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Samsung’s Galaxy Gear smartwatch reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 4:27 pm 08/10/2013

The next big area for must have devices is being talked up as companion devices, because while we all have mobile devices, we don’t always want to get them out and look at them, and that’s where the smartwatch comes into play, offering calls, notifications, and more on your wrist.

Features

The first of what will no doubt be a long line of smartwatches, the Gear is a new product in Samung’s Galaxy line-up of products, designed to bring mobile access to another part of your body, so you don’t have to take the phone out.

This part of your body is your wrist, and in the Galaxy Gear, Samsung is basically throwing a small computer on that limb to work in tandem with that other computer that you leave in your pants or in a bag.

The top of the Galaxy Gear has a 1.63 inch 320×320 Super AMOLED display to help you see what’s happening, with similar technology to a smartphone under the hood.

With that in mind, there’s a single-core Samsung-made Exynos processor inside clocked at 800MHz working alongside a dedicated graphics processor, 512MB RAM, and 4GB storage, which might not sound like enough, but because of this being a companion device to a smartphone, sends much of the baggage — images and videos — back to the phone, so as not to weight the watch down.

There is no 3G or 4G here, relying on the smartphone for that through the use of Bluetooth 4.0.

A camera is also present, available on the wrist band and capable of shooting images just under two megapixels (1.9, to be exact), as well as short 720p HD videos.

An accelerometer is also present, capable of tracking movement for the pedometer, and switching itself on from standby when you bring the watch close to you when it’s off.

There is some degree of ruggedisation of the device, rated for IP-55, which means a bit of water can enter, as well as some dust, just don’t go swimming with it.

Only one button can be found of the Galaxy Gear, a power button on the right side, and it comes with a proprietary charge cradle which requires you to take the watch off, rest it against magnetic connectors inside its case, and plug that into a microUSB connector.

The battery is rated for 315mAh.

Performance

As our smartphones get bigger, our desire to pull them out and use them on the go seems to lessen, even just a little. That seems to be the philosophy behind a new drive for companion devices, accessories which communicate with smartphones and tablets, displaying your mobile life on a smaller screen that is more easily accessible.

Samsung isn’t the first to enter this space, and there is a lot of activity in the accessory market, with companies like Google and Sony all joining with devices in the past year.

That said, Samsung is one of the first with a ready and available product, and has developed its Galaxy Gear to provide a smaller device with which to make it possible to leave that bigger smartphone in your pocket, pants, or bag.

Looking at the watch, it’s not quite the design you expect after seeing Samsung work with it’s plastic devices for so long.

Sure, there’s a plastic band here, but the device shines in the sunlight, offering metal and glass for anyone that looks upon it.

Smartphones are mostly button-free affairs, and the Galaxy Gear continues in that tradition, offering merely one button on the right side, a power button for when you desperately need to turn the device on and off, and when the accelerometer hasn’t done a good job interpreting your wrist movements to do just that.

Inside the watch, there are movement controllers, and these bring the watch back from standby most of the time, so your need to press the side button is less important, and you can focus on the required gestures.

As such, you’ll find that a swipe left or right on the clock screen will take you between the pages of single shortcuts to settings, apps, the pedometer, media controller, and notification logs, while a swipe from the bottom of the watch to the top brings up a dial pad to make calls into the watch, while a swipe from the top to bottom brings up the camera.

Let’s talk the camera first, because it’s a neat function that no other smartwatch has at this point.

When you go into this mode, you’ll find the roughly two megapixel shooter on the wristband kicks into action, allowing you to fire off shots from the wristband, which is especially useful if you’re trying to take a shot without people noticing, such as in a store for a product you’d like to remember later.

Some apps make use of this technology, and there’s even a wine app that will scan wine labels and not just let you rate the drop you’ve tasted, but also tell you what it pairs well with, which is a type of technology that has existed on smartphones for years, but makes it even more convenient when it’s hanging off the side of your wrist.

One thing worth noting with this technology is that Samsung has made sure you’re telling the world that you’re firing off a photo, making sure that the camera autofocus beep and shutter noise are both heard, regardless of your settings.

There’ll be no silent shots, it appears, and even though it seems that the images from this tiny camera should be more convenient, they’re still just as loud.

An image straight from the Galaxy Gear's camera.

Image quality here isn’t fantastic — hey, it’s a two megapixel shooter, what do you expect?! — but they’re also not bad, and low light, while not detailed, has less noise in it than a lot of smartphones grab on their higher megapixel cameras.

Another neat feature is one right out of comic books, which allows you to speak into your phone and hear conversations on the wrist band.

To do this, Samsung has employed two microphones just under the watch display, and included a speaker on the band clasp.

It might look a little strange — ok, a lot strange — but these calls sound clear because you’re using what is essentially a tiny speakerphone.

That said, because it’s a speakerphone, everyone else can hear what you’re saying, so in public, it’s not only a strange way to converse over the phone, but also a very public one.

Other functions that you expect from a smartwatch are here too, including notifications from Facebook, SMS, and the ability to read your emails on the watch, as well as pick up phone calls.

There’s some shared support between your phone and watch for reading these notifications, and the phone will know roughly where you’ve read to, making it useful for continuing where you left off if you decide to read from a bigger device.

Social networks didn’t quite integrate the way we expected them to, with apps more or less required to make these work well. Facebook would tell us when an update had taken place, but we couldn’t read it on the product, and Twitter integration wasn’t really there at all.

Some of the clock integration panned out better, though, and we liked being able to make our own clock-faces, limited as it was, and also quite liked the minor vibration (which you can turn on or off) for telling you when the top of the hour was.

Also, the pedometer did a decent job of tracking not just your footsteps, but then also working out the distance travelled and approximate calories burned.

Neat features, and with app integration, mean there’s a lot the watch will be able to do soon enough.

And there’s also the screen, which is bright enough indoors, but could do with a little more when you’re outside. It’s not dim enough that you’re going to have major issues seeing it, but let’s just say that direct sunlight and the Galaxy Gear’s screen aren’t really friends.

My Dad used to tell me the time was a hair past a freckle. With this watch face, it really was.

Before we started using the Galaxy Gear, we were concerned about one area, though: the battery.

Watches generally shouldn’t be taken of the wrist for a charge, because their very point is that they tell the time, and if you have to take off your time-keeping device, it’s an inconvenience, one you generally prefer to go without.

When Samsung first announced the Galaxy Gear, the fear was that you would only get a day of battery life, charging it nightly just like your smartphone.

Contrary to expectations, however, the Galaxy Gear smartwatch survives for two days of life.

That is while giving the technology a good flogging, too, keeping the pedometer on, firing shots off from the two megapixel shooter on the wrist band, and yes, even talking into the microphone on the band and listening to phone calls in public just like Dick Tracy.

Two days of life is far better than we had anticipated, and while it doesn’t quite match up to Pebble’s five day usage, there is a much more power hungry screen to deal with on the Galaxy Gear, one that shows multiple colours and takes touch, two factors the monochromatic e-ink screen of the Pebble smartwatch lacks.

It’s also quite easy to use, and more comfortable than you otherwise expect.

Samsung has designed something that is quite nice to use, and while you might imagine the body is big and cumbersome, it’s not much bigger than other watches, and hugs the wrist quite nicely.

Shots taken on the Galaxy Gear aren't super sharp at night, but they're also not bad, either.

While Samsung gets a lot of the smartwatch design right from the first go, there are aspects that need improvement.

One of these is the app control system, which requires you to swipe through multiple steps in order to get to the app you need.

Imagine you’re going running and you want to change the song or the volume of the track you’re listening to.

Theoretically, the Galaxy Gear makes it easy because you don’t have to pull out the phone as you’re running, and can just glance down at the watch to change tracks.

Want to skip a track? Navigate your way through the menu pages to the media controller.

Right now, though, you have to swipe through multiple pages of shortcuts just to get to the media controller where you can change both track and volume.

App management is handled on the smartphone, which makes the most sense since you’re working on a bigger screen with more memory, but Samsung hasn’t yet made it possible for you to disable the shortcuts or apps you don’t need.

That said, we half expect Samsung to fix this with an update later down the track.

One thing that won’t be fixed with a patch, though, is the risk of condensation, which is noticeable on the Galaxy Gear’s camera when the weather starts to heat up.

Australian summers can get warm, quite warm, but we were surprised to find the Galaxy Gear sees condensation appear on the lens, thus turning every shot into a blur until it dries up.

You can’t do anything about it until the moisture dries, either, and we tried running water over the lens to fix this, but nothing worked.

Condensation does this to images.

Weatherproofing is one of those things watches kind of need, and we’ve heard some horror stories of smartphones taken to the snow and returning dead, so we’re a little concerned about the limits of the Galaxy Gear, and where you can travel with it. Certainly hot temperatures seem to be a problem for the camera, though the watch was fine all throughout this.

The compatibility is the other problem we’re concerned about, and at the moment, Samsung has made it a requirement of the Galaxy Gear that you use the Galaxy Note 3, which is an Android phone that runs on version 4.3, still known as “Jelly Bean.”

Support will be brought in for other Samsung devices in the near future, including the Galaxy Note 2, Galaxy S3, and Galaxy S4 smartphones, and we suspect any other Samsung product relying on a similarly upgradeable version of the Galaxy-based Android OS, such as the Galaxy S4 Active and Galaxy Mega, but basically, you have to have a Samsung phone in order to use this watch.

That might not sound like a problem, but when you’re spending over $300 on a wristwatch, it’s nice to know there’s compatibility for a device that you’ll be using for the next few years, especially when a watch should last you a minimum of between five and ten years.

Currently, smartphone owners upgrade every one to three years, and with the requirement existing that you use a Samsung smartphone, this means you’re essentially locked into using a Samsung device while you own the Galaxy Gear smartwatch.

There are many reasons why Samsung might be doing this.

It could be that it provides a better experience, or it could be that Samsung devices have a specific driver that makes the interaction happen, or it could even be that you have to use Samsung’s own apps store — Samsung Apps — in order to download the Galaxy Gear manager and the apps that connect with it, the latter of these is the more likely answer since our use of the device indicates this to be the case.

This isn’t like other smartwatches out there that don’t require a specific product.

The Pebble Smartwatch, for instance, only requires iOS or Android, so you can choose practically any device out there supporting either, and go for your life. Sony’s Smartwatch also works with a lot of Android phones, and isn’t just limited to one, two, or four devices.

Samsung’s is, though, and if you plan to stick with your Galaxy phone for a while, no worries, but not everyone can say they will, and thus if you switch, this watch could become a costly exercise.

The Galaxy Note 3 and the Galaxy Gear rely on each other, and right now, it seems like Samsung's phones will be the only ones that will work with the watch. Sad face.

Conclusion

In the past decade, we’ve seen more people drop the wristwatch in favour of pulling out their smartphone and using that instead as their dedicated time-keeping mechanism, and yet here we are with a product that encourages you to slap on a new wearable that does the same thing.

People who love wearing watches will likely love this product since it does what the watch already does, but also packs in notifications, phone call alerts, a pedometer, and can essentially be expanded to support more features thanks to it working with the phone.

But you’ll need to use a very recent Samsung phone if you want this, and you’ll need to keep using it, because right now, that’s the requirement.

If you can live with that, the Galaxy Gear is neat first-generation product to help you take the future with you in your travels. If you can’t, it might be best to wait for a more compatible companion device, because this isn’t the first, and it certainly won’t be the last.

 

Price (RRP)

$369

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Battery lasts two days, which is a day longer than we suspected; Not as big a watch as you might expect; Easily adjustable; Camera isn't bad; Alerts you when you have phone calls; Notifications can be read on the watch;

Product Cons

Requires a recent Samsung smartphone; Camera can be affected by condensation; Talking into your watch makes you more conscious of how you look; Camera makes a loud shutter noise, and there's nothing you can do about it; Expensive; Not a device everyone will need;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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