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

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The Good The Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch 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.

5.4 Overall
  • Style 7
  • Features 4
  • Ease of use 5

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.

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.

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.

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