Published October 01, 2013
Must have or must miss?
Samsung’s Galaxy Gear is a wonderful vision of the future, the stylish watch-phone Dick Tracy would have worn with pride. Yet a litany of shortcomings to this $299 gadget make it little more than a status symbol for gearheads at this point.
Just wait a year or two for Samsung to polish this thing up, however: You might find yourself talking to your wrist before you know it.
The Galaxy Gear is essentially a small, elegant computer strapped to your wrist via a colorful plastic band. Its main brain is an 800-MHz processor, and the 4GB of storage and 512MB of memory squeezed into its body make the Gear turn on fast and feel peppy. The smartwatch runs a custom version of the Android software that powers many of the world’s smartphones, and when paired Samsung’s latest, the new Galaxy Tab 3, it can place and receive phone calls and text messages, take pictures, read your schedule, work as a pedometer and more.
The version I tested came with a colorful orange band -- "wild orange," Samsung calls it -- but the Gear also comes in black, gold, gray, lime green, and something called “oatmeal beige.” The design is beautiful, and it fits comfortably on my average-size wrist, but the 1.63-inch color screen is clearly too large for most of the women I asked to try it on. Whittled in half, the Gear would be far more practical.
Other hardware built into the Gear includes a pedometer to count your steps, a camera, speakers and microphones, and Bluetooth and near-field communication (NFC) chips that let it talk to your smartphone to make calls and read your schedule, texts, contacts and so on.
There’s also a battery that offers surprisingly decent life. I put the Gear down overnight and was pleased to find it ready for action the next morning -- unlike some smartphones I could mention.
But it won’t talk to just any phone. The Gear works at present only with the $300 Note 3, an unwieldy and expensive new phone from Samsung with so much clutterware that you’ll find yourself lost simply trying to place a call.
As with many of its new phones, Samsung puts far more features in the massive Note 3 than anyone could possibly want. There are two different settings menu, and the settings menu has its own settings menu. There are two completely different interfaces. There’s a pen built into the phone, and it has its own interface. And settings menu. And runs apps with meaningless names, such as “S Finder” and “Pen Window.”
Gear Manager software installs on the phone from the charging station, cleverly. It's easy to use, and lets you move apps on and off the phone, change the watch face and more.
I couldn't install the software on any other phone, including new models from Samsung and Google (the iPhone lacks the necessary NFC chip). Samsung says the software will ultimately work with other phones, though the company hasn’t provided a list of them. Wait for them.
Despite the oversize albatross that is the Note 3 (the screen is 5.7 inches), the Gear has a lot going for it. Phone calls placed through it were surprisingly clear on both ends and easy to place, although holding your watch to your ear to speak feels as silly as it sounds. The 1.9-megapixel camera built into the watchband is perfectly reasonable for the pictures you’d expect to take from your wrist: It’s no substitute for a digital camera or smartphone, but great for capturing life wherever you happen to be.
There’s also a Siri-like voice recognition app called S Voice. It’s not as robust as Apple’s assistant, but can do a reasonable job when told to, say, “call mom” or “check weather.”
Samsung has a dedicated app store all to itself (of course). In theory, other companies can write software to add to the functionality -- where’s my calculator app, for example? In reality, there's not much there of interest yet.
The ability to check simple bits of information such as emails and text messages on my wrist instead of fishing my phone out of my pocket is certainly handy; the promise of the smartwatch is clear, and wonderful.
But at present, tied to the Note 3, with too few apps and too thick for most wrists, it’s hard to say this $300 smartwatch is a smartbuy.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the companion smartphone as the Galaxy Tab 3. The correct name is Galaxy Note 3.