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Samsung has three smartwatches in its early-2014 lineup. How many of them are good, and which one should you buy? It's not easy making a decision when most people aren't even sure if they want a smartwatch -- any smartwatch -- in the first place. And honestly, it's not a good time to recommend buying anything, especially with the first wave of Google Android Wear smartwatches coming soon.
But if you're dead-set on getting one and want one made by Samsung, know this: there's the Gear Fit ($200 in the US, £170 in the UK, AU$250 in Australia), the Gear 2 ($300 in the US, £250 in the UK, AU$350 in Australia), and the Gear 2 Neo (priced identically to the Fit). The Fit is a fitness band with some extras, but doesn't track fitness very well. The Gear 2 has lots of features, but is expensive. And then there's the Gear 2 Neo, which has nearly everything the Gear 2 has but costs considerably less.
Keep in mind that you need a Samsung phone or tablet to use the Gears at all. Are you that person? Do you own one of the supported Samsung devices? (If you were wondering, the list includes the Samsung Galaxy S5 , the Galaxy S III, Galaxy S4, Galaxy S4 Mini, Galaxy S4 Active, Galaxy S4 Zoom, and several of others that are detailed in my review of the Gear 2 .) Then maybe the Neo could be of interest. It's useful at times -- it's a pretty decent watch, too. But it's too fidgety and gimmicky to be a really good gadget.
The Gear 2 Neo is the ultimate hedge bet: it's the least-expensive way to own the most full-featured Gear. It runs the same apps as the Gear 2, has the same screen and processor, and does absolutely everything the Gear 2 does, including track heart rate and change the channels on your TV -- except it lacks a camera, and it's made entirely of plastic. (Given the similarities, this review will only focus on the differences that the Neo offers; see the Gear 2 review if you want my full, in-depth take.) It's more useful than the sexier-looking Gear Fit. If I were buying a Gear, I'd probably buy the Gear 2 Neo.
But, considering that the wearable world is still in flux, and how most of the Gear's features are novelties more than necessities, none of the Gears are "must-have" products, at least for me.
Black, gray, or orange: the Gear 2 Neo comes clad in one of these colors, from wristband to watch body, in basic plastic. The display, glass-covered, has a brilliantly bright AMOLED touchscreen. In plastic, the Neo feels more like a futuristic Swatch than the more metal-clad Gear 2.
The watchband can be replaced, either with another Gear band or most 22mm watchbands. It involves sliding a pin out and possibly removing links if the replacement is a metal band, but at least the Neo's own band has easy pop-out pins. It still feels like a project.
The Neo charges via Micro USB but needs a clip-on plastic dongle to attach to the Neo's rear contact points. It's annoying but a lot more compact than last year's Galaxy Gear charging cradle. A full charge, which take a couple of hours, lasts around three to four days while connected to your phone, longer if offline.
This year's Gears are all water- and dust-resistant, too, so you could wash your hands or even shower while wearing one. That's what all wearable tech needs to be, but not all are.
The Gear 2 Neo has a ton of baked-in features: a stopwatch and timer, a weather app, an IR-based WatchOn TV remote control, notifications for all apps that ping your Samsung phone regularly, an onboard offline music player, a heart-rate monitor and pedometer, and a microphone and speaker for making phone calls, recording voice memos, using S-Voice voice recognition, and playing back music loudly to annoy everyone around you. That's lots more than the Pebble watch offers, on paper.
Most of these features are at least competent, and some are really good. Voice memo is helpful; the offline music player can load tracks, albeit slowly, and play back up to 4GB of music via Bluetooth headphones while on the go. It's a clever trick to be able to change TV channels using your watch, and being able to quickly answer phone calls can be handy.
Getting notifications is the real killer app, and the Gear 2 Neo does it nearly as well as the Pebble. You need to tap a notification once it appears on the Neo's screen, however, so your latest Twitter reply or Facebook update isn't quite as instantly glanceable.
It's a fact: until recently, most smartwatches didn't even make overtures at fitness. So, the Gear 2 Neo's feature set is impressive compared to the Pebble's: there is an onboard pedometer with a sleep-tracking app, and a rear-mounted, LED-based heart-rate monitor that's able to do continuous readings while exercising.
In practice, though, the execution of these features falls short. The simple pedometer app does the trick but needs to be activated in order to keep count: it's not automatic all the time unless you tell it to be. Sleep tracking works using the accelerometer, but the app's readings are too simplistic compared to other health trackers. Coaching software that tells you to slow down or speed up based on heart rate ends up, as a result, being flawed.
Heart rate varied a lot for me: it was sometimes way off from what the heart-rate monitors on gym equipment read. When testing the Gear 2 with a several co-workers, we noted that the heart-rate monitor didn't work at all for some folks. It's a problem noted by some CNET readers, and one we're actively investigating with a wider array of devices. The Gear even calls its heart-rate monitoring for "recreational use only," meaning it's not currently designed as a medically accurate way of reading heart rate. So, take that with a grain of salt, assuming your blood pressure won't suffer from the sodium.
All this fitness data is supposed to sync with the new S Health on the Galaxy S5 , or with Gear Fitness Manager on other Samsung phones. Still, lots of the data never seemed to sync properly or show up on the S Health's progress charts. S Health is too basic and too detached from other fitness software to be useful for seriously fitness-oriented people.
The Gear 2 Neo's basic exercise-logging functions -- the pedometer and the sometimes-helpful heart-rate monitor would be great if they were more reliable, but they don't make the grade. Maybe new firmware or software could fix the problems. Right now, it's not enough.
The Gear 2 Neo and Gear 2 run Samsung's Tizen OS, along with a unique catalog of apps. Some are free; others cost a dollar or two. The watch apps install via the Gear Fit Manager hub app for your phone, which also customizes the Gear 2 Neo's watch faces. But I didn't find any big-name apps, or ones that did much more than act as glorified watch faces or calculators.
More apps could transform the Gear in the future, but I'd assume for my own sanity, in this weird wild world of wearables, that it may not get much better than this...especially with Google's Android Wear likely to suck up a lot of developer attention (Tizen is a totally different -- and incompatible -- OS from Android).
In other words, come to the Gear 2 Neo for its baked-in features and apps, and don't expect more.
Samsung has two identically-priced wearables: that's weird. It seems like the decision of which one to buy would be aesthetic: the Gear Fit has a long, thin curved display and feels more like a futuristic Nike Fuelband. It might be more fashion-forward for women, too. The Gear 2 Neo feels boxier, more like a geek watch, but it's also got more features and more flexibility. They both have roughly the same battery life.
I can't see why you wouldn't pick the Neo over the Fit. The Neo has a better-fitting watchband that won't pop off, can store music for offline playback over Bluetooth headphones if you want to work out with it, and still does all the same activity tracking, heart-rate, and coaching/exercise tracking. It's got a TV remote IR blaster (if you care). It has a speakerphone. It also runs apps. Those apps aren't really exciting right now, but they could be. It's nice to have the option.
The Fit can accidentally pop off your wrist if you're not careful, and its smart features are mainly limited to getting notifications from your phone.
The Gear 2 Neo is the best Samsung smartwatch yet, but it's not yet an essential smartwatch.
The biggest problem with all of Samsung's current wearables are their dependence on Samsung phones to pair with. If the Gear 2 Neo worked with more phones, I'd like it more. It's priced lower than the Pebble Steel, and losing the Gear 2's camera and metal design are well worth it for the extra hundred dollars in savings. There are clear hardware advantages to the Gear 2 Neo's many extra features, but they're collectively a jumble versus being a coherent wrist-worn whole.
On the eve of new Google wearable devices, due possibly as soon as at Google's developer conference in late June, you're better off waiting. Samsung may have improved its wearable hardware, but the software it's running could be a lot better. And, by the end of this year, Samsung may very well have other watches that are better still. I'd want to see what Android Wear is all about before making the leap to Gear. But if you really want a smartwatch now, and you want one that works with Samsung phones, the Gear 2 Neo is the best bet. It's a very solid leap forward...it's just not fully there yet.