Samsung Gear 2 review: A smartwatch that tries to be everything

The onboard music player can now store music on the Gear 2's 4GB of internal memory, and play it back either on the speakers for those who choose to annoy their neighbors, or don't have any, or via a paired Bluetooth headset. The Gear 2 doesn't have a headphone jack. Transferring music happens via a hidden settings menu in the Gear's music player app controls on the Gear Manager phone software, and tracks get beamed over wirelessly, about 10 seconds a pop.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Camera: Better than you think, but pointless

A 2-megapixel camera that lurks on the top edge of the Gear 2's body can take quick photos or short 720p videos. Both come out square and Instagram-ready. Photos were sometimes crisp, sometimes blurry. Videos were passable. But why would you need a watch that can shoot video? More importantly, setting up shots isn't exactly easy. It's better-angled than you'd think, and maybe the Gear 2 could be a Google Glass substitute for on-the-spot photography, but I'd always rather take my phone out of my pocket. This camera is the main reason you'd pay an extra $100 for the Gear 2 over the Gear 2 Neo, and it's just not worth it. There aren't any apps I could find that make any use of it for scanning data, anyway.

S-Voice is a feature in search of a function

You can speak to the Gear 2, just like the Samsung Galaxy Gear. But what for? Web search is not supported. Certain questions like "What's the time in Boston?" or "What's the weather?" will get answered. You can voice-dial people, but the number of steps and the time it took for S-Voice to process and load, made me wonder why I wasn't just taking the Galaxy S5 out of my pocket instead.

Voice memo is the best use of the mic: I found myself recording quick reminders. It's also helpful that the voice memo functions works offline, too.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Gear Manager, the phone hub of the Gear

The Gear Manager app is what controls pairing and app installation on the Gear 2. Only one Gear device can be paired with a Samsung phone at a time, which meant I had to unpair the Gear Fit to connect to my Gear 2. You can adjust which notifications come in, customize watch faces and layouts for the app icons and home screen, and download other apps.

It's an easy app to navigate, but it oddly doesn't handle any fitness tracking or syncing: that's where S-Health comes in, a completely separate app. On the Galaxy S5, S-Health is meant to track and graph pedometer and heart rate information, but I've never been able to collect and see that data properly, even after a few weeks of use.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

A less than enticing selection of apps

The Gear 2 runs Samsung's own Tizen operating system, a change from running Android on the first Galaxy Gear. That really means little to you, the user: the interface on both the original Gear and the Gear 2 seems very similar, and Android has no formal presence in wearables anyway right now: that will change once Google's Android Wear arrives later this year, with smartwatches that bear Google's actual seal of approval.

The Gear's move to Tizen, however, does mean a whole new generation of apps that run specifically on the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo watches. Unlike the Pebble and Pebble Steel, which run the same class of apps, Samsung's done an app reboot here. And they're hard to find: go to the weirdly-named "Samsung apps" blade of the Gear Manager app and you'll find the apps that are available to install. It's not clear where to find these apps: Samsung should make a colorful "app store" icon right on the Gear Manager when you open it.

Apps are broken into Entertainment, Finance, Health/Fitness, Lifestyle, Social Networking, Utilities, and Clock categories. Counting the apps in each, I found 136 apps overall, but a good number of them were cross-category repeats. The quality of the apps leaned toward overly simple: calculators ruled the Finance section, clock faces were everywhere, and Social Networking apps currently consist of oddities like Glympse, Banjo, and Flick Dat. No Facebook, no Twitter, no LinkedIn, no Google apps. Pebble, on the other hand, at least has the presence of Yelp, Foursquare, and eBay. Also, shockingly, many of these apps cost a dollar or two, as opposed to the mostly-free Pebble app library. Who would pay a dollar for a Gear 2 calculator?

Although it seems like a lot of apps, consider how many of these were just simple team-themed watch faces or calculators, and it starts to get a lot less impressive. And I have my doubts as to how many apps will ever arrive for the Gear 2, especially with Google's impending Android Wear platform threatening to steal the spotlight for any app developers. Samsung has its work cut out. Right now, none of these apps are better than the preinstalled apps already on the Gear 2.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Pedometer and heart rate monitoring, but not enough help

Sure, the Gear 2 has all the trappings of a fitness smartwatch. A pedometer, heart rate monitor on the back, and a sleep-tracking app, plus an exercise-tracking coaching app, are all a lot better than anything the Pebble offers. It's a great plus for a smartwatch, and they're better to have than not have. But if you're really looking for a great fitness solution on your wrist, these latest Gears aren't the answer.

The pedometer is simple enough, but it needs to be turned on: it can run in the background, but the fact that it's not always automatic means you could miss out on step-counting. Fitness bands like the Jawbone, Fuelband or Fitbit don't turn off, they always track automatically.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

A green LED and sensor on the Gear's back pulses against your wrist to read heart rate, and can do it while exercising for a continuous readout. But it's flaky right now: I found the Gear 2 sometimes couldn't get my reading at all, and when it did, my heart rate measurement varied wildly from what I got on a standard gym exercise machine. After walking fast for five minutes, the Gear 2 still said my heart rate was 70 beats per minute, while the treadmill said it was more like 140. That number leveled off and got more accurate later on, but "sometimes accurate" is not what anyone's looking for in a heart rate monitor.

Exercise mode tracks one of four activities: walking, running, cycling, or hiking, and records the timed sessions as saved logs. Cycling tracks location via the paired phone's GPS, and running mode has an extra level of coaching that buzzes and says whether to slow down, speed up or keep pace based on heart rate. A maximum target heart rate can be set, or "automatic" can be picked. There are different levels of intensity, and different goals of length or distance that can be set. I wanted to like coaching mode, but the heart rate readings varied so oddly that the coaching suggestions never ended making much sense. Sometimes I stood still and was told to "keep pace."

All of these exercise modes need better phone app software to sync and graph and analyze this data. Currently, S-Health just isn't that app. I hope improvements come, but right now it's a pretty flawed system.

Compatibility and competition

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). The Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo don't work with any non-Samsung phones.

There aren't many serious smartwatch contenders right now, so the Gear 2 naturally ends up on the top of this short list for those that crave lots of features. The Pebble, the best smartwatch out there, earns its keep because it's easy to use, simple, waterproof, has an easy-to-read screen in bright sunlight, and works with a huge number of iOS and Android phones, plus it has one of the best app stores in wearable tech at the moment. Samsung's Gear 2 has superior hardware but limited phone compatibility, fewer apps, and it isn't as simple to use. It's also fairly priced: the Pebble Steel is $250, only $50 less than the Gear 2, and doesn't have nearly as many baked-in features.

The real competition in the space is yet to come. Google's Android Wear, already championed by future smartwatches like the Moto 360, promises to be the beginning of a new platform for wearables. Apple will have something, someday, but no one knows if it'll be a smartwatch in the same sense. Android Wear is the biggest threat to the Gear 2. But it also shows what Samsung's immediate future destiny will look like. Samsung is a hardware partner with Android Wear. How long will it be before Samsung has an Android Wear watch, and will it be better than the Gear 2? It's only been six months since the last Galaxy Gear. Sooner than later, more watches will come.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion

Too weird, too feature-heavy, but undoubtedly a big improvement: Samsung's Gear 2 shows, if nothing else, that Samsung has impressive hardware expertise. We already knew that, though. The Gear 2 feels more like a demonstration of technological prowess than a product worth buying. If you're dead-set on getting a smartwatch now, the Gear 2 is a better bet than last year's Galaxy Gear. But -- if you must have a Samsung smartwatch -- I'd save $100 and get the Gear 2 Neo instead.

That said, if you own a Samsung phone, there's no need to get a Gear 2 or Gear 2 Neo. Future Android Wear watches will work too, and could be even better. It would make sense to wait a few months and see what comes next.

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