The Galaxy Gear is like a mirror reflecting Samsung’s own strengths and weaknesses.
It’s a smartwatch that’s chock full of features and whiz-bang technology, and its timing couldn’t be any better — now that the technology world is eagerly anticipating the era of wearable computing.
But like so many of Samsung’s overbearing Android tweaks and other misguided gadgets, those features don’t come together in a compelling way.
The Gear is a reminder that Samsung does its best work in markets already blown open by competitors — like Apple did with the iPhone and iPad — rather than uncharted territory. When it comes to smartwatches, we need a pioneering company to show us why we need tiny computers on our wrists when we already have them in our pockets.
Unfortunately, the Galaxy Gear proves that Samsung is not that company.
After using the Galaxy Gear for more than a week, I still have no clue why anyone outside of hardcore Samsung fans would want to buy it. (It’s ironic, then, that Samsung managed to craft its best ads yet for the Gear.)
What does it do?
The Gear’s purpose begins with the assumption that we all check our smartphones too much. Wouldn’t it be easier if we could just glance at our wrists?
How you answer that question will determine if you think the Galaxy Gear is a worthless piece of crap, or simply a slightly undercooked first attempt by Samsung.
The Galaxy Gear connects to a Samsung Galaxy device running Android 4.3 or higher (at this point, that includes the Galaxy Note 3, the latest Galaxy Note 10 tablet, and soon the Galaxy S4) via BlueTooth, and it acts as a sort of second screen into the most important aspects of your phone. The Gear’s tiny 1.63-inch touchscreen displays your incoming emails, text messages, and other notifications. It can also show you incoming calls and functions as a speakerphone to let you answer calls from your wrist.
A 1.9 megapixel camera on the Gear’s wristband is one of its few truly unique aspects, which you can use to take surreptitious photos and short 720p HD videos. While intriguing, I can’t imagine anyone choosing to take photos with the Gear’s relatively low-quality shooter when they’ll likely have their smartphone nearby.
The Gear can also control your phone’s music (with basic options to pause and choose the next/previous track), and it can track your steps with a built-in pedometer. Unlike most new gadgets, Samsung also opened up the Gear to third-party developers, so it’s launching with a slew of useful apps from companies like Evernote and MyFitnessPal.
Oh, yes: It can also tell time.
How does it look and feel?
The Galaxy Gear is far from what I imagine as my ideal smartwatch. It’s bulky, mostly made of plastic, and the visible front screws gives off a surprisingly unpolished vibe. This isn’t something we’d see from the likes of Apple or Google.
It feels about as clumsy as it looks, but given that plenty of trendy men’s watches are obnoxiously large, the Gear actually doesn’t fare too badly. It’s not very heavy, but it still felt awkward on my wrist while typing. The Gear’s oyster-like metal clasp is always connected to its wristband, which made it awkward to close properly (and adjusting the fit is also a chore). At the end of the day, I couldn’t wait to take off the Gear. That’s probably not the best sign for a wearable computing device, which should ideally feel like a second skin.
Ultimately, the Gear’s design is passable, but nothing memorable. We’ll forget about it instantly once something better comes along.
The good: It sets the stage for the smartwatch future
While Samsung’s execution is suspect, I give it some credit for the effort it put into the Gear. Features like its camera and a decently populated app store are new to the category and show that a lot of thought went into developing the Gear as a platform, not just a gadget. And it’s hard to ignore how much using the Gear makes you feel like you’re peeking into the future (or maybe, just reliving the nostalgia of your favorite childhood TV shows).
But Samsung would have been better off using some of its brainpower for answering essential questions, like “who the heck needs this thing?”
The bad: Seriously, who needs it?
Just as tablets existed long before the iPad, we’ve seen plenty of companies take a stab at smartwatches before the Gear.
Sony has been making its own “Smartwatch” device for years now, Pebble’s smartwatch raised more than $10 million on Kickstarter, and Samsung itself released a basic smartwatch several years ago. Of those entries, the decidedly low-tech, black-and-white Pebble ($150) has been the most successful (and it’s my personal favorite). But none of them can be considered must-have devices.
We don’t need more incremental change in the smartphone market. We need big, sweeping improvements to show why they’re useful for consumers. Simply put, we need something on the scale of what the iPad did for tablets.
It’s no surprise, then, that part of the current excitement around smartwatches stems from the rumors that Apple is building an “iWatch” of its own. Yes, we don’t even know if the iWatch exists, yet it’s already creating buzz for an entirely new market. I’d bet money that the mere specter of the iWatch was a driving force behind Samsung’s rushed development for the Gear.
So what would the ideal smartwatch look like? I’d imagine it would feature a design that’s attractive enough to serve as both a fashion statement and geeky status symbol — something that would scream “must have” device. It would have to be independently smart enough to work without a smartphone if it had to (though I expect smartphones to continue playing a major roles in the future of wearable computing as “hub” devices). Finally, it would have to solve a clear problem.
The ideal smartphone would be one where its role in my daily life would feel obvious, not forced. The Gear has miles to go before it crosses that threshold.
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A bunch of features does not a good product make
I’ve been covering Samsung’s mobile devices for years now, and I still have no clue how it justifies some of its innovations. It’s almost as if the justification isn’t even necessary for Samsung — it simply throws everything it can think of into its products and sees what sticks. (See the Galaxy smartphone’s ability to pause video when you look away, or the multitude of camera features nobody will ever use in all of its latest smartphones.)
With the Galaxy Gear, Samsung is playing the same tune. On paper, a smartwatch with a bright and colorful touchscreen, a slew of apps, a camera, and decent integration with your smartphone sounds like a good deal. But in practice, pretty much everything the Gear does has major drawbacks.
The camera shoots low quality pics and only short videos. Navigating a tiny touchscreen interface is a massive headache, and it involves learning several unintuitive gestures (and you’ll have to read the manual to find many of them). The smartphone integration, already limited to just a few Samsung devices, doesn’t always work as seamlessly as I would like, leading to things like missed email notifications.
When it comes to features, especially for new and unproven products, quality is far more significant than quantity. That’s especially true when those features are essential to how you’d use that product.
Why is Samsung a follower? It learns markets from the inside
As I pointed out in my Galaxy S4 review, Samsung’s mobile dominance stems from its role building components for its competitors. It builds the displays, memory chips, and processors for some of its competitors (including the iPhone), experience which gave it a leg up as it evolved the Galaxy S series over time.
That’s not anything new for Samsung: It built LCD screens before it got into the smartphone market, as well as hard drives and RAM chips before it got into PCs. It learns the ins and outs of electronics markets by being a trusted supplier for bigger players, and once it has learned enough, it slowly makes its way in with its own products.
While not terribly exciting, it’s a model that can be good for business. A combination of savvy marketing and solid hardware led to Samsung’s Android dominance with its Galaxy S series, success which has trickled down to its other models making it the largest mobile phone manufacturer by unit sales last year.
But when it comes to the Galaxy Gear, Samsung doesn’t have anyone to follow except for the few companies who’ve built lackluster smartwatches so far. It’s used to iterating on existing ideas, not thinking outside the box.
The Gear was Samsung’s chance to show that it could single-handedly reinvent an entire gadget category, and it simply blew it.
The Verdict: A missed opportunity
The Galaxy Gear is a smartwatch that isn’t worth your time.
There’s a chance Samsung could eventually get it right — it took three tries before Samsung made a successful Galaxy S phone — but by that point it will have to compete with Apple’s rumored iWatch, and whatever Google ends up releasing.
On the plus side for Samsung, by that point it will likely have some far better ideas to imitate.