Samsung has three smartwatches in its early-2014 lineup. How many of them are good, and which one should you buy? It's not easy making a decision when most people aren't even sure if they want a smartwatch -- any smartwatch -- in the first place. And honestly, it's not a good time to recommend buying anything, especially with the first wave of Google Android Wear smartwatches coming soon.
But if you're dead-set on getting one and want one made by Samsung, know this: there's the Gear Fit ($200 in the US, £170 in the UK, AU$250 in Australia), the Gear 2 ($300 in the US, £250 in the UK, AU$350 in Australia), and the Gear 2 Neo (priced identically to the Fit). The Fit is a fitness band with some extras, but doesn't track fitness very well. The Gear 2 has lots of features, but is expensive. And then there's the Gear 2 Neo, which has nearly everything the Gear 2 has but costs considerably less.
Keep in mind that you need a Samsung phone or tablet to use the Gears at all. Are you that person? Do you own one of the supported Samsung devices? (If you were wondering, the list includes the Samsung Galaxy S5, the Galaxy S III, Galaxy S4, Galaxy S4 Mini, Galaxy S4 Active, Galaxy S4 Zoom, and several of others that are detailed in my review of the Gear 2.) Then maybe the Neo could be of interest. It's useful at times -- it's a pretty decent watch, too. But it's too fidgety and gimmicky to be a really good gadget.
The Gear 2 Neo is the ultimate hedge bet: it's the least-expensive way to own the most full-featured Gear. It runs the same apps as the Gear 2, has the same screen and processor, and does absolutely everything the Gear 2 does, including track heart rate and change the channels on your TV -- except it lacks a camera, and it's made entirely of plastic. (Given the similarities, this review will only focus on the differences that the Neo offers; see the Gear 2 review if you want my full, in-depth take.) It's more useful than the sexier-looking Gear Fit. If I were buying a Gear, I'd probably buy the Gear 2 Neo.
But, considering that the wearable world is still in flux, and how most of the Gear's features are novelties more than necessities, none of the Gears are "must-have" products, at least for me.
Black, gray, or orange: the Gear 2 Neo comes clad in one of these colors, from wristband to watch body, in basic plastic. The display, glass-covered, has a brilliantly bright AMOLED touchscreen. In plastic, the Neo feels more like a futuristic Swatch than the more metal-clad Gear 2.
The watchband can be replaced, either with another Gear band or most 22mm watchbands. It involves sliding a pin out and possibly removing links if the replacement is a metal band, but at least the Neo's own band has easy pop-out pins. It still feels like a project.
The Neo charges via Micro USB but needs a clip-on plastic dongle to attach to the Neo's rear contact points. It's annoying but a lot more compact than last year's Galaxy Gear charging cradle. A full charge, which take a couple of hours, lasts around three to four days while connected to your phone, longer if offline.
This year's Gears are all water- and dust-resistant, too, so you could wash your hands or even shower while wearing one. That's what all wearable tech needs to be, but not all are.
Gear 2 Neo as smartwatch
The Gear 2 Neo has a ton of baked-in features: a stopwatch and timer, a weather app, an IR-based WatchOn TV remote control, notifications for all apps that ping your Samsung phone regularly, an onboard offline music player, a heart-rate monitor and pedometer, and a microphone and speaker for making phone calls, recording voice memos, using S-Voice voice recognition, and playing back music loudly to annoy everyone around you. That's lots more than the Pebble watch offers, on paper.
Most of these features are at least competent, and some are really good. Voice memo is helpful; the offline music player can load tracks, albeit slowly, and play back up to 4GB of music via Bluetooth headphones while on the go. It's a clever trick to be able to change TV channels using your watch, and being able to quickly answer phone calls can be handy.
Getting notifications is the real killer app, and the Gear 2 Neo does it nearly as well as the Pebble. You need to tap a notification once it appears on the Neo's screen, however, so your latest Twitter reply or Facebook update isn't quite as instantly glanceable.
Gear 2 Neo as fitness device: Better than nothing
It's a fact: until recently, most smartwatches didn't even make overtures at fitness. So, the Gear 2 Neo's feature set is impressive compared to the Pebble's: there is an onboard pedometer with a sleep-tracking app, and a rear-mounted, LED-based heart-rate monitor that's able to do continuous readings while exercising.