Let's be honest. The original Galaxy Gear was hardly Samsung’s proudest moment. It wasn’t exactly a looker, it was laggy, and the battery life left a lot to be desired.
Undeterred by its initial dip into the smartwatch world, Samsung has created the Gear 2. The Galaxy moniker has been ditched, as has Android – a surprising move given the excited buzz around Android Wear.
Running Samsung’s homegrown Tizen-based OS, the Gear 2 has a chance to redeem itself. But is it smart enough? And is it useful enough? Time to strap in.
READ MORE: Samsung Galaxy Gear review
A welcome makeover
It doesn't matter how clever a wearable device is - if it's ugly then you won't want to use it. No one wants to be the subject of amused smirks in a train carriage.
Thankfully Samsung has considerably improved the original Galaxy Gear's design, and you won't be ashamed to wear the Gear 2 in public.
There have been a few subtle millimetres shaved off here and there and the overall design is much cleaner than the original. It's got a thinner clasp and the pimple-like protrusion for the camera has been banished to design hell.
There is still a camera but it's now embedded into the watch face itself, sitting flush at the top alongside an IR blaster. It's a massive improvement, as is the removal of the power button on the side.
Samsung has instead opted for a home button on the front, which turns the screen on and off in addition to firing up a chosen app with a double tap.
Turn it around and you'll notice the charging pins, along with what initially appears to be another camera lens.
Thankfully wrist selfies aren't a thing (yet). What you're looking at is a heart rate sensor, similar to the one found on the rear of the Galaxy S5 and underside of the TomTom Multi-Sport Cardio. That means no more uncomfortable chest straps while you're out pounding the pavement on your lunchtime runs.
Strapped on, the Gear 2 is light and unobtrusive, as any good watch should be, and the strap should accommodate most wrists without any problems. But while the metal construction of the Gear 2 is solid, the plastic strap is noticeably creaky in quiet environments. It can be swapped it out for any standard 20mm watch strap, though.
The Gear 2 is also IP67 rated, meaning it can survive temporary submersion in up to 1m of water for thirty minutes. Most importantly that means it won’t cost you £250 when you wash the sleep from your eyes during your morning shower and realize you’re still wearing your watch.
READ MORE: Samsung Gear 2 vs Pebble Steel: the weigh-in
Display of affection
The Gear 2 retains its predecessor's 1.63in 320x320 AMOLED display and text and icons are sharp and easy to read.
While it guzzles more power than the Pebble's E Ink screen, we definitely prefer its rich colours and sharp text to the Pebble's pixellated monochrome alternative (even it does have a certain retro charm all of its own).
It's slathered in Gorilla Glass 3, too, so accidental knocks and scrapes shouldn’t pose much of a problem.
We’ve been using the Gear 2 with the display brightness set to low levels without any problems, and there’s an outdoor mode that cranks the brightness up for a short period if you’re struggling to make out what’s on the screen.
Set up and charging
The majority of wearable devices are largely useless if they’re not paired to a smartphone, and the Gear 2 is no exception. Annoyingly, Samsung has once again restricted compatibility to its own devices, which is hugely limiting, especially when compared to the likes of the Pebble (which works with both iOS and Android devices) and the Sony Smartwatch 2, which plays nice with all Android phones.
Setting up the Gear 2 itself is simple enough. You’ll need to download the Gear Manager app from the Samsung app store, and we recommend choosing the more traditional manual Bluetooth pairing method as opposed to the trickier NFC pairing option that requires the attachment of a cradle.
That’s right: The dreaded cradle is back.
The original Gear shipped with a hideously huge charging cradle that we dubbed Big Bertha.
Thankfully, Bertha’s hit Weight Watchers and dropped quite a few dress sizes, and she’s much easier to clip on and off.
We’d still prefer an in-built microUSB port, though, as you’ll be stuck for power if you’re out and about without the charging cradle. Still, the Gear does look cleaner without any ports, and we can see why Samsung’s stuck to its guns from a design point of view.
READ MORE: Samsung Galaxy S5 review
A frustrating time
You’ll be glad to hear that the Gear 2 tells the time. To increase its battery life, the screen remains off until the in-built accelerometer detects that you’ve flicked your wrist up to look at the watch face.
It’s a sensible solution – after all, there’s no need for the display to be on if you’re not looking at it – but in practice the Gear 2’s sensors are far from perfect.
Seven times out of ten we were forced to press the home button to manually turn on the screen to check the time, which is a massive pain, especially when one hand isn’t free.
It can be very frustrating, and we’ve received many an odd stare while frantically shaking our wrists in a desperate attempt to wake the screen from its slumber.
This is something that could be easily remedied by a sensitivity update, and we’d quite like to see an option for the Gear 2 to learn your individual wrist glance motions to avoid frustration in future. Here's hoping.
Samsung’s going it alone
Before we get into what the Gear 2 can actually do, we should point out that Samsung has kicked Android to the curb in favour of its own Tizen-based operating system.
Perhaps one day we’ll look back on this as the start of the Samsung break away from Google to make its own claim for the mobile OS throne. Or perhaps not, but for now we’re happy to report that Samsung’s OS is actually a massive improvement over that of the original Gear.
It’s far slicker to use and much faster without any hiccups or lag, which can also be attributed to the slightly faster 1GHz processor gracing its insides.
Thanks to the home button, navigation is simpler this time around. Swiping left and right takes you through the app screens, while swiping down takes you back a screen. You can reshuffle the icons by holding them down for a few seconds and dragging them, as you would on a smartphone.
The majority of the Gear 2’s settings are taken care of by Samsung’s Gear Manager app, which lets you cycle through the different clock face styles and lets you select custom wallpapers.
You can keep things simple with a standard digital clock face, or chuck in weather and pedometer widgets if you want more than just the time at a glance.
The Gear 2 is more than just a fancy techy timepiece, though...
Notifications and messaging
Notifications are the bread and butter of the smartwatch spread, and the Gear 2 handles them very well.
While the original Gear suffered from delays, the Gear 2 pushes new emails and text messages to your wrist instantly.
It’s incredibly useful and a great way to filter junk emails and unimportant messages - doing so while walking down the high street in the morning without ever having to slip your phone from your pocket is an immense, geeky pleasure.
Obviously the Gear 2’s screen is too small to actually reply to messages with an on-screen keyboard, so you have the option to open up the message on your connected device. You can also choose from a pre-set list of replies, or attempt to craft a reply using S Voice, although you should be prepared for a fair amount of unintentionally dodgy word substitutions and misspelling if you go with the latter.
More after the break...
Don’t be a Dick (Tracy)
S Voice is far more useful for commands such as ‘call home’, but unless you want to look like a sci-fi weirdo who talks to his watch that’s best done only when you’ve got mic-enabled headphones in.
If you don’t even want to bark voice commands at the Gear 2 then you can manually dial numbers or scroll through a list of contacts instead.
Play that funky music
In addition to controlling music playback on your connected device, the Gear 2 can store tracks locally, thanks to 4GB of on-board storage.
You’ll need the charging cradle to connect the Gear 2 to a PC via its USB port, but once that’s done it’s as easy as dragging and dropping without having to install any proprietary software. Nicely done.
Its built-in speakers are actually surprisingly decent for a watch, but unless you want to be that guy on the train, you’ll definitely want to opt for Bluetooth headphones instead.
It’s a very welcome feature and it’ll come in very handy for listening to music while you’re out for a run and can’t be bothered to cart around your hulking great phone.
Speaking of which...
Samsung is no stranger to the fitness tracking bandwagon, and as with the Galaxy S5, the Gear 2 has a heart rate sensor on its rear.
Apart from checking how nervous are, recording your heart rate can be a useful addition to your training arsenal as it can help you see whether or not you need to increase or decrease your effort levels.
You can choose to automatically track your heart rate while logging your runs, walks and cycles in the built-in exercise app, or you can use the dedicated heart rate app to check it manually.
The good news is that when it works it produces very accurate results. The bad news is that it doesn’t always work. Too often we found ourselves having to adjust the position of the Gear 2 slightly and take multiple measurements.
We'd recommend strapping the Gear 2 a little tighter to your wrist before logging a workout to ensure that it has sufficient contact with your skin to measure your heart rate.
The Gear 2 also doubles up as a pedometer and it works as well as any wrist-based step tracker we've used. But as is the case with its peers, it's not perfect. We got into our car with zero steps on the clock and after a 15-minute drive, the Gear 2 registered 17 steps.
Of course wrist movements and false steps plague all fitness bands, and in the grand scheme of things, a few hundred false step counts aren’t going to make much difference in the ten thousand or so we all take each day.
The Gear 2 naturally integrates all of this exercise, step and heart rate data into Samsung's own S Health app, which lets you analyse your stats in addition to logging calories on your connected device.
READ MORE: TomTom Multi-Sport Cardio hands-on
An acceptable camera, if you really need it
The Gear 2's camera won't be a priority for most users and we didn't find much use for it beyond impressing and/or repelling various people at the pub.
Still, if you've forked out the extra cash over the camera-less Gear 2 Neo then you probably won't be disappointed - yes, it's only 2MP. No, it doesn't have a flash. But it's a camera that's built into a watch, and its perfectly acceptable for what it is.
You can shoot pictures in the Gear 2's native square aspect ratio or opt for more traditional 16:9 or 4:3 shots if you prefer.
Photos are naturally not the sharpest and they’re next to useless in dim light, but well-lit shots are perfectly acceptable for the likes of Facebook.
The Gear 2's camera should ideally be used for spontaneous shots as it's quicker to fire up than whipping out your phone. A 2MP photo of a subject worth shooting is better than no photo at all, after all.
720p video recording is also present and it could come in quite handy for espionage situations such as recording the number plate of that car that just knocked you off your bike. Or, you know, your cat drinking from the tap.
The fun doesn't stop at cameras and hear rate sensors, though. The Gear 2 has gone all 90s with a built in IR blaster that lets you control TVs and set-top boxes with an in-built remote app.
Setup is as easy as choosing the brand of TV and firing out some test commands. The range isn't as impressive as a dedicated remote, but you should still be able to haunt a few pub tellies with it.
We rarely found a use for it beyond impressing our circle of techhead friends, but if your dad's fallen asleep with the remote in his hands and Newsnight's on then it could be a life saver.
Next to looks, battery life is the most important thing for most smartwatch users. We've got enough tech to charge everyday without throwing another device onto the pile, and a smartwatch that needs charging daily is simply not good enough.
Despite having a slightly smaller battery than the original Gear, we're happy to report that battery life on the Gear 2 is excellent and beats the original’s by miles.
We haven't had to charge it once since we received it. At the time of writing, it's on 36% and it's been connected to our Galaxy Note 3 for a solid 36 hours and counting. Impressive stuff.
That's around three days of use if you baby the battery and two and a half to two days of fairly heavy use, and the constant connection didn't seem to affect the Note 3's battery levels at all.
While its still not up there with the Pebble’s endurance, we'd pick three days and a higher resolution colour screen any day.
READ MORE: Pebble Steel review
Spot the apps
One area in which the Pebble does trounce the Gear 2 in is apps. One of our original complaints with the first Galaxy Gear device was its lack of apps, and the Gear 2 has even fewer.
Naturally any new operating system faces this problem and we expect app numbers to rise once the Gear 2 has been out for some time, but it's still disappointing for those early buyers.
There's a smattering of software and watchfaces currently available from the Samsung store, hardly any of which are worth actually downloading.
Having said that, we recommend checking out Appy Geek if you do happen to pick up a Gear 2. It's a tech-focused news reader that pushes entire stories straight to the Gear 2.
The Gear 2 is an improvement over its predecessor in every single way. It's better built, faster, more useful, and has surprisingly good battery life to boot, which is why it's earned an extra star. There's functionality here that you will get use out of every day.
But it's not without its faults. The auto screen-on sensitivity needs tweaking, the app store is lacking, and it only works with select Samsung devices. And it’s £250.
And then of course, there's the looming shadow of Android Wear. Google-powered smartwatches like the Moto 360 look stunning, and they promise to offer more functionality than the Gear 2 - or any other current smartwatch for that matter.
Promising contextually useful information powered by Google Now (not to mention turn-by-turn navigation), Android Wear smartwatches look set to bring powers to your wrist that could prove truly useful.
Buying a smartwatch like the Gear 2 now, just before the storm hits, echoes a time when people prematurely bought HD-ready TVs just before 1080p became widespread. Our advice? Wait just a little while longer to avoid buyer's remorse later on.
Still, if you're a die-hard Samsung fan who wants the excellent screen and notification features of the Gear 2 right now, you won't be disappointed. We recommend taking a peek at the Gear 2 Neo – it doesn’t have a camera and it’s slathered in plastic, but it's substantially cheaper at £180.
READ MORE: Samsung Gear Neo review
Samsung Gear 2
An improvement in every way, the Gear 2 is an impressive smartwatch that's sadly still shackled to Samsung's ecosystem