Neither Here nor There
Samsung officially announced the Galaxy Gear last month at IFA 2013 in Berlin alongside the Galaxy Note 3. Samsung is not the first in this industry; in fact it is the second Android handset maker after Sony.
The Japanese company launched its third generation device, the Smart Watch 2 in June 2013, which we had a first looks session last month. Is the Samsung Galaxy Gear a better smart watch? Does it offer a better smart watch experience? Let's find out in this review. Here's a quick look at the specs of the Galaxy Gear: -
Key Highlights of the Samsung Galaxy Gear
Design & Handling
(Note: We've done a hands-on article with the Samsung Galaxy Gear, so we'll summarize the key points here instead of going into great length again.)
Unlike the elegant Sony Smart Watch 2, Samsung opts for a more industrial design for the Galaxy Gear, which in our opinion, looks just fine. While there is no doubt that it looks chunky, the metallic front plate on the Galaxy Gear does give it a very solid look and feel.
Although the four visible screws at each corner of the display enhances the industrial design considerably, we feel they are quite an eyesore, so much so that it feels as though the watch was designed for ease of assembly than aesthetics. In the end, we feel the Galaxy Gear would have looked much better if Samsung has hidden them on the back plate. However, to its credit, the Galaxy Gear's rubber wrist band and metal fold-over clasp were higher in quality and more well-designed if compared to that of the Pebble Watch.
With a weight of 73g, the Galaxy Gear may feel a tad heavy for users with smaller wrists and does not feel as comfortable as wearing the Smart Watch 2 or the Pebble Watch. Male users should have no issues wearing the Galaxy Gear since most conventional watches catered for them feature chunky designs like the Galaxy Gear. However on a female, we don't think the chunkiness of the watch would make a good fashion statement.
1.63-inch Super AMOLED Screen
Like its flagship smartphones, the Galaxy Gear sports a Super AMOLED screen. It measures 1.63-inch and has a resolution of 320 x 320 pixels. In comparison, the Sony Smart Watch 2 has a 1.6-inch LCD display with a slightly lower resolution of 220 x 176 pixels. The Pebble Watch, on the other hand, is equipped with a smaller black and white 1.26-inch transflective LCD display with a resolution of only 144 x 168 pixels.
Although measuring at only 1.63-inch, the screen provides just enough space for your finger to conveniently swipe and navigate the interface on the Galaxy Gear. We will discuss more on the swipe gestures in the next section. Sunlight legibility of the Galaxy Gear is poor; it is hard to see what's on the screen under direct sunlight although you can negate this issue slightly by increasing the screen brightness.
Positioned as a perfect companion device that further integrates the Galaxy experience, the Galaxy Gear incorporates some unique features that are not found on competing smart watches.
Swipe and Tap Gestures
As with any touch screen devices, you swipe left or right to navigate the different home screens on the Galaxy Gear. There are also a series of other swipe gestures that you should remember when using the Galaxy Gear. They are:
- Swipe downwards from the top of the display to activate the camera function of the Galaxy Gear. Do note that the screen must be turned on before executing this action, and the action is only supported on the default clock screen.
- Swipe upwards from the bottom of the display to open Dialer. It only works on the idle clock screen.
- Swipe downwards from the top of the display in any app to go back to the previous screen.
There are also two touch gestures that you must know in order to operate the Galaxy Gear.
- Double tap on any screen with two fingers to access the brightness and volume controls, and show the Bluetooth and battery status.
- Tap and hold any screen with two fingers to view the list of recently used apps.
Apps Optimized for the Galaxy Gear
At launch, Samsung promised that there would be at least 70 apps optimized for use on the Galaxy Gear. At point of publication, we only managed to find a total of 37 apps listed under Samsung Apps. We find the limited number of apps available for the Galaxy Gear a bit underwhelming and there's no way of knowing what other apps are in the pipeline. The breakdown of apps currently available is as follows:
|Entertainment||Health & Fitness||Lifestyle||Social Networking||Utilities||Clock|
|QuickSpinthebottle||QuickSpeedometer||Path||Kakao Talk||D-Day Notification||Neon: Digital Watch|
|QuickDice||MyFitnessPal||Vivino Wine Scanner||Snapchat||Vivino Wine Scanner||Chocolate: Analog Watch|
|RadiON||EasilyDo Smart Assistant||LINE||RadiON||Mosaic: Digital Watch|
|Life360||Path||Life360||Colorful D-Day Watch|
|MyFitnessPal||ChatON||Mini Gallery||Pattern: Digital Watch|
|Glympse||Banjo||Neon: Digital Watch||Diamond: Analog Watch|
|Highlight||EasilyDo Smart Assistant||LED Alarm||Metalholic D-Day Watch|
|正点闹钟||Glympse||Chocolate: Analog Watch||Antique: Analog Watch|
|RunKeeper||Mosaic: Digital Watch||正点闹钟|
|Tweet Quickview||Colorful D-Day Watch||Simple Alarm|
|Pattern: Digital Watch|
|Diamond: Analog Watch|
|Metalholic D-Day Watch|
|Antique: Analog Watch|
To download and use these apps, you must first install the Gear manager on the Galaxy Note 3 which is the only device in the market that supports it. The other Samsung Galaxy devices - the Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition), Galaxy Note II, Galaxy S4, and Galaxy S III - can be used with the Galaxy Gear after a firmware update later this month. There are two ways to download the Gear manager on the Galaxy Note 3. They are:
- Enable NFC on the Galaxy Note 3 and tap the back of the device against the back of the charging cradle.
- Sign up for a Samsung account and search for the Galaxy Gear app in Samsung Apps.
What You Can Do with Gear Manager App
The home screen of the Gear Manager consists of 7 sections. They are:
- Paired Gear - this informs you of the status of the connection between the Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy Gear
- Clocks - there are 9 preloaded clock faces. Each clock face has its own settings, with the more practical ones (e.g. shortcut clock) having more settings for you to customize.
- My Apps - this gives you an overview of the apps on the Galaxy Gear. It is categorized into three tabs: Favorites, Installed Apps and Featured. In the favorite tab, you can rearrange the apps according to your preferences.
- Samsung Apps - a one-touch access to the apps that are optimized for use on the Galaxy Gear
- Find my Gear - this feature will come in handy if you forget where you place your Gear. The Gear will play a sound and the screen will be turned on. We tried activating this feature and found the sound to be decently loud. However, you need to be within Bluetooth transmission range for this to work.
- Settings - This is one of the most important sections that you should pay attention to. You can set the Gear to auto unlock the paired smartphone or tablet, select the type of notifications to receive (alarm, ChatON, Email, Evernote, Facebook, Gmail, Google Now, Incoming Call, Messages, Missed Call, S Planner, Twitter, Weather Widget), Smart Relay where you can view the content full screen on your device when you pick it up, and wake-up gesture to turn on the screen of the Gear whenever your arm is raised.
What You Can Do on the Galaxy Gear
Like most first generation smart watches, the Galaxy Gear will notify you of incoming calls, text messages, emails, notifications from social networking sites and music control. In addition, due to the incorporation of a camera and a speaker at the end of the clasp, the Galaxy Gear is able to carry out hands-free calls and take photos.
Hands-free answering and calling is a hit and miss affair. During our test trials, it took a couple of attempts before the Galaxy Gear responded to our voice commands of accepting or rejecting a call. In addition, voice conversations on the Galaxy Gear through its speaker may sound fine in an enclosed area.
However, we cannot say the same if it is carried out in a more noisy environment (e.g. outdoors). In addition, it does seem rather odd for you to raise the watch closer to your ear to listen to what the other party is saying, and is even more awkward if you're seen "talking" to your watch in public. Up till today, we have yet to see Siri take off on the iPhones in Singapore, and we highly doubt the hands-free feature will be maximized on the Galaxy Gear.
What irked us the most is the notification system on the Galaxy Gear. It's odd that Samsung did not put in as much effort in developing this crucial aspect. Text messages and emails from the default Email app can be read in full or given a preview, but do not expect notifications from third party apps such as Facebook to tell you anything more than a mere on-screen prompt urging you to unlock your phone to check.
This brings us to the most important question - what use does the Galaxy Gear, as a companion device that extends the Galaxy experience, has when you have to whip out the phone from wherever it is to check the contents of the notifications? How is it different from having the phone notify you of the notifications in the first place?
It is even more disturbing when you consider that the Pebble Watch, a Kickstarter project, is far more advanced than Samsung when it comes to the notification system. The Pebble Watch, at the very least, allows you to view the contents of Facebook notifications, and you can decide whether to respond to the comments or hold it off for later.
Photography and Videography on the Galaxy Gear - A First for a Mass Market Smart Watch
Unlike the Pebble Watch and Sony Smart Watch 2, the Galaxy Gear is able to take photos and record videos using its 1.9-megapixel camera. For photography, you can select the focus mode (auto or macro), the photo size (1,392 x 1,392 pixels or 1,280 x 960 pixels), sound & shot and whether to have the Galaxy Gear signature appear at the bottom right corner of the photo.
You can also set whether to transfer the photos taken with the Galaxy Gear automatically, manually or when charging to the Galaxy Note 3. This option can be accessed via the Gear Manager app under My Apps > Installed Apps > Camera > Data Transfer. The transfer of photos will take only a few seconds for each image.
For video recording, you are only limited to 15 seconds. Similar to photography, you can choose between two video sizes: 1,280 x 720 pixels (16:9) or 640 x 640 pixels (1:1). To take picture or videos, all you need to do is to tap on the screen. Due to privacy concerns, Samsung has decided to add a shutter sound whenever you use the camera to snap a photo or record a video.
As a guide to consumers who are planning to take pictures and record videos on the Galaxy Gear, these are the estimated storage space needed for each photo and video size (may vary depending on the subject):
- 15-second video (640 x 640 pixels): 7.4MB
- 15-second video (1,280 x 720 pixels): 21.5MB
- Photo size of 1,392 x 1,392 pixels: 459KB
- Photo size of 1,280 x 960 pixels: 205KB
Performance and Battery Life
The Galaxy Gear is powered by a single-core 800MHz processor and 512MB RAM. During day-to-day usage, navigation on the Galaxy Gear was generally smooth although we did encountered some slight lags when browsing through pictures in the Gallery and viewing notifications.
Samsung claims that the built-in 315mAh battery is able to last a day of usage. In reality, we were able to squeeze out about 28 hours of moderate usage. The usage scenario includes using the stopwatch function for a few minutes in the gym, taking several photos and recording four videos. Since most of the notifications had to be read on the Galaxy Note 3, we wouldn't say that the Galaxy Gear was intensively used. However, if you're just going to use the Galaxy Gear mainly as a watch, we think its possible to get more out of the watch in a single charge. Even though it lasts a whole day of usage without charging, we find the process too troublesome as it requires a special charging cradle that you clamp onto the watch. Without it, you'll not be able to charge it. It's also not possible to operate the watch during the charging process.
The different menu settings and features in the Galaxy Gear may prove to be a little overwhelming for some consumers. For example, the swipe and tap gestures can pose a steep learning curve for people who are not used to this navigation style on a watch. The user experience reminds us of the Galaxy S4, where there are too many features packed into a device that makes it a challenge to use at times.
Does the Galaxy Gear provide a different or unique user experience from the other smart watches in the market? Our answer is a solid no.
While Samsung deserves credit for designing a great piece of hardware, the cumbersome user experience is hard to ignore. One of the biggest deal breakers we feel about the Galaxy Gear is the fact that it currently only works with the Galaxy Note 3. What makes the Pebble Watch so successful besides its more affordable price tag is its compatibility across Android and iOS devices.
Even if firmware updates are issued to the Galaxy S4, Galaxy Note II and other Galaxy devices, Samsung restricts the appeal and reach of the Galaxy Gear to its customer base. Although Samsung claims that the Galaxy Gear is an extension of the Galaxy experience, we feel it does not make business sense for Samsung to omit the sizeable group of consumers who are using other Android flagship devices.
As the first generation of Galaxy Gear device, we are willing to overlook the lack of apps since every new product category has to start somewhere. However, the Galaxy Gear falters in another key area - the user experience. As much as we want to use the Galaxy Gear, there weren't really much you can do with it at the moment. The swipe/tap gestures may prove to be a challenge for consumers who are not used to such navigation styles on a traditional consumer device segment like the watch.
Priced at S$488, we find the Galaxy Gear too expensive for what it has to offer at the moment. Early adopters of the wearable device can find more affordable alternatives such as the Pebble Watch, which provides a longer battery life and gives you more insights into the notifications received.