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Somewhere in my first few days of using the Gear Fit, I stared at the band on my wrist. Curved display, eye-popping colors. A notification was on my wrist: someone liked my last tweet. My sister posted new photos on Facebook. I pressed the heart rate monitor button, and noticed my heart was beating a little faster than it should.
I pressed the button again. Suddenly a message popped up: I had three new Twitter notifications. I opened one up to read, but the Fit's perpendicular band-design made it hard to turn and look at. I sideways-scrolled, then tried checking an email. After a few weeks, even with newer software features that added a way to vertically flip the display, it never got all that much better.
Is the Gear Fit doing everything I'd dreamed of? And is it even doing a great job as a watch?
The future of wearable tech has come to this: a pile of fitness bands, and a growing pile of smartwatches. But none of them all that useful, despite their attempts to be. Can something in the middle offer the best of both worlds, and be a fitness band plus a smart watch all in one?
The Gear Fit is close. And yet it's also farther than I'd thought. It does a lot of things, but it's not particularly great at any one of them.
With the latest firmware update, which adds sleep tracking, a vertical orientation mode, and more watch face customization, the Fit is a bit better as a watch. But it's still not a fantastic smartwatch, and it's definitely not the fitness band it should be. That elongated display, no matter what orientation it's in, isn't as useful as a more standard rectangular screen. But most importantly, the Fit lacks the automatic smarts and next-level software you'd expect from a gadget this forward-looking. It's a step forward from last year, but not enough of a leap.
Editors' note, April 15, 2014:This review has been updated with my experience using Samsung's latest software since it updated the Gear Fit firmware and S Health software.
Fit: Everyday wearable, or Gear Lite?
The Galaxy Gear, Samsung's vision of wearables in 2013, has been shelved in favor of a brand-new line of Gear wearables. The Galaxy name is gone completely -- as is its underlying Android OS, now replaced with upstart Tizen -- and there are three products to choose from: Gear Fit, Gear 2, and Gear 2 Neo. The Gear 2 is the true smartwatch successor to the Galaxy Gear, and the Neo is its entry-level sibling. But the Gear Fit is a new type of device, a hybrid of fitness band and smartwatch. The Fit doesn't have its own apps, unlike last year's Galaxy Gear and this year's Gear 2 and Neo: instead, it has an extended set of on-board smart features. It's most of a smart watch.
In theory, it sounds like the perfect "chocolate and peanut butter" mixture I've always wanted in wrist tech: Get a fitness tracker and a real smartwatch onto one band, and suddenly all my needs were met. In practice, perfection remains elusive: Consider the Gear Fit a pared-down smartwatch that also tracks steps and heart rate, or consider it a fitness band with extras. That's a formula that should be magic...if the execution, and the software, can make it all work. And, if the fitness and watch elements can keep separate enough to not annoy.
The fit of Fit: forward-looking but quirky
The functional ambivalence spills over into the Gear Fit's design -- it's trying to have it both ways. It has a curved AMOLED main body that screams future, with gleaming chrome touches and a crisp touch interface. In fact, the Fit is a little oblong puck -- the unit snaps into an included plastic band that wraps around the edges.
Across that curved glass display, you can swipe and touch to your heart's content. It feels as crisp and responsive as a phone, and looks as brilliant as the display on last year's Gear. This is the first curved display on a device seen since the Samsung Galaxy Round and LG Flex, and the first on a wearable. It's the sort of eye-opening design touch that wearables need.
The stretched-out display design makes reading the horizontal text a little challenging if you have long text messages, but the Fit can switch views between "horizontal" and "vertical," flipping the display as needed. Vertical view creates some funky watch layouts and works better tucked under a shirt sleeve, but text is still an odd fit for the display size.
The colors pop on the bright OLED display, but sometimes too much: the wild colors sometimes contrasted with the text I was trying to read. I came to prefer basic black and crisp white text. The OLED screen looks OK in daylight, but the curved display ended up throwing a fair amount of glare.
Under that curved glass and a chromed border, the rest of the Fit's base unit is plain black plastic. It lies flat against your wrist, snugly when the Fit's wristband is adjusted snugly. I'd advise a tighter fit, because the heart rate monitor, located on the unit's backside, needs to make contact with the skin in order to work.
The rubberized plastic band holds the Fit's body in place, but it feels kind of cheap. And while the Fit felt snug and comfy on my wrist, I did end up having mine pop off in the first day of use; I'd be worried about it happening again.
You can choose among three band colors when purchasing: black, orange, and grey. I tried the black and orange bands; Samsung says the bands will be available separately as well, but it hasn't specified pricing. My wife thought the whole band looked weirdly overly colorful, especially compared to the much more austere Fitbit Force (now discontinued) or Pebble Steel.
The Gear Fit is IP67 dust and water resistant, but it's not intended for swimming. I wore it when I washed my hands, but took it off when giving my son a bath. I did wear it when showering, eventually.
Gear Fit as fitness band
The existing crop of fitness bands work well as step-counters, but they lack a "next step" level of encouragement. I know I walk 10,000 steps a day, but what about active exercise? My own doctor reminds me to do exercise that keeps my heart rate up. Last year's fitness bands like the Nike+ Fuelband and Fitbit Force only track steps. The Gear Fit can track steps, but it also has a heart-rate monitor, too, like some recent wearables such as the Basis Band or even the Withings Pulse.
The Fit does it at the press of a button when on the Heart Rate screen, but it takes a few seconds to complete. The green LED technology is on the back of the band. I needed to stand relatively still to get the reading, and the monitor seemed to work better with the Fit flipped around so its display was on the underside of my wrist -- maybe it was my hairy arms, but I didn't always get a smooth reading.
That's a better way to wear the Fit, by the way, because it's easier to check your step/heart rate status while exercising, and to read messages on the go. Was the Fit intended to be worn this way? It's hard to tell.
Heart rate data is checked continuously in exercise mode. The Fit has four different modes you can trigger: walking, running, cycling, and hiking. All of them allow you to set goals of time, distance, or estimated calories burned, and you can show your heart rate right alongside the timer readout. Running also has a coaching mode that bases its suggestions on your heart rate, telling you to speed up or slow down. Deeper heart rate settings will let you enter a maximum heart rate to target coaching around.
I tried working out with a Fit, and it was a pretty mixed-bag experience. For cycling, forget about stationary bikes: oddly, cycling mode requires a GPS ping and aims to track actual travel as a measure of activity, so I couldn't even start it up in my GPS-signal-free gym. Running mode is the most interesting: The Gear Fit indeed told me to speed up, slow down or keep my pace based on my heart rate, with little vibrating pings.
But, the coaching mode didn't seem to care about how much I was actually running: it's all about my heart rate. I was sitting down, my heart rate was high, and the Fit told me to "keep my current pace." Also, heart rate accuracy seemed mixed. Early on, the measurement I was getting on my wrist was vastly different than what my treadmill's monitor was telling me (70 bpm vs. 140). After 20 minutes, the two matched each other pretty evenly: the Fit would say 140 bpm, while the treadmill would say maybe 137.
Being able to quickly scan my heart rate while running is a plus, but the Fit's display turns off after a few seconds, and I had to keep hunting for and pressing the small button on the side. The Fit's supposed to automatically turn on with the flick of a wrist, but I was never able to get it to work more than half the time.
Then, there are all the distracting notifications. I'd get incoming call buzzes, Facebook updates, Twitter pings and more, all buzzing my wrist and getting in the way of my workout display. I couldn't tell whether a buzz meant I needed to speed up or slow down, or whether someone liked my earlier tweet about "Game of Thrones." For all the features the Fit has, it lacks any on-device way to turn notifications on or off, or even to enter a "workout mode" where I'd remain unbothered if I wanted to. Seems like a big oversight.