Watches are simple devices that do a few things well. The dream of a great smartwatch, of going beyond just a device on your wrist that acts like a pager, should be something that does a good handful of extra things: a Swiss army knife of clever functions that, collectively, you wouldn't want to live without.
Last year's Samsung Galaxy Gear tried and failed to be a killer smartwatch, but Samsung has returned with three new contenders. The $199 Gear Fit is an attempt at simplicity: a clear hybrid of fitness band and smartwatch, but lacking in fitness finesse. But the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo are bigger and bolder, studded with features that cross over from impressive to intimidating. They're also clunkier, more like a regular squared-off geek watch. If they were Swiss Army knives, they'd be ones studded with random things like fish deboners and mini-laser pointers.
The Gear 2 is undoubtedly an impressive display of wrist tech, but it's not an essential companion. And that's where these new Gears, despite all of their hardware finesse, still feel kind of pointless. While they're definitely an improvement over the ill-fated first-generation Galaxy Gear, they don't deliver any real benefit you can't already get on your phone. (And yes, that phone needs to be a Samsung model, at least for the foreseeable future.)
This review is for the Samsung Gear 2, which has a camera, and is Samsung's top of the line smartwatch of the moment. That's the key phrase to remember: of the moment. Because you can bet that Samsung already has a Gear successor on the drawing board running the new Android Wear operating system that will be debuting in Motorola and LG smartwatches in just a few weeks.
Gear 2 vs. Gear 2 Neo vs. Gear Fit
The Gear 2 is exactly like the Gear 2 Neo, another smartwatch that's just been released. They both run apps, they both have the same bright AMOLED display, they both have the same processor and memory and sensors. But, the Gear 2 has a camera, and a steel body design, and costs $299. The Gear 2 Neo lacks the camera, and has a more plastic design, and costs $199.
These are both full-featured smartwatches with installable apps and the ability to store music on internal memory, as opposed to the Samsung Gear Fit, which is pretty smart, but lacks extra apps and has a stretched-out screen. The Gear Fit costs the same as the Gear 2 Neo: $199. Confused yet? Well, that's because there are three watches to choose from, in a landscape where most people aren't even ready to buy one.
Designed more like a real watch
Last year's Galaxy Gear was sleek, but very big, and had its own wrist strap that actually housed a camera lens. This year's Gear 2 has the same brushed-metal inspiration, but that camera's now housed above the screen, on the body of the watch itself alongside a mini IR-blaster that's new, too. On the bottom is a home button. The wrist strap, made of a textured rubberized plastic on my unit, can be replaced like a regular watch band: you could put a leather band on, or a DayGlo one, or find one in a watch store. Samsung's Gear 2 band has an click-to-secure metal clasp but is adjustable using small holes along the band.
The Gear 2 is IP67-certified for water and dust resistance, an improvement over the original Galaxy Gear. You could wear it in the rain or even in a shower. I got it thoroughly wet and showered with it, but it's not meant for swimming.
To charge it, you need a little clip-on plastic dongle, which fastens over the back of the Gear 2 and lets you plug in the included Micro USB charger, or find one of your own. Don't lose that dongle, though: and yes, it's a different-fitting dongle than the Gear Fit. It's annoying, but a lot better than the snap-on cradle the original Galaxy Gear used. A full charge takes a few hours, and I was able to use the Gear 2 fully connected for over three days before needing a recharge.
Gear 2 as a smartwatch
Much like the Pebble watch, the Gear 2 feels really good to wear. It's sleek, it's a little Star Trek futuristic, but it's nicely designed and hugged my wrist well. The AMOLED display is big and seriously bright, but in direct sunlight it can get a little washed out, although there's an outdoor mode that can be triggered for a few minutes at a time. There are a number of watch faces built into the Gear 2, and more that can be customized using a Gear Manager app that runs on the phone you're paired with. Because it's a color display, it needs to be turned on by pushing the home button, or cleverly, whenever you lift and turn your wrist to check the time. The Gear 2 turned itself on much better, for me, than the Gear Fit did.
The Gear 2 has a dual-core 1GHz processor, up from the original Gear's single-core processor. Many don't currently seem to take advantage of it, although the Gear can track steps or heart rate while playing music and doing other tasks, which is a plus. A 1.63 inch 320x320 pixel Super AMOLED screen looks as great as a 1.63-inch screen can look: its colors leap out and dazzle, and a good amount of text can fit on the screen at once.
Notifications come in, if you've set them up to be pushed to the Gear 2, as little pop-ups on the Gear 2 display. Tap one, and the full message generally shows up...although a few still ask that you check your phone instead. The Gear 2 works with just about every notification you could dream of popping up on your watch, and to make each work, just check it off from the list of notifications on the accompanying Gear Manager app.
Notifications make the Gear 2 feel like a wrist-pager, much like the Pebble watch. The need to tap a notification to get the full message is either privacy-protecting or annoying; the Pebble shows it all right away. But this new Gear does pinging far better than before. Texts, emails and incoming phone calls can be answered, too. Calls come in via a built-in mic and speaker, or to send a brief message back, you can choose from canned quick responses such as "I'll talk to you soon," or "Yes," or the fairly useless "How's it going?" Thankfully you can customize your own, but it's a shame S-Voice can't be used to take dictation.
Stuffed with features
Beyond notifications, there are a lot of built-in features on the Gear 2, all baked-in apps: an onboard offline-capable music player, a separate media remote for other music playback on the phone, a camera, a picture gallery app, a weather app, phone dialer and call log apps, phone contacts, a calendar with appointment listings, a pedometer, heart rate monitor, sleep tracker, exercise tracker with coaching, an IR-controller TV remote app called WatchOn, S-Voice voice control, voice memos, a log of notifications, an email app, stopwatch, timer, and a Find My Device phone locator that rings your lost phone if it's within Bluetooth range. That's not even including the apps available for download separately. Yes, that's a heck of a lot of bells and whistles.
Boil them down, however, and here's what you get: a camera, voice recording and control, health tracking, a TV remote, music playback, a built-in speakerphone, and some pretty deep notification and message settings. I used all of these features, but not all of them ended up feeling essential. And, the more of them I used, the more I felt like a chicken pecking and swiping around on a screen on my wrist, instead of using the Gear 2 for what it really should be: a simple one-glance substitute for staring and pecking and swiping at my phone.