Has Samsung missed the mark again with Gear updates?

After the disappointing reception of its first smartwatch, Samsung is back at it with the introduction of the new Tizen-based Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo. Will the minor tweaks and new software be enough to excite consumers?

Samsung Gear 2

If at first you don't succeed, change the operating system.

That's essentially what Samsung has done after the disappointing launch of its first smartwatch last year. This week in Barcelona, Spain during the Mobile World Congress trade show the company unveiled the updated Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo, which will be using Samsung's homegrown Tizen software rather than the Google Android software.

Samsung has admitted that the original Galaxy Gear, which launched in September, wasn't quite up to snuff, and now Samsung is attempting a do-over with the two new devices it announced this week. These new wearable products address some of the shortcomings that were present in the original Galaxy Gear smartwatch. But the most notable change -- the device's new operating system -- is probably one that will have the least effect on consumers' purchase choices.

So the big question now is whether the design and functional tweaks that Samsung made in the new smartwatches will be enough to entice consumers to buy them.

It's difficult to say for sure at this point, especially given the fact that pricing information for the new smartwatches hasn't yet been revealed.

But one thing is clear: The Gear 2, Gear 2 Neo, and Gear Fit will have lots of competition. More competitors are entering this market everyday with companies like Pebble and Sony already in the game. And newcomers like China's Huawei are also throwing their hats into the ring. And of course, there's Apple, the undisputed king of consumer electronic market disruption and Google, which are both expected to enter this market later in the year.

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It's too early to say which company will win the wearable war. But experts say there will be big demand for such products, which may mean there could be multiple winners. For example, market research firm Canalys estimated that about 500,000 smartwatches were sold in 2013 with that number growing to more than 5 million this year. And Generator Research expects less than 9 million smartwatch sales in 2014, but it believes sales will grow to 214 million in 2018.

In this post, I'll take a look at what Samsung may have gotten right with its latest wearable devices and where it likely missed the mark, again.

Design: Still bulky and ugly, but lighter.
To be fair there are a few tweaks to the Samsung smartwatches that are notable improvements over the original Galaxy Gear smartwatch introduced six months ago. But for the most part, the design and function of the device has not changed dramatically. The changes in design especially are more subtle.

Jessica Dolcourt, CNET Reviews editor, said in her initial take over the weekend that "aesthetically, the Gear 2 looks much the same as the original Galaxy Gear, though its rectangular face is very slightly larger and slimmer." Indeed, the Gear 2, which comes with a camera, and Gear 2 Neo, which comes without a camera, are slightly lighter and a smidge thinner than the previous generation Galaxy Gear smartwatch. The finish is still made to look like brushed metal. There's also textured straps with a clip-in clasp closure. And the devices must still be charged in separate charging cradle.

While the look and feel of the original Galaxy Gear smartwatch may have appealed to some, it was very clearly designed for the sensibility of a man without much thought to the female consumer. And again, Samsung has missed the mark in making these devices stylish and attractive accessories that will appeal to both men and women. As my CNET News colleague Shara Tibken complained to me over e-mail, the new Samsung smartwatches still look like smartphones strapped to a wrist rather than a piece of jewelry. I agree.

That said, the Gear Fit, which is considered more of a fitness tracker, offers a new design that may appeal to more consumers. It looks much like other fitness bands, like the FitBit or Nike FuelBand, but it packs more functionality than these competitors. The lighter device comes with a curved super AMOLED 1.84-inch screen. It offers much of the notification functionality found in the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo, such as notifications for texts, calls, and e-mails. But the device is primarily geared toward health and fitness, complete with a heart rate monitor and access to software for personal-fitness coaching.

The device itself offers a sleeker design with an interchangeable rubber wristband.

Swappable bands and revamped camera
The one major change in design that will likely please more fashionable consumers is that the camera on the Gear 2 has been moved from the wristband to the device itself. (The Gear 2 Neo doesn't include a camera at all.) This means that Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo owners will be able to switch the bands on their smartwatches to update their look. Samsung hasn't changed the color scheme, and it's still offering bands in these three colors: Charcoal Black, Gold Brown, and Wild Orange.

Samsung also moved the microphone used for voice-activation and speaker on the device from the clasp on the wristband to the body of the smartwatch. This not only means users don't have to turn over their wrist to talk to their smartwatches, but it's another element that was changed to make the wristbands interchangeable.

Still, the quality of the camera on the Gear 2 is only slightly improved from the one offered on the Galaxy Gear: 2 megapixels on the newer Gear 2 versus 1.9 megapixels on the original Galaxy Gear. So for potential customers who were not impressed with the original camera, it doesn't look like the embedded camera on the new device will be much better.

Getting more bang for the buck
One of the major criticisms of the original Galaxy Gear was that it simply didn't do much. Samsung has attempted to remedy this issue with the latest versions of the product. In addition to connecting to a user's smartphone or tablet to provide alerts, take photos, make calls, and access certain apps, the devices now also offer enhanced functionality, such as fitness and health tracking. For example, both the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo have built-in heart rate sensors.

The Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo also offer the ability to play music via Bluetooth headphones without the need to connect to a smartphone or tablet. The devices are also water resistant and dust-proof. The combination of these features, could make even the Gear 2 and the Gear 2 Neo compelling choices for athletes looking for a device to take along for workouts. Unfortunately, the Gear Fit, which is also dust proof and water resistant, doesn't allow you to download music onto the device for use without a connected smartphone.

Improved battery life is yet to be proven
Another major problem with the original Galaxy Gear smartwatch was the battery life. The company claimed that the 315mAH battery would hold a charge for about 24 hours. Samsung says it has extended the battery life of its new smartwatches. The Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo are expected to hold a charge for three days. But it will be interesting to see how this actually plays out given that the battery on the new devices is actually a 300mAH battery. The Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo not only use smaller batteries, but the devices also sport faster 1GHz dual core processors, which may also affect battery life. The Gear Fit is supposed to have the longest battery life of all three devices. The company says it can run for up to four days on "typical usage," or up to five days on "low usage."

The Samsung Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo still come in three colors.

While charging a smartphone once a day may be fine for many consumers, it's generally not considered acceptable for a wearable gadgets. People expect watches to keep a charge for days and not hours.

Apps or lack thereof
When the Galaxy Gear smartwatch first debuted in September, roughly 70 applications, which focused on fitness, social media, and productivity, were made available for the device. Companies like Evernote, Path, and eBay had something to offer. For instance, Sony's SmartWatch 2, which launched in June has more than 200. However, Sony's catalog didn't boast many brand-name applications among the offerings.

The lack of apps for the Galaxy Gear was in part controlled by Samsung, which didn't necessarily want to open the floodgates to developers to try and adapt every Android app for the smartwatch. And my CNET News colleague Shara Tibken argues in a recent story that it was a smart decision to control the app ecosystem, because it gives Samsung a bit more control over the types of apps developed for the devices.

The main reason is that opening up the Gear products to all Android developers will create an unwieldy collection of apps that may not be appropriate for a smartwatch. Because these devices are tied to smartphones, they don't need to do everything. Plus the small screen size also limits what can and should be done on such a device. By creating a smaller ecosystem of Tizen-based Gear apps, Samsung can curate batches of apps that will work well for wearable devices paired with smartphones or tablets.

Tibken also notes that consumers won't likely be able to tell the difference in terms of the software used for the older Galaxy Gear versus the new Gear wearables. But this could be a good thing, if Samsung is able to deliver on its promise of making sure there are plenty of appropriate, useful, and functioning apps available for the Gear products. The company said it is opening up its software developer kit for the new Gear products to developers.

Price still too high
The biggest deal breaker for many consumers when it came to the original Galaxy Gear was the price. The device retails for a whopping $300. This is more than most people pay for a smartphone on a carrier contract. While the true cost of that smartphone is many hundreds of dollars more than the subsidized price that most US consumers pay, the consumer still believes they are only paying $200. So $300 for an accessory that works with your smartphone seems a bit much for many folks.

Right now, Samsung hasn't published pricing information on any of the Gear devices. But based on the specifications of the Gear 2, it's likely to fall within a similar price range. Since the Gear 2 Neo lacks a camera, it's likely it will cost less than the Gear 2. And the Gear Fit should also be priced much lower than the Gear 2. How much less is not yet known. The devices go on sale in April.

The Bottom Line:
Samsung has addressed some of the shortcomings that doomed the original Galaxy Gear smartwatch. But it's too early to say whether these changes in the new Gear 2, Gear 2 Neo, and Gear Fit will be enough to spark consumers' interest. The added functionality, such as the ability to play music without the need to have a smartphone or tablet close by is a terrific feature on the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo. Unfortunately, it isn't offered for the Gear Fit. Also, another potential positive for the smartwatches is the possibility of more focused smartwatch specific apps using the Tizen software. If the battery life claims are accurate, this is a big improvement over the original Gear. But the similarly chunky design of the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo to the original Galaxy Gear and the potentially high price tag may convince many consumers to wait this one out to see what Apple and Google may introduce later this year.

Update, 12:22 pm PT: This story was updated with information on the newly announced Samsung Gear Fit.

 

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