There's a revolution in wearable tech and Samsung is in the thick of it, fighting for elbow room, along with just about every other tech manufacturer out there. Its second-generation wearable device, the Samsung Gear 2, is a new generation of smartwatch, designed to extend your smartphone onto your wrist.
However, the Gear 2 arrives some six months after the launch of the original Galaxy Gear, which might set some alarm bells ringing. In this fledgling corner of the tech world, that could be seen as an indicator that Samsung isn't entirely certain which direction to take these devices, or an admission that the first-generation Galaxy Gear wasn't right.
You'll note the change in name between generations too, with the "Galaxy" prefix absent. It's just "Gear 2" because the Google Android-based operating system has instead been replaced by Tizen. This shift makes little difference in reality, as Samsung is presenting a more or less complete package.
But in Samsung's backing away from Google, there's that slightly awkward moment: the Gear 2 is not Android Wear, the new smartwatch platform being pushed by Google, with Motorola and LG also on board. And so Samsung is running a risk when it comes to developer support because Android Wear offers universal Android compatibility.
That sets us off on a slightly uneven keel as we settle down to review the Samsung Gear 2. Has Samsung improved upon its original formula, only to be knocked back down by to the impending competition?
Familiar design refined
Aesthetically the Gear 2 is fairly close to the former Galaxy Gear, albeit it's had some design refinement to make for a better device. The exterior screws have been removed and the side button is now on the front, making it easier to get to and easier to use.
The built-in camera has also moved from the strap to the body of the watch. It feels like part of the package now and it means that you can easily change the strap, with a couple of spring pins to release it. They even have small toggles so you don't need any tools, so custom straps should be on the cards at some point in the future.
The brushed metal finish sets the Gear 2 aside from the plastic finish of its Gear 2 Neo counterpart, a cheaper cousin that also minuses the camera from its spec. We like the looks, and this "James Bond watch" certainly draws plenty of comments when you're spotted wearing one.
The Gear 2's strap is still plastic, however, so it can become a little sweaty underneath from wear. We found ourselves releasing the clasp on occasions to let the strap loosen and let our skin breathe. Of course you could wear it looser to avoid it sticking to you with sweat, but then the built-in heart rate monitor wouldn't work properly, as it needs to be well-placed against your skin to detect your pulse.
Overall we like the design. The gold-copper finish of our review sample looked smart enough to wear on formal occasions and we're grateful it doesn't have Samsung plastered all over the front. We suspect the standard silver-grey version will be more popular with those wanting to change the band in the future though.
The Gear 2 is also water-resistant, so you don't have to worry about it getting soaked in the rain, or when you get pushed into a swimming pool.
The Gear 2 has a 1.63-inch Super AMOLED panel that delivers a display packed full of vibrancy. The colours are very punchy and there's plenty of brightness so you'll be able to see the display even in sunny conditions, with an outdoor mode if you need it.
It has a resolution of 320 x 320 pixels (277ppi if you're interested) and looks wonderfully sharp. It offers great viewing angles, so even the slightest sideways glance at the face will still reveal the information. We liked the display on the Galaxy Gear and we still like it here.
However, the Gear 2 isn't an always-on display like you'll find on the Pebble smartwatch. Instead, to save battery the screen turns off fairly quickly. You can either press the button to wake it, or rely on the motion gesture to turn it on by a flick of the wrist.
This gesture will detect when you lift the watch up to a view it and we've found that to work reliably: it's the same sort of gesture that Pebble wants you to use to get its watch to illuminate too. It's a little too slow to react, however, especially if you're using it as a running watch, as you'll deliberately lift your arm to check your stats and have to run a few more paces before you've got the information.
READ: Pebble review
It can be a little distracting too, especially when it's dark. Changing gear in a car, for example, sees the Gear 2 illuminating. We've noticed similar when walking up the stairs (depending on how you swing your arms), or taking a drink in the cinema. Creeping up the stairs late at night it illuminated half the house, watching Locke on the big screen we noticed fellow viewers glancing across each time the display fired up.
This further highlights something else: the Gear 2's bright display is bright all the time when it comes on. You can change the brightness (to turn it down) but it lacks the sort of clever ambient light awareness that modern smartphones offer.
But overall it's a great looking display with plenty of brightness.
The Gear 2 is a companion device to your Samsung phone - and only your Samsung phone - and to get it to work, you'll need to download the Gear Manager app. This then manages most aspects of what the Gear 2 will do, is where you update the firmware, as well as providing access to a number of other features and settings.
Gear Manager on first launch establishes the Bluetooth connection between smartphone and smartwatch and we found that connection to be very good. The watch will notify if the connection is lost; you can also set it up so that when the connection is lost, the smartphone locks.
There's also a find my Gear/find my phone function, making it easy to locate one or the other if you put one down somewhere.
Gear Manager acts as the bridge between S Health on your phone and the data that Gear 2 might be collecting - be that from the pedometer or other sports functions. It's set to automatically transfer every three hours, but if you want all the latest info in one place, you can trigger a transfer at any time.
READ: What is S Health 3.0
There is a lot of interplay between the two devices, such as setting behaviour based on the condition of the other. For example: if you're looking at your phone, you can opt to have the Gear 2 display remain off when notifications arrive.
Device software and experience
One of the triumphs of the Samsung Gear 2 is how slick and fluid the interface is. It's designed on a tiered carousel type arrangement and it's wonderfully smooth when swiping from one page to the next to find what you want. Tapping an app icon opens it, taking you down a tier, and you can move back up a tier again by swiping down the display.
The Gear 2 has a home screen arrangement rather like Android, as well as an apps menu. You can choose to move things around as you wish, putting those useful elements on the home screen and leaving the rest in the menu. You get four apps per page - aside from the central home screen - and with some arrangement you can have the features you actually want within easy reach.
There's no sign of lag moving around Gear 2, which it a huge positive, but there can be a lot of scrolling and swiping to get around due to the wide range of functions on offer.
Since we've been using the Gear 2 - about a month or so - there have been a number of updates, with functions being added or changing and things being refined. The same is true of the Samsung Galaxy S5, especially around S Health, as the range of functions and options have evolved. We've found Gear 2 to be stable during the time we've been using it.
READ: Samsung Galaxy S5 review
Much of what smartwatches are about is their ability to deliver notifications; a way of seeing what's happening on your phone without pulling it out of your pocket every five minutes. The Gear 2 offers a wide array of notifications, from incoming and missed calls, messages, emails and so forth. In that respect, it's pretty closely aligned to its competition.
Through Gear Manager it also offers options for notifications for all your apps, although not all are supported. So you can tick the box, but that won't necessarily result in anything happening on your watch. Tizen teething troubles.
Aside from basic communications, those who use Android are likely to want to know what's happening in Gmail. It was poor when the original Galaxy Gear first launched and it's much better in the Gear 2, although we're still not entirely happy with it. You can see who messages are from and quickly browse through them, but too many times we've been hit with notification of multiple messages, and left to scroll through a mash of those messages. In most instances, browsing recent emails on Gear 2 isn't as clear as we'd like and we think it still needs work.
Having used the Pebble extensively, it's obvious in use that Samsung's touch-based interface is much more dynamic than Pebble's button-based UI. However, we don't feel better notifiednotified. It's nice to be able to open a message on the phone with a tap, which is something that Gear offers, but all too often we find we need to do that because all we've really seen is header information on the watch.
You can talk to Gear 2. It's compatible with Samsung's S Voice service which is a little more useful than it might seem at first, especially if you're driving.
You can easily trigger voice control to send messages, for example, and we've found it works pretty well. You can change the action of a double-press on the button to launch an app of your choice, and S Voice is perfect for this, as you can double tap and then start talking.
Then you can use it to make calls too. It has its own speaker so your phone can remain in your pocket or bag. Callers reported that it sounded like we were in a large room, but had no problem hearing what we were saying. You feel a little silly standing there talking to your wrist and then listening back to it, not to mention others around you can hear your conversation unless you have paired up some Bluetooth headphones. Thankfully it's possible to transfer the call to your phone, if you need to, which can be of use if you're scrabbling around trying to dig your phone out of a bag or deep pocket.
A play to sports
With the launch of the Galaxy S5, the Gear 2 and the Gear Fit have fitness firmly in their sights. The Gear 2 has a pedometer function - which is nothing new - as well as heart rate sensor on the rear.
It can work as an appendage for gathering data about your activity to feed back to your phone and collation into S Health. The nice thing is that it isn't dependent on your phone: all the sports and tracking functions can be enabled through the Gear 2, so you can leave your phone at home.
An extension to this is the ability to load up the internal storage with music, connect the Gear 2 to a Bluetooth headset and not need a separate music player. It has its own internal speaker, but it won't really cut it except in dire situations.
The sports functions of the Gear 2 include running, walking, cycling and hiking - as S Health does - along with coaching advice, heart rate tracking and the ability to set a time, distance or calorie goal.
There's a downside, however, in that the Gear 2 isn't designed as neatly as most dedicated sports watches. It doesn't feel right running in it, not in the way that an Adidas, Polar, Garmin or TomTom watch does. To us it feels more like a nice way of keeping track of light recreational activity, rather than sports training.
There's a coaching function that will monitor what you're doing and provide guidance. This can tell you to speed up or slow down, although we found that sometimes the coaching didn't want to stick to what we asked it to do. We also found the distance measuring to be a little short, something to watch out for.
When it comes to the cycling offering the accuracy might be questionable as there are so many additional factors to consider. Cadence, altitude and wind being three obvious ones that the Gear 2 can't measure. It's good to have a guide, though.
If you're going to be serious about your sports, we still think the experience from a dedicated GPS sportswatch is better. Samsung may be forging a path into fitness, but there's an established world of very good sports devices out there already. But as the Samsung platform evolves it has the potential to improve.
The camera on the Gear 2 has a 2-megapixel sensor and takes photos with a tap of the display. These are stored internally, then transferred to your connected Samsung phone. It's something of a novelty feature and most people who borrow your Gear 2 - there will be plenty who want to - will happily snap away, filling your phone with all manner of shots.
The position of the camera means lining up a shot is pretty hard, as the camera is at a right angle to the display. You either have to peer down into the display, or you're taking pictures up people's noses.
There are a range of options to change the aspect and the focus mode (auto/macro) and the results are very much what you'd get from a typical front-facing smartphone camera: some dodgy colour issues, lots of low-light image noise, a lack of detail.
But perhaps that doesn't matter. As this is a companion to your smartphone, you're likely to have a much better camera in your pocket anyway. We suspect the Gear 2 camera will likely be used for showing off, taking creep shots, or snapping your location in a car park, and little else. In that sense the Gear 2 Neo seems to make more sense for its more affordable price point and absence of a camera.
There are various other core apps that enable control, such as music playback. There is a controller so you can play/pause and skip tracks from the Gear rather than phone or headphone controller. It's useful, but we'd like it to be elevated to the surface when music is playing. You might start music on your phone, but you then still have to dig the app out and surely there could be some easier way to immediately access it on Gear 2.
There is also an infrared blaster so you can control things like your TV through WatchOn Remote. This works much in the same way as WatchOn on your phone, offering basic controls. We doubt anyone will seriously use it at home to control things, but it certainly can be amusing to take control of the TV in a public place, like the pub. Amusing, but again, after the novelty value has worn off, you might never use it again.
Battery and charging
Samsung hasn't tried to hide the fact that the battery in Gear 2 will only really give you around two or three days of life. Much of that, we're sure, comes down to that display tugging away at the charge, because we happily get five days from the mono-screen Pebble. Samsung has far more features, but it means you'll need to charge more often.
The Gear 2 is an improvement over the Galaxy Gear and that's an important point. You can set off for a weekend and Gear 2 will be fine without needing to visit a plug, but any more days and you'll have to charge it.
The Gear 2 adopts a similar charging mechanism as the original Galaxy Gear, requiring you to attach a clip-on cradle to the rear of the watch which is then connected via micro-USB to the power source. It's less fussy than the older Galaxy Gear arrangement was, but it's still a bit of a faff. We would prefer it to simpler: a cable direct into the Gear would work for us.
The Samsung Gear 2 offers a whole range of functionality and it is impressive what Samsung has packed into this wearable device. As a watch we like the design, the slick navigation, and the display is bright, vibrant and responsive.
But we're left with the feeling that this is Samsung showing what can be done, not necessarily providing what's wanted. The more affordable Gear 2 Neo might be plasticky, but arrives at a price point more worthy of consideration in our view.
The move over to Tizen doesn't largely affect the features it on Gear 2, but there's little in the way of apps available. Add to the fact Samsung has avoided the Android Wear route and that may be the biggest factor moving forward when it comes to app development and support. Samsung is pouring cash into developer pots, but we think the lure of a wide-open Android platform may be more appealing. It's early days, so it's too soon to judge, but as it stands there's little compelling on offer.
Then there's the limitation of only being compatible with some Samsung devices. Samsung sells a lot of phones, but locking the Gear to those phones alone only limits the potential buyers. There are plenty of tech fans and early adopters using other devices, so official support would make sense to us.
We've enjoyed using the Gear 2, but we're left with the impression that it tries to do slightly too much. This is a watch that improves on the previous version, but doesn't quite execute those core functions as well as we'd like. And with Android Wear just around the corner it's difficult to wholeheartedly recommend the Gear 2.