BARCELONA, Spain -- The time has come for Samsung to say goodbye to Android as the operating system powering its smartwatch. On Sunday, a day ahead of its press conference here at Mobile World Congress, the electronics titan announced two new cogs in the Gear smartwatch machine, the Samsung Gear 2 and Samsung Gear 2 Neo.
Design and build
The move to clock Tizen in and check Android out is the biggest change to come to the Gear 2, though one that may not be as obvious to customers who strap on the watches. The watch still sports the same 1.6-inch screen with a 320x320-pixel resolution. More obviously, the Gear 2's camera gets a slight boost to a 2-megapixel resolution and moves from the wrist straps to the body of the smartwatch.
Thus liberated, the straps are now in a position for you to pop them off and exchange them with different colored bands -- with any standard watch band, in fact. For the Gear 2, your pool of body colors includes Charcoal Black, Gold Brown, and Wild Orange, all similar shades carried over from the original Galaxy Gear. Pro tip: you can switch your wallpaper to match the wrist strap.
The watch also picks up a few more hardware and software tricks, like an infrared sensor and Samsung's WatchOn TV remote app to go with it, and a standalone music player that means you can leave your phone at home while you go for a jog (so long as you sync it to a Bluetooth headset.)
Samsung has also added a persistent heart rate sensor as well. It glows when you tell it to check your vitals, pulsing every 90 seconds. If you turn on a personal coach as part of the fitness regimen, haptic feedback and on-screen notifications give you an encouraging buzz when you're lagging behind.
Some of us weren't fans of flipping our wrists to talk into the microphone embedded in the original Galaxy Gear's clasp, and Samsung listened, placing the mic into the phone's body instead.
Aesthetically, the Gear 2 looks much the same as the original Gear, though its rectangular face is very slightly larger and slimmer. You'll still see that brushed metal finish, the textured straps that come with the device, and a clip-in clasp closure. You'll also continue to charge the smartwatch with a separate charging cradle.
I tried the Gear 2 for myself, and found it a little more comfortable than the original, which always made its thick, heavy presence known on my wrist bone, especially when bending my wrist. My very brief time using the Gear 2 wasn't long enough for the true test -- how a wearable feels over hours, even days.
Under the hood
Lest you think Samsung left the watch's guts alone, it makes internal adjustments, like increasing the processor from an 800MHz single-core unit to a 1GHz dual-core chip. Interestingly, the Gear 2 loses a tiny bit of juice, dropping from a 315mAh battery to a 300mAh ticker. Don't worry too much about splashes; Samsung says this Gear 2 is rated for military spec IP67 to ward off dust and water.
|Smart watch||Samsung Gear 2||Samsung Gear Neo||Samsung Galaxy Gear|
|Processor||1GHz dual core||1GHz dual core||800MHz single core|
|Screen||1.63-inch Super AMOLED; 320x320 pixels||1.63-inch Super AMOLED; 320x320 pixels||1.63-inch Super AMOLED; 320x320 pixels|
|Camera location||Main body||No camera||Strap|
|Camera resolution||2 megapixels||N/A||1.9 megapixels|
|Bluetooth music player||Yes||Yes||No|
|Weight (ounces, g)||2.4, 68||1.9, 55||2.6, 74|
Gold Brown, Wild Orange
Mocha Gray, Wild Orange
Oatmeal Beige, Lime Green, Mocha Gray, Wild Orange
Credit: Nick Hide/CNET
So what about Tizen?
Samsung's original Gear never delivered a Google-based Android experience, and so Tizen so far seems to fit right in. It carries over easily identifiable icons for the pedometer, heart rate monitor, Bluetooth connections, settings, and so on. I personally like seeing the larger icons accompanying text, though I could see how some may find them overly youthful and bubbly.
The one worry spot I see with using Tizen over Android is the potential for crossed wires, for, say, the Gear app on Android to hit a snag communicating, or for updates to Android to take a while making their way to the Gear 2 and Neo.
On the other hand, app-makers deal with cross-platform issues all the time, with varying levels of success, and Samsung is still an important Google partner with access to the tools they need to smooth over rough patches.
Samsung will launch the Gear 2 with over 100 apps, and is also opening the SDK to software developers to jump on board.
In addition to the Samsung Galaxy S5, the Gear 2 will work with Samsung's Galaxy S III, Galaxy S4, Galaxy S4 Mini, Galaxy S4 Active, Galaxy S4 Zoom, Galaxy Mega, Galaxy Note 2, Galaxy Note 3, Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition, Galaxy Note Pro, and Galaxy Tab Pro (12.2, 10.1, 8.4).
Samsung's updated Gear 2 has nipped some annoyances, like having to keep your phone on-hand to stream music. Mostly, though, the quick update cycle reflects Samsung's ambitions to strengthen its in-house Tizen brand and gain some distance from the Googleplex.
I'm interested in seeing how the new camera and microphone placement work in everyday life -- if they're both more practical locations than before, or if new usability bobbles arise. The camera certainly looks much sleeker in its new home flush at the top of the device, rather than as an unsightly bulge poking out of the middle of the band.
I'm also wondering how the switch to Tizen will affect the software update cycle in ways the users care about, like making more Samsung phones and other phones compatible with the Gear family of wearables and bringing other app-makers on board. For better or for worse, Samsung's Gear 2 (and also camera-less Gear 2 Neo), is a sign that Samsung is serious about smartwatches, and of advancing its own software platform forward.
The Samsung Gear 2 smartwatch will cost $299 with US carrier AT&T; folks who buy it along with the Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone will get $50 off the bundle.
Catch all the mobile news from Mobile World Congress 2014.
Updated March 20 at 10:16am PT with pricing information