Sony SmartWatch vs. Samsung Galaxy Gear: The first big battle in the wearable tech war

Two electronics titans target each other, waging war over your wrist.

Is the new Samsung Galaxy Gear the best smartwatch ever? Josh Miller/CNET

Sony's latest wearable tech creation, the SmartWatch 2 (SW2) is attractively styled, water-resistant, and sports plenty of apps and watch faces. The Samsung Galaxy Gear is a strong contender too, running a specially tweaked version of Android powered by an 800MHz processor, and flaunting a big color OLED screen. Heck, it even has a mic and speaker plus a camera.

But just how useful are these watches really, and how do they stack up against each other? Read on as we break down Samsung's and Sony's tempting wearable tech entries.

Design

Sony SmartWatch 2
If you're familiar with Sony's first foray into the smartwatch space, you won't be too shocked by the SmartWatch 2's look and feel. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Sony's initial gadget was one of the sexiest-looking smart timepieces I ever laid my hands on. It was small, light, and attractively styled.

Will this Sony smartwatch soon have to compete against Samsung's Galaxy Gear?
The Sony SmartWatch 2 has style galore. Aloysius Low/CNET

It also used a flexible silicone wristband that was pliable enough to feel extremely comfortable, yet springy enough to grip wrists tightly. At the moment Sony hasn't announced different color options for the SW2, but if history is any indicator, you can expect the watch to ship with multiple wrist strap options just like its predecessor.

The SmartWatch 2 can be charged with any Micro-USB cable. Aloysius Low/CNET

Sony has taken the same approach here, using a similar silicone strap and premium aluminum body. Measuring a mere 1.65 inches tall by 1.61 inches wide and 0.35 inch thick, the SW2 is also extremely svelte. Tipping the scales at just 0.8 ounce, Sony's device extremely light as well.

Samsung Galaxy Gear
Compared with the SmartWatch 2, the Galaxy Gear is physically more imposing -- at least on paper. Measuring 1.45 inches tall by 2.2 inches wide and 0.44 inch thick, there's no arguing that the Gear is larger. Additionally at 2.6 ounces, Samsung's watch is a lot heavier than the SW2.

The Gear has a camera inside its strap. Josh Miller/CNET

Surprisingly though, when I got the chance to strap the Galaxy Gear to my wrist I found it felt much lighter than expected. Also, even though the Gear's rubbery strap isn't as pliable as Sony's previous smartwatch band, it is comfortable to wear. The watch is crafted with luxurious silver metallic flair so will hopefully draw the right sort of attention when noticed.

At the outset Samsung said it plans to offer the Gear in myriad band colors; six, to be exact. These include jet black, mocha gray, wild orange, oatmeal beige, rose gold, and lime green.

Advantage: Sony SmartWatch 2

Display

Sony SmartWatch 2
One trade-off with the SW2's smaller size is its display. While it technically measures 1.6 inches across, the SmartWatch 2's screen isn't quite as expansive as the Galaxy Gear's 1.63-inch viewer. It also packs fewer pixels than Sammy's gadget; 220x176 pixels as opposed to 320x320 pixels.

Sony, however, worked to address its first smartwatch's major failing, namely that its OLED screen was practically impossible to read under strong sunlight outdoors. Indeed, the SW2 is equipped with a transflective LCD designed not to become washed out in daylight.

Samsung Galaxy Gear
In terms of sheer size and pixel count, the Gear trumps the Sony SmartWatch 2. Its bigger 1.63-inch OLED screen serves up a sharper resolution (320x320 pixels). When I saw the Gear in person, the watch's display also produced images and text with vivid colors and high contrast. The Gear's screen also was extremely bright -- so much so that it gave my point-and-shoot camera trouble capturing its image.

The Gear felt lighter than expected in person. Brian Bennett/CNET

Of course, I didn't get a chance to observe the device outside under the blazing sun so we can only take Samsung's word that it's bright enough for pleasing outdoor use. OLED screens typically don't offer as many lumens as their LCD counterparts, transflective or otherwise.

Advantage: Samsung Galaxy Gear

Features and UI

Sony SmartWatch 2
Speaking of basic capabilities and user interface, the second incarnation of Sony's smartwatch doesn't depart much from the original. You get the same touch-screen UI, sliding widgets for viewing weather, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and other phone alerts that the first Sony timepiece sported. Also important is that the SmartWatch 2 is compatible with many Android handsets, not just Sony phones.

Pinching the screen pulls up the application tray, which shows all the mini applications that the SW2 has installed. You can also change the various watch faces for the device by selecting them via the Sony SmartWatch companion app on your smartphone. It is annoying, though, that you can't do this through the watch itself.

Besides pushing phone alerts to your wrist, the SW2 includes a dialpad for initiating calls right from the watch. Be advised that since the SW2 lacks a microphone and speaker, you'll have to chat using a simultaneously paired Bluetooth headset or dig your phone out of your pocket or bag. The SmartWatch 2 does show caller ID for screening and it'll even provide a way to text the caller back with canned messages.

Samsung Galaxy Gear
As a physically more imposing device, you'd expect the Galaxy Gear to do quite a bit -- and you'd be right. It can perform all the same push notification duties as the SW2, but be advised that the Gear is not merely locked tightly into Samsung ecosystem; at launch it will only be compatible with one phone, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 , which is a huge letdown for many of its potential Android buyers.

Even so, the Gear's skills are impressive. With its built-in microphone and speaker, the watch lets users conduct phone calls right from their wrists. It's a similar feature competitors such as the Martian Passport and Hot Watch boast and it's a useful if not particularly polite ability to have in your mobile arsenal. Sometimes you just need to get a few words across quickly, not engage in a total gabfest.

Change watch faces on the Gear through its companion Note 3 app. Josh Miller/CNET

Oddly enough, the Gear has a 1.9-megapixel camera sitting in the device's wristband, facing forward when the watch's screen is front and center for viewing. In addition to taking pictures, the camera can record 720p HD video. It's not entirely clear, though, what sorts of uses Samsung or Galaxy Gear users will dream up for this imaging system, outside of creepy stealth picture-taking. Still, it's an interesting tool to have.

I tried the feature out myself in person and found that the Gear snaps photos pretty quickly -- just tap the screen, though they looked washed out even on the watch's vibrant display. Also, unless you hold your wrist up high at an uncomfortable level, you'll be taking images of people at an unflattering upward angle.

One area where the Galaxy Gear shines, though, is in its user interface. With big tiles and clean fonts reminiscent of -- dare I say -- Windows Phone 8's Metro UI, information is extremely glanceable, quick to digest, and simple to navigate through. Compared with the SW2's rather plain, even dated graphics, the Gear definitely operates like a piece of tech from some elegant sci-fi future.

Advantage: Samsung Galaxy Gear

Battery

Sony SmartWatch 2
The original Sony SmartWatch had a battery rated to last for 3 to 4 days, or 14 hours of continual use. In my experience it really lasted shy of half or maybe most of a full work day. You'd definitely have to charge the sucker daily or risk being caught in a lurch. Sony makes the same 3-to-4-day longevity claim for the SW2, so I'm expecting to see about the same unsatisfying run time from the gadget. Perhaps its LCD screen will be more efficient, but I'm not optimistic.

Samsung Galaxy Gear
Samsung makes a similar assertion, pinning the Galaxy Gear's battery life at about 24 hours. It's unclear whether that's what users can expect out of the product through heavy or light operation. The Gear does rely on the latest form of Bluetooth wireless, version 4.0, which brings with it the promise of enhanced electrical efficiency. That said, like the Sony SW2, it's a good idea to charge the gadget daily.

Advantage: Samsung Galaxy Gear

Some slick extras

Sony SmartWatch 2
True to Sony's dedication to NFC (near-field technology), the SmartWatch 2 features an NFC chip for fast Bluetooth pairing with similarly equipped phones. Supposedly linking compatible devices with the SW2 is merely a matter of tapping them together (with their NFC and Bluetooth radios engaged, of course).

As its predecessor before it, the SmartWatch 2 has an app devoted to finding your phone if you've misplaced it. The device will also alert you when your phone and watch move out of range from each other. The SW2 gives you the ability to control music playback on your handset and displays album art on its screen as well.

Samsung Galaxy Gear
Though Samsung integrates NFC widely across is Galaxy smartphone line, the technology doesn't make an appearance in the Gear. The watch does offer other impressive abilities besides making hands-free calls and shooting pictures and video.

The Gear runs a host of tiny apps. Josh Miller/CNET

Like the Hot Watch and SW2, the Gear can cause your phone to ring if you can't locate it. You can have your Samsung phone command the Gear's speaker to chirp too if you're in the reverse situation. Keep in mind both devices still need to be in Bluetooth range (30 feet) for this to work.

Outfitted with its own 4GB of onboard storage, the Gear can run tiny versions of apps locally. At launch the watch will have plenty of software preloaded, including a healthy selection of Samsung-branded apps such as S Voice (for making voice commands, dialing, and search), Voice Memo, and the Chat On communicator. A Music Controller application gives the Gear dominion over your phone's music player as well.

You'll find some third-party titles here too like the Tripit travel app, RunKeeper, and MyFitnessPal, plus Evernote. Interestingly, the Vivino Wine Scanner uses the Gear's camera to read bar codes on wine bottles for look up and future reference.

Advantage: Samsung Galaxy Gear

Durability

Sony SmartWatch 2
Sony has been designing rugged portable devices for very decades, and has expertise in this area harkening way back to its Sony Sport line of Walkman products. The company's Xperia Z and followup Z1 smartphones are dust and water resistant too so it's no surprise that the SmartWatch 2 continues this legacy.

Rated to meet the IP57 international standard for ruggedness, the SW2 can not only withstand exposure to fine particles of grime, it can handle being dunked in 3 feet of water for up to 30 minutes without issue.

Samsung Galaxy Gear
The Gear is a scrappy number, too, and Samsung says the watch is designed to adhere to the IP55 protocol. Less stringent than IP57, the Gear is only rated to survive brief sprays of water not total immersion like the SW2. Basically, don't shower or swim laps in the pool with your Gear strapped on. The odd drink spill or raindrop shouldn't be a problem, though.

Advantage: Sony SmartWatch 2

The take-away

Even with with all the features and abilities of both Sony's and Samsung's smartwatches laid out on the table, the choice before you isn't immediately clear. In a nutshell, the Galaxy Gear is a typical Samsung product. Its $299 sticker price is definitely steep and will put off all but the most eager early technology adopter. Of course in true Samsung fashion, the Gear boasts a lovely OLED screen and all the bells and whistles it could cram into it.

On the other hand, no pun intended, the Sony SmartWatch 2 represents a handsome evolution of an interesting but underwhelming device. It has a sleeker, more compact design than Samsung's whiz-bang creation and is more durable too. Still the SW2's software and UI apparently hasn't changed all that much from that of its older predecessor. This leaves the Galaxy Gear slightly more compelling in terms sheer power and usability.

One massive stumbling block I simply can't get over is the Gear's support for a single device, the Samsung Note 3. That's a tough pill to swallow especially given the SmartWatch 2's universal Android functionality. I also expect that the SW2's price will be lower, at about $199.99, since that's about what the first Sony SmartWatch cost. All this puts the SW2 ahead by a nose. Of course I can't ultimately make the call until I get both watches side-by-side and I'll have to wait until October until these gizmos hit the market in force.

 

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