Samsung Galaxy Gear £299
16th Dec 2013 | 14:21
Is this the smartwatch to put the wind up Apple?
Introduction and design
What makes a smartwatch these days? Is it something that simply sits on the wrist and buzzes when the phone does something in the pocket? A fully-fledged phone it itself? Or, like the Galaxy Gear, something in between?
We've got all kinds of devices pretending to be a smartwatch, and there's definitely an interest from consumers, if not a desire, for such a thing strapped to the wrist.
There was clamour for the LG GD510, the real 'Dick Tracy' smartwatch that was essentially a feature phone on a wrist, allowing you to make calls and send texts.
It was thoroughly rubbish as a phone replacement, yet sold out the world over.
And then there's the Pebble, a watch that's meant to sit neatly next to your smartphone and give notifications and extra information when needed - a huge hit on Kickstarter, it's been met with tepid reviews yet the makers still struggle to meet demand.
So when Samsung, the world's biggest supplier of smartphones, makes a device that supplements the Galaxy Note 3 and the Galaxy S4 (thanks to the latest update) we should all sit up and take notice, right?
The Gear is certainly an attractive device, a clever mix of metal and rubber that gives it a really solid feel. It has to do that, as you'll be forking out £299 (although the price has dropped to around £250 if you shop around in the UK) or $299 (Around AUS$324) for the privilege of owning one.
And given it won't function without it, you'd be a fool to pick up a Gear without a companion Samsung device.
Some retailers have taken the Gear off sale it seems since its launch too - don't hold out a lot of hope for this being a device with a rich support history.
Despite also packing a 1.9MP camera, the Gear doesn't feel overly cumbersome on the wrist. It's a little on the large side to accommodate the 1.6-inch Super AMOLED 320 x 320 resolution screen, which means it will catch on most clothing, but it's not in the realms of sports watches that runners love to lug around on marathons.
The clasp is strong, so the fit is generally snug enough, although it can get a little tight over the course of the day - but that's an issue most watches struggle with. The problem there is that you can't change the strap on the Gear as it has the camera stuck inside - so best make sure it's a decent fit before purchase.
There's only one button on the outside, which is the power / function key. A tap of this will turn the device on, but a long press or double tap will also make the Gear perform other tasks, which you can choose yourself. These are a little limited, but we like that Samsung has tried to maximise the lack of tappable space on the screen in this way.
We were a little surprised by the method of charging: the Galaxy Gear comes with a plastic case which you strap the watch into and plug a standard microUSB cable into the back of. This means that you have to remember to bring the charging case with you at all times, and can't rely on anyone having a spare charger when caught short.
However, the addition of a port on the watch would have likely increased size too much, so we can get on board with this compromise, although it can still be incredibly frustrating.
The case also comes with NFC connectivity, so when pairing your Note 3 (or Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note 2 in the coming weeks... the former's Android update is being particularly troublesome) you just tap the handset to the back of the case and the pairing is taken care of simply, which again reduces heft in the watch.
Do we like the design of the Galaxy Gear? It's a little chunky and the screws on the front of the watch look like they're trying a little too hard to make it look like an expensive wrist-watch... which we suppose it is.
But Samsung needs to give a premium air for something that costs so much to buy, so we'll say the design makes a lot of sense here.
The Samsung Galaxy Gear is a watch that comes with a different kind of need: to last only a day or two (according to Samsung) and be operated with fingers, rather than a simple glance down once in a while.
We were initially annoyed that a double tap on the screen wouldn't wake the Gear up, but then we found that simple raising the watch up to your eyeline will cause it to activate, which is pretty cool. It's a little too erratic in use, which irritated us somewhat, and caused us to need to be too deliberate in our arm raising action to just see the time.
It's also going to annoy a lot of people in the cinema if you move your arm in the wrong way, so be ready for that. Or just turn the feature off.
As you'll realise throughout the review, one of the main tasks with the Galaxy Gear is using it without looking like a huge fool, and swinging one's arm back and forth to just see whether it's time for Parks and Recreation doesn't help that image.
In terms of using the Galaxy Gear, it's all very easy to work out for yourself. The main thing to do is swipe left and right, bringing the chance to look at notifications, control music, start S Voice to make a note and more. Swiping down will start the camera, and upwards will get you to the dial pad so you can make calls using the device.
The 800MHz processor inside generally does a good job of powering things along with the Gear, although we have to say that it's too slow to register inputs compared to modern smartphones. There's a definite lag between command and action, and we'd expect more from Samsung.
Inputs don't always register, and the layout of the apps isn't the most intuitive. Like most things on the Gear, you'll need to use the Gear Manager app that you'll install on first use with the Note 3 (or Galaxy S4), and from there you can shift around the order of the elements within the phone.
However, some things are hardwired to the device, so you can't place notifications anywhere other than to the right of the main clock display. This is rather annoying if you want your media controls to be there, but we can see why Samsung is trying to preserve the most important function of the device.
We thought we'd cracked the issue with the ability to change the clock face - you can either have analogue options in a variety of colours, or a digital clock with an app underneath.
You can see how many steps you've taken each time you turn the watch on, or the weather, or - as we were quite happy to see - set shortcuts to apps. We were looking forward to having notifications, music control and the weather all in one place, as these are the things we can see most people using the Gear for.
However, only the music controller was present as an option, which meant there was a real missed opportunity. We'd even have loved to see a full music control widget underneath the clock, but it wasn't to be. Instead you'll need to tap the miniature icon just to get into your tunes, and the tapping accuracy was too low, registering only every second press.
There are other issues too: if you turn on your phone using only the 'arm raising' method, you'll get back to the clockface each time. However, if you're trying to control music each time, you'll need to keep swiping to the app. This doesn't happen if you press the power button, as this will take you back to the last-used app.
It's nice Samsung is preserving the time functionality, but when a device doesn't do what you want it to, it grates.
We can see what Samsung is trying to do with the interface on the Gear, but it doesn't work well enough. Slow at times, hard to work out and generally too locked down, it's a massive step back from the customisability of Android that we're used to on Samsung devices.
Calling and messaging
The Samsung Galaxy Gear is designed to be a device that functions far above other smartwatches on the market at the moment. For instance, it's got a microphone, a speaker and the ability to read messages from a variety of sources.
In short, for the higher price, Samsung is staking a claim for this to almost be a smartphone in its own right - but sadly it fails in nearly every respect.
The contacts system is OK - it drills down into your phone's address book and isn't too hard to navigate as despite the smaller screen getting to the letters on the side of the display to move quickly through the list isn't a problem at all.
A quick tap and you're taken to a cut down version of the contact profile from a phone, making it possible to do only one thing: make a phone call.
And here we get to one of the most pointless parts of the Samsung Galaxy Gear. The ability to make and receive calls with it. It's not something that any human being should ever do, unless they've had a lifelong desire to pretend a call from your partner is actually covert mission assignment to rescue a package from the local library on a matter of national importance.
The problems are many: the speaker quality isn't high, so you have to keep moving it closer to your ear to hear what's being said before returning it to your mouth to chat back.
Everyone can hear parts of your conversation, which makes privacy impossible. Talking in anything other than a quiet environment isn't really possible, with it clearly obvious you're not talking on a standard smartphone.
And the worst bit: you have to essentially hold a pretend phone to your head to make the call. We took to carrying a stapler around to pretend we were talking to that, rather than the watch on our wrist.
It's preferable to look unhinged than admit you're too lazy to take your phone out of your pocket.
We're not saying that the Gear's ability to register calls is a bad thing - twice we had walked away from our phone only to be notified we had a call that we could trot back to.
It's also handy to be able to dial numbers directly from the phone itself using the tiny dialpad that you call up by an upward swipe from the main clock face.
That's fine - all we need is a notification. If you buy a Gear, you'll use calling once (maybe twice in an embarrassed emergency) and that will be it. The phone is clearly close. Pull it out and use it.
From the demonic to the sublime: getting messages on the Galaxy Gear is a really nice method of checking when things are important or not. Text messages are the real winner here, as the bright and clear screen is excellent at showing you missives that fire into the phone on your pocket, and allow you to choose whether you need to reply or not.
It would be good to have set responses you could send from the Gear; for instance, if it was a simple question, you could reply with a 'Yes', 'No', 'OK' or 'What are you talking about? That's not my car' in a simple click.
However, texts are often something most don't reply to straight away (unless you're a particular type of teenager) so being able to view them in this way is cool.
The same can be said about email, although many might not realise that the Gear can do this as well as SMS. Users need to drill into the Gear Manager's notifications settings on the Note 3 and tap the option that allows emails to be shown, which means many will be confused as to why this doesn't happen out of the box.
Since launch, the Samsung Galaxy Gear has had a large update to allow it to support nearly every message notification going - in short, it mimics the power of the notifications bar on your phone on the screen, which is what it should be doing.
So this now means that Facebook Messenger, Gmail and Twitter are all present and correct. You're not going to get the same amount of information or aesthetics you'll see on the phone though - in many cases it's just a one line update, and in others (like Gmail) it adds in all the extra page furniture such as 'delete mail' before presenting you with the actual information you want.
This update feels like it's halfway between what it should be and what was needed - while it's good to be able to read updates, you often don't get the full thing and still have to drop back to the phone too often.
Thanks Gear - we dropped the best part of three hundred notes to be told when to pick up our phone. Thanks for that.
Messaging isn't terrible on the Gear at all, as it's the primary reason to buy the phone - but we've seen it implemented on many other devices, and for the most part it supports more options.
Ah, now this is a good one. The 1.9MP camera attached to the Galaxy Gear strap (called a Memographer, if you're interested) is a cool addition to the device - we just can't decide if it's worth having there or not.
On the one hand, it's a really unique feature, it works very quickly, and the convenience is brilliant. If you've got an image that you want to capture in a couple of seconds, the Gear is a great option for that.
It matters that what you're trying to snap doesn't really a great amount of detail, as the image quality isn't super high - although there are some elements we're really impressed with.
For instance, you can take Sound and Shot pictures with the Gear, activate macro mode for really close up images and even choose a 1:1 or 4:3 ratio (although we'd recommend the former as it gives a higher-res shot.
On top of that, you can shoot video in 15 second bursts, which is good for things like Vine videos.
The main drawbacks of having a camera mount of up though. For one, trying to angle your arm to take the photo isn't the easiest, and you also have to explain to people what you're up to most of the time.
There's a shutter sound to make sure that people can tell that you're being a super spy too, and that noise can't be turned off either. This is probably a good thing, but causes embarrassment when you're just playing with the camera to see what it can do.
There's also the point that it raises the cost of the Gear quite a lot, and that's one of the biggest gripes we have with the device.
The convenience of the camera is really good, and although the quality is mostly rather poor, it's better to have a poor camera helping you snap a moment than none at all.
Transferring the pictures is good, as you can either set it to manually do so on your command (enabled by default) or have them automatically get sent to the Note 3 when taken. You can even set it so this only happens when the Gear is charging, thus saving that vital battery power.
Annoyingly you're taken to the gallery of your phone as soon as you tap on the notification to let you know the transfer has worked - this is a hotch potch of tiles that just looks messy, and can take ages to find the Galaxy Gear folder if you've got Facebook or Dropbox pics enabled.
Why can't it just show the picture straight away when you tap on the notification?
Battery and Gear Manager
Battery life on the Samsung Galaxy Gear is actually much more impressive than Samsung is making out.
We've got a very odd situation here - a brand has actually underestimated battery life in a bid to make sure it doesn't get caught out with poor juice times, meaning the original claim of 25 hours is wildly unfair.
In practice, you can go at least two days without needing to charge the Galaxy Gear, and it will probably last longer than that.
Let's give an indication of usage: having the watch sporadically turning on, always connected to the Note 3, uploading every snap automatically to the phone, installing multiple apps on it, and generally poking around frequently led to a drop of 66% in just over 38 hours.
We can imagine that it will last even longer as time goes on and you fumble with the device less and less, so in short, we're pretty darn impressed with the life of this thing.
The screen even has an ability to boost its brightness for outdoor mode, and this didn't even show any poor effect on the battery life in general use.
It's obvious that having no Wi-Fi, no GPS and not even music playing from it will save a lot of energy, but the haptic feedback is strong, and if you've got the automatic updates turned on (where lifting your arm shows the time) this can fire the screen rather regularly.
The update hasn't had a noticeable effect on battery life, other than to slightly extend it a little further - this is even better given it was definitely more attractive to play with the watch given the notification changes.
Galaxy Gear Manager
Samsung has decided that on-device working isn't the way forward when it comes to managing settings and such, so it lumped on the ability to do all of this through the Gear Manager, which is located on your phone.
You can access this at any time throughout use, as it's a pervasive icon in the notifications bar of your phone. Once in, you're treated to a '70s throwback look, with brown adorning most of the app.
It's pretty fully featured, and sticks to Samsung's 'make it do so much that you'll never find all the settings' approach. Which we have to say we MUCH prefer over Apple or Microsoft's simplistic menus.
You can do everything in here from setting whether social networks pop up, to controlling third party apps, to entering the Galaxy Gear section of the Samsung Apps hub and more.
It's a pretty simple system to work out, and we especially like the face you can change the clock face in so many ways, including the ability to append favourite apps to the bottom of one of the digital options.
It's rare we like controlling software so much on a secondary device, but in this case there's everything you need and more, as long as you know where to look.
This is also the place to 'Find my Gear', allowing you to ring the phone and wake up your other half when you've accidentally left it on their bedside table and you're trying to stumble off to work in the pitch black but realise you'll probably need the Gear if you're going to review it.
The update to the Galaxy Gear comes with an update to the Manager too, but there's nothing to this apart from a much longer list of notifications you can allow to be shoved to the watch. You can choose any app that works in the notifications bar, so while it can take ages to tag the things you want, it's worth the effort.
The manager is still to hard to use in our opinion though - things like notification management should be front and centre rather than being hidden away.
Hands on pics
The Samsung Galaxy Gear is a device that's setting a trend. It's one of the world's biggest electronics firms making a statement and letting the world know that it's ready to embrace wearable technology in a way that others haven't so far.
There's a lot to question here, be it the heft, the price or the overall point of the device, but Samsung has certainly put the effort in to make sure that it's at least made a big splash.
The Galaxy Gear looks the part as a serious piece of technology, and kind of feels like it justifies the price tag. The screws on the front of the device are a nice touch, the operation is fairly intuitive and the camera being there for when you want it is nice.
A lot of what Samsung has done in terms of its own apps work well in the right conditions - being able to tell your wrist to set up a meeting and for it to happen is pretty neat.
Voice memos are fun, the slick operation between phone and Gear is impressive and even the range of colours is pleasing too.
The update to messaging notifications has turned a frown upside down, bringing a lot more functionality to an otherwise relatively pointless novelty.
Sadly for Samsung, it's tried to be a little too Apple here. We bemoan that brand for being overly expensive without delivering enough, and that's what Samsung has done here.
The price is just too high. There's no two ways about it. Sure, you got a discount when you get it with the Note 3, but that doesn't happen with the S4, or for those with a Galaxy S3 or Note 2, so you can't justify spending all that money on a unit like this.
It's weird to be so against recommending a product when it doesn't have any serious operational flaws - it's just not good enough for the price. We can't see the necessity for half the stuff on board; and most of the third party apps do nothing to enhance the premium feel.
The layout of the interface is too locked down for our tastes, and the way the Gear responds to the finger is too inaccurate and far too clunky to be considered intuitive.
We're used to Samsung being brilliant at just this, but with a smaller screen to work with, it really hasn't managed to repeat the trick.
We're pretty disappointed with the Gear, as the first couple of hours that we spent with it were full of quiet gadget joy. The slick design, the vivid display, the amount of power that seemed to be strapped to the wrist was entrancing.
But we can't help but think that anyone who might have gone for a cheaper holiday or foresaken food for a while to afford one of these wouldn't feel like the sacrifice had been worth it.
The Galaxy Gear doesn't do anything terribly, it just fails to impress at nearly every turn. We're not sure what Samsung is up to here, as it's basically given Apple an open goal to aim at with the iWatch.
The Gear could have looked this good, stripped out the camera, speaker and call functionality, made a bit more effort on the apps at launch and sold it for a third of the cost, and it would have certainly have had a hit on its hands.
The smartwatch is an attractive option, and the changes to the notification problems are really welcome - with that in mind we're happy to upgrade the score somewhat, although it's still nowhere near a product we'd recommend.
We applaud Samsung for trying to be innovative in the space once again, but the Galaxy Gear needs a Galaxy Gear Mini as soon as possible, with a lower price tag to really make it an attractive proposition.