After months of rumours and a big on-stage debut alongside the Galaxy Note 3, the Galaxy Gear is finally wrapped snugly around our wrists.
Joining the throng of existing wearable gadgets like the Pebble smartwatch and Google Glass, the Gear arrives stamped with Samsung’s dominant Galaxy moniker, along with a hefty price tag to boot . But does it do enough to justify all that cash? Or indeed, answer our misgivings about smartwatches in general? We've strapped ourselves in to find out.
Time to shine
Thankfully the Gear isn't actually as big or chunky as the pictures suggest, and we're pleased to report that its metal construction is solid. Only one button (for power) graces the clutter-free chassis, and we’re rather taken by the four corner screws that have been left visible.
Its 1.63in 320x320 Super AMOLED display won’t win any resolution contests with its 278ppi figure, but it's more than sharp enough for a watch. You might notice that text and icons aren't quite as sharp as you're used to (especially if you’re lucky enough to have been spoiled by the multitude of superb 1080p smartphones now available), but given that the Gear is meant to act as a secondary screen, we don’t think that’s a problem.
The strap is rubber with a metal clasp, and it’s easily adjustable before clicking securely into place. It also houses the 1.9MP camera that’s present as a fairly inconspicuous bump on our review model, with the black circular lens blending in with the black strap.
It'll stand out a lot more on the more vibrant straps, though, and you'll probably fool one or two observant commuters into believing that you're an M16 agent. Or a technological Peeping Tom.
There's a multitude of colour options available, ranging from orange to gold, but you can't mix and match straps to match your wardrobe, presumably due to the strap's built-in camera module.
The Gear is light and as comfortable to wear as any other watch, but if you’re one of the many who’ve left your wrists unadorned since the day the mobile phone got a clock it will obviously take some getting used to.
Unlike the Sony Smartwatch 2 and some other competitors, the Gear unfortunately isn't water resistant, so you'll need to be careful not to get it wet in day to day use.
This could be a hard adjustment for people who are used to wearing waterproof watches, and it'll be a costly mistake if it accidentally ends up taking a shower with you.
After passing the build quality muster, we turn our attention to pairing the Gear with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.
Before we carry on, there are two things you need to know. First off, as with most smartwatches, the Gear needs to be connected to a smartphone if you want it to be, well, smart.
The problem is that right now the Galaxy Note 3 is the only smartphone that's compatible with the Gear. Samsung’s working to rectify that with an update to the Galaxy S4 by the end of October, plus similar updates for the S3 and Note 2 promised by the end of year, but for now it’s Note 3 or bust.
Once you fire the Gear up for the first time you're met with very basic on-screen instructions that tell you to encase it in a very unattractive, bulky plastic case that clips around the watch face.
The plastic case/cradle (or the Gear's ugly sister, Big Bertha as we've taken to calling it) houses an NFC module, and is required if you want to automate the Bluetooth pairing of the Gear to your smartphone via NFC, making for a speedier first connection – at least in theory.
In reality, it's a very clunky method, and doesn't exactly form the first impression expected from a supposedly cutting edge piece of 2013 tech. By the time you clip the case on and faff around with the Gear's strap to ensure a decent back-to-back connection with your smartphone, you'll realise that it's a lot easier just to pair up with Bluetooth devices the old fashioned way, with a quick passcode confirmation.
Once it's connected your phone will automatically download and install the Gear app, which can be accessed at any time from the phone's notification menu. The app let's you easily manage your Gear by changing its theme, installing apps and managing notifications.
Once you've done all that then you can put Big Bertha to rest and never have to worry about seeing her ugly plastic mug again.
Oh wait, no you can't.
If you’re assuming there’s a microUSB ingeniously hidden underneath a flap on the Gear’s body, you’re sadly mistaken. It turns out Big Bertha has a secondary function, and that is to clip onto the Gear and charge it via the metal charging pins. Without the ugly and fiddly plastic cradle, there is no power.
Most of the time it won't be a problem. You'll be going to bed knowing that while you sleep, the Gear will be uglier until you take it off its charger in the morning - not exactly the end of the world. But while you're out and about or if you find yourself stranded with power running low, you'll be flat out of luck unless you decide to lug the cradle around with you. Nobody’s got pockets for that.
It's a very inelegant solution that simply shouldn't exist, but it's the sacrifice Samsung has made to ensure that the Gear is as unobtrusively light and comfortable as it is.
So the Gear is charged and wrapped comfortably around your wrist. But what does it actually do?
Well for one thing, it tells the time, and there's a good selection of pre-loaded clock faces ranging from simple black and white numbers with temperature and weather icons to an old fashioned roman numeral analogue watch. You can also download more designs from Samsung’s Gear section of the app store, but there's not much of a selection available at the moment.
A flick of the wrist automatically turns the Gear's screen on for a moment so you can glance at the time, but while the accelerometer does a decent job of turning the display on most of the time, it’s not perfect – a number of times we found ourselves shaking our wrists to awaken the Gear's screen but achieving nothing more than looking as though we were swatting away hordes of invisible hornets.
Notifications and Messaging
Notifications are a smartwatch's bread and butter, and the Galaxy Gear handles them well – at least for the most part. You can customise the information you want to see, and we opted to only receive texts and phone call notifications to prevent the poor thing from catching fire from our constantly hammered Stuff inbox.
The Gear's Notification feature is extremely useful for those times when you can't slip the over-sized Note 3 out of your pocket, such as when you're dashing for a train or when you don't want to appear rude at dinner – although there’s always the possibility that the person you’re with might think you’re checking your watch through boredom, which is perhaps not the best signal to be sending out on something like a date.
You can read messages in their entirety and choose to open them up on your phone so that you can respond instantly, craft a reply via S Voice, or ignore them if they're not important.
It's not all perfect, though. On some occasions there are delays of up to 20 seconds between the Note 3 receiving a message and the Gear notification pushing through. We'd also like to have the option to delete messages directly from the Gear itself.
S Voice and Voice Memo
After nattering away with Siri and Google's voice recognition software for quite some time now, our expectations for perfect voice recognition software are pessimistically low, and S Voice on the Gear proves that our glass-half-empty outlook is justified.
While it recognises basic commands such as “call home' or “open music player” for the most part, dictating anything more than a simple text message usually results in frustrating errors and miss-heard words, and lots of swearing.
Still, it's not as though you'll be planning to construct essay-like replies on a smartwatch, and for basic tasks such as short messages, setting alarms and checking up on the weather, S Voice delivers most of the time, albeit sometimes rather slowly.
How you feel about barking commands at your wrist in the middle of a high street is a different issue, of course – sci-fi fans may well get-off on living out their Star Trek fantasies, but we suspect most people will be a bit self-conscious about the whole thing.
You can also record voice memos, which are then saved to your phone. This is actually quite useful for those 'note-to-self' moments, when your muse strikes you with inspirational ideas that you want to remember for later, such as that awesome name for the fictional band you’re in to a quick reminder to pick up milk for Mr Tibbles.
Using it as a Phone
While the Gear can make and receive phone calls – it can access your contacts and has a dialler – we can’t see anyone actually doing that. We didn't once have the courage to actually use it in public, although it did work perfectly well in the office.
Want to have a conversation with your wrist, Dick Tracy style? Fill your boots, but don’t expect to also have any friends.
If you haven't got in-line remote headphones for a huge phone like the Galaxy Note 3, you're going to have a bad time when it comes to orchestrating your music on the go.
Thankfully the Gear's Music Controller app does a decent job of letting you change the tracks as well as adjust volume without having to remove Samsung's behemoth from your pocket.
It could be better, though. For one thing, the controls disappear after the screen turns off, so you have to swipe across to open the music control app again. If you're a serial track-skipper this gets very annoying very quickly. You can't browse through your songs, albums or playlists on the Gear itself, either, which seems like a real missed opportunity.
One genuinely useful bit of tech crammed into the Gear is the pedometer, which measures steps that it counts towards whatever goal you’ve set. It syncs up with Samsung's S Health app, which should please health freaks who want to measure they're lifestyle in detail. It also means you no longer need to don a fitness band when you're out on a run.
It's a real shame that Samsung couldn't magically cram a GPS module into the Gear, though – as it is you still need to have the Note with you, and that’s like running with a brick in your pocket.
The camera is what sets the Gear apart from heavy-hitting smartwatch rivals such as the Sony Smartwatch 2 and Pebble, and it's also the reason you'll find yourself at the receiving end of many a quip about voyeurism since the shutter sound can’t be turned off, presumably in an attempt to deter surreptitious snapping.
As for the picture quality of the 1.9MP camera? It's honestly not as bad as you might imagine. Considering we're taking photos on a watch at a resolution lower than a Nokia N73 (ah, the memories), there’s really not much to complain about.
Snaps taken in decent light are good enough for Facebook and Instagram, and we got some pretty pleasant macro results too.
Lack of a flash, coupled with a low resolution camera obviously means that low light shots suffer, but it you're out and about during the day and you see a squirrel stuffing a stolen Cornetto into its mouth you'll be able to capture a decent shot of it before it scurries away.
720p video recordings are also perfectly passable, just as long as you don't switch between areas of bright and low light too quickly. There's a maximum of 15 seconds per video, though, so you'd better start thinking creatively.
Sadly you have to transfer all photos and videos to your connected smartphone before sharing them from there. It would be a lot easier if you could just email or share them with others directly from the Gear itself.
The Gear's app store is disappointingly sparse at the moment, with fancy clock skins being about as exciting as it gets.
There are a few useful morsels such as Evernote and Runtastic, and some of the Gear's built-in apps are actually very handy. 'Find my device' is an app that instructs the connected phone to ring, letting you locate it if you've lost it within Bluetooth range. This also works the other way around, letting you find your Gear if you've misplaced it.
Another potentially useful feature (which you'll hopefully never need) is the emergency contact option. Once enabled, pressing the power button three times will snap a photo and send it, along with your location, to an emergency contact of your choice.
Power and Usability
The Gear might not be running on the hammering pistons of a quad-core processor, but it doesn't have to. Its 800MHz processor, coupled with 512MB of RAM, is enough to keep things running very smoothly, and we didn't encounter any problems or crashes during use. That's a welcome relief, as we remember experiencing lag and slowdown with Gear sample units at IFA.
Usability-wise, the Gear takes a little getting used to. Swiping down from the main watch screen opens up the camera, while swiping down in any open app/menu acts like a back button.
Swiping up from the main screen brings up the dialler, and we wish we could customise this to bring the music controls up instead as it’s a feature that’s likely to get much more use. You can at least customise the power button double-tap, which by default activates S Voice.
A long-press of the power button brings up the power options as well as vibrate and outdoor mode options, the latter of which instantly cranks up the brightness for better visibility in sunlight. While these are useful, we think it's a big oversight for Samsung not to display the battery level in this menu.
Swiping through the menus and apps is a bit of a pain, with multiple swipes and taps required to get anywhere, and that's what you have to do each time you want to check the battery level.
While you can rearrange the order of the menu icons from the Gear app, you can't do it on the Gear itself, which is another annoyance. A UI option to select a miniature icon grid will hopefully be included in a future update.
On a night out with moderate use (constantly connected via Bluetooth, receiving notifications and taking a few photos), the Gear dropped to 63 per cent from a full charge after eight hours – much less than a normal watch, but respectable for a smart device.
With heavier use you're likely to have to charge it overnight if you want it to last all day. But it's by no means a disaster, especially as the battery is a tiny 315mAh offering.
Worse is the impact it has on the Note 3’s battery – it went from 100 per cent to just 20 per cent in the same period of time, suggesting that its constant connection to the Gear via Bluetooth, in addition to the rest of its normal usage, was quite taxing.
The Galaxy Gear is a well-made, comfortable smartwatch that offers decent (if not perfect) functionality as a secondary device to compliment the smartphone resting in your pocket. But it's not without flaws.
Its limited compatibility to Samsung products, coupled with its usability niggles and ghost town of an app store makes it very hard to justify the massive $488 price.
We’ll be the first in line to try out the Gear 2, assuming it’s more affordable, has an integrated charging port, more polished software and greater app support, but this first-generation smartwatch just isn’t smart enough for any but the most dedicated followers of gadget fashion to seriously contemplate.
Samsung Galaxy Gear
A decent first effort in a pretty package, but too many niggles to justify that painful price tag