Samsung Galaxy Gear review

Some people think that the Galaxy Gear is a response to Apple's rumoured iWatch, which has yet to materialise. But the fact is, Samsung follows Sony in this interesting little market, and while we found the Sony watch interesting, it doesn't offer a massive amount to excite.

The Gear, on the other hand, takes Samsung's usual enthusiasm for new things, and runs with it. A bit like a puppy in the park for the first time, sometimes it doesn't know what the hell it's doing, but sometimes it manages to make you gasp with joy. Certainly, there has been a lot of negative stuff written about this little watch, so we're very much hoping to take a fair look at it, having lived with it for a week, and tell you what's what.

And here's the thing: we've been a lot more impressed with the Gear than we expected to be, and that's something that gives us a lot of hope for the future of this watch. Is it too early, too incompatible and too expensive at this stage or does it get enough right to warrant purchase?

One to watch

We do have to give Samsung credit, the design of the Gear is far more impressive than we had expected. The face itself is large, and has a curvature that belies the screen underneath. It's mounted into a metal bezel, that has visible screws, and it looks tasteful. To look at, most people wouldn't know that it wasn't a normal watch, unless they spotted some of the (admittedly rather large) clues.

The first is the camera embedded into the strap. It's finished in the same colour, so it blends in. On the black one, you can barely see it. On the other available colours the lens, which looks dark, is far easier to spot.

The catch on the bottom of the watch is large, and that's because the speaker is contained within. This is also the only place you'll see the Samsung name on the device. The speaker is small, it doesn't really have much impact on the design, which is pretty cool in itself.

If you love watches, then you might be thinking "this isn't for me", and, of course, many people view watches as a piece of jewellery as well as a way to tell the time. If you're one of those people, you'll probably be happier with an Omega and the Galaxy Gear won't even register.

Charging

Included in the box is a charging cradle. There is no way to charge the Gear without using this - at least for now - and it's a fairly odd design. Not bad, just, underwhelming. To charge the watch you open up the cradle and clamp it around the watch face, which connects with some charging pins on the back of the Gear. It's simple, and it ensures a solid connection. Power is supplied by USB connection, while a charging cable and plug are both included, so you can get going straight away.

There's more to the charging dock too, because it also has NFC built-in for near field communication. This is designed for one purpose, and that's to pair a phone to your Gear without any messing around in the phone's settings. Just touch the back of your phone to the back of the charging dock, and you're off. The diagram on screen is about as clear as mud though, so it took us a while to work out what it was on about.

And there's a caveat to "pair a phone" - at the moment the only phone fully compatible with the Gear is the Galaxy Note 3. In the future there will be others, but that means,  for now, the Gear is limited.

READ: Samsung Galaxy Note 3 review

Screen test

One of the main things that no-one can argue with is just how amazing the screen on the Gear is. It's a little 320 x 320 resolution OLED, and while that doesn't sound particularly resolute, at this scale it's detailed. It's bright too and we didn't suffer issues with reflections making it tough to read.

Compared to the original Sony SmartWatch we saw a while ago, it's streets ahead (even if version two is on its way). It's a joy to look at, and no problem to use outside, even in bright light.

READ: Sony SmartWatch 2 pictures and hands-on

One thing that worried us, was that we would scratch the screen. We've scraped it a fair bit, and so far it's been tough enough not to get scratched. 

Inconsistent notifications

The biggest problem with the Gear, as we've found, is its inconsistent delivery of notifications. But it's also the most solvable issue if Samsung puts the time in to development.

For a start, there is very little consistency in how different apps handle notifying you of things. The best example of this is in email. The standard email app will notify you of subject, sender and a fragment of the email. This is great, because it means you can see if you want to read the whole thing without getting your phone out - the whole point of the Gear.

Compare that then, to the support for Gmail. Presumably, most people who use Android will use a Gmail account for their email. We certainly do, in fact we have two - one for work, one for personal stuff. Neither of these will show anything other than a notification that email has arrived. This is still useful, as it's a good prompt to look at your phone, but when email arrives often, as it does for us at work, then it becomes just a noise of notifications.

We can assume that the reason for this disparity is that there's not as clear a way to tap into the Gmail app as there is the regular email app. Perhaps it's not Samsung's fault, but it's still annoying. Of course, you can get around the email issue by adding accounts into the non-Gmail app - you can add your Gmail account in here, no problem.

Facebook and Twitter notifications are equally unhelpful, with little more than a reminder that some activity is happening. This is especially annoying with Twitter, because Tweets are very short, and would be easy to read on the watch's screen.

If you're interested in the watch for notifications, then you're going to be quite disappointed.

Apps

The Gear included several apps. You can control the music on your phone, there's a voice memo recorder, countdown timer and stopwatch as well as weather and calendar apps.

You can also hop on to the Samsung store, and browse around for new watch faces, as well as download apps that help further boost the abilities of the Gear. For example there are Evernote and eBay apps, both of which seem to tie in nicely to the services they support. It's also worth grabbing "EasilyDo" because it adds some helpful functions when it comes to seeing Facebook updates and important email. You'll need both the watch app, and the phone app for it to work - something that is the case with most "major" apps.

The app store isn't great at the moment, but we get the feeling it will improve rapidly. Samsung apparently has 70 apps in the works. We really want to see a YouTube companion app, no matter how silly that sounds, and we think Shazam would be an epic addition - press the screen to tag, and let it use your Gear's microphone to listen. If this stuff doesn't happen within the month then we're going to flip tables because lack of support will cost the Gear dear.

By far the coolest app is CamDictionary. Again, it needs the app on your phone too, but it uses the Gear's camera to translate English words into foreign languages. It can also do the same in reverse. It's a bit arduous lining things up to use it, but by jove, when you translate a word correctly the thrill is quite something.

Sports tracking could be big

Built in to the watch is a pedometer, which uses the accelerometer that switches the watch on when you bring it toward your face. We really like this, because unlike other walking or running trackers, you don't need to remember an additional watch, wristband or anything else. Of course, the Gear isn't much good without the companion phone, but it will record steps taken regardless. 

So, perhaps, as time goes on, more things can be added to the Note-Gear combination that give it some more usefulness as a sports tracker. Certainly, the potential is here for a really amazing device, but it will require additional software and hardware to really work as well as a dedicated sportswatch does.

Knight Rider

If you watched the perfect TV series Knight Rider during the 1980s, you'll remember that Michael Knight, played by David Hasselhoff, was able to communicate with KITT, his car, using a watch into which he spoke.

Now while you won't get an awesome car, the good news is that the Gear can also make phone calls. It does this using your phone, via Bluetooth, via the speaker and microphone built into the Gear's clasp.

We didn't expect much from it, but it's actually rather good. The sound quality is excellent, people said we sounded clear and easy to understand on the other end, and we could hear what was being said to us. Of course, forget about using it in loud environments, but to make the odd call at home, it's fantastic and works a treat. Plus, you can look all FBI by having it up by the side of your head. Samsung does understand its audience, if nothing else.

Battery life

We've found the Gear to be very consistent at about two days of life per charge. For the most part, we charge our phones, tablets, laptops and Galaxy Gear at night. Having two days of life is handy, but we think charging at the end of the day is fine too. We wouldn't really want to wear this watch while asleep as we'd be worried about damaging it, or other members of the family.

Using the camera is pretty much the only way to destroy the battery at pace, although the screen brightness can cause some depletion problems too, if you push it all the way up. You can keep an eye on how much juice is left per charge with a handy percentage display.

Camera surprise

There's one thing we just weren't expecting about the Gear, and that's just how good the camera is. Photos come in one of two ratios: you can either have square, or a more camera-like 4:3 ratio. Square images are 1392 x 1392 pixels, and the 4:3 shots are 1280 x 960 pixels. That's around 1.3-megapixels.

The quality of images is really likeable, even at that lowly resolution. Bear in mind that these aren't intended to replace your phone camera, but offer a way to snap things quickly, and it all makes sense. Given the watch will turn on automatically when brought up to normal viewing height, you can then be in the camera and taking photos in a few seconds. Which means, if your child does something cute, or your cat is about to become the next big meme sensation, you can get the shot easily.

But the photos look good too. There's lots of colour in them, they're not soft and they're not over-compressed. They are perfect for sharing on Facebook or Twitter, and we have a feeling they could be popular with the Instagram crowd too, especially in the "hipster square" ratio.

Once photos or video have been shot, you can leave them on the device to transfer them to your phone. As the Gear can't really send them directly yet, the process of getting them online is a bit more tedious, but with Dropbox enabled on your phone, the images and videos can be auto archived and shared with friends quickly.

Video is either 720p or 640 pixels square and is a lot softer than the still photos. You can only shoot 15 seconds, but that is enough for a decent clip of something happening right in front of you. If anything, it forces you to be clever about what you capture, in much the same way Vine has with its short clips. We got some lovely stuff messing about in the park, and the clip is just the right length. Perfect for sharing with family and friends.

Considering we thought the camera was going to be a real gimmick, we're surprised about just how much we've loved using it.

But there are a couple of things to remember. First, when the watch gets low on power, the camera won't work. Low on power means less than 20 per cent remaining. Given the watch lasts about two days on a charge, that's a fair amount of time.

The other thing is that you can't turn off the shutter sound. We understand why Samsung has done this, and we can't say we really disagree with its thinking on the subject - as the watch could be used for taking photos of people when they aren't aware what's going on. We think this is actually more likely to be a problem than Google Glass, because the Gear is a lot more subtle.

If you did want to grab a candid shot of friends they'd be more than aware of it from the shutter sound. The sound isn't especially loud, and if you cover the speaker with your thumb, it's inaudible, so we don't doubt some people will get up to mischief with this device.

Haven't the foggiest

There is one other particular problem with the Gear: fogging up.

The issue is that the camera can fog with wet weather. We're not talking here about the watch getting wet, not beyond the usual amount of rain any watch needs to deal with. But the first time we had the problem, it hadn't even been raining, just humid.

We've had our device switched out for a second unit, and the same problem has presented itself again. It was a less severe problem in the second device, but still an issue. Presumably it will dry in due course, and the rest of the watch is fine, but this is still an issue. We've told Samsung about this problem, and we're waiting to hear back if there is a widespread problem here.

But that's not great on a supposedly premium device.

Price

And here we come to a bit of a sticking point. Many will see the Gear's £300 asking price as a little too steep. Interestingly, Three said it would discount the watch to £250 if bought with a phone, and The Carphone Warehouse was offering it for £200 at one point.

However you look at it, £300 is expensive. Of course, there's an OLED in here, 512MB of RAM, an 800MHz processor and all manner of other clever bits and bobs. The price isn't a surprise, but it will put some people off.

That said, look at a Dior watch. Those things cost, like, £20,000 and look like the sort of thing Del Boy would try to flog you down Peckham Market.

Verdict

Ultimately, our opinion of the Galaxy Gear is that it's a fantastic piece of technology, easily the best device of its type that we've seen and one that has bags of potential. The display is brilliant, there are enough apps on the watch right now to make it of genuine use and the camera is pretty terrific despite some issues with fogging.

If you don't have a watch, and want a really cool one that does a load of stuff no other watch can then the Gear is a great choice. Perhaps the styling wont be for everyone, but you won't catch us wearing tight hipster trousers that are too short, so it doesn't mean that no one can enjoy such a look.

The problem that the Gear ultimately has, however, is that it's just not quite ready yet. It may be great as a companion device to the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, but that's the only phone it currently works with. There will be more, but right now that compatibility isn't there. App support also lacks and that leads to some notifications being of less worth than they could be.

As a companion for the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 we can't overlook that the Gear does become an even greater product. In our use we found ourselves looking at the Note 3 less and less. So the Gear achieves its goal. And what's more, the speakerphone is great for pretending you're David Hasslehoff, with S-Voice proving useful when it understands you.

Ultimately, the audience for this smartwatch is limited both by the number of people who own the compatible phone, and the number of people who actually want a smartwatch. But, to those considering the Gear, we don't think you'll be disappointed, particularly if you're buying it with a Note 3. Get in early and you'll be happy, but give it six months, and loads more apps, and we have a feeling that we'll be looking at an incredible device.



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