Samsung has been desperately trying to crack the wearables problem for 12 months now, launch after launch after launch. But with the Gear Live, running on - and largely defined by - Google’s Android Wear OS it’s come closer than ever.
At £170 it’s fairly cheap. It's not trying to replace your smartphone, which is wise because that's a losing battle. And it's got a few useful specs and extras that its main rival, the LG G Watch, is missing. And lo and behold, it’s actually compatible with non-Galaxy Android phones.
It's still very early days for Android Wear, but has Samsung already cracked it?
Too square to be hip
Gadget afficionados won't mistake this for an earlier Gear. The Live has a simpler design than its forebears, with no visible screws, fancy flourishes, IR blasters or cameras.
But it does have family traist - the same square screen, curved, brushed aluminium body and silicone strap with a single power button on the right-hand edge.
The belly of the Gear Live curves slightly to rest on your wrist unlike the G Watch, which sits flat on top. Which you find more comfortable will be a personal preference, but for us the LG is slightly more comfortable overall as it’s less rigid as you turn and move your wrist.
Both are a bit too heavy and definitely too chunky. But if there’s one thing tech giants know how to do it’s make gadgets slimmer and lighter, so 2015’s batch of Korean wristwear will no doubt be much sleeker. Big bezels make the Samsung a big thing (especially on small wrists) and over a couple of weeks it draws more attention than the G Watch. Waterproofing to IP67 makes it rainproof, too, and you can dunk it for 30 minutes in up to 1m of water. Perhaps when you hit precisely 30 minutes and 1 second the thing explodes, but we doubt it.
Practical, reasonably subtle but sticking perhaps a little too closely to Gear DNA then. Basically, we’re still lusting after the Moto 360.
But the Super Amoled screen is lovely
This is more a screen on a strap than a replacement for a regular watch, and that screen is a good’un. Its 320x320 resolution might sound rubbish but the 1.63in Super AMOLED square is very sharp for a smartwatch, with text in notifications that's noticeably crisper than on the LG. Every notification comes with a background image, and while those are a bit pixellated they're also fairly pretty, with lovely, vivd colours. An option to turn them off might be nice for those who want to get serious about power saving, though.
It’s not perfect - it can be hard to read outdoors, there’s no auto brightness to save power in dim lighting and pump up the brightness when it's sunny, and it’s a fingerprint magnet. But the Samsung is still a big, capable fish in this so-far small smartwatch pond.
READ MORE: The LG G Watch tested
One day battery isn't enough
We’ve mentioned battery life a couple of times already. That’s no coincidence, eagle eyes. Because with a teeny 300mAh unit and a busy, colourful OS, it was never going to be pretty.
The G Watch has a slightly bigger 400mAh but in reality that only equates to an extra one or two hours. Both need charging at least every other day and will only manage two days over the weekend - assuming you're anything like us and barely use it compared to midweek.
In every other respect, the Gear Live is the better choice over a Gear 2 or Neo, but on battery life those are three to four dayers. The Pebble Steel easily lasts five. Clearly always-on Android Wear needs more juice than manfacturers can currently squeeze into a wristwatch.
There’s more bad news. As with the LG the Gear Live is bundled with a charging cradle that has a microUSB port, but it's that little bit smaller, fiddlier and easier to lose. And while cradles are neat, they're also a bit of a pain as you have to take it everywhere. A microUSB port straight into the watch would be a whole lot more convenient.
Always on, always helpful
Samsung smartwatches have already developed a reputation for features overkill, but this time Google's firmly in charge.
Once you get your head around Android Wear, it’s gloriously simple. Firstly, it tells the time. The main screen is a watchface that can be swapped for a small number of preloaded faces or custom designs - there’s no official space on Google Play for these yet but they can be found if you're willing to search off-piste.
The second main function - and the reason you probably want a smartwatch rather than a dumbwatch - is pulling in notifications from your Android smartphone via Bluetooth 4.0. That includes phone calls, texts, WhatsApps, calendar appointments and anything else that appears in your notifications pulldown on your phone. Individual apps can be muted but you can’t get more granular than that just yet by tweaking which notifications come through - e.g. turning off one Gmail account and leaving another on.
Unlike a Pebble watch, these notifications appear as cards (stacked in some cases and easily swiped away to the right) but they can’t be accessed again in a central hub. They’re there to be dealt with on-wrist.
Also unlike Pebble or any other smartwatch, Google Now adds contextual cards - a stream of weather, calendar and yesterday’s steps every morning. And how many minutes you are from the address you searched for in Google Maps on your phone yesterday. Or bus times as you approach a stop. We’re itching to take an Android Wear watch on our hols as that’s when Google Now comes into its own - flight times, currency conversions, places nearby.
All of this involves a lot of swiping. So it’s best to suck it up and use voice on the Gear Live. Google Voice is the best we’ve used yet and though there are still niggles - such as sending dictated messages before they're ready - it brings in Google’s cleverer-than-Siri Knowledge Graph for quick searches and consistently works well enough to encourage you to carry on. Really.
Heart rate monitor - works when it works
Android Wear has said no to skins so what we’ve just described is true of any AW device.
That means the differences are almost entirely to be found in the hardware, and here's the Gear Live's big extra feature over the G Watch - the Samsung can read your resting heart rate. It’s a function that makes much more sense on a wearable than a phone such as the Galaxy S5. And although you have to hold steady and it can be temperamental, it works.
It’s fairly accurate, too, although shouldn’t be used for medical reasons and can't track your heart rate over the course of a jog - unlike, for example, the TomTom Multi-Sport Cardio. It’s compatible with third party fitness apps but Google’s own platform, Fit, is still in early days. For now, there’s little more than a graph of daily step counts.
READ MORE: Samsung Gear Fit review
Android Wear apps are getting good
In our LG G Watch review, we said Android Wear apps needed time. We were right - already there's plenty more support for Wear devices in big name apps. An update for WhatsApp that adds complete previews and the ability to reply via voice is available direct from its website and coming soon to Google Play.
There’s also lots of fun apps to play around with. Mini Maps for Wear lets you pan around a map with your GPS location if Google's step by step directions aren’t enough, Wear Volume is a big and simple control for your smartphone’s volume and Wear Mini Launcher adds a grid of app icons to swipe through, plus a quick access brightness slider and other settings.
You can pretend you bought a calculator watch with Wear Calc and Wearable Widgets lets you display individual homescreen widgets (one for free, more for £1.29) on your wrist. We moaned about the lack of proper Spotify controls with skipping as well as play/pause but Wearable Widgets makes that possible, too.
On balance, there’s probably still more choice for Pebble owners, but Wear is now the go-to place for developers of apps for wearables so expect that gap to be closed imminently.
Samsung Gear Live Verdict
With two devices on sale, it’s not hard to be the best Android Wear smartwatch you can buy right now. But the Samsung just edges ahead of the LG G Watch nonetheless.
Why? Mainly thanks to that sharper screen and bonus heart rate monitor. But they’re very close in both price, specs and what they’re capable of. So it mainly comes down to which one you prefer to wear. The LG will attract less attention, the Samsung's design will mark you out as an early adopter.
Still, it’s probably better to wait. That’s because the Moto 360 looms large. A Moto launch event has been set for 4th September and its gorgeous, round smartwatch comes with wireless charging and a truly premium design that really looks worth the money.
Android Wear OS needs to stay simple to succeed. That means anyone building one of these devices needs to throw everything into the design - exactly as Motorola appears to be doing. We suspect HTC, Asus, Fossil and stealthy fashion companies are quietly perfecting Wear watch designs, too. And we'd bet a small fortune Samsung already has a Gear Live successor in development...
READ MORE: The top ten devices in wearable tech