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Samsung Galaxy Gear review: Samsung's smartwatch is style over substance

The Samsung Galaxy Gear has an attractive design, but its smartwatch credentials don't hold up to close scrutiny.

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Andrew Lanxon
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Andrew Lanxon

Lead Editor, CNET Advice, Europe; Lead Photographer, Europe

Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.

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Your phone is way too big and unwieldy -- what you need is a smaller second screen to let you know what's going on with ease. At least, that's what Samsung reckons. Its new Galaxy Gear Smartwatch lets you take calls, send texts, and perform various other tasks from your wrist without touching your phone.

samsung-galaxy-gear.jpg
5.4

Samsung Galaxy Gear

The Good

The <b>Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch</b> is attractive, comfortable, and makes it easy to see incoming calls

The Bad

A lack of e-mail and social network support, limited compatibility with other devices, the external charging case, and hit-and-miss voice control seriously limit its usefulness.

The Bottom Line

Samsung's take on the smartwatch has some potential, and it does get some things right, but its inability to perform truly "smart" functions means it falls far short of expectations.

The Gear has no SIM card or data connection of its own. Instead, it links to your phone over Bluetooth, acting more as an external display so you don't have to fish your phone out every time it rings.

Samsung's Gear is among the first smartwatches we've seen from a major mobile manufacturer and is intended to lead the way in the emerging field of wearable, connected technology. Exciting stuff, sure, but I'm certainly not bowled over by it. With hardly any third-party apps to speak of, its functions are limited to handling calls and texts -- email and social services are not yet supported.

Add to that its $299 price tag and the fact that it's only compatible with the Galaxy Note 3 at launch and you have a recipe for disappointment. Samsung has said it will be updated toward the end of the year to work with the Galaxy S4, S3, and Note 2, but even so, that's very few compatible devices. Those of you who have splashed out on a fancy new HTC One or Sony Xperia Z1 will be out of luck.

Design, build quality, and comfort
I find the Gear's combination of brushed metal, buttonless front, and black rubber strap rather attractive. It's stylish and smart, and wouldn't look out of place poking from the sleeves of a sharp suit. A geek's dream gadget it might be, but there's nothing particularly nerdy about its overall aesthetic. It's available in a range of colours, too, if black and silver isn't your thing.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

There's only a single button on the watch itself, which acts to power up the display, or fires up Samsung's S Voice software with a double click. Navigating around the watch is done using the touch-enabled display. The 1.6-inch display might be miniature, but its 320x320-pixel resolution is sharp enough to make small text easily readable. It's also vivid enough to let you enjoy the photos you've snapped with the camera in the strap.

Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch looks good, but doesn't do enough (pictures)

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The watch doesn't have a built-in Micro-USB port. Charging it requires you to pop it into a caddy that contains the necessary charging components, and also adds NFC functionality. While it helps keep the size of the watch down, you will need to carry the caddy with you if you're going away from home for more than a couple of days. With heavy use, you'll get just a day out of the watch, so leave the caddy behind and you'll find it quickly goes from being an exciting new gadget to a lump of useless metal and rubber strapped to your arm.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The strap is easy to resize and comfortable enough for you to happily forget you're wearing it, thanks to the watch's unobtrusive 2.6-ounce weight. Build quality is generally very high, although annoyingly, it's not water-resistant. Everyday tasks like showering, washing your hands, or just going out when it's raining now means you'll have to be cautious about how much liquid is attacking your precious new toy.

Using the Gear
If a smartwatch is going to become part of your everyday life, it needs to be simple to use. After all, what's the point of replacing your complicated phone with a smaller, even more complicated interface? While the look of the Gear's interface is very simple, actually using the thing isn't quite as easy as its simple design would suggest.

It didn't start well. Trying to simply set up a Bluetooth connection doesn't work -- you need to use the NFC caddy. The NFC caddy launches a setup manager that starts the Bluetooth pairing and takes you through some initial setup steps.

Samsung's S Voice software lets you control many of the functions by talking to the watch, but you'll need to make sure you have this setup on your Note before you start. I didn't, and kept being flashed a prompt to activate it on the phone, expecting to see a similar dialog box on the bigger screen. Eventually, I realised I needed to go into S Voice settings on the Note, not the watch.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Each time the Gear wakes up -- it does so when you turn it toward your face -- you're met with your watch face of choice, with loads of analogue and digital styles to choose from. Swiping to the left or right takes you through a carousel of functions. Key tools like the notifications panel, S Voice, voice memo, the gallery, the media controller, the pedometer, and settings are all given their own individual tile, or you can scroll to the main apps list.

It's a very minimalist interface to swipe around, and one that seems fairly nippy thanks to the 800MHz processor. Finding the app or menu you want, however, requires you to swipe all the way through the carousel of icons until you get there -- and launching an app from the app list takes even longer. It can be very time-consuming, which is a problem for something designed to give access to tools faster than getting your phone out.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

When a call comes in, it'll pop up on screen with options to accept or decline the call. If the contact is saved to your phone, it'll show the person's name and a linked image, if you have one. Text messages are handled in much the same way, with an icon and name popping up that you can tap on, or head into the notifications section to read it later, along with other received messages. Texts are clearly defined and you can scroll easily through them to read more of the conversation.

An irritating quirk I found is that if you're walking around wearing headphones (with a microphone) and accept a call using the Gear, it will route the call only through the watch on its loudspeaker, not through the cans plugged into your phone. This is an issue I only found out to my embarrassment while walking through a busy central London station attempting to take a call from my grandmother.

The watch's loudspeaker is loud enough to hear comfortably in a busy office, but walking alongside traffic it becomes more of a struggle. It's also more difficult for the microphone to pick up your voice, so expect to repeat yourself a few times if you're somewhere noisy. You can also expect to feel a little foolish, as you'll need to hold the watch to your face as you speak and up to your ear to properly hear the person who's calling. If you're fine with that, you're evidently much less easily embarrassed than I am.

Placing a call is a fairly simple process. You can either go to the contacts section, which will take you through all contacts saved on your phone, or double-tap the side button to launch S Voice and say "Call Luke," for example. If there is more than one Luke, it will allow you to select which one to call. As the screen is too small for an onscreen keyboard, text messages must be dictated using S Voice.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

S Voice is by and large good at recognising words, but, like most voice-recognition software, it's far from perfect. Certain names won't be understood -- "Nate" is nearly always heard as "mate," for example -- and similar-sounding words can be confused. I'd say it had around an 80 percent success rate at placing calls, which I don't think is bad at all.

On a normal phone, it's fairly easy to correct small errors in text messages, but relying solely on voice controls had me regularly saying "no" and "cancel" to stop it texting nonsense sentences to people.

As a side note, S Voice will try and teach you a firm lesson about manners by starring out any naughty language you care to use. If it wanted to teach me a proper lesson, it should just send a copy of the message to my mother and let her deal with me.

The connection to your phone must be maintained if you want to be able to do anything useful with your watch, so make sure it's kept nearby -- or in your pocket. At times, S Voice took quite a few seconds to process what I'd asked of it. I'm not sure if this is simply a network issue or not, as there didn't seem to be any discernible pattern as to why it slowed down.

A lack of apps
While the watch might cope adequately with making calls and sending texts, that's about the limit of its socialising skills. Although there is a third-party app store for the Gear, there are barely any apps available, and even fewer that are worth downloading.

The vast majority of all my conversations through a phone are done using WhatsApp or Google Chat via Google Hangouts. As neither app is supported yet on the Gear, I constantly had to pull out my phone when out and about to send and receive messages. Similar apps like Viber and Skype aren't available, either.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Worst of all, though, is the lack of any e-mail support. I rely on having constant access to e-mail as part of my job, which naturally means having to check my phone numerous times an hour when I'm out of the office. If the Gear was able to show my incoming e-mails and allow me to dictate replies, it would immediately become considerably more useful.

There is a calendar app onboard that syncs with the Google calendar on your phone. It's handy, but somewhat limited in its use, as you're only able to see titles and addresses of events, not additional notes you might have made.

The media controller lets you control the video or music currently playing on your phone. Like the calendar, though, it's extremely limited. You're only able to pause, skip tracks or alter the volume. There's no way of being able to change album, artist or even put the tracks on shuffle. If you're sick of listening to your 'N Sync nostalgia album, you'll need to fish your phone out to choose a different album. Given that even cheap headphones regularly come with in-line remotes that perform similar functions, it's hard not to be disappointed by the Gear's stunted handling of music.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

My hope is that services like Spotify -- which I rely on for all my mobile music -- will bring out apps for the Gear that allow you to at least browse your synced playlists.

Social media addicts won't be impressed, either, at the lack of Twitter, Facebook, or other social apps. Being able to quickly dictate a post or status update within seconds is one task that I could see the Gear actually being useful for, but until developers get onboard, this is nothing but wishful thinking.

There are a couple of third-party apps that claim to allow you to see Facebook notifications and recent tweets, but I couldn't get either to work without making the watch crash.

The one useful tool you can snag at launch is the Evernote app. It syncs across any other device you have Evernote installed on, letting you quickly upload pictures or voice messages. You can also view recent notes on the watch that you've written on other devices -- particularly handy if you're looking at a shopping list when stood in the supermarket.

Camera
Poking out of the black rubber strap is a 1.9-megapixel camera. Samsung reckons it's ideal for taking quick shots that you might otherwise miss by wasting time fishing your phone from your pocket. The camera can be ready to shoot in a little under 2 seconds, by simply swiping down from the clock face. Taking your phone out of your pocket and launching the camera will -- in my attempts -- take around 7 seconds, so the Gear earns some brownie points here.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

While it starts shooting rapidly, I'm not exactly convinced you'd ever really need to take a snap of anything that quickly. Perhaps if your cat suddenly decides to attempt to climb into that tiny vase you bought, or your baby starts walking for the first time.

Having a nearly secret camera might raise some issues about less-than-savoury characters taking even less savoury photos, but Samsung has made it so the camera cannot be put on silent. If someone does try and take a dodgy photo, the watch makes the sound of a camera shutter, so you'll at least be alerted to what's happening. On the downside, taking photos of sleeping cats is more difficult.

The Gear's camera did a decent job here of capturing an even overall image tone (click image to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET
The exposure on the sky is kept well under control, although the shadowy areas are a little too dark (click image to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET
Fine detail is way below what you'd see on a standard camera phone, but it's not at all bad (click image to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET
It's a little gloomy here, but it's at least free of image noise (click image to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET
It doesn't handle motion quite so well, so it shouldn't be your first choice for sport photography (click image to see full size). Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The image quality, while far from amazing, is better than you might expect from a 1.9-megapixel camera. In my test shots wandering around London, the camera was able to capture a decent overall exposure with adequate clarity and not too much image noise. Sure, the colours aren't superb and it's not likely to earn you any awards, but it's not bad for a camera in a watch strap.

The problem is what to do with your photos once you've taken them. With no social apps or e-mail clients onboard, your only option is to send them to your phone, where you can then upload them for all to see. If you're going to do that, why not just use your phone's far superior camera to take the photo in the first place?

It's also able to shoot video in 720p resolution. Exposure and colour balance are much the same as with stills, and overall quality isn't bad at all. You're only able to shoot in 15-second bursts, but that's probably fine if you're using it in an emergency to capture whatever it is your pet's up to.

Battery
The Gear runs on a 315mAh battery, which Samsung reckons will give around 25 hours of use. I'd say that's fairly accurate, based on my own use, but only if you don't do too much with it. If you only use the watch's smart functions from time to time, you shouldn't struggle to get a day or more out of it.

When you first get it, you'll almost certainly be snap-happy with the camera, and trying to see how easily you can text people. In that case, you should expect to give the watch a charge overnight. On standby mode, Samsung reckons you can get up to 150 hours out of it.

While 25 hours is way more than you'd expect to get out of a smartphone, it's far less than you'd expect to get from a watch, which will typically give multiple years of life from a battery. Charging a watch every night is not a habit that will be welcome for most, particularly as you need to use the separate charging cradle in order to do it.

Conclusion

Without more commitment from developers, the Gear's usefulness is limited. If proper apps are made to let you receive e-mails, send tweets, and use the other smart services that have made our phones such important tools in our lives, the Gear might stand a real chance of becoming a similarly important tool.

It's perhaps surprising that Samsung would admit its own product lacks something special before it's even on sale, but it's certainly not wrong. With such a high price, a limited number of useful functions and a tiny number of compatible devices, the Galaxy Gear is not Samsung's exciting entrance into wearable devices that we hoped it would be.

samsung-galaxy-gear.jpg
5.4

Samsung Galaxy Gear

Score Breakdown

Style 7Features 4Ease of use 5