For my column this week, I’ve been testing the Samsung Galaxy Gear, a new “smart” watch that connects via Bluetooth to a Samsung mobile device, and shows you notifications on the watch display. I’m not sure where to start.
Maybe I should go back about a week, to when I was enjoying a Sunday dinner with friends ranging in age from 13 to 72. They all eyed the watch curiously. Earlier in the evening, I had taken a picture of their family cat with my watch.
Finally, someone asked about the watch, someone else asked how much it cost, and a conversation about watches ensued. The 13-year-old announced that he has never worn a watch, then went back to playing on his iPhone.
Watches often mean something to people, whether it’s an inherited watch, a utility or a fashion statement. With a techie watch like the Samsung Galaxy Gear — somewhat utilitarian and probably only perceived as fashionable at a tech convention — I found it was hard to get attached to it.
It does perform most functions as promised: It showed me calendar reminders and text messages, and told me when I had a new email. And, since the Gear has a microphone and speaker, you can even make phone calls through the watch (technically, the call is still happening through your smartphone). It’s certainly an improvement over the Sony smartwatch I reviewed a year and a half ago.
But it has some serious drawbacks. For one, it costs $300, and that doesn’t include the pricey smartphone you’ll need to tote along with it. Also, it only works with Samsung smartphones, like the Note 3, which I tested it with.
Having to charge a wristwatch once a day or every other day might be prohibitive for some people. Lastly, while the watch sends you notifications, there are some limitations to what this watch will actually show on its display.
I’ll be superficial, and talk appearances first. There’s no way around it: The Galaxy Gear looks like a geek watch. It has a textured rubber band, a thick, adjustable metal clasp, and visible screws around the face of the watch. The 1.6-inch touchscreen is pretty sleek-looking. There is a lone button on the right-hand side of the watch; pressing this will take you back to the home screen, which displays the time and date.
Possibly the geekiest part is the round eye of a built-in camera placed on the band. This is, presumably, so you can talk to fellow spies through the watch while stealthily taking photos of an unsuspecting subject.
How the Gear fits will depend on the size of your wrist. I was a “tweener” — one setting was too tight, and the next was a little bit loose. It weighs 2.6 ounces, and comes with four gigabytes of internal storage.
The Gear watch comes with a charging cradle, a small, square-shaped plastic nest. You have to fasten the watch to the cradle and then plug the cradle into the wall for juice.
But this charging cradle also serves another purpose: It’s part of the Gear set-up. I had to tap the Note 3 against the back of the cradle in order to install the Galaxy Gear manager app on the smartphone. This app is where I would ultimately manage all of the Gear settings and apps.
The next step of the set-up involved wirelessly connecting the watch, via Bluetooth, to the smartphone. This was pretty straightforward. However, whenever I wandered more than 30 feet or so away from the Note 3, the Gear watch on my wrist would automatically disconnect from the smartphone. I could still see the time on the watch, and its pedometer still worked, but other apps wouldn’t work without a connection to the smartphone.
Setting up those apps is confusing. The watch itself comes with a few preinstalled, like the pedometer and a weather app. And there are Android-based apps on the smartphone, like Gmail, that you can opt in to for notifications on the watch.
Then there are other, Samsung-branded apps — like S Health, Samsung’s proprietary fitness-tracking app, which I used in conjunction with the watch’s pedometer — that require a Samsung login and password. Finally, there are Gear-specific apps, such as FB Quickview and Tweet Quickview, that aren’t the “real” Facebook and Twitter apps, but allow you to get social network notifications on the watch.
Swiping through the watch felt somewhat intuitive. From the home screen, swiping from side to side will take you through the key apps of the watch. Once you’re in an app, swiping down will bring you back to the previous screen. Pressing the physical button on the side of the watch will take you home again.
On some occasions, I found the Gear watch useful. For example, I was out bike riding when a Google Calendar appointment popped up on the screen, reminding me that I needed to be home in 10 minutes to accept a scheduled package delivery. If the watch buzzed or beeped while I was driving, I could look down and see that I had new messages. But I couldn’t read Gmail content on the watch; the watch told me to read it on my mobile device.
I also couldn’t see pictures that friends sent me via text message. And when I tried responding using S Voice, Samsung’s voice-recognition app, it was super-slow to recognize my commands.
Taking photos with the watch was admittedly fun. You access the camera simply by swiping down from the home screen, and snap a photo with a quick tap on the touchscreen. But you can’t share these from the watch. You have to send them to the smartphone first, and share from there.
It’s almost impossible to talk about a smartwatch as a two-way communicator without mentioning Dick Tracy — there, I did it — but I also made phone calls through the Gear. The call quality was good, because you’re basically using it as a Bluetooth speaker. You can dial a number or call up a contact from the watch, but the smartphone has to be nearby, because that’s what’s making the cellular call.
I called my boss, and he said the call quality was good on his end, too. I called my mom and told her I was calling her from a watch, and she laughed.
Samsung says the battery life of the Gear watch should be about the same as your average smartphone. In my experience, it lasted close to two days.
And when I put it in its cradle to rest and recharge, I didn’t exactly miss it.