Samsung Gear 2 & Gear 2 Neo - Second Generation Gears
Wearable technology has been one of the hot talking points of 2014. This year, we've seen a throng of new smartwatches, cameras, fitness bands and other wearable gadgets from many of the biggest tech brands. Samsung was one of the first to jump on the wearables bandwagon when it launched the Galaxy Gear smartwatch last year. But while it had plenty of potential, poor battery life, some questionable design decisions, a limited number of apps, and a high price point meant that the $488 accessory never really caught on. Nevertheless, less than six months later, Samsung unveiled not one, but two new and improved successors to the Galaxy Gear at MWC 2014: the Gear 2, and the cheaper Gear 2 Neo (three if you include the Gear Fit). Ditching Android for Tizen OS, the second generation Gears sport a number of new upgrades, including a heart rate monitor and a built-in fitness app. But is it enough to turn the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo into a success? Let's find out.
As far as aesthetics go, the Gear 2 is mostly unchanged. Like the Galaxy Gear, the watch has a brushed metal housing, while the strap is made of a plastic material with the same metal deployment clasp mechanism as before. A minor, but welcome, cosmetic change is the removal of the visible screws from the top of the watch face. One of the big design improvements for the Gear 2 is that the microphone and camera modules are now housed in the watch itself - as they should have been from the start - so the strap is just a piece of plastic, and can easily be replaced with any standard 22mm watch strap.
Samsung has also wisely relocated the home button from the side of the watch, to below the display, where it's much easier to press. It acts just like it does on Samsung's smartphones, turning the screen on and off, and returning you to the main watch screen from any menu.
As for the Gear 2 Neo, it is essentially the same device, but without the camera module and with a black plastic body instead of the brushed metal.
Beyond the aesthetic changes, both the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo are now IP67 rated - up from IP55 on the Galaxy Gear - which makes them dust resistant and waterproof up to a depth of one meter for up to thirty minutes.
The Gear 2 retains the same 1.63-inch Super AMOLED display with a 320 x 320 pixel resolution as the Galaxy Gear. Samsung's smartphones boast some of the best displays around and that trend certainly continues with its wearables. The watch’s screen is sharp enough to comfortably read text notifications and bright enough to make viewing in direct sunlight clear and defined. Color reproduction is good, but not quite as vivid as Samsung's smartphone displays. Like the original Galaxy Gear, the Gear 2 display turns off when not in use. An auto screen-on sensor activates when you lift your wrist up to look at the display, but is quite sensitive and tends to turn on with any arm movement - bad news if you swing your arms while walking as it will drain the battery fairly quickly. There's also a slight delay for the display to turn on, which can be frustrating when you just want to know what time it is.
Both the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo are compatible with 20 Samsung devices:
Compatible smartphones: Galaxy S5, Galaxy Note 3, Galaxy Grand 2, Galaxy S4 Mini, Galaxy S4 Active, Galaxy S4 Zoom, Galaxy S4, Galaxy Mega 6.3, Galaxy Mega 5.8, Galaxy Note II and Galaxy S III.
Compatible tablets: Galaxy Tab 4 10.1, Galaxy Tab 4 8.0, Galaxy Tab 4 7.0, Galaxy Tab Pro 12.2, Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1, Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4, Galaxy NotePRO 12.2 and Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition).
All devices connect to the Gear smartwatch via Bluetooth, and you'll also need to download Samsung's Gear Manager app from Samsung's own store.
Despite the switch to Tizen OS, the Gear Manager app is relatively unchanged. Most settings can be adjusted and customized here, including watch faces and colors. You can of course also adjust these settings from the watch itself, but it's far easier doing it on your smartphone.
For the most part, the switch from Android to Tizen won't be noticeable to users - the UI, and menu layouts, including all of the fonts and icons, look exactly the same. What might be frustrating is when users of the original Galaxy Gear find out that all of their existing Gear apps won't work with the Gear 2, thanks to the new Tizen OS. As a lack of apps was one of the major problems with the Galaxy Gear, it's unfortunate that any progress made since then has now been undone, essentially returning the Gear ecosystem back to step one.
On the plus side, while you're waiting for new apps for the Gear 2, Samsung has added a number of useful native apps, including a stop watch, phone dialer, media controller, sleep tracker, and native music player. Both the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo have 4GB of internal memory, so you can load them up with songs and play music via Bluetooth earphones without needing your smartphone in range - or if you're really desperate, through the Gear 2's own tiny speaker. Both watches also have a built-in IR blaster, which you can use to control your TV, although don't expect to do anything fancy as this is mainly limited to changing the channel and volume.
The most exciting new app on the Gear 2 is the Exercise app, which is basically a stripped-down version of the S Health app found on the Galaxy S5. You can tell the app what kind of exercise you're doing - walking, jogging, hiking, or bike riding, but not swimming unfortunately, despite the IP67 rating - and it will automatically track your heart rate, distance traveled and calories burned.
The app will also automatically sync your data with the S Health app if you have it installed on your smartphone. In our testing with the fitness app, the pedometer seemed accurate enough, but the heart rate monitor was a bit hit or miss. While it generally was able to produce a believable reading, any movement or even noise (the watch warns you to remain still and quiet during the process) often results in a failure message. Back to back readings can also fluctuate quite wildly, which raises some concerns over its accuracy.
The camera module was one of the unique features that set the Galaxy Gear apart from other smartwatches and the Gear 2 remains one of the only smartwatches on the market with a built-in camera. Unfortunately, the 2MP module is only a negligible improvement over the 1.9MP shooter from the first Gear and there's still not very much you can do with it. In my daily usage I found it occasionally useful for taking quick snapshots of things if I just want to remember something for later and quality isn't a concern - like a website URL. Other than that, it's generally a better idea to whip out your smartphone, which is almost certainly going to have a better camera.
Of course, there is the somewhat dubious benefit that the watch's camera is more discrete to use than your smartphone, so if you're trying to remain incognito while taking a picture of something (or someone), the Gear 2 might be the best choice. Having said that, you still have to raise the watch up to line up the very conspicuous camera lens - and don't forget to disable the loud beep and shutter sound too - so realistically, you're unlikely to get away with any international espionage with the Gear 2.
One of the biggest problems with the original Gear was its horrendous battery life, estimated by Samsung itself as "about a day". Surprisingly, despite both the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo being fitted with an even smaller 300mAh battery (compared to 315mAh on the Galaxy Gear), battery life is actually much improved. We only had to recharge both devices after about three days - although we still found this to be a bit too often for convenience. The charging process itself is also slightly improved, as the awkward charging cradle has been downsized to a simple dock that clips onto the back of the watch, although we still would have preferred wireless charging or a micro-USB port on the watch itself.
The good news is that Samsung has addressed some of the major issues that plagued the original Galaxy Gear. Battery life is much improved, and it comes with enough native apps to make it a genuinely useful device, even without much of an app ecosystem. The design is much improved, with the home button on the front, and the camera and microphone modules squeezed into the watch itself. Somehow, Samsung also fitted a heart rate monitor onto the back of it, and should definitely be applauded for squeezing so much hardware into such a tiny space.
The bad news is, for everything the Gear 2 can do, it just doesn't do anything well enough to justify its S$398 price. The camera module isn't very useful, and you're better off using your smartphone almost every time. If Samsung could somehow squeeze a smartphone-quality camera into the next high-end Gear, it might have a unique killer feature, but right now the camera is just a novelty. The exercise features are usable, but the heart rate monitor doesn't seem accurate enough, and if fitness is your top priority, you're probably better off with a lighter, dedicated fitness band (or the Gear Fit). Samsung's native apps are a good start, but Samsung will need to lure more developers over to Tizen to give the Gear 2 the app support it needs to compete with other smartwatches. It's also worth noting that Google will be pushing its own Android Wear smartwatch this year, and developers are likely to prefer that platform for its familiarity and potentially larger user base.
All things considered, while the Gear 2 is a definite upgrade from the original, it still feels too much like an expensive toy. If you really have to get one, opt for the camera-less Gear 2 Neo for its much lower $298 price - although we still find that a little steep given where the new Gear devices stand today in terms of performance and usability.