Hands-on review: Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch – brimming with tech, if not direction

We go wrists-on with Samsung's foray into tech-infused horology - and almost forget to check if it tells the time

We've got a Samsung Galaxy Gear and we'll only give it up for all the retro Casios in the world.

The hotly-rumoured smartwatch joined the Galaxy Note 3 onstage at IFA 2013, marking a point at which Samsung beat Apple to release one of the first of the new breed of wearable devices, or Cling-Ons as we may start calling them. It's not alone in clamouring for a spot on our arms, mind you, as PebbleJawbone and Nike are already taking up skin space.

The difference here is that the Galaxy Gear does more than any of them, for the most part works well and it looks pretty good while doing it. The trouble is, it seems to be confused as to whether it wants to be the slave or the master - and ends up a bit of both.

Design and build: hints of high-end but a little wide of the mark

Like the Nike TomTom watch it shares its shape with, the Galaxy Gear doesn't look much like a watch. You might wear it on your wrist, and it might have a subtly textured, thick rubber strap (available in six hues), but just as a smartphone is pretty much a computer you hold in your hand, this is a mobile computer you drape from an appendage.

Its chunky, like a divers' tool rather than svelte dress watch, and although light and comfortable feels sturdily put together. The stainless steel bezel (with real screws!) is a nice touch, although its premium-ish appearance isn't carried over to the strap or microphone-carrying clasp, which is pressed from a flat offcut rather than hewn from a solid chunk.

Details include a chamfered aluminium power button on the right-hand side and a 1.9MP camera not too subtly integrated into the strap. It would look better without the cam, but that would spoil some of the fun, wouldn't it?

Screen: bright, colourful, probably daylight-readable

The Galaxy Gear's square 1.63in AMOLED display is another strong argument for OLED tech. It's bright and colourful, while viewing angles are great whether you have your arm down by your side or tilted straight towards you. If we're being really picky, at 320x320 it looks a tad pixellated by today's full HD smartblower standards.

Although we didn't get to check it out in daylight, we'd judge that the screen will be usefully visible in most conditions. As for how the battery will bear up with the screens brightness ramped to the max, we wouldn't dare to speculate, although the juice was barely impacted by our 15-minute play. The screen's glass covering will pick up a few digit prints, but not so much to make us mad-angry.

Performance and OS: we don't yet know how seamless it'll be

The Gear samples we tried weren't hooked up to smartphones (and, despite our best efforts, couldn't be). That means we can only speculate on the performance of the device's second screen capabilities: S Voice, calendar, notifications and more were unavailable to us, as were more interesting apps such as Evernote and Tripit, as they require a data connection from a connected Galaxy Note 3 or S4.

However, we got ample time to swipe through menus, grab photos and play back sneaky 10-second videos. The results were a mixed bag.

The skinned Android OS is impressively intuitive to navigate. Waking the Gear with its power button and swiping sideways to navigate menus was mostly cleanly animated and seamless, but from time to time we encountered fairly catastrophic slow-down that resulted in desperate, pointless prods to get the thing going again. We put this down to early software, but it'll be interesting to see how performance is impacted upon when a companion device is in use.

Surreptitious photos and videos were captured quickly and easily (swipe up and tap to shoot), and the 720p clips played back without a hitch. Meanwhile, S Health appeared also to work just fine without a connected phone, tracking our shuffles around the demo table - and it makes a whole lot more sense to wear a Gear on your wrist than a Note on your arm when you're out for a jog.

The music controller app, one of the Gear's core functions, wasn't working for us either, but its interface is clear with just enough space to make sure you're not skipping when you mean to pause. Unfortunately, we couldn't tell you right now whether you'll encounter slowdown if you're trying to control your music while, say, counting your steps with S Health.

Another element we couldn't test out was battery life, which Samsung claims to be up to 25 hours. Frankly, if it's much less than that, it's a bit of a fail for Samsung: recharging your watch every night could become quite a chore. Incidentally, although there are splash-proof charging contacts on the rear of the Gear's body, we didn't get to see the USB charger that connects to them.

How well does the Galaxy Gear work with smartphones?

Good question.  Although surrounded by Note 3s all packing the Gear Manager app, the Gears we tried refused to pair with them, so we couldn't test much of the functionality. We were particularly looking forward to trying out its hands-free calling capabilities, but sadly, not today.

In any case, the Gear will only work with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and S4, though support is coming soon to the Note 2 and S3. All other Androids need not apply.

If the Gear does what it says on paper, though, it could become extremely useful. Designed partially to stop you from needing to constantly dig your phone out, its ability to notify you of your agenda and communications, furnish you with the functionality of commonly used apps (of which there are already 70 on the roster), track your exercise, make phone calls and even take the odd photo will fulfil that mandate and then some.

What's missing?

This may seem an odd question to ask of the most heavily specced watch in history, but there are a couple of pieces of functionality that would have made sense in the Gear. GPS is the first, as without it, it'll never be a useful competitor to Garmin's training efforts or the Nike+ TomTom watch. If you want to navigate or use a route-tracking app such as RunKeeper, you'll need an S4 or Note 3 in your back pocket, which is a far less elegant solution.

The second is NFC. Opening security doors and paying for cans of Coke with a tap of the wrist would have been both useful and cool. Next time, eh, Samsung?

Initial verdict

Would we wear the Galaxy Gear? Our gut reaction is: perhaps. If it were smaller, sleeker and a little bit posher, we'd be more inclined to say yes. If it worked wth more Androids or even the iPhone, we'd seriously mull it over. And if we could see it seamlessly working with a smartphone like the adverts show, then we'd be more tempted still.

The problem is, the Gear is confused about what it wants to be. It's a powerful and well-equipped device, which means its quite chunky, carries a big screen and has a relatively short battery life. And yet, its mostly hamstrung without a companion phone. We can't help but feel it'd be more successful if Samsung streamlined its functionality - maybe killed off the camera, focused on the really useful elements of its skillset and had it rely more on the device it's paired with to do the hard work so that it could be slimmer and longer-lasting. Also, it's not cheap. At US$300 (RM984 or so) it's going to be a tough sell.

On the other hand, the Gear is quite a feat of engineering, and it promises to do many cool things. Perhaps more importantly, it signifies that wearable tech has well and truly arrived, and we applaud Samsung for that. We look forward to taking it for a proper spin when September 25 rolls around.