Samsung Galaxy Gear review: Samsung's smartwatch is style over substance

The vast majority of all my conversations through a phone are done using WhatsApp or Google Chat via Google Hangouts. As neither app is supported yet on the Gear, I constantly had to pull out my phone when out and about to send and receive messages. Similar apps like Viber and Skype aren't available, either.

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Worst of all, though, is the lack of any e-mail support. I rely on having constant access to e-mail as part of my job, which naturally means having to check my phone numerous times an hour when I'm out of the office. If the Gear was able to show my incoming e-mails and allow me to dictate replies, it would immediately become considerably more useful.

There is a calendar app onboard that syncs with the Google calendar on your phone. It's handy, but somewhat limited in its use, as you're only able to see titles and addresses of events, not additional notes you might have made.

The media controller lets you control the video or music currently playing on your phone. Like the calendar, though, it's extremely limited. You're only able to pause, skip tracks or alter the volume. There's no way of being able to change album, artist or even put the tracks on shuffle. If you're sick of listening to your 'N Sync nostalgia album, you'll need to fish your phone out to choose a different album. Given that even cheap headphones regularly come with in-line remotes that perform similar functions, it's hard not to be disappointed by the Gear's stunted handling of music.

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My hope is that services like Spotify -- which I rely on for all my mobile music -- will bring out apps for the Gear that allow you to at least browse your synced playlists.

Social media addicts won't be impressed, either, at the lack of Twitter, Facebook, or other social apps. Being able to quickly dictate a post or status update within seconds is one task that I could see the Gear actually being useful for, but until developers get onboard, this is nothing but wishful thinking.

There are a couple of third-party apps that claim to allow you to see Facebook notifications and recent tweets, but I couldn't get either to work without making the watch crash.

The one useful tool you can snag at launch is the Evernote app. It syncs across any other device you have Evernote installed on, letting you quickly upload pictures or voice messages. You can also view recent notes on the watch that you've written on other devices -- particularly handy if you're looking at a shopping list when stood in the supermarket.

Camera
Poking out of the black rubber strap is a 1.9-megapixel camera. Samsung reckons it's ideal for taking quick shots that you might otherwise miss by wasting time fishing your phone from your pocket. The camera can be ready to shoot in a little under 2 seconds, by simply swiping down from the clock face. Taking your phone out of your pocket and launching the camera will -- in my attempts -- take around 7 seconds, so the Gear earns some brownie points here.

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While it starts shooting rapidly, I'm not exactly convinced you'd ever really need to take a snap of anything that quickly. Perhaps if your cat suddenly decides to attempt to climb into that tiny vase you bought, or your baby starts walking for the first time.

Having a nearly secret camera might raise some issues about less-than-savoury characters taking even less savoury photos, but Samsung has made it so the camera cannot be put on silent. If someone does try and take a dodgy photo, the watch makes the sound of a camera shutter, so you'll at least be alerted to what's happening. On the downside, taking photos of sleeping cats is more difficult.

The Gear's camera did a decent job here of capturing an even overall image tone (click image to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The exposure on the sky is kept well under control, although the shadowy areas are a little too dark (click image to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Fine detail is way below what you'd see on a standard camera phone, but it's not at all bad (click image to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It's a little gloomy here, but it's at least free of image noise (click image to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It doesn't handle motion quite so well, so it shouldn't be your first choice for sport photography (click image to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The image quality, while far from amazing, is better than you might expect from a 1.9-megapixel camera. In my test shots wandering around London, the camera was able to capture a decent overall exposure with adequate clarity and not too much image noise. Sure, the colours aren't superb and it's not likely to earn you any awards, but it's not bad for a camera in a watch strap.

The problem is what to do with your photos once you've taken them. With no social apps or e-mail clients onboard, your only option is to send them to your phone, where you can then upload them for all to see. If you're going to do that, why not just use your phone's far superior camera to take the photo in the first place?

It's also able to shoot video in 720p resolution. Exposure and colour balance are much the same as with stills, and overall quality isn't bad at all. You're only able to shoot in 15-second bursts, but that's probably fine if you're using it in an emergency to capture whatever it is your pet's up to.

Battery
The Gear runs on a 315mAh battery, which Samsung reckons will give around 25 hours of use. I'd say that's fairly accurate, based on my own use, but only if you don't do too much with it. If you only use the watch's smart functions from time to time, you shouldn't struggle to get a day or more out of it.

When you first get it, you'll almost certainly be snap-happy with the camera, and trying to see how easily you can text people. In that case, you should expect to give the watch a charge overnight. On standby mode, Samsung reckons you can get up to 150 hours out of it.

While 25 hours is way more than you'd expect to get out of a smartphone, it's far less than you'd expect to get from a watch, which will typically give multiple years of life from a battery. Charging a watch every night is not a habit that will be welcome for most, particularly as you need to use the separate charging cradle in order to do it.

Conclusion
If a watch is to be truly smart, it needs to be able to provide a window into all the smart functions of your phone. E-mail and social networking are both absolute musts and voice control that works properly every time is essential. The Galaxy Gear falls down on all of these points.

Without more commitment from developers, the Gear's usefulness is limited. If proper apps are made to let you receive e-mails, send tweets, and use the other smart services that have made our phones such important tools in our lives, the Gear might stand a real chance of becoming a similarly important tool.

It's perhaps surprising that Samsung would admit its own product lacks something special before it's even on sale, but it's certainly not wrong. With such a high price, a limited number of useful functions and a tiny number of compatible devices, the Galaxy Gear is not Samsung's exciting entrance into wearable devices that we hoped it would be.

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Samsung Galaxy Gear Smartwatch

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