving battery life. The Pebble's display may be monochrome and lower resolution, but it can stay on continuously. In contrast, the Galaxy Gear is dark most of the time, in order to conserve the battery; you shake the watch or press the Power button to wake it up. During testing, shaking my wrist vigorously sometimes didn't wake the watch up, and I had to resort to the button. At other times a simple tap on the side of the watch body did the trick.
Inside the Galaxy Gear there's an 800MHz processor, 512MB of RAM, and Bluetooth 4.0, an accelerometer and a gyroscope, but no proximity sensor or compass. There's also 4GB of internal flash storage for apps, photos, and recorded videos.
Setup and user interface
To charge the Galaxy Gear, inexplicably, you use an included leather cradle that fits just the watch body itself, not the strap. The cradle opens with a sliding switch; you insert the watch into the cradle and close it in place with a click. Five little gold leads on the back of the watch match up with the ones in the cradle. When you close it up, you're left with a giant version of the watch, as if it were Super Mario after eating a mushroom. Then you plug the microUSB charger cable into the back of the cradle, and the AC adapter into the wall. It's easy enough, but ideally you wouldn't need the cradle at all, and would just plug the charger straight into the Galaxy Gear.
Samsung says the Gear lasts up to about 25 hours on a charge, depending on how much you use it. With moderate use throughout the day, the watch still had 68 per cent battery left the next morning, which is better than I expected, if not quite Pebble territory.
To get started with the Galaxy Gear, you need to install the free Gear Manager app on your phone or tablet. You can do this via NFC – just tap the charging cradle to the back of the phone or tablet, at which point it pops up a dialog to install the app. The Gear itself communicates with the phone via Bluetooth. Once you install the app, you power up the smartwatch, tap the cradle to the back of the phone again, and it automates pairing. At this point, I had to agree to several EULAs, as well as update the Samsung App store on the phone.
Once powered up, the watch face default is to show the time, day, date, current temperature and weather conditions. There are plenty of custom clocks in the Settings menu, and you can download additional ones from Samsung's App Store (more on this later). Swipe right and you'll step, somewhat sluggishly, through Notifications, S Voice, Voice Memo, Gallery, Media Controller, Pedometer, Settings, Apps, Logs, and Contacts before returning to the default display. Swipe down and you'll bring up the camera app; swipe up and you'll get a calculator.
Quirks and apps
You can only view one app icon at a time. For example, to get to Pedometer, you'll need to swipe seven times right or five times left, and swipes are slower and choppier than they are on a Galaxy S4 or Galaxy Note. Worse still, there's no Back button. When I checked that battery result earlier, I had to navigate to Settings > Battery. The only way out is to tap the Power/Home button, which brings you back to the start, not back to the Settings menu. If you want to check another setting, you have to swipe back manually.
Another problem: Say you select an app, start using it, and then let the display go dim and power off, which happens in about 10 seconds. When you wake up the Galaxy Gear again, it returns once again to the time display. If you want to go back to the app you were just using, you have to return to it manually, which requires many individual swipes once again. This all gets old very quickly.
Most of the built-in apps work pretty much as advertised; they're all simple, but nothing special. The Media Controller pops up volume, track skip, and Play/Pause buttons for your phone. Logs shows your recent calls, while Notifications displays recent alerts. The Galaxy Gear picks up your Google contacts from the phone; it shows three at a time, and you can swipe through them or jump to a specific letter of the alphabet. To exit out of each app, you must press the Power/Home button, or swipe up to go back a page. Notifications showed missed calls and text messages, but skipped over notifications for, say, software or app updates. There's no way to check email from the watch, which is an odd oversight.
I tested the preloaded Pedometer app against my Fitbit One in a walk around my neighbourhood. Just putting my socks and shoes on, and then walking into the living room, the Fitbit registered 65 steps (a little high) and the Galaxy Gear said 117 (way off). After the actual 1,600-step walk, they were much closer, although by the end the Galaxy Gear still read 120 steps higher.
70 additional apps are optimised for the Gear, broken into categories in Samsung's app store. At the time of the publication of this review, there were four entertainment apps, one finance app, three fitness apps, and a dozen or so each in the lifestyle, social networking, utilities, and clock categories, with some overlap between the last two.
The main problem here is that few of the apps are interesting, with the possible exceptions of bigger name titles like Evernote and MyFitnessPal, and Samsung is big on its own ChatOn platform. There's certainly nothing that screams “killer app” – that something special which would make the average person feel like they need this product.
Voice calls and camera
For voice calls, there are two built-in microphones – one of which handles noise suppression – and there's a mono speaker. Voice quality is pretty tinny, and it doesn't go very loud, though my own voice sounded clear enough through the mic. With this watch and the companion smartphone, you can finally pretend to be Dick Tracy, although we're still waiting for a watch that makes calls by itself.
Otherwise, S Voice usually recognised my commands, including voice dialling, but it took several seconds to process each one. You can also dictate text messages. Will you actually want to make and receive calls from the watch on a regular basis? I have no idea. I can't see myself doing it, but stranger things have become commonplace. After all, we live in a world where some people snap photos with giant iPads.
Speaking of pictures, the built-in 1.9-megapixel autofocus camera is fun to use. You activate the camera by swiping down from any home screen, and then shoot by tapping the screen on a focus location. It's pretty fast to snap off shots outdoors, but slows down and takes several seconds to focus indoors. Photos can be 1,392 x 1,392 or 1,280 x 960, and look about as good as you'll get from a good front-facing camera on a smartphone; a little fuzzy, but they boast decent detail both indoors and out. Exposure compensation was off, though – a shot of a brick building looked fine when it took up the entire photo, but aiming the Gear down a sunny street, I ended up with a lot of dark murkiness in shaded areas.
An icon lets you switch to the camcorder, which you can configure to record 1,280 x 720-pixel (720p) or 640 x 640 square H.264 MP4 files. Both sizes of video play smoothly, although there's no image stabilisation. However, do note that recording time is capped at 15 seconds per video, which is pretty limiting.
At the moment, there are few smartwatch alternatives as powerful as the Samsung Galaxy Gear, but most are easier to work with. Our current favourite smartwatch is the Pebble, which costs a third of what Samsung is asking for the Gear, has a much longer lasting battery, works with iOS and Android devices, and supports nifty hacks like IFTTT recipes. But the Pebble can't make calls, and it lacks a colour display and a camera. It's not as ambitious a product, but it's a lot easier to recommend for what it is.
The Sony Smartwatch is nice and actually costs less than the Pebble now, at £79, although it’s due to be replaced by its successor shortly, and the new model isn't available for review yet. The Citizen Eco-Drive Proximity looks very classy, but it barely qualifies as a smartwatch.
All told, the Pebble is still our top dog smartwatch, particularly considering the price of the Gear over here – it’s even worse value for money in the UK than it is in the US (the Gear costs the exact same amount in dollars, $299, as it does in pounds).
However, if you like the idea of Samsung’s smartwatch and you’re prepared to wait, you can always hold out for the inevitable revisions to the Galaxy Gear. Some pundits theorise that the Gear makes using Samsung's huge-screen phones more palatable, but I don't think that's going to be a driving factor here.
Really, it all comes down to the fact that £300 is a lot of money to spend on something that could have used a longer development and QA cycle, and is more frustrating than enjoyable to use. The Galaxy Gear is definitely cooler than I expected, but it's not worth buying yet.