The Samsung Gear Live is the company's first smartwatch to run on Google's Android Wear platform, but the third operating system that the Korean company has utilised throughout its sometimes experimental smartwatch campaign. Practice makes perfect after all.
The Gear Live is a slim and attractive model that's minimalist in design both inside and out. But with the likes of the LG G Watch and Moto 360 both keeping the Android Wear market competitive - but still not perfect - can the Samsung stand out above its competitors and make taking your phone out of your pocket a thing of the past?
Unlike the Moto 360 that broke the mould with its round watch face, the Samsung Gear Live presents the squarer shape that has almost come to be expected from smartwatches. But unlike the older Samsung watches the Live has a minimalist aesthetic with a simple metallic edge and clear black screen. It's less fussy and looks great because of it.
READ: Motorola Moto 360 review
It's slim enough to look like a normal watch and easily slips under sleeves without having to lift them over it.
The only button to be found is on the side near the bottom of the device meaning it's relatively out of sight but still accessible enough to use. That said, with Android Wear the need for buttons is all but negated with most options accessible by voice, but also through screen taps and swipes. The button does prove useful for quick access to power, screen light and connection shortcuts though.
The Gear Live's strap - which is specific to the Samsung range, not a standard fitting - follows the minimalism of the watch itself. The basic strap is smooth black plastic with a simple pop-in clasp but can be swapped for a number of other options (sold separately) to suit various styles. We can't really imagine forking out additional money for that though.
The Gear Live is also IP67 rated meaning it can withstand water and dust - we brazenly placed ours under the tap for 10 seconds and it did indeed carry on working just fine.
The 1.63-inch display may sounds small but is plenty for most jobs, including things like navigating on a map. That's thanks to the 320 x 320 resolution Super AMOLED panel - which is a step ahead of the LG G Watch's 280 x 280 pixel offering - that can also display pictures with great clarity.
READ: LG G Watch review
That said we were disappointed that WhatsApp photos only come as alerts without the ability to see them on the watch itself - but that's a third party app limitation and perhaps indicative of Android Wear's current position, rather than a Samsung issue.
The Gear Live's screen automatically dims when not in use in order to save battery and then comes back to life when you lift the watch to look at it. When this first appeared in the Galaxy Gear it was a bit hit-and-miss but the Live has nailed it. Slow or fast, the movement to auto-activate the screen works every time like magic.
The display is plenty bright enough even when used on level four of its maximum five - that was our preference as to save power. This works just fine even when out in daylight with the sun directly hitting the screen. As you can see in our product images everything is visible despite some reflection, with the one issue we found being courtesy of fingerprint smudges that resulted in needing to regularly wipe the screen clean. Once some genius finds a way to crack that smudge issue we'll be first in line to buy one.
Sensors and hardware
In addition to greater resolution screen than the LG G Watch, the Samsung Gear Live also comes with a heart rate sensor absent in its LG counterpart. This means any time you're out and about you can check your pulse rate with a simple verbal request. The result only appears after cycling through a few screens which seem a little unnecessary but the device then usually finds your heart rate (when you're not moving anyway) within 10 seconds. It also appears to be pretty accurate to our own count-in-head comparisons.
Under the skin the Gear Live opts for a 1.2GHz Snapdragon 400 processor, 512MB of RAM and there’s 4GB of internal storage. That puts it on a par with the LG G Watch and performance is much the same and, again, there's no access to that internal storage, which is just something that apps utilise as they need to record data.
There's also an accelerometer, digital compass and gyroscope in the watch to make counting activities all the more accurate - more on that in a moment. The step counter, which we think people will use the most, can't be accessed quickly enough thanks to Android Wear's reliance on voice input though. It means a bit of finger-based swiping and clicking if you want to access apps without talking to your wrist.
Unlike the Samsung Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo, the Gear Live isn't restricted to Samsung-only phone pairing. That's the beauty of Android Wear in a way: it opens up access to a number of devices. However, that means Samsung's S Health isn't available here - instead you'll be tied to Android Fit, the generic app that's independent of smartphone (for now anyway). We're pleased to see a Samsung device that's not locked to the ecosystem, but as S Health improves you may get a better health-based experience from one of Samsung's other Tizen-based smartwatches. Or Android Wear may sail miles ahead in little time.
The Android Wear experience
In many ways Android Wear works as an extension of your phone by pushing alerts, messages and application notifications direct to your wrist. Therefore you'll need to pair the Gear Live with your Android smartphone via Bluetooth for it to be fully functional. It's easily achieved from within the downloadable app on your phone and the connection remains strong, bar for the occasional delay.
As we've mentioned Android Wear relies heavily on voice-based input, a bit like Google Now on your wrist. After a tap of the Gear Live's active screen it's possible to search for anything using Google Voice. While this is the fastest way to use the device it's often not the way you'll want to - hello there people on a busy train!
Sometimes Android Wear shows its limitations. Asking for a bus time, while at the stop, only brought up website links to open via a phone. The day the watch knows where you're standing and automatically offers bus times we'll be impressed. At the moment it still feels unfinished leaving you reaching for the phone most of the time.
When not talking to your wrist or digging for your phone, navigating the software is as simple as tapping and swiping, but we'd still like the apps laid out differently to avoid the necessity for a swipe and tap way into any sub-sub menu. A swipe upwards opens a notification card, left shuts a card, right gives more options, and downwards closes it. This makes navigating simple but is frustrating if you want to access an app that isn't automatically popping up.
Notifications appear at the bottom of the screen, along with a vibration, so you can still see the time and choose to swipe up when you like. Working with WhatsApp to both display full messages and allow verbal replies is really useful. We noticed ourselves leaving the phone in one room while still replying to messages in another. Dictation, however, is sometimes hit-and-miss - but it's only the odd word or capital letters at the start of a sentence that might be absent for the most part.
Apps and glitches
Notifications for Facebook, Twitter, emails, texts, and calls also work well. Answering calls is a waste of time unless you have headphones on though as there's no speaker in the Gear Live. There's no camera either, but we don't find that a major bother as the giant one on the original Galaxy Gear was hardly attractive.
Apps are still limited right now with built-in options like Google Maps, Google Fit, Heart Rate, Compass and the like taking care of most needs. Options for golf GPS apps, the ability to board flights with Wear and booking gigs are nice but we wouldn’t rely on the platform for those to work well enough at this stage.
Navigation is one thing we used regularly on the watch, for both cycling and walking. When on the bike it proved really useful to have the next turn displayed at the bottom of the watch face. A twist of the wrist and we could see which direction the next turn was, how far, and the road name - it made cycling using navigation without headphones a breeze.
Sometimes the watch vibrated for turns so we could look to check, but oddly this didn't happen every time. Also when listening to music - and we love that the phone handles the library, while the watch can control what plays - the tunes remain on but once you've physically turned the next direction isn't accessible, only appearing once we got near to another turn. Not ideal if you want to quickly check the map, but these glitchy Navigation issues are known about in Android Wear.
Google Now notifications setup on your phone will also appear on the watch. The usual (and annoying) "35 minutes to home" when you don't need it did get a little irksome, but you can turn this off altogether.
It's important to remember that these are still early days for Android Wear. At present app support is a little on the low side as in some cases you don't get many options on the watch before you're prompted to open the app on your phone. But that will change over time as developers embrace this fledgling platform. This is a first generation device, so there's lots of room for improvement - which we hope and expect will happen in coming months.
The many faces of Android Wear
The Gear Live has 12 included watch faces but they aren't anything to get too excited about. We only liked one or two - and as this is a watch, that's a bit of a problem.
It will come down to preference and with apps like the WearFaces there are plenty more options coming. This app even lets you re-skin the watch with the Apple Watch face, should you want to confound your friends for fun.
The battery life of the Samsung Gear Live is a big factor in its performance. In reality it's always connected over Bluetooth 4.0 LE, the 1.2Ghz processor is churning away and the device it always tracking your movements with those built-in sensors. And with a 300mAh capacity it means roughly a day's use between charges. That might be more than can be said for the first Gear watch, but it's still not as good as we would like.
To recharge there's a charging cradle included in the box that's a bit fussy to clip onto the back of the watch, but we do like the fast charge being able to pump 25 per cent juice into the device within 30mins and a full charge in two hours.
During our use we didn't have the screen as bright as it could go, and only used navigation for about an hour of that time. Cycling chewed through the power more although an hour with constant notifications from navigating ate through about 15 per cent battery.
Overall the Gear Live just about kept up with our phone's battery life, but a little more capacity would go a long way. The LG G Watch has a 25 per cent more capacious battery, at 400mAh, hence its squarer and fatter design. Although we don't want to undo some of the Samsung's good design work, there needs to be a happy medium we think. Maybe updated Android Wear will draw less on the battery in the future when the next update lands, but that's an unknown entity right now.
Of all the current Android Wear smartwatches on the market the Samsung Gear Live has the best design of the bunch. We like the idea of the Moto 360's round face, but some design blips on its behalf see the Samsung take top spot in the design ranks for now.
But despite being a good looker, the overall experience is still somewhat glitchy because Android Wear isn't quite clean enough yet to call it perfect. It's good for a relatively new system but still has a few hurdles to jump before it's enough to leave your phone tucked away for most of the day. Navigation being temperamental, an over-dependence on voice input, a lack of apps that will really define it as that much better than the competition, and in this instance battery life that's not as long-lasting as the near competition are all points of note.
If you're sold on Android Wear as your smartwatch platform of choice and will actually use the Google Voice-based input then of the options out there - LG G Watch and Moto 360 the other two available now - we would pick the Samsung Gear Live. If you can wait a little longer then both the Asus ZenWatch and LG G Watch R are incoming in the near future and may fare better. But only time will tell, and you might not want to wait forever.
The Samsung Gear Live does show progression in terms of design, which is a big positive. Its great screen, sleek design and smooth operation all go towards helping it, but until Android Wear updates into something altogether more we're still at the same conclusion here as we have been with the other devices on the platform. In six months' time it might be that much improved that the same device would score even higher.