Samsung Gear Live review: Samsung's full-Google Gear only a so-so Android Wear watch

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CNET Editors' Rating

3 stars Good
  • Overall: 6.7
  • Style: 7.0
  • Features: 7.0
  • Ease of use: 6.0
Review Date:

The Good The Gear Live has a clean metal body, more features for the price than the LG watch, works with many Android phones (4.3 or later), has impressive Google Voice recognition, and could have an interesting variety of apps sooner than later.

The Bad Terrible battery life; a display that doesn't work in bright sunlight; a strange card-based notification system that doesn't always pop up with the info you want; annoying snap-on charger that's not easy to attach.

The Bottom Line Samsung's new smartwatch feels like its other Gears, but injected with Google's new Android Wear software. The makeover means better Google phone connectedness, but it's not a killer smartwatch.

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I wake up. My watch is buzzing. It's my alarm. I also see it's going to be nice outside today. An email I was expecting last night came through, too. I'm ready to get ready to go, but I also just noticed that my watch battery icon's red, almost empty. Man, I wish I charged it last night. But I wanted to wear my watch so it would wake me up.

To wear the future on your wrist means submitting to a present that can't quite get us there yet. In the case of Google's new Android Wear watches, it also means confronting an odd number of compromises.

The Samsung Gear Live is Samsung's fifth -- yes, that's correct -- smartwatch in just nine months. It's also the first Samsung watch that works beyond Samsung's own cosmos of Galaxy phones and tablets. It's one of the very first watches that runs Google's new Android Wear software platform. And, while it looks good and has its moments of brilliance, this isn't a watch I'd recommend you buy. If you're really serious about Android Wear, you should wait...for a lot of reasons. First, software. Android Wear is a work in progress, and we don't know what it will really become yet. Second, and most importantly, Samsung's first Gear Live watch just doesn't seem impressive enough. Even at the reasonable price of $199 (£169, AU$250).

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Josh Miller/CNET

What is Android Wear, and what will it become?

Android Wear is Android, on your wrist. But it's really like Google Now on your wrist, or Google Glass on your wrist minus a camera. It pushes notifications, can use voice commands ("OK, Google"), andalso has a touchscreen for swiping and tapping cards or menu commands. It also allows compatible Android phone apps to load bits of themselves onto your watch, and add on extra features.

Indeed, iPhone users are out of luck -- but we can safely assume Apple's rumored iWatch will be iOS exclusive -- welcome to the increasingly segregated ecosystems of the Apple/Google Cold War. Android Wear is voice command-driven, like Google Glass, but the watches don't have any cameras or speakers, just a microphone, a touchscreen, and a vibrating motor. Android Wear watches can be round or square, but they all need to be connected to an Android phone running 4.3 or later. And they're all supposed to work in roughly the same way, with the same operating system, and same-looking software. So no matter what Android Wear watch you choose, they'll all end up feeling like the same type of watch.

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The Samsung Gear Live (left) and LG G Watch (right). Sarah Tew/CNET

That doesn't mean they're all utterly identical. The Samsung Gear Live has different watch faces than the LG G Watch, the other first-out-of-the-gate Android Wear smartwatch.

I tested both the Gear Live and G Watch using a pre-release Android Wear app on a Samsung Galaxy S5, and running a handful of pre-release apps alongside it. I stuck to one phone because of the specific pre-release software Google loaded onto it.

Android Wear pushes cards, just like Google Now, onto your watch face. They could be notifications like incoming emails, Facebook updates, Google Hangout chats, texts, Twitter interactions, or phone calls; it could be the score to a local game, the weather, directions to a place you've been before, or a reminder that music is playing on your phone. Each card can be swiped away or you can tap to read more, as well as occasionally swipe to reply.

In some cases, you'll need to do the rest on your own phone. With Twitter or Facebook, I clicked a "open on phone" icon and then had to wake up my Samsung in my pocket. The thing I was trying to read popped up immediately on the phone, but I sometimes wondered whether this defeated the purpose of using a smartwatch in the first place.

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Josh Miller/CNET

You can dictate a lot of things to the Samsung Gear Live -- write a note, send an email, ask for directions -- but it doesn't always mean that Google will understand you. And if it doesn't, you'll have a hard time correcting what you said, or cancelling that mistaken message before a quick timer expires and it's sent away.

Some of the first Android Wear apps show extra promise. Tinder's Android Wear app has you swipe pictures like you can on a phone. DuoLingo has quick language-learning flashcards. Eat24 lets you quickly order food. Lyft can call a car service. Runtastic can start and track a run. Thomson Reuters Eikon gets quick business headlines and stock prices. Spendable and PayPal are offered for quick finance tools, but PayPal wasn't working for me yet in its early build. Wink will have an app to connect to its smarthome app and connected-appliance controls. That's already more than most smartwatches can boast, and Android Wear should get lots more apps in short time. How useful they'll be remains to be seen, but the potential for Android Wear to transform beyond what it seems to be now could be sky high.

At the moment, though, it still feels like a hobbled version of Google Glass; notifications, but without the fun ability to record video hands-free.

Pushing notifications has its ups and downs, too. I tried navigating via Android Wear while driving and nearly caused a car accident. Basic vibrations and no speaker mean the display randomly lights up, and upcoming turns weren't clearly indicated. And, it kept losing the GPS signal from my phone even though I was in an unobstructed town in New Jersey.

And if you're saying to yourself, "How's this any different from what I get on my smartphone?", you're right. It all comes down to whether or not you think interacting with a smaller screen on your wrist is more convenient than always whipping out your phone -- or not.

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James Martin/CNET

Design

There's no denying it, the Gear Live feels a lot like previous Gears. It's attractive, but in a space-age way: more Star Trek communicator than the classic feel of throwback Pebble Steel or Martian Notifier design. It only has one button, on the side, to turn the display on and bring up Google voice, or dim it again. You won't be confusing this for an everyday "normal" watch.

It's a hybrid design of previous Gears: there's a metal body like the Gear 2, yet it's camera-free like the Gear 2 Neo, with a simple swappable wristband that ditches a standard watch buckle in favor of a two-prong pop-on fastener, like the Gear Fit.

Feature-wise, if you follow smartwatches closely, it's really a Gear Neo Lite. Its feature set is even more limited than Samsung's last round of watches released in the spring. Yes, it has a big bright screen and metal design, but the Gear Live lacks speakers or a camera. It has a microphone for taking dictation, text chatting or asking Google Voice for things, but it can't currently record voice memos. A heart-rate monitor on the back, like previous Gears, is present, but it doesn't do much yet.

The Gear Live is IP67 water- and dust-resistant, like Samsung's Gear 2, Gear 2 Neo and Gear Fit, and LG's G Watch. You should be able to wear it in the rain, while washing your hands, or even in the shower (I did), but not for swimming. And showering with it all the time might not be the best idea if you don't want to tempt fate.

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Where to Buy

Samsung Gear Live (black)

Part Number: GearLiveBLK

MSRP: $199.00

See manufacturer website for availability.

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