It’s not enough to have a smartphone these days. No, you also need a smartwatch, and Samsung intends to make it clear that this is something you’ll want in 2014, with the release of the Gear 2 Neo, a lightweight smartwatch that cuts the camera and delivers more of your phone on your wrist.
It may only have been a few months since the first Galaxy Gear smartwatch, but Samsung already has a replacement for those keen to see it, with the Gear 2 and Gear Neo watches ready for wrists in Australia, as well as the rest of the world.
Even though this review is focused on the Gear 2 Neo, we’ll touch on both in this features and specs section because outside of the camera, these two devices are practically identical.
For starters, you’ll find a 1.63 inch Super AMOLED screen rocking the 320×320 display, capable of delivering 278 pixels per inch, roughly.
Underneath this, there’s a 1GHz dual-core processor, 512MB RAM, 4GB internal storage, and a heavy reliance on Bluetooth 4.0 with support for the Low Energy (LE) form of the tech.
Both feature a remote control IR blaster at the top of the device, a heart rate monitor underneath the device, and support a battery rated for 300mAh. The five-pin charge connectors are found on the bottom of the watch next to the heart rate monitor and connect to a new snap-in recharge box.
Also, both smartwatches are now certified IP67 for dust and water resistance, meaning they’ll survive a quick dip in the drink, just don’t expect to go diving with them.
It’s also no longer just an Android phone in a watch, which was more or less what the first Gear was.
Rather, now it’s a Tizen device, hence why the name “Galaxy” is no longer part of the naming convention of this device.
And that’s more or less it, with the exception of the camera, which the Gear 2 has and supports taking up to 2 megapixel pictures from and capturing up to 720p videos from, while the Gear 2 Neo (which we’re reviewing) ditches the camera altogether.
The screen sits inside a frame of brushed metal, with the rest of the watch encased in plastic, while the watch bands are apparently a regulation size and can be replaced easily.
Second generation products usually hit the mark better than the first generation, and over in the new Gear wearable, that logic still holds true.
We’re delighted in this version to see that the camera is now optional, and while the Gear 2 has it, the Gear 2 Neo that we reviewed lacks it, which is totally fine by us, because a two megapixel shooter built into a camera that doesn’t take decent photos anyway is something we’re happy to go without.
Seriously, who needs a camera in their watch?!
It’s likely that this removed featured has added to its redesign, but the Gear Neo has more going for it, with a button added at the base of the screen which offers you a home button to get back to everything. Oh sure, you’ll find that you’re using touch and swipe gestures to do everything else, but the inclusion of the home button is a smart move by Samsung, as it keeps the design in line with its smartphones which all still have the centre home button at the bottom.
Pick up the new watch and the design change extends to its weight which feels a little slimmer, and better constructed, a fact which is immediately noticeable in its adjustable band. Our brownish grey suited us fine — people in the office criticised, but we didn’t mind it — and it was much more comfortable to wear than the strap in last year’s Gear.
Also, thanks to the design changes, you’ll see the way you charge the watch is a little different, with a snap-on recharger that connects to the small metal charging prongs underneath, with microUSB keeping these alive.
Charging overnight should take care of a battery, or even just a few hours at work, and then you’re ready to rock.
Switch it on and you’ll see a beautiful colour screen, with some of the best angles of any portable colour touchscreen you’re ever likely to see. It just looks stunning, and we can see that it’s perfectly suited to the excellent screen on the Galaxy S5.
You’ll need to install Samsung’s Gear Manager to get this working which is available only on Samsung Apps, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Once you’re done, though, it’s more or less just configuring what things notify you and maintaining a constant Bluetooth connection with your phone to keep the Gear Neo happy.
We need to note that unlike its predecessor, Android doesn’t actually run on the Gear 2 Neo. Rather, Australians get to see their first form of Tizen, another Linux-based operating system that Samsung has moved to in an attempt to get more battery life out of its wearables
And from our testing, that gamble appears to have paid off, offering around three to four days of usage with a full-colour touchscreen smartwatch.
Battery life will, of course, be dependent on how much you use the smartwatch, but we managed four days of constant touching and prodding, receiving notifications over messages and social networking services, and even making the odd call here and there.
We need to touch upon that, because taking calls on the wrist watch is a feature of the Gear watch, just as it was last year.
But we need to stress something else with this feature, because if you make and take calls by holding the watch to your lips and speaking into it like Dick Tracy, you will look strange. Some might even stare. We were certainly self-conscious when we did it, and thankfully there is a touchscreen button to bring the call back to your phone, so that’s helpful.
The only time where we think this might be useful is in a car, and now that touching your phone while driving is illegal, you’ll at least be able to pick up the call by touching your wrist, and speaking towards it, with the speakerphone blaring the sound from the tiny speaker on the watch.
Outside of taking calls, you can check your heart rate just like you can on the Galaxy S5 handset, and also take a look at your upcoming calendar events, track your footsteps on the pedometer, record voice memos, use the watch as a TV remote, check weather, read through emails and messages, and see notifications pop up from most apps you rely on, such as Instagram, Twitter, and more.
The home button helps to make it easier to get to the main menu, and then you have a few other menus you can sort through to run apps, and we like how that physical button can even be configured for double tapping to take you straight to one of the apps deemed important.
You can also control your media, albeit in a severely limited way, with the titles picked up only by some media players, while others are ignored. Using the stock media player for Samsung — which we never use — we could see information, and we could with Google’s Play Music, but Pandora wouldn’t send track information to the watch, even if the track skip and volume change still worked with the streaming music player.
This lack of compatibility is something that extends to other parts of the watch, too, which is such a shame.
For instance, if you use any SMS app that isn’t the stock “Messages” app, Samsung won’t let you pull messages from it on your watch. We use Google’s Hangouts, but that’s not compatible with the SMS section on the watch, meaning we’re out of luck.
Things that were compatible wouldn’t load as quickly as our Pebble might get them, and some of the other apps just didn’t feel like they were really letting you get the most out of them, such as “Gallery” which does nothing on the camera-less Gear 2 Neo (the Gear 2 has a camera) and won’t even let you browse the photos stored on your phone.
It’s weird, because you’d expect a full-colour touchscreen smartwatch to do so much more, such as delivering maps to your wrist to help you find a pizza place, or even let you have a quick browse through more than just email, with social networking on offer, too.
But neither of those are available on the Gear Neo, at least not yet, and apps would have to be created for that to happen.
There just isn’t enough support for most of the things we would want a smartwatch for, outside of reading the time and getting a notification here and there, and that really is the biggest problem of Samsung’s new Gear smartwatch: it just doesn’t do enough.
It doesn’t even have enough watchfaces available, with most of the options providing a basic digital watch that you can change the font for, and some analogue varieties that are either too colourful or just a lot of “meh” that don’t really evoke any style.
We’re also still not fans of the platform requirement of the watch, and that’s something Samsung doesn’t appear to be letting go of any time soon.
Basically, in order to use the Samsung Gear 2 Neo, you have to have a recent Samsung phone. Now, because this watch came out at the same time as the Galaxy S5, it’s safe to say that this is the handset Samsung is thinking of, but it should be compatible with any Samsung Galaxy handset that supports Android 4.3 and higher, but preferably 4.4 “KitKat.”
Where that compatibility stops, however, is any version of Android.
For instance, you can’t make the Gear 2 Neo — or any other Samsung wearable — work with an Android handset from LG, or HTC, or Sony or Nokia or Motorola or any other Android maker, even though the Samsung phones run on Android, and that’s because Android isn’t the requirement here.
Rather, access to Samsung Apps is the requirement, and that means you have to have a Samsung Android smartphone, and not just any old (or new) Android phone.
Unfortunately, Samsung Gear Manager is the necessary app to make the Gear devices work, and that’s only available on Samsung Apps, not on Google Play.
Our problem with this is that a watch shouldn’t be dependent on an operating system, and really should be platform agnostic. If you decide in a year to switch from a Samsung phone to something else — be it a HTC, Apple, or Nokia — you won’t be able to take the Gear 2 Neo with you, which is really frustrating given that this is a watch and you should be able to use it with any mobile you own.
Sony’s Smartwatch isn’t dependent on owning a Sony phone, and neither is the Pebble, so Samsung’s Gear shouldn’t have this either. It’s silly, and suggests Samsung is more interested in locking you into an ecosystem rather than providing you with your very own smartwatch.
A second attempt at a smartwatch reveals better battery life and a more comfortable fit, but Samsung’s Gear watches still need more in them.
Sure, they work, and the screen is one of the best examples of any wearable we’ve ever seen, but unless you rely solely on Samsung’s homegrown apps, the Gear 2 Neo just won’t be terribly useful, and you could do better with another smartwatch, regular watch, or you can just wait until Google Android Wear is out and delivering more support for all Android phones, not just the ones Samsung makes.