Although I joke about the motives of mad scientists at the helm of the rugged and revolutionary Research and Development departments for our most beloved tech companies, I have to go on record. I really like the idea of a “SmartWatch”. Protective cases for Smartphones are rarely appealing and do more to conceal the aesthetic allure of our favorite mobiles than accentuate them. I can be clumsy over the course of a meat-grinding day to crunch out editorials. Anything that helps me reach for my phone less, will help preserve the longevity of the device without having to rely on some butt-ugly cheap plastic or faux leather case.
On paper, the concept of new devices like the Samsung Galaxy Gear are the product of sound thinking. Vibration can be better felt and thusly rendered less audible and more subtle if coming from a device placed directly on your skin. Glancing down at a watch face and then tapping it to check and answer/decline a call or notification is more discrete for those attending board meetings and such or anyone simply looking to be less obvious with their mobile device behavior.
The Galaxy Gear is a promising device. It serves as a Bluetooth connected conduit between you and your Smartphone providing brief notifications on the watch face for you to then determine if drawing your gun…er Smartphone is really necessary. Again, it’s promising. But you know what they say about promises. It’s time to fire up your editorial polygraph. It’s Galaxy Gear First Impressions beginning with…
1. Android 4.3 or Bust
To be a Galaxy Gear owner a massive amount of commitment is required, right out the gate. Galaxy Gear support is baked into Android Jelly Bean 4.3. Currently, here in the States, the Galaxy Note 3 is the only device supporting the Gear. Roll out…er, more the trickle is hitting some devices internationally. But we Yanks will have to wait until later parts of November before we feel the drizzle. Lets hope it hits waves of devices at once. Early adopters are forced to wait with their glorified timepieces or shell out for a Galaxy Note 3.
2. Never Judge A Book By Its Cover
The Samsung Galaxy Gear is a good looking device. I know many feared it would be obese. It’s definitely heavier (2.60 oz) than your average watch–but only slightly. The Spartan yet dapper looks are immediately apparent without being gaudy or overly flamboyant. The unit sent to us was the default Jet Black. But there are other options in Lime Green, Oatmeal Beige, Rose Gold, Orange and Mocha Gray. Make note, the color options are for the band only. The face and back of the timepiece itself are always the same on each unit. The face has a brushed chrome look around the 1.6 inch Super AMOLED display at 320 x 320 . The remaining back is black plastic, housing the 800Mhz CPU, 4gb storage and 512mb of memory. This is industrial precision meets modern geek styling. It’s sharp looking without appearing like a thing from a time forgotten.
3. A Not So Secret Spy Camera
Surprisingly, the biggest oddity is the large pimple-like protrusion on the wristband above the top of the watch face. This is the 1.9mp camera, which can also capture a few seconds of HD 720p video.
If worn traditionally with the face atop your wrist, you can snap pictures in relative secret–if that’s your thing–before someone notices the raised cyst-like lens staring at them. There is also a single physical button on the top right side of the watch, used for powering on/off and other functions.
4. A Painful Setup
The setup is far less attractive than the appearance itself. You have to set the device in its docking/charging cradle. Connect the cradle to the AC adapter charger to give it juice. Once fully charged, the unit must stay in the cradle. Download Galaxy Gear Manager app to your Galaxy Note 3. This app is where you will adjust Gear settings and download supported apps for your Gear. Now you can turn the Galaxy Gear on. You will be asked to flip on the NFC radio on the provided Galaxy Note 3. A tap of the Note 3 to the back of the charging cradle began the Galaxy Gear Manager installation process on the Gear watch.
Now the two devices need to be paired using Bluetooth 4.0. Activate Bluetooth on the Note 3 and tap the back of it to the Gear’s charging cradle. Now select the Galaxy Gear from the onscreen list of BT devices. Confirm the pin code, accept the extensive EULA. The Galaxy Gear Manager should now list the device as “Connected”.
5. Devils in the Software
Managing Gear apps, downloading new ones and adjusting settings are governed in the Galaxy Gear Manager phone app. I found some fun and cool apps but nothing must-have or anything that really made the watch more enjoyable from its default state and configuration. In fact the phone is astonishingly limited in its functionality beyond telling the time. You can receive notifications for email, text messages, phone calls, weather, Google Now, Google+, phone calls, alarm and calendar. Notifications are annoyingly limited often telling you to look at your Smartphone to “see details” like who sent the message any message contents. This is inconsistent from app-to-app. The Gmail app doesn’t show a sender’s name. But the “Email” app does. Weird!
I was also taken aback by the lack of a native alarm on this watch. It will notify you of alarms set from your Smartphone. But there is no alarm applications. In its place are a Timer app, one for Stopwatch functions and a pedometer app. Other apps found natively on the Gear watch are a Gallery to view pics and videos captured, Voice Memo, remote media controller for your Smartphone, Weather, Calendar/Scheduler, Camera and a dialer for making phone calls. The calls, of course, are routed through your Smartphone with the Gear acting as an informative Bluetooth device.
Adding a bit of insult to injury… You can only reply to text messages via the S Voice app. S Voice is pretty strong, however. You must speak clearly and with volume but it works well to initiate calls, text, playing music, mapping routes and more. But on any day where surrounding ambient sound threatens to drown out your best S Voice attempts, it would be nice if we could pull up a mini keypad to type text replies.
6. Sounds Great on Paper
I reiterate; on paper the idea of a SmartWatch is sound for all the reasons stated above. Yet the apps are holding the thing back. Without telling me who’s emailing, or “hanging out” or whatever… I’m left to dig for my phone and find out the traditional way. It’s creating more steps rather than circumventing them or eliminating them altogether. Aside from being a timepiece, certain go-to experiences are left flat. It’s not an ideal phone or watch. There is a receiver below the face of the watch and a speaker on the outside portion of the clasp. I could barely hear anyone on a call using the speaker. Callers also had trouble hearing me unless I was indoors and in a relatively quiet setting. As merely a conduit, the Galaxy Gear is expecting you to use a Bluetooth earpiece or headphones for the best case use-scenario.
Succinctly put, the Galaxy Gear adds more steps and hikes the cost of your garden variety mobile experience. The watch is sharp looking and tells the time just fine. I like that it’s smart enough to know when I’m sitting upright and looking at the face, as that causes the Super AMOLED display to spring to life. The UI is super simple and navigating is genius where swiping, tapping or double tapping the screen leads to a ton of intuitive functions. Still I can’t get behind the product due to a number of fundamental missteps mentioned and for $300 it screams of Samsung R&D ironically not knowing “what time is.”