(Pocket-lint) - The smartwatch market is an interesting one: some people we talk to can't wait to get their hands on one, while others are less impressed with the idea of getting their emails and texts delivered to their wrists.
Samsung's first attempt in the category, the Galaxy Gear, had mixed responses when it launched in September 2013. We thought the device had promise, but ultimately felt premature. Since then the company has introduced a number of new smartwatches, including the Gear 2 Neo which we've been living with for a couple of weeks. The Galaxy brand is no more due to the latest spate of devices running on Tizen.
Does the Neo improve on the original Gear concept and in the expanding matrix of smartwatches should it be the chosen one?
What is the Gear 2 Neo?
First thing's first: what is the Gear 2 Neo all about? It's a smartwatch designed to act as a go-between to your smartphone. Pair it up with a Samsung device, such as the Galaxy S5, and it'll make glancing at alerts on your wrist quick and easy, rather than needing to take your phone out of your pocket all the time.
There are apps to act as a go-between for the key functions on your phone such as texting or email, but also alerts for WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and more. There are also some watch-only applications.
In addition it handles some fitness data, such as acting as a pedometer to count your steps, so no need to necessarily rely on a extra dedicated fitness device. That might be enough reason to consider buying it alone.
Lastly, and this might sound obvious, but it's a watch. Glance at it and it'll tell you the time. It just happens to have all sorts of other swanky tech wrapped around that age-old concept.
The Gear 2 Neo was announced alongside the Gear 2 - yes, that's Samsung announcing lots of devices with very similar names, just to confuse - and it's clearly the more budget of the two devices. When put side-by-side, the Neo's plasticky finish makes this immediately obvious and, compared to the metal finish on the Gear 2, we found it looked a little harsher on the wrist.
READ: Samsung Gear 2 review
The Neo's large face is quite a statement piece because it's certainly noticeable when you are wearing it. Rather than being something that blends in with your outfit like some watches do, there's a sense of "look at my tech" at play here. This could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how much you want it to be noticed.
The design is certainly better than the original Galaxy Gear as the exposed screws on the front face of the original device are no more. This makes for a more seamless design and a button has been introduced just below the middle of the display to make using the device simple. Its position is familiar to how you would use an Android smartphone.
The button will not only turn the screen on if you don't want to flick your wrist to activate the device, but it will also take you back to the home screen when you are navigating around the Neo's menus. There is also a small circular infrared LED sensor located in the middle at the top of the screen that allows you to control your Samsung TV with the WatchOn remote app.
The watch strap itself offers a textured finish on the outside and a ribbed finish on the inside, so it does grip your wrist giving reassurance that it won't fly off if you are doing some sort of rigorous exercise. Equally, though, the rubber finish can get a little sweaty and, although it's comfortable to wear, we did find it got a little more irritating when the weather was warmer. That said, we did wear it to bed some nights to test the sleep monitoring function and didn't find it to be as noticeable or in the way as we had anticipated.
There are ten settings for adjusting the size of the strap which is easy to do. Simply slide a metal clasp up or down and set it by inserting the pin into the relevant hole to make it looser or tighter. The mechanism is then neatly covered away from sight when you close the watch, which keeps things looking tidy when it's on the wrist.
The subtle Samsung branding on the watch's clasp is quite nice too as it isn't overtly obvious. Branding might not be to everyone's taste but it is important to some so we think Samsung has struck a good balance here.
The Neo's 1.63-inch Super AMOLED display is something that deserves a great deal of credit as it really is quite wonderful. It offers a 320 x 320 pixel resolution, meaning a pixel density of 278ppi, which delivers vibrant, bright and clear colours, along with sharp and crisp information - whether it be the time, an email or a text message. The resolution might sound paltry when looking at the figures, but at this scale it works.
It was easy to see the display outdoors with no reflection issues even when the sun was shining. That glass front seems tough enough too as after a couple of weeks of continuous wear we've not scratched the display.
The display remains off until you flick your wrist or push the home button on the device, which we found to be a good thing as it isn't necessary for it to be on all the time. We experienced a little bit of lag with the flick-of-the-wrist method as sometimes the Neo would come on instantly, while others times it would take a while to react or we would have to flick our wrist a couple of times. Which looked a bit strange out in public. The button works each and every time though, making it our general preference.
The screen's brightness can be adjusted in the settings which we found was necessary in some cases, especially at night. Just as we found with the Gear 2, the Neo can illuminate unwantedly when doing various things. At times it was a little too bright for our surroundings and almost felt like we had a light on our wrist. We'd like to see more dynamic auto brightness response.
The Gear Manager app, installed on your Samsung phone - and, let's be clear, only your Samsung smartphone - is extremely easy to setup and use. Use it to change the style of your Gear's home screen, decide whether you want preview messages in the notifications pop-ups on your Gear or keep the screen off when you receive notifications, for example.
The settings section will allow you to back up your Gear, enable a feature where you can use the Gear to unlock your smartphone, and direct which app a double-press of the smartwatch's homekey will bring up, among other options.
You can also perform a lot of these settings changes from the Gear itself too. However, typically we found using the Gear Manager app easier due to being displayed on a larger smartphone screen. More space to work with and therefore less scrolling required to get to the section you're looking for.
Notifications on the Gear 2 Neo have been improved compared to the original Galaxy Gear, but there can still be issues. 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.
The core apps and their notifications are present and accounted for, though, which is what matters the most.
Improvements do make a practical difference too. In the original device, for example, the inability to see more than just the notification of a Gmail email was a frustration. Because it meant you had to get your phone out, thus defeating much of the point of a smart watch in the first place. Now that's a thing of the past as Gmail is now just about as well supported as the standard email app. It means you be able to see the subject, sender and a fragment of the email from the Gmail app, after which you can then decide whether you want to check your phone to view the rest. However, we think it still needs work to be altogether clearer when multiple emails arrive.
Facebook and Twitter notifications have also been improved on the Gear 2 Neo, no longer just alerting you to activity but actually showing you what a tweet says or another user's comment on a post you have previously commented on.
The text messages notification was one of our favourites as you are not only able to see the entire message - unless you have been sent an essay or the entire works of Shakespeare - but you can also reply from the Gear itself. There are a number of standard templates that you can select, or you can head into the Gear Manager on your phone and set up a few of your own that you tend to use a lot.
If you need half an hour of peace and quiet, then it's possible to switch off all notifications, or select which apps will notify you. Should you do opt for multiple apps to notify then these notifications can stack up. As the screen is small not everything can be shown at once, so you need to open one, followed by a swipe down from the top of the watch face to see a different app's notification. Or swipe sideways to see the next notification in the same app. It all works very smoothly and quickly, the touchscreen dealing well with our input.
If you want to secure your Gear then you can add a PIN in the security section of the settings - but we didn't find it was something that was particularly necessary given it is on your wrist. Unlocking the Gear via PIN doesn't mean your smartphone will unlock for viewing notifications, though, so you may find yourself tapping in the code on both devices which is a bit frustrating, albeit understandable.
Overall, when it comes to notifications, the Gear 2 Neo does its job: you needn't look at your smartphone device, so we rather like what this smart watch is all about. It offers a wide scope for personalisation and we found it useful when in meetings or at dinner as we didn't need to have our phone sitting on the table.
Making and taking a call
The Gear 2 Neo comes with a built-in speaker and microphone, just like the original Galaxy Gear did so you can make and receive calls from your wrist, if you want to. 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.
We found it useful for answering a call to make sure we didn't miss it when our phone wasn't easily accessible, and it was also good for answering it to say "I'll ring you back" or something similar if you were in a supermarket queue or had your hands full. Otherwise 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.
You'll also find a dialler that allows you to call a number you know off the top of your head, or you can use the contacts section if you don't know the number and call it from there.
The Gear 2 Neo offers a good enough sound for its small build but it isn't crystal clear, which was to be expected. Grabbing your phone out of your pocket or bag is probably going to offer a better experience when it comes to phone calls, it'll sound a bit less "big room" and echoey too.
More apps needed
But there's a problem: there aren't that many apps in the current ecosystem. The move over to Tizen doesn't largely affect the features it on Gear 2, but the fact Samsung has avoided the Android Wear route - the new smartwatch platform being pushed by Google, with Motorola and LG also on board - may be a significant factor moving forward. This is Samsung catering for Samsung users, rather than targeting the wider ecosystem, and that might see potential developers pursue Android Wear ahead of Tizen.
The original Galaxy Gear offered several apps including the ability to control music on your phone, a voice memo recorder, countdown timer and stopwatch, which the Gear 2 Neo also offers. You'll also find weather and calendar apps and the Samsung Store offers a number of virtual watchfaces as well as a few apps that help boost the Neo's abilities.
There are a few extras such as Feedly, a couple of games like Dummy Fish and 2048, along with utilities such as a calculator - but the apps are still quite limited and they can cost as much as a £1, which seems a lot to us. Why not just use the 69p smartphone version? Or, indeed, why does the smartphone version not spawn a companion app for the Neo for free?
We used a few of the apps that were available such as the Sleep Monitor and we found it worked well, recording from when you press start to when you wake up and press stop. The data is then presented to you in a graph so you can see how long you slept for and how much of that time you were "motionless" for, which tended to be around 90 per cent in our case. Good sleeps.
The Find My Device app worked well too. When you select it on the Gear, it will call your phone so you will be able find where you have put it. The app works the other way round too so if you have lost your Gear, you can go into Gear Manager and select Find My Gear, which will turn the screen on and make it play a sound. Very handy.
Overall if you are looking at buying the Gear 2 Neo for the additional apps aspect of it, then you will be disappointed for now. We suspect this will be a different story soon, but there's an element of history repeating here: the first generation was premature and the second generation presses the reset button and, therefore, can be accused of the very same. With Android Wear looming, non-Samsung phone owners won't care for the locked-down system either.
Samsung's going all-out fitness in 2014 and the Gear 2 Neo is no stranger to that. There's a built-in pedometer, along with a heart rate sensor, gyroscope and accelerometer. It's certainly an improvement over the original Gear as not only will it count your steps using the pedometer but it will also allow you to track four types of exercise: walking, running, cycling and hiking.
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
Set it up with your gender, height and weight and then it claims to give you a more accurate reading. We love the pedometer as you are awarded a virtual medal when you hit you goal and it's great to see the step count go up when you choose to walk instead of catch the tube or bus. It will then give you a graph so you can see which days you walked more on and which you were a little lazy.
The heart rate sensor is also a great addition, the sensor is nestled against your skin and it worked flawlessly when we used it. You will need to activate it and wait about 30 seconds before a reading of your heart rate is displayed, along with a graph so you can see your heart rate history too. Those looking to train in zones will know the importance of heart rate.
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 Neo can't claim to measure. It's good to have a guide, though.
The fitness aspect of the Gear will make it an appealing product. For some this will be reason alone to buy it instead of a pedometer or the like, with the added benefit of notifications. It elevates where the earlier Galaxy Gear was but we're fairly sure its full potential has been reached just yet.
The Samsung Gear 2 Neo adopts a similar charging mechanism as the original Galaxy Gear, requiring you to attach a cradle which is then connected via micro-USB to the power source. The Neo has done away with the clamp that covers the watch face, which is good, 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.
We found we got around two days of constant use out of the Gear 2 Neo's 300mAh battery before it required charging, which wasn't amazing but it wasn't terrible either. Samsung claims you will get between two and three days of typical use and six days of low use. Over a weekend when we get fewer emails and messages less battery was used. It's also worth turning the brightness down, as you would on your smartphone, as this helps provide a bit more juice for increased longevity.
Samsung is offering the Gear 2 Neo for £169, which is almost half the price of the original Galaxy Gear and £80 cheaper than the Gear 2. We think the price is very reasonable and the way it undercuts the pricier Gear 2 will make it obsolete for many.
As a device the Neo does almost everything the Gear 2 does except there's no camera and it's plastic rather than metal. If you need those two things then the extra £80 may well be worth it for your needs. If not, the Neo has you covered.
The Samsung Gear 2 Neo does a brilliant job of what it sets out to do: acting a go-between to your Samsung phone. Despite effectively hitting the reset button and ditching Android in favour of Tizen, Samsung has resolved many of the issues with the original Galaxy device.
The display is fantastic and both the design and user interface grew on us the more we used the device. As a watch it's rather accomplished and we're fans.
But while the Korean company has been busy improving its system, the impending arrival of Android Wear threatens the Gear's potential success. Samsung has opted to lock the Gear to Samsung smartphones only, which in addition to the limited number of apps on its Tizen platform could be a costly move.
Given its £169 price tag, the Gear 2 Neo delivers a lot of tech and is steps ahead of the original Galaxy Gear. Whether it's for you is another question, however, as you may still find the addition of a "middle man" device a pointless endeavour. Not us, though, as we've been swayed into the camp that finds the Neo an exciting prospect, even if it's one that's not fully bloomed just yet.